Written by Thomas Lilley
Struggling with your deadlift lockout? Do rack pulls. Getting stuck a few inches off the chest in bench press? Hit some board presses. Oh, and if you rocket out of the hole of your squat but slow down just above parallel, just throw in some high box squats … right?
At first glance, it seems logical – you’re struggling with a portion of a movement, so use partial movements to develop strength from where you lose it. The question is, where is that struggle coming from? Is it because you’re weak at that point, or is there an underlying issue? When we take a close look at common failing points in the major lifts, what we often see is a break elsewhere in the movement, rather than where the movement struggles or fails. Partial movements, then, may not be the answer.
As a coach, I’m all about efficiency – return on investment. We spend a lot of time training, so it’s important to maximise our potential by choosing exercises that will benefit us in the long run. So what I’m going to do in this article is take you through come common failing points that partial movements are often used for, and give you some better alternatives to help you improve.
- Deadlift lockout
I see it all the time – people doing endless pulls from blocks to help their lagging deadlift lockout and their lockout still lagging. So what’s the problem? Where do people go wrong with deadlifts that make them struggle with the lockout? Why can some people explode a weight up to those last few inches and then get stuck?
The issue normally comes from a loss of position from the floor. Allow me to explain: The spine should be rigid through the lift (supported by the musculature of the back), allowing the chest and hips to rise evenly and the muscles of the legs and hips to fulfil their jobs as the prime movers. The reality is that a lot of people find that rigidity difficult to achieve, especially under heavy load (or heavy load emulated by fatigue). The number 1 reason this generally occurs is due to a lack of trunk/core activation/strength. As soon as that rigidity is compromised, a good position for hip leverage is lost, making the lockout difficult. In English, that means that if the muscles of your trunk are not strong or well engaged enough to hold a rigid position from the floor, your back rounds and you lose efficiency and hip leverage.
There are a couple of issues with block pulls in this case:
- It’s almost impossible to create the same position from blocks that you would be in from the floor, so you lose specificity.
- The issue is often coming from a loss of position from the floor, not from a loss of position from block height, leaving the root issue still unaddressed.
So here are some quick solutions to help:
- Use your trunk in the movement. Ie. Deadlift with the best technique. Specifically, we want to practice breathing and bracing. Before initiating the lift, take the biggest breath possible and brace through the stomach like you’re about to block a punch. If you’re wearing a belt, push into it as hard as you can.
- If after learning to brace, you’re still losing position, train the lacking area and be specific when you do it. We want to train that concept of breathing and bracing and rigidity of the spine during trunk movement. So stick to exercises where the torso remains rigid – RKC planks, GHR situps, ab wheel, etc. When you perform them, be sure to breathe big and brace hard and maintain that position through the movement.
- Do deficit deadlifts. The purpose of deficits is to get you to hold that starting position longer, so it’s important that the deficit isn’t so high that it causes a change in the mechanics of the movement (1-2” is fine). Deficits performed with a weight where you can hold the correct technique through the movement will have a great carryover to deadlifts from the floor.
- Just off the chest during bench press
Another very common failing point is a few inches off the chest during bench press. People often tackle this by using partial movements such as board/pin presses (adjusting the board/pin height to match the failing point) or Spoto presses. Again, the issue here is almost never due to a lack of strength in that specific portion of the movement, but a break in the chain elsewhere.
In order to understand why people struggle here, you need to understand some basic (very simplified) bench mechanics. The safest, strongest and most efficient setup will see a lifter in scapula retraction, thoracic extension, and cueing external rotation of the shoulders (so pulling the shoulders back and down). As the bar descends to the chest, that external rotation (supported by the muscles of the upper back) creates torque at the shoulders. That torque is effectively our spring off the chest. It helps us move the first few inches off the chest and allows efficient power transfer between the back, then chest, and, finally, triceps.
The failing point a few inches off the chest is generally due to an inability to create that torque and/or effectively use it, or an early loss of it. Simply put – it’s due to a loss of upper back tightness. A good example of this is what often happens to lifters who ‘touch and go’ their pressing a lot. They tend to anticipate the press and release that tightness/torque early, resulting in a lack of control in the last few inches before touching the chest. Consequently, they end up overloading the delts and using the bounce of the bar off the chest to create momentum, rather than the spring of that torque.
So with all that said, here are some issues with using blocks and Spoto presses in this case:
- Lifters who have issues maintaining upper back tightness on the chest will generally exhibit the same pattern from boards, relaxing their upper back as they touch the board. This reinforces the underlying issue, rather than treating it.
- Spoto presses don’t address tightness on the chest either. If the issue is tightness in the last few inches, this isn’t an effective tool.
Here are some more specific solutions:
- Focus on upper back tightness on the chest. Use a weight where you can maintain control to the chest and practice a feather touch, keeping constant tension through the upper back.
- Cue to push back off the chest, rather than straight up. That external rotation torque causes our elbows to tuck inwards, so the force plane is at a slight angle back towards our chest. Pushing through that plane will allow efficient power transfer from the upper back to the chest and triceps, creating a smoother, more coordinated movement.
- Improve shoulder stability and mobility. The muscles responsible for stabilisation and movement of the shoulders through the correct pattern shouldn’t be ignored. If you don’t have the flexibility and strength to internally and externally rotate through the movement, holding the correct positioning and tightness will be difficult.
So, are partial movements useless?
Well, not really. Partial movements can be great if they’re specific. However, using them to solve a problem they’re not causing is like sending an ambulance to the bottom of a cliff people keep falling off, rather than putting up a fence. This is about getting the most out of your training and making your accessory work specific to improving the big three.
Block pulls can be a great tool, especially for sumo deadlifters. But they’re never going to fix your deadlift lockout if the issue is stemming from your position off the floor. Board pressing can tremendously improve tricep strength, but won’t help you a few inches off the chest if the issue is stemming from a lack of upper back tightness on the chest. Squats, bench press and deadlifts are technical, complex lifts made up of several working parts. You’re best path of improvement will be to focus on becoming proficient in technique of the entire movement.
Don’t waste your time. Make your training count.