The Lost Art of Attacking the Barbell

lost artIf there’s one thing that great lifters have in common, it’s the ability to attack the barbell with controlled violence. This lost art of focused aggression is often what separates the pretty strong from the insanely strong.

Watch some of the best lifters in the world today, like Eric Lilliebridge, Dmitry Klokov and Jen Thompson, and you notice how hard they attack the bar. Like a shark hunting its prey, they’re calm and collected as they approach the bar, as they set up, and even as they lower the bar during a squat or bench press. But when it comes time to move that thing back up, they unleash their fury in an instant.

You don’t move 1,000 pounds this fast without attacking the bar:

Watch a powerlifting meet and you can predict with a high degree of accuracy whether a lifter will make or miss a lift within milliseconds of initiating the lift. The deciding factor? How hard they attack the bar. Those who are timid rarely make a heavy lift, but those who get after the bar with the vigor of a hungry shark give themselves the best chance for success.

How can you learn the lost art of attacking the barbell? I believe it’s equal part nature and nurture. The best lifters are born with a few screws loose in their head, and that’s why they subject themselves to the trials and tribulations necessary to be the strongest in the world. There are, however, some things you can do in training to learn to attack the bar.


Compensatory acceleration training (CAT) is a fancy term describing the lifting technique of accelerating as fast as possible throughout the entire concentric phase of a lift. The concept of moving every rep as explosively as possible is important for developing maximal strength.

Most exercises get easier as you approach lockout, so many lifters get through the sticking point and coast to the finish. This is a bad habit that must be broken unless you want to get stapled by heavy weights.

The simplest way to incorporate CAT into your training? Move every weight as if you were trying to throw the bar through the ceiling. You may surprise yourself with how fast you move lighter weights, but once things get heavy, you’ll notice how much smoother every rep becomes.


Another common trait among great lifters is superb rate of force development (RFD). RFD describes how quickly a lifter can ramp up to maximal recruitment of their muscle fibers. Basically, how quick a lifter can go “from zero to 60” will determine how much weight they can lift for a 1-rep max.

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of paused reps (I wrote a 3-part series on them, of which you can read part 1, part 2 and part 3). Paused reps work well to improve RFD because you have to move the weight, stop on a dime, then start again. If you’re not aggressive when you un-pause, you’ll likely get crushed. You’re forced to attack the weight.

For example, if you tend to slow down right below the knee when you deadlift, use a pause at midshin. You’ll have to ramp up to top speed quickly to avoid getting stuck, which teaches you to attack the rep and accelerate through your sticking point.


Many people associate powerlifting with the use of bands and chains. While the value of these tools may be overstated, the use of accommodating resistance (i.e. using bands and/or chains to change the strength curve of an exercise) can help people learn the lost art of attacking the bar.

Going back to the point about CAT, most lifts get easier at the finish. Bands and chains change that. The weight gets heavier as it gets closer to lockout, so you have to learn to be aggressive throughout the entire lift.

I prefer chains over bands most of the time. Using 20-40 lbs of chains on the bench press and 40-80 lbs on the squat works well for most lifters. Learning to “out-run” the swinging of the chains teaches good bar speed too. Because the chains swing around on the way up, lifting fast helps you avoid swaying like a tree in a storm.

However, I’ve recently become fond of using bands for sumo deadlifters. The limited range of motion during sumo deadlifts makes it tough to use chains, but with the right band set-up, the lift gets heavy pretty early off the floor. We recently used band-resisted sumo deadlifts in Nancy Newell‘s program and it dramatically improved her aggression off the floor.


Being a powerlifter doesn’t mean you should be slow and unathletic. I like to include some type of jump and/or throw in all my athletes programs, powerlifters included.

Even though jumps and throws are pretty far removed from squatting, benching and deadlifting, they do teach a reactiveness that is necessary to apply force quickly. And even if a weight is moving slowly, we want to try to move it quickly a la the CAT principle.

The simplest way to include explosive drills in your program? Finish your warm-up with some box jumps, kettlebell swings or medicine ball throws. They’ll get your nervous system fired up and ready to move big weights.


The primal aggression needed to become your strongest self is hard to teach. However, with patience, you can develop a killer instinct to move weights that otherwise might not budge. Use the above techniques to hone your ability to attack each rep with authority.

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Posted in Powerlifting

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