Coach Dan Bell

Rubber City Weightlifting

Month: March, 2013

Yeah, You Should Deadlift

You don’t have to spend much time in the sport of weightlifting before you understand in your bones the importance of squatting to your success as a weightlifter. In every training hall you’ll hear discussions of programs and impressive back squat weights, on weightlifting message boards every conceivable permutation of squatting programs are dissected and argued. There are nearly as many youtube videos of world class lifters back squatting as there are of them doing the lifts. The message is clear: squat or suck. What I almost never hear is anyone (besides Don McCauley) mention the importance of the deadlift to successful weightlifting.

For some reason the deadlift gets short shrift in weightlifting. Coaches and lifters are always trying to substitute pulls in their programs and refer to them as “strength building” exercises. Bullshit. Pulls–the bastard hybrid of deadlifts and weightlifting’s full lifts–have been rightly rejected by a lot of good coaches because they do not duplicate the speed and technique of a classic lift, but are not heavy enough to really improve back strength or, to a lesser degree, hamstring strength.

“But won’t heavy deadlifts make my pull slow?” No. Hell no. Did you ever see anyone fly out of the hole with a new PR single in the back squat? Did anyone ever say that squatting that heavy makes a lifter slow? No, because we’d all look at that person as if they were the dumbest person in the room. Back squats make you STRONG and strong matters in weightlifting.

Deadlifts make you STRONG, but they also do a few other good things for you. Early in a lifter’s career, deadlifts teach proprioceptive awareness of the “locked down” back position so important to the classic lifts. The spinal erectors, lats, all the small muscles around the shoulder blades and the core have to be properly contracted and held in that position throughout the pull. The lifter has to feel that to hold it. Deadlifting with precise form teaches the lifter to feel that position and, more important, hold it while moving. Early on I never have a lifter do deadlifts with more weight than they can hold perfectly for a triple.  As holding that position becomes ingrained habit, the weights can start to go up.

Deadlifting as heavy–as heavy as good back position and technique allows–also teaches lifters how to strain. Someone new to lifting does not know the limits of their body. The mind says “heavy” at far lighter weights than the body can actually handle with decent form. Deadlifts teach a new lifter to strain against a weight and stay with it better than any exercise I’ve used.

I can hear the protests now. “But heavy deadlifts will mess up the technique of the classic lifts!” I didn’t say powerlifting deadlifts, did I. Deadlifts for weightlifters should all be done with exactly the same form as a pull, but heavier and necessarily slower. Above the knees the lifter should simply stand up over his or her heels, attempting to push the hips as high as they can. I have a couple lifters who even “pop” their hips up at the end.

How heavy is heavy for deadlifts? I don’t see a reason to go over 125% of a lifter’s best clean for much of the year. My more experienced lifters are usually working between 105% and 120% for triples. They do this once a week and alternate clean and snatch deadlifts, one week CDLs and the next SDLs. If it’s far out from a meet and the classic lift volume is not high, they can go for a big single or double.

I had a 94 kilo lifter visit a few months back who could pound out sets of five with 225kg in the back squat, but his back gave off the floor attempting a 125 snatch and 165 clean. I had him start deadlifting to teach him how to better hold back position off the floor and make his back stronger. His back position quickly improved and he just recently hit a PR 131 snatch and PR 172 clean. He always had the leg strength to do those lifts, but lacked the back strength and proprioceptive awareness of his back position to hit them.

Deadlifts will not make you slow. They will make you strong. And as grandpa used to say, “It’s good to be strong.”







Light Day?

In an effort to break out of my apparent rut of unoriginal and derivative thinking (according to, I’m certain, a well-intentioned critic) may I propose that the traditional light day/back-off day be completely discarded as a training concept. We might even have to rethink the efficacy of the unloading week in the traditional four-week mesocycle.

So, what, you ask should we do instead? Just go all Bulgarian max-out every workout, every week, all year, until our joints swell and spontaneously disassemble in one spectacular PR effort? No. What I’m thinking is a change in perspective rather than training strategy.

In my experience, “light days” are taken exactly that way, that is lightly. Athletes put in less effort, sometimes don’t show up at all, treating them as optional, or think of the day as a kind of active rest. It is true that their function is to unload the athlete but still give them work in the motor patterns they need to keep “grooved in,” so it is a form of rest. It’s the word “light” that bothers me, and all that it implies. So let’s start calling it a “speed day” instead of a light day.

Rather than emphasizing the qualities of strength and consistency at heavy weight (still trying to move the weight as fast as you can) on a speed day we concentrate on moving lighter weight even faster, focusing on the speed and precision of the movement. At these lighter weights a lifter can address the nuances of technique at speed.

This idea of a “speed day” can be expanded to a “speed and technique week” in the traditional four-week training block often called a mesocycle. The load is still reduced, but the focus of the athlete is maintained and the emphasis shifted to fast and precise technique.

The time for a truly light week, even time off or active rest, is just after the biggest meet of the year. Otherwise the “light week” is the time to get fast, precise and faster yet.

Fast Off the Floor?

A common coaching cue, “fast off the floor” has its place, but for beginners and some intermediate weightlifters it can cause more harm than good. I constantly preach positions first. A lifter has to hit certain positions in the process of a lift to hit the heaviest weights of which they are capable. Any coaching cue that keeps a lifter from hitting those positions is detrimental to their progress. Emphasizing speed in the wrong place, at the wrong time in a lifter’s career, is just such a cue.

Taking the bar from the floor to the knees is one of the most critical portions of a lift. I can usually tell within the first two inches of the bar breaking from the floor if the lifter has a chance with the weight. If the bar moves back over the lifter’s base immediately, we’re off to a good start. If it moves straight up or away, the chances of a make at heavy weight drop off dramatically.

Understanding the importance of the floor to knees bar path, it is vital that this movement pattern be deeply ingrained before speed is emphasized.  I have seen far too many inexperienced lifters told to be fast off the floor, only to see their hips rise much faster than their shoulders and the bar swing away right off the floor. Worse, some start ripping the weight off the floor with their arms, only understanding how to be fast with their arms. For this reason I stress control and precision with beginners and more experienced lifters who have inconsistent technique.

That does not mean slow off the floor. It means as fast as the lifter can move the bar and maintain a precise bar path. It may take hundreds or thousands of reps to get the movement pattern “grooved in” but they are reps well spent. That idea of a movement pattern being so well established that it can be done without thought is essential to heavy lifting. I’ve had good lifters try to demonstrate bad technique in clinics, only to be forced to make a conscious effort to do it wrong. The pattern is so much a part of them that they no longer know how to do it wrong. That is the goal of early technique work. Once that is established, then the lifter can truly lay into a lift with all the speed they can muster—and they should.

When learning a complex skill—and weightlifting is as complex skill—this order cannot be altered: mechanics, consistency, intensity. The mechanics of weightlifting require that the emphasis be on precision, timing and rhythm until the technique becomes deep-rooted even under the stress of heavy weights. When good technique is consistent, that is the time to push speed speed speed.

Speed kills, but if it is made the most important part of technique too early, it usually kills weightlifting careers.

Move Your Damn Feet!

I’ve seen this before, but lately I’ve been seeing it a lot: lifters finish their pull and then pull under the bar, their feet having never left the platform. Even if most of them do rise onto the balls of their feet, the balls of their feet remain in solid contact with the platform throughout the lift and their feet stay in the same place.

Lifters have argued to me that they can relax their legs quickly and they can pull under the bar just as fast as if they lifted their feet off the platform in the third pull. To be blunt, that could not be more wrong. If you don’t get your feet off of the platform, you are slow under the bar. Period.

Speed under the bar has three parts to it. The first is timing. You must begin moving under the bar while it is still rising. The second is aggressive and continuous arm action. Your arms actively pull you under the bar and keep pulling all the way to lockout in the snatch or to the shoulders in the clean. The third is foot movement, or to be more precise, lifting the mass of the thigh to get the feet off of the platform. Because your thigh is attached to your trunk (unless something very unfortunate has happened) the mass of your thigh moving up against the mass of your torso causes the mass of your torso to be “sucked” or “driven” down, adding to your body’s speed in the descent under the bar. Rather than your torso falling against the passive resistance of a relaxed leg, that actively rising leg is pulling your torso down faster.

You don’t have to donkey kick your feet in the air to accomplish this. Most world class lifters move their feet up less than two inches. The best an inch or less, and the bottoms of their feet are always facing down toward the platform. But they actively pick them up off the platform, and most move them out from a little up to several inches.




So, you want to be fast under the bar, move your damn feet, or keep looking up at the lifters who do.

As usual, I cannot thank enough Nat Arem of for allowing me to use his photos for teaching purposes.

Getting Behind

A lot of good things happen when you get behind in your work—at least if your work is pulling a barbell.  The last time we talked about positions, we had the bar at the knees, with shins vertical and the weight shifted toward the heels. But where do we go from there? Every really good weightlifter gets their torso up and behind the bar. 


 If you look at the third shot in this sequence of Darrel Barnes, you see him in the bar-at-the-knees position I talked about earlier. From there, note that as the bar comes to mid-thigh in the next pic, his knees have hardly moved forward at all, but his torso angle has come up and back considerably, indicating emphasis on torso extension. By photo 5 his knees have finally come forward of the bar, but his shoulders are behind the bar. Note also that his heels are down. (Some lifters hit this position with the heels up and the weight concentrated in the ball of the foot, but the vertical position of the torso over the heels is nearly universal in high level lifters) Darrel is in perfect position for an explosive upward drive with the legs. From there he hits the other important position I wrote about in an earlier post, extended up and back at a slight angle, shoulders, hips, knees and ankles all in a straight line just before the withdrawal of the hips to the receiving position.

There is a lot of debate about whether the lifter should drive off of a flat foot from this heels-down, behind-the-bar-position or through the balls of the feet to a plantar flexed position (many extend the ankle, some great ones do not) but virtually all great lifters extend from this position of vertical torso over the heels and behind the bar.





Okay, so how do we get to that position from the bar at the knees? I’ve used several cues to get people there, but the most common, and most easily understood, is just stand up over your heels. This puts the emphasis on getting the torso up and behind the bar, allowing the bar to track back over the base, or at least not move forward over the base. It also lets the double knee bend happen naturally rather than overemphasizing a drive of the hips forward. (Usually with bad results) Just stand up helps prevent over rotation around the hips, leading to a backward lean at the hips, the hips being pushed too far forward, or worst of all, both at once.

Once the new lifter has that basic pattern ingrained, we start putting more emphasis on speed and explosive extension. But always, always, always mechanics first, then consistency, THEN speed and intensity.

Okay, get out there and start getting behind!

***Once again, thanks to Nat Arem at Hookgrip for allowing me the use of his exceptional sequence shots.

Squat Like a Russian?

Pisarenko squat

If you’ve been around weightlifting for a little while, or even if you’ve just weight trained for other sports, you’ve probably heard of the famous (infamous?) “Russian Squat Routine.” This usually refers to the squat routine found in the 1976 USSR Weightlifting Yearbook. (per Artie Drechsler in The Weightlifting Encyclopedia—belongs on every coach’s bookshelf)

The original 1976 Yearbook squatting program is six weeks long, back squatting three times each week, with constant intensity and rising volume through the first three weeks, then increasing intensity and decreasing volume through the last three weeks. All percentages are of your best one rep max back squat.

1976 Russian pic

If you were a fairly advanced lifter and tried this, you know that 6×6 workout SUCKED. But at least now the reps go down from there. If you have pretty good squat technique and are decently strong to begin with, this can be a brutal program. While the light days do offer a reprieve, it doesn’t last long, especially if you’re not in your teens or early twenties. There are not many experienced, drug-free lifters who can get through this without modifying the program. After all, it was written for Soviet lifters when PEDs were used extensively and there was no drug testing.

Slightly modified, this program can be productive for most lifters. Two of its shortcomings, as commonly used, are the lack of adequate recovery time and no front squats for six weeks. So I make the light day–(80% x 2)6–even lighter by making it an 80% front squat. That reduces training load about 20% more on the light day, aiding in recovery, and keeps front squats in the program. It is also helpful to underestimate your PR back squat a little. Be sure your PR is recent. If you are currently back squatting 150kg, but your all time PR is 155, use the 150. Make sure it was a solid looking 150, too, not a PR cut high and ground through the sticking point.

An important detail often missed when this program is passed around: it is not rigidly held to the the six weeks written. If you miss reps in a week, the entire week is repeated. So while written for six weeks, it could be stretched out to seven, eight, or even nine weeks.

With the front Squat modification and the ability to repeat weeks of missed reps, this program has proven effective for my lifters. It can be done a couple times per year if the lifter is in the earlier stages of a career. The program suffers from the law of diminishing returns, however, as a lifter’s career progresses. For an older lifter in the last few years of a career it may do more harm than good. Volume programs are not friendly to well used joints.

I have found that keeping the modified version of the program to six weeks is very helpful for beginning lifters with decent squat technique but limited time under the bar. What they often lack is the feeling of straining hard to make a weight and pushing through to the next rep when the last one made it feel like the next rep was impossible. This ‘76 Soviet Program teaches them what the real work of a competitive weightlifter is like and what I’ll be expecting of them for the next several years.

Assume the Position

If you’ve been around weightlifting for a while, you’ve probably heard someone refer to “positions.” What they are talking about are specific postures that an athlete will pass through in a lift. Coaches usually talk about positions in the sense of the ideal. We have pictures of perfect positions in mind, benchmarks that we want our lifters to hit. The degree of an athlete’s deviation from that ideal is one of our measures of good technique.

You will see very good lifters hit pretty close to the same positions at the same points in the lift. An athlete’s starting position gets talked about a lot, but the first important position after that gets little attention: the bar at the knees. It doesn’t matter if it’s a snatch pull or clean pull, when the bar reaches the knees, a good lifter will have the bar very close and the shins vertical or nearly vertical. Look at the two sequences below …



Look at photos 4 and 5 in the top sequence. Compare that to photos 3 and 4 of the bottom sequence. At this point in the pull both lifters have the bar close, their knees back enough to get the shins vertical, their weight distributed in their feet so there is more weight in their heels. This places the bar directly over the middle of their feet, right at the front of their shin, their center of balance. This is the result of the first pull “sweep” that Coach Don McCauley is always talking about.

You will see this position again and again in successful lifters. If the knees are too far forward in this position, the bar will be forward as it reaches the top of the second pull, resulting in the lifter being forced to reach the hips forward to the bar, driving it even farther forward, which makes a bad situation worse. Once you see this position a few times, you’ll start to see it every time you watch a lifter.




If your starting position is good, and you get to the shins-vertical position shown here, you’ve cut down dramatically on the things that could go wrong. This position is, depending on who you ask, about the end of the “first pull.” So far, so good.


Once again, a huge thank you to Nat Arem at Hookgrip for the great photo sequences.

There’s No Catch

The Pull Under or “Third Pull”

Beginning weightlifters are often given very simplified instructions to help them acquire a gross motor pattern that the coach can then refine. One of these describes the snatch and clean as “a jump and a catch.” That is a useful cue for a raw beginner, as long as the coach will be around to continue the lesson. It is not, however, an accurate description of a snatch or clean. As my friend Don McCauley often says, “There’s no friggin’ jumping in weightlifting!” Well, there’s no “catching” either.

A lifter’s arms should be doing something active and aggressive throughout the lift. In the first pull—generally recognized as the pull from the floor to somewhere around the knees or lower thigh—the arms are pushed straight and the lats engaged, the arms actively sweeping the bar toward the lifter, the bar following the shins backward as the legs extend. In the second pull—from the top of the first pull to the hip at full extension—the arms are still pushed straight and still sweeping the bar into the lifter, all the way to the front of the hips.

Here is where the nomenclature gets tricky. After the second pull, the feet move and the lifter moves under the bar. But the lifter doesn’t fall there, he or she uses their arms to PULL their body down and under the bar. I and many other coaches call this the “third pull,” although I don’t think that has caught on in the greater weightlifting coaching community yet. This pull is a continuation of the pressure already in the hand from supporting and accelerating the weight in the first and second pull. The straight arm second pull transitions seamlessly into an active and aggressive arm pull DOWN in the third pull. The lifters fists are continuously pulling on the bar all the way to arm lockout in the snatch or to the collar bone in the clean. There is never a moment when the pressure comes off the hand, a moment when the bar “floats” and the lifter is not acting on the bar.


Coaches often miss this detail, and even with some national and international  level lifters I see a portion of the lift where the athlete is not continuously pulling on the bar and “loses contact” with it. They lose the feel of the position of the bar relative to the position of their body and the bar often “crashes” on them; they have launched the bar up and are attempting to catch it again. This detail is one that can separate a podium lifter from 12th place. It’s easier to see in the clean than the snatch.


Note how far the bar is above the collar bone as it “floats” and the lifter jumps down and past the bar. He has lost contact with the bar by not pulling continuously right to the collar bone. Below is a lifter meeting the bar correctly. He has actively pulled the bar right to where he wants it and no higher.


A good third pull, the pull of the lifter under the bar, is every bit as important as a good second pull, maybe more so. Some great lifters never even finish the hip and knee extension at the top of the second pull, but they are always aggressive in the intentional and continuous pull under the bar.

Once again, thanks to Nat at Hookgrip for the use of his excellent lifting photos.

Self Coached = Not Coached

There is no such thing as self coaching. You can be self taught, almost always badly, and in such a manner that an actual coach, if you finally seek one out, will have much to undo, but you did not “coach” yourself.

A coach has training. While taking a USAW Level 1 or CrossFit Level 1 course is a start, real coaches are always seeking to improve and increase their knowledge. They spend the money and the time to take more advanced courses. Many have gone to college and earned a degree in exercise science or a related field. They are constantly reading. They make a point of seeking out more experienced coaches and learning what they can, always expanding and deepening their understanding of training and technique.

A coach has experience. Coaching weightlifters usually starts with being a weightlifter. You are probably still in the early stages of a weightlifting career, one or two years, probably. A coach has had an entire career already, ten or more years, with all the ups and downs, successes and frustrations, and shared that with dozens of contemporaries going through the same thing. He/she has—and this is vital—seen tens of thousands of lifts by hundreds or even thousands of lifters. A coach has had to start out or, much more difficult, “fix” a wide variety of lifters of differing ages, sizes, and athletic abilities. A coach has spend sleepless nights trying to figure out why John’s jerks are always out front, why Brittany is the only lifter he’s had who does not respond to his always effective squat programs, how to keep lifters progressing through break-ups, injury and the outside pressures of school or work.

A coach has objectivity. You do not see the truth about yourself. You are either overly optimistic about your training and potential or overly critical of yourself. You have fears and mental blocks to which you are blind. You can attempt a PR snatch half a dozen times, completely convinced that you’ll hit the next one. What your coach sees is that you just don’t have that weight in you today and will stop you after, at most, two attempts, if she lets you go for the second one. You hop from internet program to another lifter’s advice to the programs in the latest weightlifting book you got on Amazon, not really understanding if the program is written for the advanced lifter, the beginner, to enhance sub-par technique or to prep for a competition. A coach knows YOU, writes a program for YOU, with a clearer view of your strengths, weaknesses, the stage of your career and your potential than you’ll likely ever have.

A coach takes the long view. You have that next PR in mind. You plan for the local meet in six weeks and want badly to qualify for nationals or CrossFit Regionals. A coach has a vision of you in five years, ten years, at the end of your career. A coach has her eyes on the horizon while you are looking at the ground in front of your feet. You want to jump to two training sessions per day, while a coach would see that you have not acquired the recovery capacity yet to handle the additional training load. You get frustrated with being held back from PR attempts; your coach sees that you have not yet mastered the the transition from pull to pull under and heavier weights will only “groove in” poor technique, limiting your long term potential. You see yourself winning the state meet. Your coach sees you on the podium at Pan Ams or the Olympics.

After two or three years of training, you are no more a coach—of yourself or anyone—than a sophomore biology major is a surgeon. If you plan to be very good or even great, your first job is find a coach. And no, it absolutely is not you.

Mind Your Hips

Mind Your Hips

There is a lot of debate on internet weightlifting forums about whether to triple extend or not triple extend at the top of the pull. An outsider just dropping in to see what’s going on might well decide it’s the modern version of arguing how many angels fit on the head of a pin. Personally, I teach my athletes to keep their heels down as long as they can, but I think the debate misses a larger point much of the time. The real question for me is this: where and how do the hips finish at the top of the pull?

My goal as a coach is to adjust an athlete’s technique to bring the path of the bar in line with the drive of the hips. By the time the hips finish extending at the top of the pull, the bar should be moving as fast as the hips and in the same direction. If not, there will be separation between the bar and the body and bad things happen—missed lifts, that is.

At the top of the pull, the hips should be driving up and back over the heels, whether that drive concludes with the ankles extended or flat-footed. Here is the vital part: at the finish of that hip drive, the split second before the lifter moves their feet and pulls their hips down, the hips should be in line with the shoulder, knee and ankle joints. From a side view, that line would pass through the shoulder, hip, knee and ankle. If the hips travel in front of that line, pushing the hips forward, or the shoulders drop behind that line, leaving the hips forward, the bar will separate from the line of the hip drive and the speed and timing of the pull under the bar will be disrupted, the hips left too far forward to be pulled out and down as quickly as required, and forcing the lifter to pull their body down under the bar from an awkward angle.

Hip extension beyond the line I describe is not more hip extension, it is back over-extension. It does not lend more upward momentum to the bar, it only makes it harder to get under the bar.


This is an extreme example, but I see all too many variations on this theme in American lifters who are taught to over-emphasize driving the hips to the bar rather than driving the hips and torso UP over the base.

Try this: stand flat-footed, weight over your heels, and extend your legs as hard as you can. Get as tall as you can. Your thighs will be tight, and more important, your ass and abs will be tight. Be sure not to push your hips forward, rather keep your shoulders and hips stacked in a straight line over your heels. That is as far as your hips go forward in the pull. If you go up on the balls of your feet, fine. If not, also fine. But do not let your hips finish forward of that point. Notice in the pics below that the pull is finished with the shoulder joint, hip joint and ankles all in a straight line, that line leaning back at a slight angle.



A good drill to to teach this finish is what I call the “back half drill.” (I picked it up from Don McCauley. I’m not sure what Don calls it. I should ask) Stand on the edge of a raised platform; I use a 1 1/2” piece of plywood I made for this drill. Now, hang the entire front half of your foot off the edge, the ball of your foot floating in the air, with all the weight toward your heels. Now do a high hang snatch, preferably with an empty bar at first. You cannot attempt to go to the ball of your foot because you don’t have it in contact with the floor. You cannot get your hips over the front of your foot, again because you don’t have the ball of your foot to use. So, if you stay in balance—a tough trick at first, especially if you are used to going to the front of your foot too early—your hips finish and quickly retreat automatically, pulling out and down, in the right timing.

I tell my athletes that learning to use your hips properly is 90% of weightlifting success. That may be an exaggeration, but I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to finish the hips properly to achieve the correct timing of the pull under the bar.

(Thanks to Nat at Hookgrip for the very helpful photos: