Respect the Bar: Create Your Set Up Checklist

Pete Hitzeman

Managing Editor and Coach

CrossFit, Cycling, Endurance Sports, Running


Close your eyes and imagine yourself standing in front of a barbell that you’re about to lift. It can be a squat, or a clean and jerk, or whatever lift you enjoy the most. What’s your first step to address the bar? Where do your feet and hands go? What’s in your mind? What are you going to do before the first rep ever starts?


If you can’t answer those questions, you’re missing a huge opportunity for consistent improvement. Many of the lifters I see have a nonchalant approach to the barbell, and as a consequence, have a hard time figuring out what to fix to improve their movement. I’m not here today to tell you the best starting position or set up technique for every lift out there. What I do hope to convey is a framework to develop your own pre-lift checklist.



Address the Bar Like a Scientist

Your starting position isn’t the only determining factor in the quality of your lift, but it is arguably the biggest. Tiny changes in the placement of your hands and feet or the way you pretension your muscles can have outsized effects on the path of the bar and the total power you produce as the lift progresses. But if you don’t know where you started, how can you possibly know what you changed, and what effect it had?


I’m not anything like a gifted athlete, so I make up for a lot of my missing natural talent with careful study. When it comes to moving heavy things, I’ve learned to approach each lift like a scientific experiment. Researchers discover new things by controlling as many variables as possible, testing a theory, then changing one or a very few things and testing again.


The scientific method works as well (or better) in the gym as it does in the lab. I struggle with my overhead position in the jerk, for instance, so I’ve started playing with a wider hand position, a quarter inch at a time, to help make the lift more comfortable and stronger. A wider hand position eases the amount of mobility required from my (garbage) thoracic spine and shoulders, but it also effects my timing, tension, and footwork, so it’s a little complicated. But I couldn’t have made that adjustment effectively without first knowing where my hands were on every rep previously.


Your Pre-Lift Checklist

There are a huge variety of setup theories, considerations, and techniques for every lift. Each will be more or less applicable to you, the individual lifter, based on your size, limb lengths, joint angles, mobility, and so on. There are world record holders with very unorthodox positions, so don’t let anybody tell you that there’s only one way to get set up. After you’ve created your checklist, try different things and see what works for you, and don’t be afraid to go back and reevaluate your choices later on.


Respect the Bar: Create Your Set Up Checklist - Fitness, olympic weightlifting, strength and conditioning, back squat, clean and jerk, focus, intention, mindset, reps, heavy lifting, barbells




1. Hands and Feet

In general, the first thing is to set your hands and feet. If the bar is coming from the floor, I set my feet first. If it’s in the rack, I set my hands first. Use your pinkies and thumbs to find a spot on the bar consistently spaced from the knurling and use that every time. For snatches and overhead squats, I can just touch the collars with an extended pinky. For back squats, my outstretched thumb will reach the inside of the knurling.


For your foot position, it’s a bit more by feel, but try using some marks on the floor as a reference. Most people benefit from setting their feet under or just outside their hips, with their toes pointed slightly out (think 11 and 1 o’clock). Once you’ve done it the same way several dozen times, you’ll find your foot position much more naturally, and can make minor adjustments as needed.


2. Core and Tension

Before the bar leaves the rack or the floor, make sure you have the right muscles loaded, and have braced your core appropriately. Before I un-rack the bar for a back squat, for instance, I squeeze my glutes, breathe into my belt (if I’m wearing one), pack my lats down, and squeeze and pull the bar apart with my hands to create tension across my whole back. I visualize creating a solid platform for the bar to sit on for the duration of the set, so that my hips and legs can transmit maximum power to the bar. I’ll re-breathe between un-racking and the start of my first rep, but all the right muscles are already turned on, so I waste very little time getting ready.


For lifts that come from the floor, this is also the time to set your hip height and torso angle. Again, these will vary widely based on anthropometrics and your coach’s priorities for you, so be cautious of the keyboard heroes out there who want to prescribe one starting position for everybody.


3. Lock Your Eyes and Mind

I cannot stress enough the importance of a fixed point for your eyes during a lift. Your vision plays a huge role in your sense of balance, which in turn can act as a limiting factor in your force production. Whether you look low, high, or straight ahead depends on the lift, but make sure you look at the same thing every time and stay locked on it. A great way to lose tension, position, and a disc in your back is to try and see what the cutie in the corner is doing while descending on a 95% squat.


Right before the bar starts moving, I give myself one cue. It will be something I decided before I even looked at the bar, or before I walked into the gym that day. That cue will be the focus of my attention for the whole set. It might be to maintain even balance on my foot in an overhead press, or fire hard out of the bottom in a squat, or to not rush the bar past my knees in a clean. It’s easy to get lost in a lift by trying to focus on a half-dozen things you want to fix within a five-second (or less) movement. Pick one thing, attack it until it’s habit, then work on something else. That split second before you initiate the lift is the time to flash that cue to the front of your mind, so it blots out everything else.


Slow Down, Lift Smart, Progress Faster

There are a handful of lifters out there who are successful just walking up to a bar and ripping it. For the rest of us, a more methodical approach will give us a chance to process what’s going on and get more out of every rep. Over time, your set up checklist will become as natural as breathing, and it will become easy to diagnose and fix problems with your lifts by making slight changes in your set up. As the steps become more ingrained, you can add more things to pay attention to, and refine your technique even further.


The weightlifting platform and the squat rack are holy places where you commune with the iron. Don’t get caught up with what your buddies are talking about, and don’t get in a hurry. Address the bar, run your checklist, and watch the PRs pile up.

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