By Dave Thomas
Throughout the course of a given workout, we all make mistakes. Little break downs of technique, some obviously more evident and important than others, will certainly happen over thirty minutes. These are corrections that will improve the efficiency and effectiveness of some of our staple movements.
Deadlift: Pull the Bar “In” To Your Hips
We always talk straight line in everything we do from rowing, to pull-ups to Olympic lifting. In any type of power lift or Olympic lift, the bar is to move completely vertical. However, thinking about just moving the bar upward on a heavy deadlift is insufficient. Forces of metal and nature are going to want that bar to drift away from your body. Gravity is trying its best to claim the lift from you, and the best thing you can do to counter that is to aggressively begin pulling the bar in towards your hips as it passes your knees. This will not only keep the forces of gravity at bay, it will activate your lats, a very large muscle that plays a critical role in the lockout. If you just think straight line, and never begin to shorten the distance between your hips and the bar, the lift will be most likely be missed.
Pull-Ups: Pull in a Vertical Line
Yesterday’s exercise in lat activation on the pull-ups is a good demonstration on the difficulty of maintaining a lat-driven straight line to the bar throughout all prescribed reps. This is one of the very many reasons we detest any type of kip or butterfly in this holiest of sacred strength movements. As soon as you do that, you massively deviate from that straight path and shoot your body outward, which is both instant risk on the shoulder and plain ole’ dumb inefficiency where it doesn’t need to exist. The lats must drive the bus here. If you let your forearms or biceps start the pulling, chances are good you will pull yourself away from the bar in a slightly arching motion, leaking energy for the subsequent rep. By engaging the lats and focusing on scapular retraction, you will keep the line straight and clean and you’ll be able to do more of them.
Back Squats: Strangle the Grip
People always associate squats as a lower body exercise. This would be correct, however no squat will be as efficient or as as safe as possible without strangling the grip. The very first thing you are to do before even un-racking the barbell for action, is to get your G.I. Joe Kung-Fu grip on the barbell. Hands should be in close and the bar should be gripped tightly with all at least index through pinky fingers. If you are a low bar squatter it may be more comfortable to leave your thumbs over top of the barbell, as well, but they should be contributing to the grip in at least some capacity. By strangling the grip, you are talking to your body, and successful lifting is all about brain to muscle communication, or nueromuscular efficiency. If your grip is tight, it tells the scapulae to retract and be tight. If these are tight, your core will be tight and nothing will be passive throughout the entire lift. You’re signaling to your body that it’s about to unleash hell.
Tension leads to strength and big lifts. So strangle the grip.
Oly Lifts: Maintaining Tension in the Levers
Weightlifting follows the laws of physics and levers. A lever is a rigid bar that turns about an axis of rotation, or a fulcrum. Moving a barbell or a kettlebell is a culmination of the systems of levers that we all have. In any Olympic lift, it is imperative that we hold our levers tight and not bleed tension. The very second we “break” or bend our elbows prematurely on a clean or a snatch, we “loosen” the lever and and we instantly lose anywhere from 10 – 30% of the lift’s capacity.
Like a back squat or deadlift, the easiest way to keep the levers tight and maintain tension is to once again strangle the grip. Your fingers should never dance around the barbell. Think of your arms as a part of the machine once they grasp the barbell. The barbell and human body are now fused as one, and the only way they can maintain that relationship is to be welded together through your grip. It is near impossible to have bent elbows if you are strangling the barbell with your grip. It will also be easier to maintain locked extension all the way until the jumping point.
Your grip is the handshake with the barbell before the fight. Giving it the dead fish only shows it how to defeat you.
If you set up with bent elbows, you set up to lose. Grip the bar tight and keep tension in your elbows at all costs.
Deadlift: Don’t Ignore the Eccentric
In every lift there are two portions. The concentric, typically the upward movement or the “lifting” part of the movement. The eccentric, typically the downward or “lowering” part of the movement. In every lift we perform, physics dictate that we must complete both or we will be crushed. Think about it. You can’t just drop the bench press on your chest after pressing it, right? On a squat, you must first lower the weight (eccentric) and then squat it up (concentric), right? Two portions exist as a yin and yang.
if this is true, then why on deadlifts do so many people just haphazardly let the weight crash them to the floor after lifting it?
Strength gains are made through effective concentric and eccentric partnership. We need both in order to maximize our strength, and one of the biggest mistakes one can make on a set of 2-5R heavy deadlifts is just to let the bar crash to the floor after each rep. You want it to be touch and go for all prescribed reps. Control it. Remember, you and the barbell are in symbiosis. Otherwise, you only receive the benefits of the concentric portion of the lift and never get the massive gains from the lower/eccentric portion. Negatives, or just the eccentric portion of many lifts are a great way to break plateaus (i.e. pull-ups), so never actively ignore it on major lifts.
KB Swing: Forceful, Audible Breathing
We get laughed at quite a bit for our fanaticism with breathing on the kettlebell swing. But no swing is proper without it, no matter how air tight the form might me. Remember how we talked about how important it is for your body and brain to talk to each other? Well, this is a prime example. Any time we set forth to breathe with purpose, forceful and sharp inhales and exhales, we are letting our body know that it’s about to need to put forth some horsepower. Passive, slow breathing leads to passive, slow reps.
Every time the kettlebell comes back between the thighs, take a quick sharp, audible breath in and and when the hips drive forward you release the air just the same. Audible. As in, you can hear it. Let me say that again. As. In. You. Can. Hear. It. Not only will this style of breathing synch your brain and body up for power, but it ensure you don’t get that nasty build up of rep killing CO2 in your system. Fresh oxygen combats it, so breath it in and let it out.
Good luck, and let me know if these tips help you next time we put ’em to use.
Dave Thomas is a Level I USA Weightlifting Coach and RKC Instructor.