At one point during my undergraduate career as a softball player, lifting heavy weights felt like a chore. The question perpetually floating in my mind was, “how can I survive a team lift without hurting myself? And how can I still manage to hit those higher weights in my lifts?” In learning how to develop proper movement patterns, and promote those patterns by establishing proper alignment and bracing, this is no longer a question that resonates with me as it once did. The problem wasn’t that I didn’t know what a dead lift, or bench press should look like, the problem was that I didn’t fully conceptualize the proper mechanics of my long levers or understand how the right alignment should feel in leveraging weights. In short, I allowed numbers to take precedence over learning good mechanics (and putting my body in a position to learn those mechanics). So I want to address some of the common ways in which we lose leverage in our movement patterns, and explore tools of conceptualizing the technical components of those movements in order to better generate force.
The Energy Leak
In watching people perform movement patterns, I like to use the term leaking energy to describe any deviation from an efficient path of motion OR any loss of tension throughout a range of motion. Any movement deviation or loss of tension typically detracts from the efficiency of movement or force production, and therefore serves as a leakage of energy – and we need to conserve energy for lifting safely! There are a number of ways in which we can leak energy, so let’s start by discussing the bench press, a much more technically driven lift than you may realize. You have probably heard your coaches talk about keeping your forearms stacked throughout this lift. What we mean when we say this is that your wrists remain stacked directly on top of your elbows throughout the press – not inside, outside, above or below the elbows. There are typically two ways in which we see this stacked position lost. The first is the elbows track too far away from the body at the bottom of the press such that the wrists are inside of the elbows from a birds-eye view. Not only is this an inefficient path of motion, it is also taxing on the glenohumeral (GH) joint, as it can lead to loss of tension – i.e. loss of a packed position – between the shoulder blades. The second way in which the stack is lost is when the wrists come down higher on your chest, and from a profile view, the elbows are visibly more forward, rather than underneath the wrists. Because the elbows are not stacked directly under the wrists, this makes leveraging the bar in a vertical plane much more difficult. When you think about optimal force production, it makes sense that we would want a vertical forearm in order to leverage the bar back upward from where it started. My advice here is to think about maintaining the packed position at the shoulders, while rowing the bar down toward the point where the ribs meet (sports bra line, if you are wearing one) keeping the forearms stacked the whole way.
Now that we have talked about maintaining alignment and tension in a pushing motion, lets address those same principles in a pulling motion. What better a paradigm to study pulling than by addressing the pull up! Because a pull up is a closed kinetic chain exercise, meaning the hands are locked to an immobile structure, your path of movement is going to be greatly dictated not only by your arms but also by the tension that you are able to generate through your core and muscles that draw your shoulder blades down and together (think lats and traps). The reason the pull up progression you will see at Achieve begins with active-hanging and active-hanging hollow holds is because we want to first generate tension in our lats/mid-traps and our core in order to have a steady foundation to pull throughout that vertical range of motion. Some natural feedback that you might receive should you lose that lat/core tension is a swaying motion forward to back during your pull up. This is an energy leak alert! The more movement we see in a horizontal plane, the less energy and tension is contributed to the vertical pull that we want to produce! If you are exclusively pulling with your arms from the hanging position without first generating tension in your core and lats, you are going to find it more difficult to get to the top of that pull up. So, when you do any type of hollow hold, think about how much strength you are earning for other types of movements like the pull up!
The Bar Path
I remember learning how to dead lift and thinking way too much about what I didn’t want to do or feel. “Don’t arch your back”, “make sure not to bend your arms”, “don’t slump on the way down”, and the list of thoughts continued. Really, what I should have been focusing on was what I wanted to do. A great tool of conceptualization that I like to use is focusing on the path of the bar itself. Where do I want that bar (or bell) to go? Ideally, when we lift an object off the ground or squat with a bar on our back, we want it to travel in the most direct or efficient path to avoid any unnecessary shift that may lead to a leakage in energy by virtue of taking the extra detour. A direct path looks a whole lot like a straight line, right? Right. So when we are dead lifting a bar off of the ground we want to make sure that the bar stays in that upward trajectory the whole way. The best way to ensure vertical leverage here is to think about keeping your weight toward your heels, and the cap of your armpit in line with or slightly behind the bar from a profile view.
If your shoulders start out too far in front of the bar, you are likely going to see the barbell being carried out away from your shins, and you may find your lower back doing more work acting as the fulcrum to leverage that bar back toward your body at the top. Think about feeling tension in your lats in your setup position, which will indicate that you are keeping that bar tight to your body. The same principle of the vertical path applies regardless of whether you are pulling a barbell, trap bar or Kettlebell off the ground! If you need help getting into a set up position, grab a coach or even a mirror to check for a vertical shin and good shoulder and hip positioning!
When it comes to squatting, the principle of the bar path also applies. If you were to draw a line from the mid-foot up to the barbell resting atop your traps from a profile view, you should ideally be able to keep the barbell descending downward along that same line throughout the squatting pattern. At the bottom of the squat, we want that barbell to be in line with the mid-foot.
Typically, we will see that bar travel forward toward the toes or even in front of the toes at the bottom of the squat. This could be indicative of any number of things. I would suggest addressing the issue by working from the bottom up. If you have limited mobility in your ankles (<3 inches from wall in wall ankle mobs), then that will probably be one of the first issues to address. From there, check to see that your knees are tracking slightly outward toward your pinky toes and not caving inward at any point. Additionally, unlike the dead lift, we want to allow our knees to travel forward in the squat. This is actually extremely important in a squatting pattern as it clears space for the hips to hit lower depth and the torso to remain upright. It is also the reason ankle mobility is so important! If you are unsure of where to start, check in with a coach! Working on mobility is going to help that bar path stay in an efficient path of motion.
To Sum Up!
Hopefully something mentioned in this post has struck a chord with you. If nothing else, always think of ways in which you can contribute something positive to your movement patterns. Think about what you can do to get into a good starting position and maintain tension, particularly in your core, throughout your lift. But more on core bracing later…If you would like to see a true spectacle of bar path maintenance, I highly recommend checking out the @Hookgrip account on Instagram, which features Olympic caliber athletes performing the snatch and clean + jerk. Although they are leveraging crazy weights and perhaps doing movements you have never done before, you can certainly appreciate how well they keep that barbell on a straight trajectory upward in their lifts. That’s alignment and force production done right!