During the Q&A a week or so ago, some members were asking for a regularly updated “show” on YouTube (since they are the cool thing to do in the fitness-sphere).
In episode #1 I’m talking about knee control in the squat. A common problem with squatting is that trainees don’t have control of what their knees are doing because their external hip rotators — particularly the glutes — are not trained to maintain tension throughout the movement. In this video I show one of my wife’s front squat sets where you can see when she actively engages the external rotators and when she does not. Her case is specific: she had a long term hip injury and front squats focused on this glute activation have been the rehab. Don’t focus on my cues as I’m trying more so to talk to the camera than her, but also the cues she and I have for this issue are vague because she understands what she is supposed to do after we spent a lot of time teaching her what “correct” felt like.
In any case, this is the first episode of Chalk Talk. Discuss in the comments and feel free to request new topics.
I was being coached on rack pulls and was told to arch my back as hard as I could. I did so, started pulling the weight, and YANK;there went something in my lower back. Severe sharp pain indicated the end of my lifting session as well as the next week or two of training. I didn’t know as much as I did now, but the injury — and time away from training — all could have been avoided with a better spinal cue.
There are two basic types of incorrect spinal position in lifting: over extension and over flexion.
Over Flexion, Round Back, or Lumbar Hyperkyphosis
This is the position that most coaches, especially the inexperienced, are most afraid of. It’s the default position for new trainees and very easy to identify. New trainees look like this because a) they do not have any kinesthetic awareness (i.e. have no control of what their body is doing), b) typically have no hamstring or lower back strength, and c) have very poor mobility.
Correcting kinesthetic awareness and mobility take time, so the quick and easy fix is to say “arch your back”. Usually this cue will improve a new trainee’s mechanics immediately, and usually hamstring strength, kinesthetic awareness, or mobility don’t have to be addressed for months. This means that people who only coach beginners will default into cuing “arch the back” and ignore other variables. If you neglect to address these variables and just focus on increasing the lifting load, then at some point they’ll experience an injury, great or small. Increasing the weight lifted is not necessarily synonymous with getting stronger.
Over Extension, Arched Back, Hyperlordosis
This position is difficult to distinguish from a neutral (i.e. correct and optimal) spinal position, therefore inexperienced coaches overlook it. Experienced coaches occasionally think an overly arched back is acceptable to avoid a rounded back, but a good coach will cue the correct position to avoid injury.
Two areas are often affected by hyperlordosis: the thoracolumbar junction (where the thoracic and lumbar spine meet) and the lumbosacral junction (where the lumbar and sacral spine meet — see image below). These are easy landmarks any coach should be able to identify on their trainee, but don’t worry about the more complicated anatomy under the skin right now. Here we will focus on how the overly arched position is a great way to cause disc irritation or strain muscles.
Note the junctions between different areas of the spine. Click for larger view.
Why These Positions Are Bad
Both spinal position extremes, flexion and extension, can cause injury and are indicative of a lack of strength and positional control. Whether we call this kinesthetic awareness, neuromuscular efficiency, coordination, technique, or mechanics is irrelevant; let’s set the rhetoric aside and briefly discuss why each position is poor.
An overly flexed spine means that the related spinal muscles are not doing their job of holding the spine and pelvis in place. It’s important to remember the integration of spine and pelvis in lifting mechanics as it will determine stability, transmission of force, and subsequently overall strength. If the muscles aren’t doing their job, then they don’t get stronger. But a secondary impact is that other muscles can’t do their job when the spine and pelvis are out of position. The best and most obvious example is with the hamstrings.
A fantastic image I made long ago for this topic.
If the pelvis and spine are rounded — which is lumbar flexion and a posterior pelvic tilt — as they are on the right, then the hamstrings will be slack and the trainee will look like a dog pooping. If the spine and pelvis are in a neutral, stable position — a relative lumbar extension and anterior pelvic tilt — then it pulls the proximal (or higher) attachment of the hamstrings back, thus putting tension on them. If they are stretched and tense, then they can contract (left picture). If the hamstrings are slack and shortened, then they cannot be contracted any more and therefore will not contribute to the movement (right picture).
This example applies to the start of a deadlift or the bottom of a squat. Note the emphasis on “relative lumbar extension and anterior pelvic tilt” — if they occur too much then we can have the “over extension” problem.
Think of an overly extended spine as putting a kink in the body’s trunk, or something that weakens the transmission of force. However, unlike the rounded back, various muscles are contracted and maintaining tension, so everything may look and feel correct…until an injury occurs. This over extension puts a lot of stress on the vertebral bodies. Arching the back can open the intervertebral space in the front and close it in the back (see image below). Structures like the disc, tendons, muscles, or ligaments can fail in an acute injury and produce that “yanking” sensation followed by pain and inflammation.
Note in the right image how the posterior aspect of the lumbar spine could be pinched down if this spine was loaded with a lot of weight.
This is not supposed to be a comprehensive look at acute or long-term injury, but merely a demonstration to understand how loading the spine in this way could result in one. Long-term loading with hyperlordosis can worsen or cause poor mobility issues as well as degenerative disc issues. Using poor mechanics chronically is probably the most common cause of lifting related injuries as they will cause nagging problems, or will result in a “final stroke” injury (see The Final Stroke).
How To Cue A Better Position
Enough talk about how and why, let’s correct it. The concept revolves around adding tension to the lower abdominals by simply contracting them a bit prior to moving the bar and maintaining the tension throughout the lift. No, this is not a monumental cue, but it’s something that many ignore and it can eradicate a lot of positional errors.
Simply contract the lower abs. They don’t need to be clenched like Houdini readying himself for a gut punch; just put some light tension — about 25 to 50%. Yet this cue must be accompanied by a solid “chest up” position. While standing in a neutral position — anatomical position will suffice for the teaching process — lift the chest towards the chin. Do not lower the chin to the chest, but lift the chest. This is thoracic extensionand is the first step to good spinal positioning. Next, contract the lower abdominals, which are usually lower than the belly button. The trainee or coach can lightly press on the area to test the tension. Go ahead and contract them as hard as possible and then lighten the tension to 25 to 50%. Don’t worry about being exact, just maintain a little bit of tension. This creates lower abdominal tension, which is the second step to good spinal positioning.
Some people might call this “pelvic floor activation” or other five dollar phrases, but abdominal contraction will a) place tension on the abdominals to not allow the pelvis to anteriorily tilt, thus preventing an over-extension fault, b) helps actively increase the intra abdominal and thoracic pressure which increases the trunk stability which increases the transmission of force which inevitably increases lifting efficiency and safety, c) provides tension on the front of the pelvis to compliment the posterior chain’s tension, and d) ultimately helps keep the spine in a neutral, force transmitting position. I could probably write a single post on each one of those points, but I think you now understand why abdominal tension is helpful.
The biggest fault with contracting the lower abdominals is not emphasizing the “chest up” thoracic extension with it, which is why I make “chest up” the first step. If you contract your abs without “chest up”, you can possibly round your back and fall into the pooping dog model (extremely safe for work). Pooping dogs are funny, but not on the platform.
How I Integrate These Cues
I have a few rules for lifting, and one of them is, “Whenever the bar is moving, treat it like a maximal lift.” This means you put yourself in the most stable, efficient possible whenever the body is loaded regardless of the weight. That means a big, full breath is held with the chest up with tension on the lower abs. When I coach, I think in terms of “passive” and “active” cues. I want spinal stability to be a passive cue, meaning it is something that I shouldn’t have to cue and is routine to the trainee. If they always have good spinal position, I don’t have to cue it and can focus on the “active cues” associated with their mechanics in the lift.
We want a solid spinal position to always be there. Remember the steps from earlier:
1. Extend the thoracic spine 2. Contract the lower abs
After explaining what these concepts are and teaching their respective positions, I cue them with:
1. “Chest up” 2. “Lock the abs”
Remember that cues are supposed to be representative of a concept you concisely taught the trainee. You will almost always need to adapt the way you act, speak, and use terminology with your respective trainee. Teach the concept, teach the position, then use a short cue to remind them of that position. I like the simplicity of “chest up” and “lock down the abs” or “lock the abs”. I specifically teach trainees to lift the chest, take a big breath, and lock the abs when the breath is held. This gives them a sequence to perform every single rep on every single set. Lift the chest, take a breath, and lock the abs. It should be automatic, so teach it as such. If this is taught in a single session, then the coach only needs to occasionally remind the trainee and instead can focus on the mechanics of the squat, deadlift, and so on.
This spine is mostly neutral, but I figured you’d think it was nice to look at.
…is a nice, neutral spine that transmits force without any spine or hip deviation throughout the lift. Most athletes, lifters, or trainees who don’t use this method would benefit from a short linear progression focusing on this spinal position (i.e. 2 to 4 weeks).
A strong, neutral spine will allow the hips to properly externally rotate during squats and pulls (a very important concept that leaves the scope of this post). It will also avoid subjecting the soft tissue structures around the spine from receiving force incorrectly, which is ultimately the best way to prevent lifting related injuries. Most linear progressions are associated with nagging aches and pains with the occasional injury that prevents training. Lifting does not cause injury; improper mobility and mechanics in lifting do. Anyone who tells you that injuries are a byproduct of training is just making excuses for hurting their trainees. You’ll probably experience an injury in your pursuit of strength, but they don’t happen “just because”. Lower spinal injuries are entirely preventable, and by using the cues described above — with appropriate mobility work, programming, and recovery — you can actively work to avoid injuries.
Chinese weightlifter Wu Jingbiao burst into tears after failing to win gold in the men’s 56kg weightlifting event on July 30, 2012.
Recently I failed something important and it pissed me off. It made me feel stupid and embarrassed, but it spurned me to work to avoid future failure. What do you do when everything seems lost? Knowing how to work through failure is the difference between being a cry-baby-piece-of-shit and a grizzled warrior who learns from every scar he’s earned.
1. Failure occurs. 2. Calm the emotional response, especially in a time-dependent situation (i.e. in the middle of a competition). 3. Objectively figure out what variables contributed to the failure. 4. Begin corrective action to improve those variables.
Instead of focusing on the injustice, anger, or sadness in failing, find out what went wrong and start doing something to fix it.
In the realm of athletic performance, the problematic variable can be a variety of things like faulty mechanics, programming, nutrition, sleep, mobility, mindset, or procedure. Most of these can be accounted for with a quality coach as they will free the athlete to focus on execution. For example, I’ve saved many young powerlifters and weightlifters from getting a lift red-lighted simply by cuing them to wait for a command. And I also believe my books(like “The Texas Method: Part 1” or “FIT“) or articles on this site have helped people prepare their programming for successful competition.
A coach, consultant, or knowledgeable training friend can be an objective set of eyes that can ask the right questions like, “Why are you squatting 5×5 so much?” or “Why did you deadlift heavy one week out from your meet?”
Comprehensively look at your training in a brain storm session and determine if the problem is acute or chronic. Once you identify the problem, create a plan on how to improve it. If your squats were red lighted due to depth, then chronically address squat depth in training. If you randomly shifted forward onto your toes at the bottom of your squat, then you need a cue to induce proper mechanics.
If your fault is procedural, like not waiting for a command, then you’ll have to work on that specific piece of the procedure by itself, then throw it back into the entire sequence. For example, if you successfully waited for the “down” command on the squat or bench press, but you did not wait for the “press” command on bench or the “rack” command on squat or bench, then use the commands on every set in training. Once you have accumulated correct reps with the command, throw it back in the entire competition sequence in the weeks leading up to your meet. Do this with and without amping your adrenaline up; on meet day you’ll have a lot of it, and you’ll still need to focus on your sequence and cues despite surges in adrenaline.
Utility in Failure
There are two kinds of people: 1) The person who is either naturally gifted or extremely hard working who rarely fails and 2) the person who is either lazy or doesn’t challenge themselves. Most people fall into the latter category, possibly including you, Mr. or Ms. Reader. I’m not saying you’re entirely lazy — most people who like to train are not — but most people who like to train shy away from new challenges like competition.
I’ve spent years urging people to enter into strength competitions to turn their lifting hobby into a competitive endeavor (“Letter of Intent Day” posts as well as “Your First Lifting Meet” or “Lady’s First Meet“). Signing up for a meet suddenly makes training meaningful. Every rep is a preparation instead of a check mark. Quality rest becomes a priority instead of a byproduct. All of these changes stem from the fear of failure, which is ultimately why competition is avoided.
Everyone thinks they aren’t “strong enough” to enter a lifting meet. News Flash: Anyone can lift in a meet. I’ve coached and lifted at meets where the ages range from 14 to 65 with some men opening with other guy’s second warm-up set. Nobody cares if you’re weak, and if anything showing the courage to show up will get you infinitely more respect than sitting at home and saying, “I’ll wait until next year.” Not to mention you can glean useful information from veterans, whether they are your opponent or your side judge.
It always pays to be a winner, but the “losers”, or everyone but the winner, will especially learn from the experience. At the very least signing up for a meet gives you a different appreciation for quality training. Do all of the little things right, and you can have a very fun, successful day at the meet. But if you fail, especially when you fail miserably, it gives you a unique opportunity to display courage and maturity.
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
–Martin Luther King, Jr.
Great men in history would say that failure is the time in which your dignity is defined. Gather as much as you can from the experience. Understand the emotion. Determine the problem. Work to eradicate the error. Use that emotion as a reminder of why the preparation is important.
The Bar Teaches
The lessons we learn in the battle against gravity are valuable and will permeate into life. This is exactly why we train. Sure, we want to be strong and jacked. It’s not easy getting there, but we do it anyway. We learn from the process, and now we know we can also learn from the failures.
I urge you to seek out these competitive opportunities to put yourself in a unique chance for success or failure. If you have a highly competitive job, then I can understand avoiding a lifting meet. For example, a lawyer has a high stress job that can have victories, failures, or tied settlements in a single afternoon. A firefighter risks his life by stepping into a burning building and then may or may not stabilize a victim before paramedics arrive. These types of occupations inherently include constant competition.
“Better to do it than to live with the fear of it.”
From The First Law Trilogy, by Joe Abercrombie
However, if you have a comfortable job where your livelihood, your balls, are not on the line, then you need the inherent risk in competition. The potential of losing something, even if it’s just public pride or getting out of your comfort zone, will significantly alter the experience. Too many people in our society choose to stay comfortable, but I urge you to seek competition, to seek the unknown. Introduce fear; introduce failure.
It is only until we bleed that we remember we are truly alive.
Glenn Pendlay recently posted an article on his blog explaining how he trains the Muscle Driver USA Olympic weightlifting team (article).
It’s your standard fare of doing the competitive lifts, doing power and other variants when necessary, and getting stronger with presses and squats. There are some peculiarities that help distribute the work load throughout the week, like making the Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoon workouts the heaviest days, doing doubles and power variants in the morning sessions, and always trying to improve the squat.
Glenn sits with his beard at the National University Championships
Pendlay also mentions using the Texas Method to push the squats. For those of you who never read my Texas Method e-books, the style of programming was coined when the Wichita Falls Weightlifting team fell into it with Pendlay as the head coach. It’s a good general approach that can push an Olympic weightlifter’s squat without interfering too much with the competitive lifts’ training. The way I program the Texas Method is more for general strength trainees and raw powerlifting, but a weightlifter will have success with the core program of using a volume day, light day, and intensity day.
Anyway, check out Glenn’s article; his system is a simple outline that he dials in for specific lifters depending on what they need, whether their weaknesses are in squatting, overhead strength, cleaning, snatching, or jerking.
We’ve had some talk lately about sumo deadlifts. Some of you are still of the mindset that “only conventional deads are ‘real’!” That’s fine. When you finally come around and try these, the rest of us will already be well-versed with them.
Our model today is one of my Vintage Strong lifters, RoryT. He’s a 181-198 powerlifter who is built to squat and bench, but not to pull. Before I took over his training, he had frustratingly beat his dead against the 450lb brick wall for about a year or so. We transitioned him to sumo pulling about a year ago (along with a wide-stanced squat to compliment it) and he ended up pulling 500lbs for the first time as my birthday present – along with recently getting his squat to 520×2. At our gym Push/Pull meet June 1st, I expect him to pull around 525 or so, which will be a nice PR for him. He should get 550 by November, his next meet.
The first thing most people screw up on any kind of deadlifts is the width of their grip. Your arms need to hang straight down from your shoulders. Any angle in, or more likely, out, makes you do more work – it sets you up in a more awkward starting position and makes the distance you have to pull longer. This is true for conventional pullers, and a very common mistake, but is even more troublesome with sumo deads, because if you grip the bar too wide, your hands get even more in the way of the movement than normal.
This is what we call “pulling into your dick.” Avoid that, if possible. And if you do it…smile.
The second thing everyone needs to pay attention to is stance-width. When you first transition to sumo pulls, work your feet out to a wider stance SLOWLY, over several sessions, and stretch – a lot. Your hips will thank you. At first, getting your feet just outside of your hands will be fine. As you become mobile enough, going wider will mean a shorter stroke and a stronger lockout, at the expense of increasing the difficulty of breaking the bar off the floor. We’ll call this the “Narrow Sumo.” Don’t expect to be dramatically stronger at narrow sumo than conventional – it’s essentially going to put your levers in the same position, as you can see in the pic.
Conventional on the left, Narrow Sumo on the right. Note the similar back angle.
Eventually, you’ll be able to comfortably slide your feet out several more inches per side, which will allow you to shorten the ROM of the movement. We’ll call this the “Wide Sumo” because we’re brilliantly original. Wide sumo does not have to mean your feet are touching the plates, OK? It does mean that you’ll be able to have a slightly more vertical back-angle, which is a great benefit for those of you like Rory who have a relatively long torso for your height, and/or shorter arms – which is basically the perfect build to go ahead and run with sumo.
On the right is Rory’s slighty wider sumo stance (see the increased distance between his hands and shins?) Note the more advantageous back angle (admittedly, he’s more arched and set up to pull, too). It’s not a drastic-wide stance.
Your grip and stance width are the most basic parts of learning sumo, so once you have them correct, it’s time to set up for a pull. I’m going to tell you to get your feet UNDER the bar as Rory has done in the pics above. You are literally going to have the bar touching your shins. Most people set up too far away from the bar, and as a result, have a forward-angled-shin. The coaching cue here is “straight shins,” which is silly, because your shin can’t not be straight. It’s short for straight up and down, or vertical. Think STRAIGHT SHINS, and make them as vertical as possible.
The left is how it SHOULD look. The right is how it probably looks when you first try sumo. Note the angles of the shins and arms.
Get your feet under the bar and grab the bar at the appropriate width. Chances are it feels awkward as hell if you’re doing it correctly. Good. You want to get your center of mass as far behind the bar as you can without falling over. The cue here is STRAIGHT ARMS. You want to try and get your arms much more vertical than you’re probably used to. You could probably condense both of these cues and just yell “BE STRAIGHT” to your lifter, but that might raise some eyebrows at your gym and make you look like a jackass.
When you’re in the correct starting position, and you feel like you’re about to fall on your ass, it’s time to start the pull. As with the regular dead, you must set your lower back, flex your posterior chain, and get to work. It’s even more important on sumo, so get it right. Getting your lumbar flexed and solid before the pull is KEY. If you have problems locking out a sumo, you’re probably not setting your back well enough. You’ll also think “chest up,” though again, that’s not a literal cue – it simple means to get your upper back tensed as well. If your nipples are pointed at the bar, you’re gonna have a bad time.
SET YOUR BACK! Or you will die. The left might feel easier when getting the bar off the floor, but it won’t go anywhere after that. The right will mean a smooth 3-white-light PR. Do it.
Initiate the pull by squeezing the bar off the floor using your glutes and hams, which should be tensed as soon as you touch the bar. Carry this momentum as hard and as quickly as you can all the way to lockout. Think about shoving your hips FORWARD into the bar all the way until lockout, and don’t re-bend your knees at the top. Yes, we use the “hips!” cue. Yes, it makes us sound douchey, like a multiply gorilla. No, we don’t care. Always yell “OH YEAH!” when the hips are truly engaged. Trust me.
Another way to look at this is to think about “pulling back” on the bar. Both cues basically accomplish the same thing, but see which resonates best for you, and stick with it. Your weight should always be concentrated on your heels for a sumo pull. If you’re coming up on your toes, fix it.
A note on footwear: You should sumo pull in a flat-soled shoe. For what I hope are obvious reasons, don’t use your heeled Olympic shoes. Wrestling shoes are the best bet, but IPF-approved slippers are a $10 option if you’re cheap. I prefer to pull in socks at my gym, because it’s easy. Chucks are OK, but still have a bit of a platform and that could cost you a PR. Rory squats and pulls in the shoes pictured in the gym, but uses Titan slippers at meets.
Hopefully this helps you figure out how to sumo. Ask any questions you have below. Once you get your sumo form figured out, you should really be impressing the opposite sex. If not, I suggest you take up juggling. Of course, Rory’s probably better at that than you, too, but everyone’s gotta have an idol, right?