We All Strive with Gravity

26 Sep

Footage recently appeared of the 1980 World Series of Powerlifting in Auburn, Alabama, which featured some of the greatest lifters of all time including Mike Bridges, Lamar Gant, and Bill Kazmaier.  Another participant was Doyle Kenady, a two-time IPF world champion and one of only thirteen people to deadlift 900 pounds.  Kenady achieved this amazing status despite significant inefficiencies in technique.

To specify what I mean by inefficiency, Mark Rippetoe writes in Strong Enough?, “Technical ability is the capacity to execute a movement efficiently—completing the movement while using the least possible energy.”  In the deadlift, optimal efficiency occurs when a lifter’s shoulder blades are over the bar at the start of the lift, with the bar over the middle of the foot.

With these criteria in mind, consider Kenady’s form at 20 seconds and 2:35 of the following video:

Former IPF squat world record holder Paul Wrenn displays the same inefficiencies at 4:00 of the previous video.  Their excessively low hip position causes a marked shift in torso position and horizontal bar movement before the weight leaves the floor, indicating a high amount of wasted energy.  One’s musculoskeletal system does not alter based on the lifter’s perception of when the pull starts, no matter how strong the lifter is.

Accordingly, strength combined with efficiency is a more beneficial combination than strength overcoming inefficiency.  Andy Bolton could probably deadlift over 800 pounds with the bar over his toes at the start.  The reason he was the first lifter to break the 1,000 lb. barrier is because he combined incredible strength with an extremely efficient setup.

There’s a habit in powerlifting circles to automatically validate a lifter’s form if it’s an elite lifter.  This does no one any favors.  When I started coaching Eric Talmant in 2009, he already had the top raw deadlift in the 165 lb. weight class for that year, as well as 2008.  Nonetheless, I saw inefficiency in his technique that if corrected I felt would yield new PRs.

The result of this process was that Eric went from deadlifting 635 lbs. to 655 lbs. in 2010–the highest raw deadlift in the 165s since at least 2007.

Photo courtesy of Xtreme Power TV

In Eric’s case, this was a 3% improvement.  That might not sound significant to a general audience, but experienced lifters know otherwise.  For example, in 1995 Brad Gillingham pulled 800 pounds at the ADFPA Senior Regionals in Minnesota.  By 2009, his deadlift had improved by 10% to reach the 400 kilogram mark (881 pounds).

There is a natural sense of humility before an extraordinarily strong person.  Fundamentally, however, that athlete’s body is governed by the same realities as everyone else.  As elite 220 lb. class lifter Mike Schwanke recently stated about his expectations from training partners:

Your training partners can’t deceive you.  I want that feedback.  I don’t want cheerleaders.  I want you to tell me exactly what I’m doing wrong.

This is how progress occurs, through respectful and honest assessment for novice and world-class lifters alike.  The bar is straight, the weights are round, and we all strive with gravity.


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