Breaking down your breakdowns.
“I missed that right at my sticking point”, “if only I had moved it another inch I would definitely have got it”. We’ve all heard these at some point, possibly even said them! But what do people mean and why do we get sticking points?
Generally a sticking point means the stage of a lift where the bar just seems to lose all momentum. This article will aim to break down some of the science of the mysterious sticking point for the raw powerlifter.
First up let us have a dander at the squat and the conventional deadlift, next time we will cover bench press and sumo deadlift. Now, let me preface this by stating that the squat can be widely varied between lifters based upon your stance width and bar position, this article assumes you’re squatting low bar and with an approximately hip width or slightly wider stance. Commonly you’ll see raw lifters (yes, wraps are raw, it’s how powerlifting began) miss their squats just as they come up from the bottom, either pitching forwards or just straight sinking back down. Very rarely will you see a raw lifter miss a squat right at lockout.
Now, you’ll get many people say to you “missed it out the hole, need to work on your quads and glutes. Well. I disagree. Very rarely will someone miss a squat solely due to their leg strength, I would say with great confidence that the vast majority of powerlifters can leg press far more than they can squat, which kind of disproves the weak legs theory wouldn’t you say?
If we assume your technique is sound, then we can also assume that you didn’t miss your squat on the way down as eccentrically (the lowering portion of the lift) the human body is stronger than concentrically (the way up). This can only lead us to the conclusion that in some way the lifter is unable to apply the force that their legs can develop with sufficient precision to move the bar upwards. This theory is borne out by watching missed squats and the hips rising faster than the shoulders, which then drift forwards, unlike the descent where they moved in unison.
So what links your legs to the bar? Your glutes certainly, but, the major player here is in fact your torso. If you aren’t strong enough to maintain your brace and back tightness in the hole, then you certainly won’t finish the squat. To keep the bar moving straight up (as is optimal) you must be strong enough in your back and core in the hole to keep position, any slight forward drift from the centre of gravity magnifies the difficulty of the squat exponentially.
So what should you do? If you miss your squat just out the hole I would place money on you improving your squat if you only practiced pause squats in the hole, pause squats just out the hole and tempo lowering squats. Of course, pin variations would work as well, a mix of the two may well be better.
Sample Out the hole improvement session:
Paused Squat in the hole 3×6
Beltless Pause Squat just above parallel 3×8
How about we move onto the conventional deadlift now. There’s 2 very distinct types of deadlift fail but they both almost always have the same thing in common, the dreaded rounded back… So you’ve all seen it no doubt. The guy who can do rack pulls above the knee or block pulls with 400kg yet bizarrely can barely scrape up 320kg in a comp. Well, scale that back a little as a 400kg rack pull is still pretty damn good right! But you hear it all the time “you missed your lockout, do rack pulls”. Quite possibly the worst advice in powerlifting. “But why?” I hear you cry. Quite simply if you look at the position people are in from a deadlift they started from the floor versus the position they start their rack pull from they’re totally freaking different!
It’s a different lift that yes, may strengthen and overload your back, buuuut, in a completely different way to that which it is worked in your deadlift. If you lose position off the floor you will enter a mechanically disadvantageous position and be unable to apply enough force to finish the lift. “But so and so lifts with a rounded back…” They may well lift with a slightly rounded upper back (which can actually be an advantage) but they most likely have a ramrod straight lower back and it is their technique, unique to their levers, which they have honed with likely over a decade of high intensity lifting. Yours simply resembles an angry cat from the second you fail to take the slack out of the bar.
So what should you do? You’re not going to like this, but ok, I’ll tell you. Lower the weight. See, I told you that you wouldn’t like it. Now you may well be able to shift whatever your maximum is, and yes that may well be very impressive. However, if you film all of your warm ups right the way through to a heavy single I bet that the heavy single looks nothing like 60kg (this article makes it sound like I have a gambling problem). Why is this then? Quite simply you’re not strong enough! Look at the weight your technique fails, and this is the weight you should be working at and around with significant volume to reinforce your technique and improve your lifts in the long run (which we can all agree is the best way to get strong, by remaining injury free for as long as possible).
That’s not me saying you shouldn’t push the boat out in competition, and I actually applaud those gutsy pulls that seem to last forever and the lifter eventually just pops through off their belt but, your training is just that, training. You should be working within a safe and efficient technique framework at a weight you can manage to get the maximum out of your training.
Deficit deadlifts (if you can control the range of motion) paused off the floor deadlifts and paused at the knee deadlifts should make up most of a powerlifter’s deadlift training. A mixture of belted and beltless should be used alongside one major component that seems to be missing from most powerlifter’s arsenals.
The descent. No, not that horror film where they go potholing and get lost, the part of your deadlift where the bar slams down to the floor with no control and no regard for technique. I’ve NEVER understood this, you don’t just relax and drop into the bottom of a squat or bench, so why the deadlift? Fair enough in a peaking protocol when the aim of the microcycle should be to minimize fatigue and increase readiness, but most of your deadlift training should be done with a controlled eccentric, with a focus on hitting the correct positions in reverse to maximise the training effect of the lift, not maximise the volume of the bar hitting the floor and the turning of heads.
Controversial I know, but try it, on your next off season block only lift weights you can control your technique on and place emphasis on having a 2 second eccentric and watch, magically your deadlift will start to get better, your positions will improve and your back will hurt less!
Sample Off-Season Catback improvement session:
Beltless deadlift with 3 second eccentric 4×7
Beltless deadlift paused 2 seconds at the knee 4×5
Beltless RDL with 4 second eccentric 3×8
A sticking point isn’t showing you that a certain muscle is too weak, what it shows is that you’re not strong enough to maintain the momentum of the bar, the sticking point just gets a bad name because of short sightedness. In reality, what happens before the sticking point is where the lifter should be looking.
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