[Originally published on Shredded By Science]
For many of us lifters, the barbell can be a best friend or a bastard, depending on the successes or setbacks experienced during training. Weights we dominate one day may randomly pound us into submission the next, and this reversal can be incredibly frustrating. As dedicated lifters’ careers advance, they find that the remedy for this inconsistency is knowledge. Understanding affords a degree of control that can allow experienced lifters to avert bad days in the gym - or at least make the most of them when they inevitably arrive. These productive sessions add up, and eventually amount to impressive results.
The goal of this article series is to outline the ten considerations that - in my opinion - comprise the bulk of training mastery. Please understand that each of these points could constitute an entire article, so I am simply doing my best to introduce them and prod you in the right direction. As I’ve learned from the people I’ve trained, you don’t need to dive too deep down each of these rabbit holes to become a better lifter. However, a bit of exploring can certainly be useful, so I encourage the curious to investigate. Let’s get started with the first three points…
1) Position: For the majority of lifts, you can break things down to a Position 1 and a Position 2. Position 1 is almost always going to be the start position for the lift, and Position 2 is going to be the bottom position (squat, bench press, etc) or the top position (deadlift, overhead press, etc), depending on the exercise you’re doing.
Ideally, you’re going to optimize those positions based on the fundamentals of biomechanics, which demand you arrange the weight and your bodily segments over the middle of your base of support in a way that is strong, safe, and balanced. Once these positions are organized, then you will need to figure out the strongest, safest, most efficient path from Position 1 to Position 2. The better your two positions are, the easier this will be.
The keys to optimizing position and the transitions between positions lie in two basic concepts: the neutral spine and joint torque. The neutral spine is the natural orientation of your spine - not rounded over and not excessively arched inwards. While there are certainly examples of strong lifters who don’t comply with this convention, the evidence supporting the importance of maintaining a neutral spine is difficult to ignore. Coach enough people out of painful deviated spinal positions and into a pain-free neutral position, and you’ll have to agree.
In addition to the neutral spine position, creating external rotation torque is another vital detail. Push your knees out over a stable neutral foot when you’re squatting, and break the bar and tuck your elbows slightly when benching, and you’re going to be in safer, more stable joint positions.
2) Tension: The ability to create and maintain large amounts of tension in your torso, shoulder girdle, and hips can make a big difference in your ability to display the strength of your prime movers. Tension in these key areas allows you to lock in the optimal positions previously mentioned.
Knowing how to tense your glutes to set your pelvis in a fairly level orientation, having the awareness to use your abdominal wall to prevent rib flare and lumbar extension, and being cognizant of using your lats to lock your shoulders back are three powerful skills you must possess. Additionally, breathing correctly is an invaluable skill you can utilize to pressurize your abdomen and reinforce the rigid torso position you skillfully create.
While most lifters routinely take a gulp of air before exerting effort, there are a few tricks that will improve the effectiveness of your breath. First, understand that a forceful exhale can create abdominal tension and help set your rib position - think of the tension you feel during a really big sneeze. Once you’ve locked your ribs down by blowing air out, you’ve got to take some air in to create pressure. I prefer taking a quick breath in through my mouth like I’m sipping through a straw, but I know other lifters who find they can get tighter with a few forceful sniffs of air in through the nose.
Figure out which method works best for you, and be sure to employ it before beginning a lift, hold it while you’re doing work, and - if necessary - take a new breath when you return to Position 1. Using air optimally can enable you to lift more weight, so become a skilled breather and you’ll see some solid improvements.
3) Control: For each lifter, there is going to be a particular tempo that allows them to maintain their positions and their tension most effectively and lift the most weight. Some people need a very controlled descent and a smooth drive back up, while others can dive-bomb descents and heave the weight back up without getting out of their groove. Usually, new lifters need to move slower as they learn to optimize position and maintain tension, while experienced strength athletes might move towards more aggressive tempos.
When I am teaching newbies how to lift, I usually have them focus on taking their time to create tension in the start position, controlling the bar during a 2 or 3 second descent, then lifting as explosively as possible without losing their position or their tension during the ascent. If their technique is off, we go slower and gradually work towards moving quicker. I’d rather sacrifice the muscle activation benefits of bar speed in the short-term in order to accurately grease the groove between their two positions. However, the benefits of Compensatory Acceleration Training (lifting as fast as possible) and the stretch-shortening cycle (taking advantage of the elastic qualities of skeletal muscle) cannot be ignored, so we will always work towards moving faster over time.
Thanks for reading -and check back for Part 2!
Thanks for reading -and check back for Part 2!