You don’t need to train every movement to build overall strength. Just work on these four things to automatically improve every big lift.
One of biggest challenges most of us face is building overall strength so that we’re strong on everything. Most lifters might choose to tackle this Herculean task by training every movement they want to get strong at, but that’s probably confusing, if not improbable.
There’s a simpler way to get strong on everything, though, without having to completely overhaul your training. All you need to do is focus on four things.
Are you aware of the “strength leaks” phenomenon? If not, imagine that your body is a tube and water is being poured into it. The water going in is the force your muscles are producing (e.g., feet pushing on the floor in a squat) and the water coming out is the amount of force that makes it to the barbell you’re trying to lift.
If the tube has no holes, the same amount of water that gets poured in comes out on the other end. The force transfer is 100%. But if you have “holes” in your body, water/strength leaks out. And it doesn’t matter where that leak is, the result is the same.
A lagging muscle could be a strength leak, but most likely the leak is a muscle you have trouble keeping tight while you’re lifting. The most common of these strength leaks are the core (abdominals, lower back), the hands, and the upper back. One exercise that works great at improving the capacity to keep things tight is the farmer’s walk.
Now, it’s important to understand the difference between using the farmer’s walk for strongman performances (where the goal is to carry big weights as fast as possible) and doing it to build muscle, strength, and a more stable body.
The main difference is in the role of the upper back. In strongman, you increase speed by letting the upper back round and the shoulders move forward, thus stretching the traps. The strongman will also grab the handles slightly off-center, holding them more forward. This allows them to keep the implements more parallel to the floor, even as they lean forward.
But you’re doing it to improve not only your grip and core, but the upper back, too. So you need to do it slightly differently:
- Grab the handles in the middle.
- Do not lean forward. Stay upright.
- Keep your upper back tight. Bring your shoulder blades together, externally rotate your shoulders (trying to show off your chest), and make an effort to keep your stomach tight at all times as you walk. Imagine that your upper body is one big block of iron!
- Do not go as fast as possible. What we want is time under tension while moving a heavy load and keeping everything tight.
- Carry the load for 10 to 50 meters, with 30 meters (about 33 yards) probably being ideal.
While the farmer’s walk is the most popular and widely used loaded carry, Zercher carries are also quite effective. “Zercher” refers to a style of exercise where the load is being held in the crook of your elbows. This transfers the load largely in front of you and increases the demands on the upper back while also greatly increasing core tension.
Louie Simmons himself has said that the Zercher carry teaches you to squat properly. It also strengthens the upper back, traps, arms, and core more than other squat variations. And if you give yourself time to get used to the discomfort in your elbows, you’ll find that you can load this exercise as much, if not more so, than the front squat.
Here are the key points in doing the Zercher carry effectively:
- Avoid leaning back. Try to keep your torso as upright as possible. What we want is to strengthen the core. If you lean back, you’re essentially supporting the load with your spine and the core doesn’t get as much stimulation because the load is moved back over the center of the base of support.
- Hold the bar in the crook of your elbows, keep them high, and walk while tensing your abs as if you were about to get punched in the stomach.
- Walk at a controlled pace. Going too fast will normally lead to a reduction in tightness or faulty technique.
If your midsection is “soft” while squatting and deadlifting, the Zercher carry will fix it. It’ll also improve the overhead press by not only increasing stability, but by increasing shoulder and upper back strength.
Similarly, that added shoulder and upper back strength will have a positive impact on the bench press. Finally, your biceps strength and pulling performance will also go up.
As was the case for the farmer’s walk, carry the load for 10 to 50 meters, with 30 meters probably being ideal.
Not surprisingly, the one thing that very strong individuals from various sports have in common is a solid back.
The role of the lats is huge in all pulling exercises like pull-ups, rows, pulldowns, etc. That’s obvious, but the lats also play a giant role in the power clean, power snatch, deadlift, bench press, and squat.
The lats keep the barbell in the proper path. Otherwise, the barbell strays from the body, giving you a disadvantageous lever to pull from and placing a greater load on the back.
To maximize performance in those lifts, you need to learn to engage the lats and keep them engaged. The sweeping deadlift drill (shown below) will help teach that, but it’s not enough to just learn how to engage the lats; they need to be strong so that they’ll stay active when the barbell reaches the knees. If not, the bar will shift forward and you’ll miss the lift.
Here the lats stabilize the shoulder joint (if you’re more stable, you’re stronger and less prone to injury), give you better leverage to press by giving you something to press against (if the lats are engaged and elbows tucked in, your triceps will be in contact with your lats), and they actually help you press the bar up at the bottom of the movement.
To best engage the lats during a bench press, try to externally rotate at the shoulder joint when you set up. Or if you prefer, try to bend the bar in half. Then try to bring your shoulders down (opposite of a shrug) while lifting the chest up. Lastly, as you lower the bar to your chest, imagine rowing the bar towards you, not just resisting it on the way down.
In the squat, the lats, like the rest of the upper back, are extremely important in assuring a strong position. After all, your torso is what’s holding the bar. The more solid your back is, the stronger you’ll be. The barbell will feel a lot lighter and the bar path will be more stable.
To engage the lats during a squat, pinch the shoulder blades together hard and “bend the bar” while bringing your elbows to your ribs. To visualize it better, imagine doing a behind-the-neck lat pulldown with the squat bar.
In Olympic lifting circles, the back squat is seen as the “reference lift.” There’s a very solid correlation between squatting strength and the athlete’s clean & jerk and snatch.
So it’s not surprising that Olympic lifters really push the back squat hard. In fact, in many cases (at least in training systems based on the Bulgarian model), the back squat is the only pure strength lift included in a lifter’s training program.
Making your squat go up will also have a positive impact on your deadlift strength and even the shoulders and arms. (Even though the barbell sits on your shoulders when squatting, the shoulders and arms are producing force to hold that load.) This is one of the reasons why a lot of Olympic lifters can bench press in the 400s without doing any bench pressing and barely any direct upper body work.
I’m not suggesting you stop bench pressing and only do squats if you want your bench to go up. What I am saying is that the squat truly has a whole-body strengthening effect and if you put a lot of emphasis on it – doing whatever you can to push that lift up as high as you can – it’ll make your whole body strong while having a positive impact on every one of your big basic lifts.
Ways to focus on your squat:
Out of all the big lifts (besides the Olympic lifts) the squat is the lift that benefits the most from doing plenty of gradually heavier warm-up sets. It is, of course, a more technical lift, so more practice sets will help you get a better lifting technique.
All those warm-up sets also increase the time under load for the stabilizing muscles. Since these muscles work more isometrically, they need the greater time under load to get a good training effect.
If you want to maximize performance in a big lift, especially if it’s highly technical, you need to practice it often. So a squat needs to be trained more often than a bench press or a pull-up to optimize performance (and a clean & jerk or snatch needs to be trained more often than the squat).
Training your squat 2 to 3 times a week is best. But you don’t need to go all-out for all the sessions. One session could be a lower-intensity session focusing on technique or speed. And don’t worry about “overtraining.”