The most common newbie mistakes in the big 3 and how to fix them

There are a few mistakes beginners tend to make when doing the squat, bench and deadlift. This doesn’t mean everyone has these issues, but just they just seem the most common based on my experience. This is obviously a bit biased, and may be specific to the population I work with. Also in this context, I define beginners by people who have received basic instruction on how to execute the lifts, but have little experience and practice doing them.


Squat is usually a tough movement for beginners. People are not used to the movement pattern and being in a seated position most of their lives certainly doesn’t help. The most common mistake is usually leaning forward on the way up.

This may indicate a quad weakness, however, with beginners it’s usually not the case, it’s simply a matter of technique. It usually occurs because people aren’t tight enough on the bottom, and easily lose posture when coming up.

This often happens from rushing the descent. There’s no rush, take your time, brace your core as hard as possible, and sink in. After coming up, maintain that tightness. It helps to consciously think about not letting your chest collapse. A common cue is “chest up”, although I’ve found “driving the bar back” to be more successful. Pause squats and pin squats may be a good tool for reinforcing maintaining tightness and proper position.


Showing the chest collapsing. Image from Starting Strength.

Showing the chest collapsing. Image from Starting Strength.


In the bench, I was unsure if I should put tightness at the bottom or flaring/tucking the elbows. Since I’d say it’s about 50/50, I chose the latter so the entire article isn’t about tightness. When it comes to flaring their elbows, it’s usually either too much, too little, or at the wrong time. Your elbows should tuck slightly when the bar is coming down, however, they should flaire once you start pressing off your chest. This makes the movement both safe and efficient.

Most novices just don’t tuck the way down, or if they do they try to maintain that on the concentric as well. The amount of tucking/flaring is individual and depends on many factors, but as a general guideline when the bar is descending aim for about a 40º angle. In the concentric part, you can let the elbows flaire slightly to about 60º.


Remember that this isn’t set in stone, there’s no magic in this specific numbers, feel free to experiment.


For the deadlift, it’s by far the setup. About 9 out of 10 times, when watching someone deadlifting I can tell if their technique is gonna be good or not based on their setup alone. The bar hasn’t even left the floor, yet most of the times I can visualize how the rep will go based on their position and tightness.

Take your time to setup. Watch the best deadlifters in the world. They’re technicians. Their setup is incredibly meticulous, and they’re as tight as humanly possible. Make sure you’re in the correct position in relation to the bar, and you’re tight and braced before starting to pull. Pull the slack out of the bar and don’t yank it. This is super important and almost every single beginner does this.

This takes time to learn and won’t fix itself overnight. But as long as you focus on it, it will improve overtime. Doing more singles than usual (doesn’t need to be heavy) instead of rep work is useful so you can better practice your setup each time. Make sure to record yourself so you can see what can be improved.



Mike Tuchscherer and Yury Belkin deadlifting 843 and 926 respectively. Pay attention on how they setup. How it isn’t rushed, and they get super tight before the pull. Of course, yours doesn’t need to be exactly the same, and they have over a decade of practice, but they’re great examples of what a good setup looks like.

Beginners are prone to make simple mistakes, but everyone goes through it, you just need to be aware of it and try to improve. It will take time, but you will eventually get there with hard work and consistency.

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