By Dave Thomas
“I don’t feel anything. Where am I supposed to feel it?”
A question often received when performing at light weight the movements we are about to discuss. In reality, these are often the best movements because they are so anti-isolationist in nature you have no real idea what part of your body is working the hardest. Since all of it is.
Here are four weird movements and why we do them.
The Overhead Squat
There is perhaps no greater total body demand in weightlifting than the overhead squat, possibly matched only by movements you may see in this article. Since the OH squat is performed with both hands on the barbell, the mobility demands far surpass any other movement except perhaps the snatch. In order to be competent in the OH squat you must have mobility in the ankles, knees, hips, t-spine, lats and triceps. If any single point in the chain is tight or immobile, the lift doesn’t happen to it’s fullest capacity. So, as far as advanced movements done right, this is at the top of the list. It makes the OHS a fine tool for postural correction assuming one has the mobility to perform, as it combats the prevention or furthering of the dreaded desk-causing t-spine kyphosis.
The OHS is also excellent for teaching total body kinetic awareness and to move as a collective unit, lending high transferability to a lot of sports. Think of it as an assembly line of efficiency, if one part does not do its job the whole process crumbles.
It also teaches tension incredibly well as start to finish there is not a relaxed muscle in the entire body. Since we talk about tension’s role in strength ALL the time at P360, it should come as no surprise that we love this benefit of the OHS.
Demands on core stabilization make it akin to the front squat. Even though it is a squat, inferring “leg” exercise, it would be a mistake to label this just a developer of the lower half. Your core, shoulders, back and legs will all receive plenty of attention in a set of five OH squats.
Along with the TGU, it is perhaps the only movement that requires your lats to be in a position of maximal muscle contraction for an extended period of time. Lats are big time performance muscles so any movement that isolates them in an athletic capacity (unlike a lat pulldown) es muy bueno. Even better that it’s in an isometric position the entire time.
Learn to OH squat well and watch your strength go up everywhere.
Prerequisites: A very good back and front squat, along with adequate mobility everywhere. Rare is the person who can walk into the gym in month one and effectively (safely) overhead squat. Remember, this one has as much to do with mobility as it does strength and stability.
TGU has a long list of benefits worthy of its own article, but I’ll do my best to summarize them. I was first introduced to TGUs during my kettlebell certification and after performing roughly 100 on the first day, I fell head over heels in love. Similar to the OHS, the TGU is an almost perfect expression of strength and stability, requiring the utmost coordination, control, shoulder stability and strength in your core, shoulders, hamstrings and hips.
Heavy get-ups, the kind in the triple digits for men and upwards of that amount for women require an enormous amount of strength and power simply to apply the drive to initiate the movement. You cannot even start this wonderful exercise without a high level of strength. Your hamstrings, shoulder and abdominals are all working in unison at near maximum capacity to get you going. It’s as if you are putting the gas pedal to floor in hopes of getting a truck out of the mud. It takes absolutely everything you have at a maximal effort to get from the ground to the support of your forearm, and sometimes, your tires are just going to spin and spin in place until you develop that total body unison strength. Like the OHS, the get-up teaches the body to apply and maintain tension for periods of up to thirty seconds. No other lifts fall into this category of theirs.
It’s also the best (and only) exercise that teaches “cross-lateralization” (as Pavel puts it), your right side working with your left side at max tension, and vice versa.
As a core movement, it is in the elite category. Since you begin by placing weight overhead and then holding it as you stand fully erect, your abdominal muscles are working very hard isometrically to resist spinal rotation and flexion, and as we have seen from all modern research, the very best kind of abdominal work you can do are isometrics. The movement is first initiated by driving into the floor with everything you have, activating the hamstrings to overdrive and the core muscles to be firing on all cylinders.
On the metabolic side, working at lighter weight for 3 – 5 reps per side at a time is a very challenging conditioning workout.
And if nothing else, it’s just plain fun to have a goal of lifting a human being up overhead.
Prerequisites: None. Just spend some time learning the methodical technique of it all.
On the surface, this movement looks rather archaic. Make no mistake about it, it is. In fact, I would venture a guess that this was the first form of exercise in which man ever partook, except it was called ‘survival’ and not ‘training’. Farmer’s walks are among our most effective forms of isometric training despite the fact we are moving the entire time. For the purpose of motor unit recruitment and strength, isometrics (95%) trump both eccentric (88%) and concentric (89%) phases of movement in terms of the percentage of total motor unit recruitment, (1). Simply put, we are most activated and in use when we are holding weight.
Another reason why isometrics such as farmer’s walks are incredibly beneficial is the amount of time spent under tension (TUT). Farmer’s walks are essentially non-stop near maximal recruitment of motor units with no eccentric or concentric phase, a huge reason why farmer’s walks will help improve just about every lift across the board.
Farmer’s walks are also excellent for our alignment and for the health of our shoulders, specifically our rotator cuffs. They are also the most basic and effective form of grip training one can do, and grip is critical if one has any aspirations for heavy deadlifts, snatches or cleans.
As a core movement, farmer’s walks fit right in with the rest of this list as they are basically planks on steroids as far as tension creation goes.
In my humble opinion, there is no greater tax on the Central Nervous System than the farmer’s walk, making it an almost unparalleled strength movement but also one that should be performed strategically. Understand going into a workout that this will need to be the king of the day and have most of your attention and energy set towards maximizing it.
Prerequisites: None. Just build up to heavy weight slowly and always select a weight that allows an upright t-spine.
With the fitness industry’s recent obsession with all things Olympic barbell lifting, this movement tends to fall by the wayside and it’s one of my own personal favorites. There is a reason we, and other gyms across the nation, stock dumbbells along with barbells. They both have different benefits the other can’t achieve. For dumbbells, the stability requirements are much greater as you are relying on just a single shoulder to stabilize the weight overhead. As such, with one side of the body heavily weighted, the other side must create counter stabilization in order to achieve balance. This provides work on the obliques that a barebell typically does not reach, and as far as performance goes I could make a very convincing case that the obliques are the most important of the abdominal family.
Further, it is just plain very challenging to snatch something 100 or 70 pounds up overhead for multiple reps. It takes power in our legs, transfer of force capability in our core and both strength and stability in our shoulder to finish it off and receive it for a rep. One single rep from the floor will engage just about every muscle group in your body.
The DB snatch is also a great tool to teach full hip extension, and a very powerful 2nd and 3rd pull, as they cannot be performed correctly without really driving the hips through.
The lack of mobility limitations a dumbbell offers make these perfect for beginners, and the fact you can run them up to the triple digits make the benefits endless for even the most experienced weight lifters.
Off-the-floor DB snatches require speed, athleticism and stability that no other movement on this list requires. If you want more power in your later pulls, get on DB snatches.
Prerequisites: Some basic coordination and motor control.
In short, if you wish to improve your mobility, total body control, stability in your shoulders and all around athleticism and core strength, get yourself going towards these four movements and watch your performance improve dramatically.
Dave Thomas is an owner and coach at Performance360, and is a certified USA Weightlifting and Russian Kettlebell Coach.