Optimize physical performance, innovate clinical practice

By: Ricky Singh – July 14, 2014
A few months back, I had a great conversation with the one and only power lifting coach and owner of Super Training gym in Sacramento, Mark Bell. It is sometimes difficult to understand the difference between the role of a strength coach compared to a clinician. What better way to understand these differences than to track down the top strength coaches and have a conversation with them.

I recorded our conversation and transcribed the notes below.


Mark Bell getting strong at the Super Training gym in Sacramento

The following are the topics we discussed:

  • Common mistakes lifters make
  • Differences between the squat and the deadlift
  • Coaching the deadlift and squat for beginners
  • Understanding the importance of “sensations” when training

Overall, I learned a lot from Mark and am truly inspired by his passion for what he does. I was surprised to find out that Mark does not charge a membership fee at his gym either. His gym is open to all lifters for absolutely no cost. More information about Mark Bell can be found at the bottom of this post. Enjoy!


Ricky (R) – Has powerlifting always been your niche?  How did you get into power lifting?


Mark (M) – I’ve been power lifting since i was 12 years old. I actually lied to get into my first power lifting meet because they didn’t have the lower age classes at that point. The first gym I ever went to was not a power lifting gym but a meat head type of gym. It had a lot of free weights, a few machines and no cardio equipment. Everyone in their had the same goal, which was to get stronger. It didn’t matter what they were doing, power lifting, olympic lifting or body building. Back then in the early 90s there weren’t a lot of people going to the gym to lose weight. I remember I went to go bench press and this guy comes up to me and says “what are you doing?” and I respond “i’m doing bench press”. I was coming up all crooked and my form was off. He responded by saying” well you’re not going to bench press like that while i’m in here”. So I took some weight off and he kept just saying how bad I looked and I told him that instead of just making fun of me, maybe you could coach me and show me how its done. He told me after that he was waiting for me to ask for help. I remember him saying, “I was waiting for you to ask because you need to realize that you don’t know anything and thats the first thing you need to understand”. I try to share this with people that you’re not going to know something unless it is taught to you. My experiences have led me to several different places like Australia, Japan, Mexico, Canada and throughout the USA. What gives me advantage over many coaches is that I have seen so many different body types. Sometimes when coaches work with a specific sport they get used to seeing the same body types come in. They are used to seeing a particular problem rear its ugly head, but I’ve seen everybody from crossfitters to 70 year old females. Being under the bar for 20 years and seeing so many different problems has been valuable for me.


R – What is the predominant clientele you work with?


M – I predominately work with power lifters and apart from them I also work with crossfitters. Years before this I used to just train a lot of women of all ages.  Some people are really high level and some people can’t even tie their shoes. The way that I would coach one person would sometimes be completely opposite of how I would coach someone else.


R – I’ve found that the more cues you have in you’re repertoire the better. One cue may aid in someones lift and that same cue might completely throw someone off.


M-  Head positioning cues are a big one, especially on a deadlift. If I have a 115 lb female who is flexible, she’ll be able to take the back of her head and extend far enough to rest it on her back.  She might have a lot of trouble keeping her back straight as we add more load to her squat or dead lift. However, if its a huge powerlifter or a collegiate wrestler with a large neck, when I tell him to pick his head up while doing a lift I know he’s stiff and wont overextend if I give him that cue. For some people ill tell them to look directly down on a squat and that will help shut down some over extension in the low back. Some people refer to it as the “stripper deadlift” where you stick your butt out but its not the best position to lift the most amount of weight. This is why powerlifting is so great because you are looking for the maximum amount of weight someone can lift using the most optimal positioning for that person.


R – Before clients begin training at your facility, is there a screen or an assessment that is done on them? Do you determine if someone is an ideal candidate for powerlifting?


M – I’ve had assessments done to me and doctors have told me that my right foot is pronated and that it should look a bit more neutral. I specifically don’t do anything like that. When you put someone’s body under some weight, then you’re going to start seeing all sorts of things happen. You will see strengths and weaknesses which will be black and white when you get to that 80% max range. When you see an athlete get to 80 – 90% of their max and they can still maintain good adequate form and good strong positioning, you know that person is a good athlete, period. That will be someone that you will be able to make strong fairly easily. I don’t personally assess or screen my clients, I simply watch them lift and coach them as needed.


R – How do you work with those individuals who break down under load fairly easily?


M- There are many routes you can go with this. Usually, individuals will have a positioning problem. The positioning problem doesn’t have to be a mobility problem, although it could be. You’re workout should not be the athlete working on his mobility the whole time, that time should be spent getting stronger. Mobility or correctives can always be performed on off days or after a training session.

For the deadlift, someone may say they have a problem with speed off the floor in the deadlift. I’ll watch their deadlift and they don’t necessarily have a problem with gravity, they have a problem with positioning. They aren’t getting into a good position to exhibit their strength at that lower portion of the deadlift. There are many techniques you can apply to get someone past that. You won’t be able to train around things. In strength training, you have to work on the things you suck at and are uncomfortable with. At the same time its always important to showcase what you are good at for the sake of feeling good about yourself so you don’t always feel like crap. Something I found recently with the deadlift to help individuals get through these barriers is what I call “reverse engineering the deadlift”. This refers to starting the deadlift from the top position with 70% of your max. You lift the weight up as best as you can, you’re going to perform 3 repetitions and think about the deadlift more from the top rather than from the bottom. The reason for this is that with the weight in your hands, you will be able to exhibit a better position at the bottom of the lift once the weight is already loaded into your hands. You will be able to lift a lot better, you’ll be in a better position throughout all those 3 repetitions as opposed to ripping it right off the floor. The idea is to use the weight  as a counter balance and try to shift your hips as far back as possible.

The reason you start at the top of the deadlift in this technique is you are teaching the athlete to get tight. Its an easier conversation to have with someone to say “hey, you need to get tighter in your squat”, and they may understand it a bit better because there is a eccentric portion to the squat. They have load on them already, they can feel certain things at the bottom of the squat like their hips kicking up etc. In the case of the deadlift, its almost like people aren’t learning the proper sensation that they need to have throughout the lift and thats something i’ve really been focusing in on for a lot of people. For those 3 reps in the ‘reverse engineering technique’, they aren’t bouncing the weight off the floor but the reps are touch and go. If you did a study on this and looked at the different hip/torso angles, you would see a way better position than if you started from the floor. What happens for novice lifters when they start from the floor is their bodies move around a lot  before the barbell even leaves the floor and thats what we are trying to avoid. With the truly great lifters, that doesn’t happen to them and thats what you need to try and figure out. When you initiate the deadlift, how do you get that barbell to move with your body. This is one of those methods that I have seen be very effective for that.


R – Would it be correct in saying that with this technique (reverse engineering the deadlift), you are increasing an individuals awareness over the appropriate sensations they should be experiencing when performing the deadlift with good positioning.


M – That’s a great way to put it. Now keep in mind that this is not the only way to do it but this is just one great assistance exercise or one that you would use once a week with one of your max strength lifts.


R – When looking at the squat and the deadlift, you sometimes see individuals saying they are performing a deadlift, where they are actually in fact performing a squat. This is more prominent when you see individuals performing kettlebell swings which are supposed to be performed with a hip hinge. The swing is often incorrectly performed with a squatting motion. How do you differentiate the deadlift or hip hinge from a squat?


M – This is a great topic. I have exercises that teach people the difference which takes us back to the topic of “sensations”. There are basketball players that have a specific routine or ritual before they shoot a ball. They dribble it a few times, spin it in their hands and then take the shot. These athletes have been asked why they do those few things with the ball before shooting it and the common response is that they were just trying to feel the weight of the ball in their hands. That is an amazing thing to say because they’ve been feeling the weight of the ball for so many years now, they don’t really need to feel the weight of the ball. But they have had this routine for so long now that performing this routine allows them to gain the right sensations in their hands before they shoot. The same thing has to happen when you are lifting. The only way to learn the proper sensations is to perform the lift the wrong way and the right way. When you feel it, it changes everything. If you only see it, its sometimes not good enough. Some people can see the right way to lift and they won’t even need you as a coach. I have two exercises that I get people to do that teaches them these appropriate sensations. The first is a squat coupled with a good morning and the other one is a deadlift coupled with a stiff leg deadlift. In the first exercise, I get individuals to perform a squat and then perform a good morning (3 reps each so 6 reps in total). I usually make these individuals perform multiple sets until they fatigue and what you’ll see is both the squat and the good morning almost become the same exercise. They start performing a really bad form of a squat which is basically a good morning. This teaches them the proper sensations that they should be feeling during one exercise as opposed to another. The same goes for a deadlift and a stiff leg deadlift. This allows individuals to feel where their hips need to be in a deadlift compared to a stiff legged dead lift. You often see individuals lower their hips way to low during a deadlift. Obviously this also depends on your body type, how long your arms are etc. In a squat, you want your hips to go down the entire ROM. In a good morning or stiff leg deadlift, you want your hips to stay high and go back as far as they can as you move the bar down.


R- What are the most common mistake you see power lifters making?


M – The most common thing I see is going to heavy to often and going to long of a jump from one weight to the next in the same training session. Lets say an individual bench presses 250 lbs. What ill see are individuals like these, come in without doing a warm up and perform 135 lbs for 10 reps, then 185 lbs for a few, 225 lbs for 2 -3 reps, then 245 lbs for 1, try 255 lbs and miss it. There has to be a certain amount of work put in to see progress. You have to accomplish a certain amount of work in order to get stronger. Sometimes in a workout, you have to look back and ask your self “did I do enough work today for me to get better at this?”.  At that point in your workout where you have already missed the last set, you are setting yourself up for failure because from that point on, you’ll be a little bit weaker. The solution to this is just taking more lifts, working your way up to that 255 lb weight. You’ll find that by performing more lifts, you’ll be more prepared to hit a higher weight and the likelihood of you hitting a PR is a lot higher in my experience. I always think back to grade school where your math teacher would ask you to show your work, how did you get this result. Working out is no different; you have to be able to show the work you have put in.


R – What would be the most common mistake you see from more of a technical perspective?


M – I usually see individuals rushing their lift and not going through their checklist of things that are important to maintain position throughout a lift. Most commonly, they are not maintaining position, not because they are not strong enough but because they are just rushing it. For example, you see someone perform a 300 lb squat and just previous to that they did 275 lbs and now they are going for 315 lbs. Your entire lifting career, you are always looking to get to that next plate. There is some anxiety involved when you see someone slap on plate after plate. Going back to the individual getting ready to lift 315 lbs, that anxiety sometimes makes people set up completely differently than they normally would.  Somewhere along the line they’ve talked their selves out of setting up in the right position, and you have to continually talk yourself into doing it right, working hard and pushing the envelope.


R – I have found it difficult to interact with athletes as a clinician but also as a strength coach. Being a strength coach and being a clinician requires a different skill set and what I am trying to do is understand how to blend the best of both worlds.


M – The difference between a doctor and a coach is that a coach may tell an athlete that if they hurt themselves to just throw some ice or compression on the area and try your best to do your lift the next day and keep it moving as much as possible. A doctor might have just read that ice may not be the best thing in this situation and may sometimes over complicate the matter or recommend electrical stim instead. I feel the real key to success to any of this is having enough knowledge to empower people. If you can do that then you’ve really found the golden ticket. If someone comes into your clinic and you say to them, “you know Mark, I just treated your low back, and you know what, you’ll be alright. In 2 weeks I expect you to be back to lifting and you’ll be alright.” When that individual leaves your clinic, he’ll feel like he can run through a brick wall. They feel pumped because they know that they’ll be back in the game.


R – Lastly, tell us about the slingshot and how you came up with the idea?

Sling Shot is a upper body supportive device created by Mark Bell.

Sling Shot is a upper body supportive device created by Mark Bell.


M- The slingshot is a supportive upper body device. I have injured myself many times as a power lifter while training for competitions. After spending sometime at Westside Barbell, talking to some of the coaches, I realized that a lot of lifters injure themselves on the eccentric component of the lift. That is also where I injured my pec. After my injury, I began wearing this bench shirt which was a few sizes to big for me at the time, and I realized that the shirt was catching some of the eccentric component of the lift. I felt my recovery improve significantly and I was able to hit some max effort lifts in the following week. I was thinking one day that I need to figure something out for people to wear something like this. A bench shirt costs about $200 and doesn’t look great so you wouldn’t find many people wearing it in a commercial gym. After several failed attempts, I finally came out with the sling shot which can be purchased at supertraining.tv.


More information:

supertrainingSuper Training Gym is the Sacramento, California powerlifting gym owned by Mark “Smelly” Bell and home to Team Super Training. SuperTraining.TV is a platform to bring all of our video accounts together in one place, to show you some of our favourite videos from around the Web, to broadcast occasional live events, and to someday offer some premium content. The gym is located at 2010 Third Street, Sacramento, CA. The main gym website is www.SuperTrainingGym.com.

The gym is located inside Midtown Strength and Fitness, 2010 Third Street, Sacramento, California. The Super Training Gym was named one of the 30 best gyms in America by Men’s Health in March 2008, and voted #2 gym in America by the readers of TheActiveLife.com in 2013. Super Training is a Certified Westside Barbell Gym.

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