Set Yourself up for Big Lifts

In a previous post, I talked about how posture and good exhalation gives you strong abs. Today, we are going to talk about how these things improve your big lifts.

(See: The Key to Abs. You may want to read it first for to get some background and visuals)

What does your posture have to do with lifting? Well, everything.

We need a well balanced core on all sides to get the most out of our ab exercises. We also need that balance plus an appropriate starting position to produce a strong lift.

Imagine a fit, strong looking person who can move some heavy weight. (Maybe you are that person.) But in order to get those big lifts, they twist, turn, or sharply arch their back. Our bodies are smart and will compensate for us. When one area isn’t doing its job, another spot will kick in and give you that big lift.

You may be thinking, “But I’ve always lifted this way and I’m strong and good at it.”

For now.

It will work until it doesn’t. Eventually, compensated posture leads to physical breakdown. And it can show up anywhere. Your back, hip, shoulder, neck, knee…

In addition, starting in an inefficient position is a roadblock to even bigger lifts. It isn’t adding years to your lifting career either.

Now imagine you are setting up for a squat. You start by getting a nice big chest. And you’ve been told you don’t want your knees to come forward so you reach your hips waaaay back. Because you have a big chest and want to stay tall, you arch your back. But now it’s hard to get any depth. Why? When you are already at max or near-max extension at the pelvis and spine, you get stuck. So you reach harder, get bigger through the chest, and arch more.

In this heavily arched position, your “sealed can” structure is gone. It’s nearly impossible to get and maintain control of your pelvis when you start in this position. Instead, you shift tension out of your abs and into your lower back. Your glutes and hamstrings struggle to do their job of hip extension because of their poor positioning.

What is the best position to start a lift in? With the ribs and pelvis in the fully exhaled position. (See: The Key to Abs)

Now imagine a new squat setup. You exhale your ribs down, feel your abs kick in and work to breathe and move from that ribs-down/hard abs position. As you inhale, you feel a 3D expansion as air fills your upper chest and mid-back, rather than just pushing your belly out to get air in (and letting your abs go). Your pelvis is in a neutral position and stacked below your ribs and your knees are slightly soft.

From here, with this neutral core-engaged position, you have room to ask for depth. Depth without compensation.

Instead of sitting back, sit down. Your knees will naturally track a bit forward, your heels will stay rooted, your ankles will flex and your hips will shift a little bit behind you. Keep active tension in your abs.

Let me be clear on one thing. I’m not saying extension is bad. In fact, we need it. Our bodies should extend, flex, and be able to come back to neutral. The problem lies in too much extension, too often.

You can get more out of the squat in the fully exhaled start because you are neutral and stable first. As you drop down, you will naturally extend your spine and pelvis somewhat. Heavier lifts will typically require more extension.This is normal and ok. Hyperextension at the setup or in the middle of a lift – especially when these are training reps and not max-effort testing – are where the danger lies.

This doesn’t only apply to squats. This is how you should start any lift. Including but not limited to: overhead presses, deadlifts, pullups, kettlebell exercises, bodyweight exercises…

Here is a short clip showing how to apply this setup to a deadlift.

It might look a little strange to you. Notice how he exhales his ribs down, keeps his pelvis from tilting too far forward, and reaches forward. What you can’t see is that his abs are contracted hard because of it. Also notice that he doesn’t lift the bar in that rounded position. He is simply holding on to his contracted abs and neutral pelvis.

Once again, we need some extension.

If he started with a big pulled back chest and arched back, he would have lost his abs and relied on his back to do the work.

I adapted the setup on my lifts and movements a few years ago. I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you that it’s like starting over. I had to eat a big slice of humble pie and be ok with not being “as strong’ for a while. But it was a false strength. Full of compensations calling on strength from the wrong places and in a poor position.

So, I went back to square one. I practiced getting set up in the better position. I practiced holding on to my abs better. I practiced moving differently. And soon, I was strong again. Stron-ger in fact. Strong in a better way. In a safer way. In a sustainable way. In a way that doesn’t hurt.

The thing is, you might be really strong right now. I’m daring to say it is possible that by being more efficient in your lifts, you may have untapped power and strength you haven’t discovered yet. And as an extra bonus, a healthier body long-term.

Your friend in strength,


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