The New Performance Lifts

Re-tested last week on our big lifts: front squat, deadlift, bench, 1 leg squat, and chin-up.

I loved this article I got off the strength coach website and for the large majority of people out there you need to do the new big three: 1 leg squat, chin-up, sled push/pull or at least be striving to achieve them.
Pics are up, happy reading!

The New Performance Lifts

Geoff Girvitz
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What are your performance lifts? Part I

When it comes to prioritizing exercises, not all lifts are created equal. The squat towers over the calf-raise, for example. And the military press dwarfs the triceps kickback. Regardless of whether you train for strength, size or performance, there is a hierarchy of movement. With a limited amount of time to spend in the gym, you should know which exercises provide the most bang (see what I did there?) for your buck.

Powerlifters have their own core lifts: the squat, deadlift and bench press. For competitors, everything else is designed to improve performance in this bad-ass triumvirate. Olympic lifters pare down performance to two extremely demanding lifts: the snatch and the clean and jerk. What about those of us who lift to supplement performance? What should we prioritize? Should they be the same things?

We all owe competitive lifters a great debt. These are the people who have — for as long as anyone’s been paying attention — been laying their own asses on the line for performance. Not everything they do is scientific but, then again, science is slow and has a middling deadlift. Motivated men and women have taken more bullets than anyone can count — all in the interest of lifting more. The results are a great deal of expertise within the realms of their own sports. We can learn from their mistakes and triumphs without having to walk down exactly the same path.

As a non-competitive lifter, you’re not obligated to rack up big numbers in any particular lift. Rather, you should be looking at what keeps you, happy, motivated, functional and — above all — pain and injury free. Still, as human beings, we like to have a benchmark for performance. So what types of exercises fulfill those needs on both sides of the coin?

The New Big 3

Single-leg squat
Sled push/pull

Single leg squat

Why: This simple movement requires a great deal of mobility, stability and relative strength. It demonstrates an ability to move your own body through a full range of motion without compensating for left-to-right assymetries.

For those who don’t already have a great (conventional) squat, learning proper form typically requires a fair amount of coaching. The odds on proper coaching coming from a personal trainer at your local commercial gym are poor. There is a long, grizzly trail of damaged knees and spines to attest to this.

For those who do have a decent squat, the question is whether it has to be as heavy as possible. For non-athletes, the answer is no. At the very least, it’s not very often. The risk of injury is simply not worth the reward. Enter the single-leg squat. This exercise does not require a great deal of additional loading to progess from a beginner to advanced level of performance.

An intermediate-level squat (by powerlifting standards) would require upwards of double your bodyweight. For a 180 lb. man, that would put 360 lbs. on his back. I would estimate a comparably impressive single-leg squat to require only 55 lbs. of additional weight.* From the perspective of loading the spine, risk factors diminish considerably.

Before I start receiving any of the hate mail originally addressed to Mike Boyle, I should point out that I’m not calling for an end to squatting. However, I am advocating that those who train for function or athletic performance should perform their heavy (relative) loading with single-leg work and then perform assistance work (meaning lower intensity, but more time under the bar to perfect technique) with squat and deadlift variations.

It is worth noting that not everyone is capable of a single-leg squat (and that includes plenty of big, strong people). That’s ok. We’re going to address some solutions in Part II of this article.

Chin Up

Why: With injury prevention as our primary goal, it’s important to compensate for imbalances — not just in sports, but in life as well. The vast majority of us spend a great deal of time hunched over a computer or document. Unless your nurse is reading this aloud to you, you’re one of those people too. The symptoms associated with typical desk posture, back and shoulder pain, come largely from postural imbalances. Tight, shortened pecs and weakened, stretched scapular retractors increase your likelihood of shoulder impingement and pain. All things being equal, we want our exercises to take you in the opposite direction — ultimately toward structural stability.

While most people default to the bench press as their go-to upper body movement, the bench press can actually exacerbate pre-existing shoulder conditions. As such, we want to move in the opposite direction. Of the remaining options, chin-ups lead the pack.

Chin-ups require a host of functional skills, from scapular retraction and depression to a surprising degree of core stability, Like single-leg squats, chins are a great measure of relative strength and require relatively little external loading to progress them to an advanced level. As a matter of fact, if you’re one of the rare individuals whose external loading for chins meets or exceeds your own body weight, you will be able to progress to the truly amazing one-armed chin. Don’t worry; no one is holding their breath on that one.

Weighted sled push (or pull) for time

Why: As an indispensable tool for conditioning, the sled is simple, brutal, safe and effective. It requires a combination of lower body strength, cardiovascular endurance, core stability and iron will. While the loads and times used are subject to a fair degree of variability, you will always be able to hold yourself to the standards that you’ve already achieved.

Many of our clients come to us for fat-loss. What we find is that those who don’t come from an athletic background have never learned to move faster than “fast enough.” When we try to get these people to move at maximum speed for conditioning, there’s often a disconnect between how fast we want them to move and how fast they actually move.

A properly weighted sled will punish you for moving slowly. Just like your car, acceleration takes more fuel than maintaining speed. When you have to get from Point A to Point B, you will quickly learn that your choices range between hard and very hard. Ensure that loading is sufficient to make completing a given task extremely challenging (but doable).

*The formula I use is to estimate a person’s external loading in the single-leg squat is as follows:

Estimate their maximum front squat for x number of reps
Subtract their bodyweight from that number
Divide the result by two

Example A:
A 180 lb. man demonstrates a 288 lb. front squat for 5 reps
288 for five reps
288-180 = 108
108/2 = 54

We can estimate that this man can perform 5 single-leg squats with 54 lbs. of external loading.

Example B:
A 180 lb. man demonstrates a 150 lb. front squat for 10 reps
150 for 10 reps
150-180 = -30

In this case, to reach 10 reps, our subject will need to de-load his squat by using some kind of external assistance.

What are your performance lifts? Part II

Now that we have our lifts selected, you may find that they are too difficult for you to complete. This is not true. You are completely capable of performing these exercises. However, to do so, you may need to de-load them. Here’s how.

Practical Solutions: Single-leg Squat

Many of you who attempted the single-leg squat discovered that it’s not necessarily a walk in the park. However, you may have also come to the conclusion that being able to perform single-leg squats well would be pretty bad-ass. I personally think that the world needs more bad-asses and would like to see you counted among them. Here’s how you’re going to do it:

The de-load

If you’re struggling to complete a single (good) single-leg squat . . . Hell, if you’re struggling to complete less than seven or eight . . . Here’s what you’re going to do:

Perform one of the following de-load variations as your first exercise.
The Smith Machine
The TRX Band (1 and 2 handed)
The band
The Lat pull-down:
Rolling thunder (Pavel style)

The assistance

As I mentioned in Part I, I’m still a fan of bilateral squats and deadlifts. I consider these to be fundamental movement patterns and believe that almost everyone should strive to perfect them within the parameters of safe performance. Contrary to many, I don’t believe maximal loading to be necessary to achieve this goal.

Back squats
Front squats
Good mornings
Suitcase deadlifts
Rear elevated split-squats
Single-leg Romanian deadlifts
Single-leg squats with the lat pulldown bar
Single-leg squats with the single cable stack

Practical Solutions: Chin-up
The de-load
TRX Band (1 and 2 handed)
The double-leg jump to controlled negative
The single-leg jump to controlled negative
Chin/pull-up from seated position

The assistance:

One of the few drawbacks to chin-ups (and all their variations) is that they’re a bilateral exercise. While this is not a bad thing per se, it will not naturally correct for left-to-right imbalances in the same way that unliateral exercises will. Since the human body likes to stick with what it’s good at, it will actually exxagerate those imbalances to an extent. For that reason, it’s important to rely primarily on unilateral work for your assistance exercises. This way, we can ensure that our other priorities don’t get thrown out the window on the way to a heavy chin-up.

Single-leg squats with the single cable stack
Single-arm cable pull-down
Reverse shrugs
Seated row
Planks on stability ball

Practical Solutions: Sled push/pull

Sled work is the most variable of our three exercises. There is no need to de-load a sled; only not to load it too much in the first place. If you’re in a commercial gym, you won’t have access to a sled. However, you will likely have a group exercise room available to you. A vinyl mat coupled with a 45 lb. plate will get the job done.

Since surfaces and equipment clearly change the difficulty of this exercise, it’s impossible to provide a standard across the boards. However, you can set your own benchmarks. Here are some suggestions for doing so:

Fixed distance for time
Amount of distance covered within a fixed time period*
Number of fixed period sets to cover a fixed distance

* I recommend periods of 10 seconds, 20 seconds, 1 minute, 2 minutes and 6 minutes

A note on integration

A sudden and dramatic increase in volume will not help you maximize your progress. Take the opportunity to build slowly and consistently. De-load each exercise enough to ensure that your form is perfect. The workout structure adhered to by powerlifters is no fluke; it will maximize your strength in a given exercise. Combining those proven programs with the exercises in this article over the standards will help you acheive your goals and minimize unecessary risks.

— Geoff Girvitz Director: Bang Fitness


About MaxOut Performance Fitness
Sergio Maldonado is a Sports Performance and Fitness Coach in the San Francisco Bay Area. He strives to be the best at what he does through training, professional development courses, and practice. The purpose of this blog is to get out some of the knowledge that he obtains to better help others in their pursuits towards fitness and a better life.

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