The Final Stroke

I bet you perverts thought the title of this post was going to refer to something else. Typical.

You’re squatting your last set of five on your linear progression. You find yourself getting bent over a bit at the bottom of each rep; it happens regularly with hard or heavy sets. You hit rep number three and something tinkers in your back. Instantly the muscles seize around your lumbar spine and you dump the weight (on the pins, not your friend). What. The. Fuck. Happened?

I’ll tell you what happened; The Final Stroke.

If you’re like me, you wear flannel (Editor’s Note: If you’re like me, you pick your girlfriend up wearing flannel.). Flannel is perfect for cold weather, and it’s even more perfect for chopping wood. Chopping wood requires a tree that isn’t attached to the ground. The man-method of removing a tree from the ground is by chopping it. If you’ve read “Where the Red Fern Grows”, you can imagine what happens next: you chop the base of the tree with an axe until it falls. If you’re smart, you’ll get a good rhythm going; most of your strokes will be pretty equal to one another. The base of the tree will be chopped away, and eventually one of your even tempered strokes will fell the tree. It may take a thousand strokes, but it’s the final stroke — a stroke that isn’t any more significant than the other 999 — that brings the tree down.

This is the same thing that happens to your grandmother’s hip. She gets osteoporosis because she doesn’t regularly apply force to her bones, thus they don’t adapt to being stronger (ask Jack LaLanne if he ever fucking got osteoporosis). Grandma gets achy and has brittle bones. Eventually, she’ll step off the curb walking in the super market parking lot and will break her fucking hip. It’s not like stepping off the curb was a significantly higher stress than anything else she experiences on a regular basis. It’s that her bone was getting chopped at because it was so brittle, and the 1000th stroke finally landed. The Final Stroke is hardly ever more significant than the 999 before it, yet it’s the one that causes the biggest trauma.

This fucking grandma fucking squats. Fuck.

To understand The Final Stroke, you need to look at the hundreds that occurred before. The Final Stroke is a regular event made irregular by inadequate preparation or by doing the wrong thing. The dude in the first paragraph didn’t screw up his third rep on his last set; he’s had some weird little form fault — in this case the “leaning over” thing — that has chopped away at some structures until finally, the structures gave away. This happens all the time. All the fucking time. Most training related injuries or mishaps occur because something wrong has been occurring for weeks, even months. The debilitating effects of a little form fault may not be felt until The Final Stroke.

Take notice of your knees coming in on the squat or shoving your head through when you lockout a press. Take notice of how you jerk the deadlift off the floor or how your pelvis shifts to the left in the squat descent. You don’t have to go out and McCarthy every exercise (half of you are now thinking, “Jesus Christ, is my pelvis even when I squat?”). I’m just saying, address those little form faults before increasing the weight. If you keep hacking away at them, you might have to eventually deal with The Final Stroke.

26 thoughts on “The Final Stroke

  1. I recently have had a lot of trouble squatting with the bar coming up my back, after countless times thinking it had something to do with keeping my chest up, or my upper back tighter, it turns out that my knees coming in and extending the effective length of my femurs was the culprit. So I have to focus more than ever on knees out. Bad form doesn’t just lead to injuries, it leads to missed lifts which are almost as bad.

    Good point regarding missed lifts.

    Knees going in will usually cause one of two things:
    1. Cause the knees to go forward in addition to going in, and this will shorten the hamstrings and reduce the bounce as well as the efficient hip extension.
    2. Cause the chest to drop and move forward of the toes in an attempt to balance the lever arm, which in this case made the bar roll up on Nolan’s back.

    Other “bar rolling up the back” causes are hyper mobility in the thoracic spine or the thoracic/lumbar junction as well as the standard “chest dropping” and “leaning over too much” things.


  2. Excellent post. I’m lucky to have Perfect Form on Everything, so of course this would never, ever, ever apply to me, but for the mortal readers, it should be read and reread a hundred times, at least.

    Also, I know Justin mentioned that the Facebook page has some sort of gear swap going on…since I’m not on FB, anyone outgrowing their lifting belt? I’m too small for my Titan now (blue, 13mm, single prong), and need a smaller one. For reference, I wore it when I was a 38-42 waist, and am now in the 36 range and still shrinking…email me if you’re interested. Must be a single prong style, IPF legal, prefer 10mm ala EFS retro. jcloud at gmail. Gracias.

  3. Great article. This is my biggest lifting problem. When I squat I lean way too far forward. I assume others have dealt with this problem before… does anyone have any tips/advice on how to stay more upright?

  4. This is a timely article, as this exact thing happened to me last week. My back is so damn tight right now that it hurts to get out of bed or bend over!

    My biggest problem is hamstring flexibility. As I was increasing my squat weight I noticed that my hamstrings were becoming tighter and tighter. I went slow on the weight increase, but none-the-less I went up without addressing the flexibility issue. A week before I tweaked my back I noticed that my ass was not going down quite as far as normal, and my chest was dropping lower to compensate. I should have stopped lifting and started stretching, but did not listen to my body. Now I will be away from squats and deads until I can fix this issue.

    Squats have always been difficult for me due to a leg-length discrepancy that causes strange angles between my lower back and hip. This has always resulted in a tighter posterior chain that constantly needs to be stretched out. Such is life.

    I’ve hardly ever had issues with hamstring pliability and squatting. Your hamstrings may be tight, but you can allow a stretch if you shove your knees out. Are you doing this? If you are, then each time you descend (properly), the hamstrings will get a stretch.

    Also see Eric’s comment about Kelly Starrett mobility work.


  5. Thank you Justin. Warning heard. Advice heeded. I will work the weak links in the chain so as to make my squat, ahem, lumberjack proof? Now the only real problem I have is trusting my back and adding weight correctly. The goal is to lift big FOR A LONG TIME so slow is better than fast in this case. Thanks again.

  6. I’m familiar with Clarking reps, and with being a Gordon or a Todd…but what’s the deal with McCarthying workouts?

    Kelly Starrett-style hip and hamstring mobility work made a big difference in my ability to squat with passably good form.

    John McCarthy. Dude was like, “Communist! You’re a communist! Build up the nukes cause of the COMMIES SLKDJAO;VIWHER OIGHSH!”

    It’s kinda like Robes Pierre from the French Revolution. He cut of everyone’s fucking head in hysteria.

    You could also cite the Slalem Witch Trials, in which case you could reference The Crucible and John Proctor (although he was the defendant).


  7. Tangentally related question: Any suggestions for how to do glute/ham raises if your gym doesn’t have the equipment specifically made for that movement? I was thinking of loading up a barbell on the floor, tucking my ankles under it and using a broomstick to ease myself up and down as needed.

    I’ve never done these before but TM calls for them on the recovery day to help build up that posterior strength so I’m planning to try them out this evening.

    Well, TM doesn’t exactly call for them, but they won’t hurt. You’ll learn more soon.

    As for the makeshift glute hams, you could have someone sit on your ankles on a bench. We did that in high school. The problem is usually cushioning the knees in a makeshift set up.


  8. This is why training alone sucks. Is my form bad? Is my form terrible or reasonably bad? Is it ok to deteriorate on the last reps of a heavy set? Did I just lean forward, or is that ok, did I push too much with my right side, etc…

    Record your sets. I’ll look at them, cq.


  9. YES! My shirts arrived today. They look awesome. Oh boy, they must have had a long way from sunny Texas to Northern Finland. (It’s -30 celsius here atm)

  10. Wow, that exact thing happened to me. My left lower back seized on the third rep. Luckily (or stupidly), I finished the set (final) and then proceeded to press and clean with that back. So Much Fun!

  11. @Maslow,

    There’s a couple of ghetto options for GHR’s.

    1) get someone to hold your ankles down and do them like a fucking man on the floor. These are tough on the knee caps – I suggest some form of padding under them.

    2) If you train in a globo, you can use a (and I can’t believe I am about to suggest this) Bosu ball under your knees, and hook your ankles under something sturdy. A loaded barbell won’t cut it here – try a weight rack, smith machine with the bar fully lowered, anything that you can get your heels under, or even just your toes/mid foot under (if you fully plantar flex your ankles. Don’t have your knees right in the middle of the bosu, bring them forward so they are close to the front edge of the ball, so it’s more like they would be if done on a GHD.

    These are how I used to do them, as I found the bare ground was crunching up my knee cartilage.

    You’ll see a few other ideas on youtube as well if you do a search

  12. @Maslow,

    The two suggestions that gurner provided are preferable, but it is possible that you won’t be able to do either. I used to have a lifting partner, but don’t anymore, so I can’t do #1, and regarding #2–well, I bet 95% of you won’t believe this, but I couldn’t find a single thing sturdy enough in the gym (with open room alongside it) to anchor my feet under.

    So, what do I do? I anchor my feet under the knee part of a lat-pulldown cable machine and put an adjustable bench a few feet in front of me to push off of when I get to the bottom (I am not strong enough to do a full set of reps yet). Certainly not the best option, but hey, it’s better than nothing!

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