by Robert Maxwell
Every serious lifter has been told pumping iron is bad for their body by someone who doesn't train. "Stop squatting, you'll destroy your knees," they say, or "you're going to have tendonitis in your elbows before you're 40!" My personal favourite is the general warning: "lifting those heavy weights just doesn't look healthy." My usual response is to nod, smile, and continue my workout. Or head to the gym to work off the frustration of hearing such ignorance. The fact is, proper, intelligent barbell training is one of the healthiest things you can do for your body, knees and elbows included. What makes me so sure? Research and experience. It's certainly possible to get injured from training, but most injuries can be avoided through correct technique. Every serious lifter will deal with injury at some point, but not training comes with problems too. Aches, pains, lack of flexibility and weakness in everyday tasks are a certainty for the non-training individual. It's just a matter of time. So if training with proper technique is the solution, what exactly does proper technique look like? Keep reading for detailed explanations of proper technique for all the main lifts.
A pre-workout warmup is essential to avoid training injuries. I know lots of novice lifters who jump right into heavy lifts without stretching or doing a single warmup set. This is moronic. If you put a rubber band in the freezer overnight, then pull it out and immediately stretch it as hard as you can, it'll snap. Your muscles work the same way. They need time to warm up and adjust to the load you'll be placing on them. Start with at least 10 minutes of intense stretching. Proper stretching is usually painful, and that's a good thing. It indicates muscle tightness, which is not how you want to start a hard workout. Your muscles should be warm and loose, ready to contract under load. After the stretching, do warmup sets. Lots of them. Start with very light weight then increase gradually. Not only will heavy lifts be much safer this way – you'll also feel better and stronger when you do them. Your warmup shouldn't take longer then 20 to 30 minutes, counting warmup sets. Warming up might seem like a pain if you're eager to start lifting heavy, but it's nothing compared to 6-months of physiotherapy because you tore a bicep or strained a pectoral.
Safe Squat technique
The squat probably has the worst reputation for joint damage of all barbell movements. Folks who don't lift seem almost universally convinced that knees are not meant to flex under load as they must during the squat. They figure injury is inevitable. They're wrong. Not only are human beings made for squatting – squats are also one of the best movements for strengthening and stabilizing the knees. Like most parts of the body, lack of use does not make knees stronger. Quite the opposite. One reason for the confused belief that squatting kills knees is that squatting incorrectly kills knees. There are many ways to squat incorrectly. Not hitting proper depth is one. A correct squat means descending until the crease of your hips drops below the top of your kneecaps. Any higher and you haven't squatted optimally. You've also put more tension on your knees. Hitting proper depth brings your glutes and hamstrings into the movement, strengthening them and relieving some of the strain on your quads and patellar tendons. Not only will squatting too shallow not make you as strong – it'll also likely damage your knees if you keep it up. Don't be lazy – squat to proper depth.
Another common squatting error is improper foot and knee position. Many novice lifters squat with their feet and knees too close together and at the wrong angle. Proper squat stance means feet at least shoulder width apart and toes pointed out about 30 degrees from straight. While squatting down, the knees should point outward in the same direction as the toes. Allowing the knees to creep in is another common squatting sin. It makes the lift look awful, and puts unhealthy side pressure on the knee joint. Keep your feet and knees where they should be and you won't have problems. Keeping your core braced is vital, too. Without a strong midsection, you'll risk leaning forward during the squat, shooting your hips back to compensate and going way off course with the bar path. The barbell should move in a straight, vertical line over your mid-foot during the entire movement. If it's not, your squat needs work.
SaFE Deadlift technique
If the squat is seen as public enemy number one, deadlift is a close second. "Never lift with your back", armchair coaches admonish, convinced that this can't be done safely. The reality is that backs are meant to lift things, and if you do it properly injury is unlikely. The real danger is lack of use. If you never place your back under load, you're not doing yourself a favour. Your muscles will gradually weaken and degenerate until you get hurt carrying a suitcase or tying your shoes. If you're worried about back pain, not lifting is not the solution. Proper form is.
You should never lift anything in a way that causes your back to round. Your spinal erectors and abdominal wall are strong muscle groups in your midsection designed to keep your spine rigid and supported. When you deadlift a barbell or any heavy object, flex your middle. Your core muscles will protect your spine for unhealthy flexion, which is what everyone imagines when they say "never lift with your back". Don't start with the barbell, box, or suitcase far from your body. Too much distance will force you to bend your back. The object being lifted should be centred over your mid-foot. This allows you to use your legs to drive the weight upwards, while hinging safely at the hips and keeping your back straight. If you're deadlifting a barbell, don't yank to get it moving. This is a great way to get hurt. Instead take a deep breath, brace your core, then slowly, evenly pull the bar upwards while driving your feet into the floor. Imagine yourself separating the barbell from the floor, driving the two apart. As you reach the top of the movement, follow through with your hips. Back injury is rare for trainees who deadlift correctly. Unless you want a weak, useless back, don't listen to folks who tell you never to lift anything with it. It'll only make you weaker and more prone to injury when you eventually need to lift something heavy. The idea that you can preserve the health and strength of a body part by not using it is more damaging than exercise will ever be.
Safe Bench Press Technique
Most people don't think of the bench press as a dangerous lift, but it certainly can be. Lifters have been seriously injured or killed on the bench, so don't think this movement is risk-free. Dropping the barbell on your face or neck is the worst case scenario. These horrible accidents can be avoided by following a few simple rules.
Never move the barbell backwards or forwards without locked elbows. When you unrack the weight, push it straight up from the standards until your arms are fully extended and locked before easing it forward into balance over your shoulder joints. Arms with locked elbows make much more stable bar holders than bent arms. When you complete the set, keep your arms locked as you move the weight back towards the standards to rack it. Only when the barbell touches the standards is it safe to unlock your elbows and ease it down. Your face and neck are very delicate, so don't risk mangling them by moving the barbell over them with unlocked elbows. With the weight balanced over your shoulder joints, slowly bring it down to your chest, around nipple height. Press it up at a slight angle, straight towards that same balance point over your shoulders from which you started. Always remain in control of the bar, and if you're going very heavy and think you might fail, get yourself a good spotter.
Grip style is another safety issue. There's only one proper way to grip the barbell during bench press – a close-handed grip with the thumb locked over the bar. I can't understand why some lifters use a thumbless grip. There's a reason it's called suicide grip. Not only are you far more likely to drop the bar in this position – it doesn't even make the lift easier. I can only speculate that lifters use it so out of habit and nothing more.
Safe Overhead Press Technique
The barbell press is a wonderful movement. Not the push press, where leg drive is used to give the bar momentum, but the strict overhead press or "military press". It's more indicative of your upper body strength than bench press since it's done standing rather than lying on a bench, and the kinetic chain is far longer. Trouble is, it's easy to do wrong. If you're smart enough to choose a weight you can handle, doing the overhead press wrong isn't usually disastrous. But it can certainly result in injury if you don't use proper form. Aside from dropping the weight on your head, there are several risks. Strained wrist tendons from supporting the barbell too far forward in the hand, rather than in the heel of the palm where it should be. Low-back hyperextension from leaning backwards incorrectly – flexing the spine back instead of pressing the hips forward. Backward lean during the press is safe, healthy, and allows more weight to be used, but it must be done properly. The press is a full-body movement, and it's vital to realize this before you attempt it.
Take a deep breath and brace your core. Unrack the barbell from the same height you have it for squats, making sure your forearms are vertical or nearly so as viewed from the front. This will make your press more efficient. Concentrate on keeping your elbows slightly in front of the barbell. Pressing with elbows behind the barbell will move the weight away from your body, curving the bar path and making the movement much harder. Take three steps back from the rack, then plant your feet slightly wider than shoulder width. Holding that same breath, flex your quads, core and glutes hard, pressing your hips forwards to create safe backward lean. Retract your head and neck to give the barbell a clear vertical path, centred over your mid-foot. Press the barbell straight up, moving your head and body under it as soon as it clears your face. Keep everything flexed and braced. Breathe out as you lock out, then take another deep breath before letting the barbell down again, still bracing your legs, core and hips. Return your head and neck to starting position as the weight descends, moving your body around the barbell rather than the barbell around your body. The barbell's movement should always be straight and vertical. If it's not, you're doing something wrong.