Body weight, Leverage, and Lifting For Strength

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The word “leverage” appears widely in discussions of strength training. For example:

· “Many things contribute to strength. Leverage is one factor…” —Frederick Hatfield

· “Leverage plays a large role in lifting.” —Bob Youngs

· “…the weights that I lifted had a lot to do with mental fortitude and leverage.” —Dave Tate

· “All lifts are lever situations.” —Marc Bartley

To discuss leverage in training for maximal strength, I contacted Mike Robertson. Mike is one of the country’s top performance coaches and a powerlifter. He coauthored the two part article series “Overcoming Lousy Leverages” with Eric Cressey on With Eric, Mike also released the DVDs Magnificent Mobility and Building the Efficient Athlete and with Bill Hartman, he released the DVD Inside Out: The Ultimate Upper Body Warm-Up.

MK: What is the relative importance of body weight in improving leverage in the squat, bench press, and deadlift?

MR: When we’re discussing leverage, the two main components that we’re looking at are the mass of the different parts of the body and their various lengths. Unless you’re still growing, you can’t really change the length of your levers too much! This is the reason for the focus on increasing girth.

There’s generally a natural increase in strength and performance as you get heavier. Your absolute strength goes up. However, for most of us, we hit a point where we start to lose increases in absolute strength at the expense of relative strength. So while your total squat may go up, your squat in relation to your body weight may actually go down.

In the individual lifts, the squat and bench press are affected the most by increases in body mass. Whether it’s a bigger belly to bounce off of or shortening your stroke in the bench, increases in body mass tend to improve your squat and bench press much more than your deadlift.

MK: How much does body weight figure in improving leverage, and how much does technique figure?

MR: Technique is always the great equalizer. I’ve seen numerous powerlifting meets that could’ve been won by a stronger natural lifter. However, all things being equal, the guy with superior technique will always win out.

Also, as you improve your leverages and get bigger, your technique is bound to change. Improving technique is a dynamic process. It’s not like one day you just have perfect technique and never have to worry about it again! Technique is always changing and is dependent upon your leverage, the type of gear you’re using, and how you want the lift to look and feel.

MK: Jim Williams wrote in 1973 regarding physique and squatting, “…the majority of your squat record holders for their size, no matter what class, have big hips. Big hips play a major role in doing heavy or maximum squat movements.”

Dave Tate has similarly remarked, “There’s always a height to weight ratio when it comes to strength. Regardless of what anyone says, if you’re 6’2” and weigh 165 lbs, you might pull okay, but you’re not going to squat worth a shit. You don’t have the thickness or the torso. I’m not saying you have to have a fat torso, but a light lifter like that won’t have the torso support for leverage.”

Taking the 6’2”, 165 lb aspiring powerlifter as an example, what’s the least he should weigh to avoid chasing his tail in the squat and the sport in general?

MR: If you’re 6’2” and want to be successful in powerlifting, the minimum weight class you should compete in is the 308 lb class. However, you’d probably do better by moving all the way up to the super heavies.

Just keep in mind that what’s good for your powerlifting total isn’t necessarily good for your body. I would think that a 6’2” guy who weighs in the 220-230 lb range would be able to squat fairly efficiently if he worked hard on mobility and proper technique.

MK: What body weight changes have you experienced as a powerlifter and over what timeframe did you experience them? How did they affect your performance?

MR: How about 40 lbs of muscle over the course of five years? Ok, it’s probably not ALL muscle, but most of it is (wink).

When I first started powerlifting, I went to my first meet in December 2000 weighing about 175 lbs. I totaled a whopping 951 lbs (or something around there). I squatted 336 lbs, benched 248 lbs, and deadlifted 369 lbs. Needless to say, I was pretty weak by powerlifting standards!

At my most recent meet in April 2005, I cut 7 lbs to lift in the 198 lb weight class. I squatted 530 lbs, benched 335 lbs, and deadlifted 535 lbs. While I’d increased size all over, my “core” had definitely become much more developed. When I say core in this case, I’m referring to my upper thighs, glutes, and abs/low back. This is where your power is developed in any sport, and powerlifting is no different.

Although I haven’t done a meet in a few years because of knee surgery and a booming personal training business, I think my current lifts would be even higher at this point in time because all of my indicators are up. I’m looking to do a meet sometime this year, and I’ll compete in the 220 lb weight class. My current training weight is around 216 lbs.

MK: How tall are you?

MR: I’m 5’10” or 5’11” on non-squat days.

MK: How much did your calories increase to enable and sustain your additional lean mass?

MR: You know, I’d love to give you a well thought out answer for this, but I have never tracked calories EVER. I’m a big believer in that if you eat clean, get enough protein, and focus on getting most of your carbs from fruits and veggies, you’ll do just fine. Obviously, if your goal is to gain or lose weight, you’ll need to be a little more focused. However, I think most would benefit from just cleaning up their diet first and foremost.

MK: For powerlifters who plan to add weight to improve leverage, what advice would you give on how to proceed with weight gain?

MR: Don’t force it! Training appropriately will take you there so don’t forfeit quality muscle mass to “get huge” and put on a ton of fat. I don’t care what anyone says. Extra body fat doesn’t help you lift weight! I’ll take a pound of extra muscle over a pound of extra fat any day.

If you want to put on quality muscle, do what people have always done. Eat clean whole foods. Push your training HARD. Squat, bench, and deadlift weekly. If you use supplements, stick to the basics like creatine, fish oils, and protein. Most importantly, remember that this is a long-term process. You’re not trying to put on 20 lbs in 20 days. Instead, think about how 5-10 lbs of extra muscle mass will look at the end of next year and then go out and achieve it.

MK: For raw powerlifters, how much more important is adding body weight for improving leverage?

MR: It’s definitely important, but I don’t think it’s necessarily more important for raw versus equipped lifters. Improved leverages equal bigger totals, regardless! I think the biggest thing that raw powerlifters need to focus on is developing the smaller stabilizing muscle groups because they don’t get as much support from the equipment.

MK: To briefly digress for the raw lifters out there like myself, what do you recommend to develop those stabilizing groups?

MR: For the bench press, I’d focus on the muscles that stabilize the scapulae, gleno-humeral joint, serratus anterior, and lower traps. For squats and pulls, gear tends to take the glutes out of the lift. Focus on getting your glutes activated pre-workout and then training them hard with exercises like pull-thrus, Romanian deadlifts, lunges, and Bulgarian squats.

MK: What changes in relative strength can powerlifters who put on significant weight (say over 10% of their current weight) expect, specifically as to the ability to do exercises like chins? How was your relative strength affected by your added size?

MR: As you can tell, I’ve never been a huge bench presser because of my long arms. The same goes for chins. They’ve always been a tougher lift for me. However, as I’ve gotten bigger, I’ve definitely seen a drop-off in my relative strength on exercises like chins and dips.

I think that as you get bigger and chins get harder, you stop doing them! You need to continue pushing these lifts like you would any other. I know I became a victim of this as well. As long as you aren’t gaining a ridiculous amount of weight or gaining weight extremely rapidly, I think you can maintain or even improve your relative strength much longer than you think you can.

MK: Thanks for the chat, Mike. It’s been really informative!

When he’s not writing about places like Cuba and Israel, Myles Kantor ([email protected]) competes in the USAPL and is a CFT with the International Sports Sciences Association.


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