Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

Squats Are Hard – But the Bench Will Kill You!

by Carl Raghavan, SSC | December 22, 2020

middle of a bench press rep

You could call this article “White Noise 2.0,” as in many ways it’s a follow-up to one of my earlier articles, The White Noise of Heavy. I wanted to go into more detail on two of the lifts in particular: the squat and the bench press. Both are challenging, but in very different ways.

My new line, one I often find myself saying to my lifters these days, is that the squat is just hard, but the bench press, well, that could kill you. Even as I tell them this, I can see it doesn’t sink in: they’re still scared of heavy squats and fearless on bench, which seems pretty arse-backwards to me. What I’m trying to do is to readjust their sense of risk. Now, there is obviously an element of risk to both movements. But that risk is not the same for both, and in my experience most lifters’ perception of risk is completely out of whack: most of them are way more terrified of the squat than the bench. So first let’s take a closer look at squats. Why are they so difficult and scary? What can you do to help?

Yes, I know, when you squat the bar is heavy. It’s compressing your spine; it’s hard to breathe. I squat too, you know. Whether it’s 40kg, 140kg or 200kg, it’s all heavy for the lifter in the moment. Personally, when 140 is on my back, it feels just as heavy as 200 – but my mindset and my years of training enable me to squat 250 and more. It all feels heavy after 3 plates: you just learn to accept it more than you do when you’re new to having a heavy weight on your back. You learn not to panic, despite the white noise. Accepting that it will all feel heavy after a certain point is humbling, but it’s also calming. You know going in that it will feel that way. And you know that you have trained for success, building confidence and good habits.

That’s what training is. A tough set is a test of everything you’ve done before. The bar is heavy and the white noise is ringing in your ears, but I haven’t been shouting cues and giving you advice all this time for no reason. It’s not just to make me feel important or give you a reason to keep me around. I’ve been supplying you with squat hacks gleaned from years of coaching other lifters. I’ve been preparing your technique and slowing progressively overloading your squat specifically so that we will be ready for this day.

On the Starting Strength linear progression, we have already been hitting new weights each session. Why is this 5lb jump so impossible compared to the last 2 to 3 months of 5lb jumps? It’s usually one of 3 reasons. 


They see one or several big 45lb plates on the bar, or at least more plates than they are accustomed to seeing. That image – the number or size of the plates – scares them. 

How do you fix it? Well, in extreme cases you can cover the weights with bin liners so that your lifter can’t see the big “scary” weights you put on when their back was turned or their eyes were closed. Then, as they approach the bar, you instruct them to focus on looking at the barbell, not the bin bags around the plates. They should do their normal routine, and hopefully they’ll crush a heavy set of squats, which will demonstrate to them that they can in fact lift the weight. 

As my favorite basketball player says, “Limits, like fears, are often just an illusion.” 


The weight on their back is now starting to get heavy as they unrack the bar, whereas in the past it was comfortable – if there is such a thing when squatting. It used to feel almost pleasant to unrack, but now they feel like someone’s put a truck on their back and is squeezing their ribs – when they try to take a breath, it feels like nothing is happening. Oh, fuck! What do I do? 

A drill to help: assign them heavy walkouts with 10-20% more than their working weight. It will make the work set feel less scary and give the lifter a central nervous system boost that will help during the full set. 


When they realize what number they’re supposed to be doing that day, they go, “Oh, I can’t do that, that’s too heavy! That’s a huge number!” Before even approaching the barbell, they have already failed the set. They haven’t focused on being in the moment, on doing the job that needs to get done. Instead they go into this negative, self-perpetuating shell that leads down a rabbit hole of pussyitis! 

(Note: I have been very guilty of this one.) 

There are several ways you can boost a lifter’s confidence. You, for instance, can film previous training sessions and sets to show bar speed. You can ask the lifter, “What do I want you to do in a squat?”, which will make them view themselves in the third person. Hopefully they won’t feel so introspective, and their approach will become more constructive. I often tell my lifters, “You have lifted heavier and heavier weights throughout this whole process – this is just another step up a flight of stairs. Attack this set one rep at a time. Open up your training log and look at all the linear progression you have made up to this point. You have been successful more times than you have had failures. That counts for something.”

Some people exhibit one or two of these traits, while some have a mixture of all three. Some especially reluctant clients will respond, “It’s easier said than done!” Well, yeah. But that doesn’t mean focus won’t help you. Have you made every effort to achieve the best possible outcome on your impending set? Is your mind elsewhere? At the moment you unrack the barbell, are you thinking about:

  • Work or finances
  • Your partner
  • Old injury
  • State of current political system 
  • Famine, genocide, terrorism, or being “woke”?

Instead of focusing on:

  • Breathing
  • Cues
  • Visualization
  • Past victories
  • Being present in the moment

The latter will help you. The former will not. 

Now. There are failed reps and there failures, and there’s a big difference. A failed rep I’m happy with, but a failure? Not so much. Let me first talk about failed reps before I open up a furious can of whoop-ass about failures.

A failed rep is when a lifter stays in the groove of their technique, pushes with all their might for 5 to 8 seconds, and then slowly brings the bar back down onto the pins or the floor. This is fantastic! I can’t tell you how happy it makes me when a lifter does this. It shows me that in the heat of battle, in the grind of a heavy rep, they stay composed and remember their training. They know that if they push hard, they have a fighting chance. It also solidifies good habits: there will be many examples of a rep that throws you off, that isn’t perfect, and staying calm and composed is the correct approach. 

Failures, however, are a behavior. They’re an attitude towards a lift. This is much harder to correct, as it’s the psychology of the lifter that inhibits their performance. Let’s say, for example, that the first rep was slow and the lifter’s knees caved in. The lifter then screams, “Oh, that was awful!” and shakes their head. As Dr. Sullivan says, “Hey! That is not your job.” And Doc is fucking right. You, the lifter, have only three jobs to do:

  • Squat 5 reps
  • Listen to your coach’s cues
  • Be present and focused 

That’s it! I don’t want this negative self-fulfilling prophecy stuff. If you say it’s shit and heavy while you’re approaching the platform, chances are that, yes, it will feel like shit and be heavy. You should try to make your approach less emotional. It’s like medication: take your daily dose of 3 sets of 5 squats 3 days a week. It’s just something you have to do, whether you got out of bed on the wrong side or not. As someone once famously said, “It’s still your fucking set!” And that’s all you need to care about. No chit-chat, no deep meaningful conversations. We will talk about the lift after the set. Worst case scenario, you fail a rep. Which is fine. There are much worse outcomes.

For instance: the bench press could kill you. 

The squat may be the most psychologically challenging lift, but it is well known that the most dangerous exercise in the weight room is the bench press. These accidents are most common in garage gyms, but they also occur in meets and commercial settings. People die every year because bars fall across their throats and suffocates them. There are many standard safety measures to make the bench press a far safer lift. Examples are: 

No suicide grip: There’s a hint in the name. This refers to using a thumbless grip while bench pressing. The bro-science belief is that wrapping your thumb “traps” or “impinges” the nerve in your wrist, which therefore reduces pressing power. Which is bullshit. So these dumb fucks want to test their mortality and bench with no thumbs, balancing a heavy bar that is hovering across their throat in just the palms of their hands. This is strictly forbidden on my watch. I will never allow any of my lifters to bench with a suicide grip. The only thumbless barbell exercise that is safe to do is the correct low-bar squat, and that’s it! Not overhead pressing, and definitely not the bench press.

No collars on the bar: I know it sounds dangerous to not clip the barbell, but the bench press is the only lift where I would never, repeat never put safety clips on, especially if you are training alone. That way, if you fail a rep, you can simply tilt the bar so that one side of the plates slides off and you can live another day. 

FYI, if I do die on the bench press, please make sure to put two extra 45s on both sides before you call the ambulance. That will be detailed in my last will and testament. I’m serious!

Spotter arms: There is some crossover here with correct technique. In order to achieve the appropriate thoracic extension, you need to arch your back, creating a space between you and the bench. When you set your spotter arms on the bench or the safety pins inside your squat rack, choose a height where, when you correctly arch, the bar doesn’t hit the spotters. When your back is flat, however, they should catch the bar safely. This means your face and – most importantly – your throat are protected. 

Use a spot: Now, hold on – I didn’t say let your buddy do shrugs while you bench. I mean have an educated friend who’s watched our videos about correct spotting for the bench press. He or she should be 100% focused on your set and available to help if you fail. This is always a great, safe protocol that will help prevent risky scenarios, but I would still advise no clips and using spotter arms, even with a spot. 

Technique: Your lifetime goal should be to strive towards mastery. If you bench with your feet wiggling around and don’t touch your chest on Monday, on Friday your butt shoots 6 inches off the bench and the bar touches your throat, and then next Monday your right elbow locks out 2 seconds before your left does and the bar crashes down onto your chest, then have we really been practicing the bench for the past 3 sessions? Not really. You are what you have practiced most in life – that’s the general rule. When you see a good bench-presser, their warm-ups look controlled and precise. A lot of the time, their form improves as the weights get heavier, because heavier weights further ingrain good form. 

Logic: As my dad likes to scream at me, “Boy, use your bloody coconut!” Yeah, this was usually said after every other sentence in my house. In some training situations, you need to be intelligent and use the muscle between your ears. Not your ego. Leave that at the door. Of course, we want you to push yourself and attempt reps you’re uncertain of. That builds character (the most underrated gains you can make in the weight room). But if you’re constantly missing reps every session and getting frustrated, simply adding more and more weight and blindly chasing numbers, you will set yourself up for a hard fall. 

I know the squat feels hard, but a major component of what makes it difficult is psychological. Everybody loves the bench, but that’s the one that could actually kill you. They’re both very safe, of course, but the risk of injury or death is much greater on the bench press than the squat. The bar that feels like it’s crushing your back on a heavy squat is fooling your sense of judgement – and the statistics show this. Of course, injuries do happen on the squat, but very rarely do people ever die doing them. Meanwhile people die every year benching. Let me repeat: people die every year benching. Keep that in perspective the next time you panic during a heavy squat. It’s just heavy. Squats won’t kill you – they’ll make you stronger, and more useful in general.

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