20 Sep 3 Myths In Lifting Biomechanics
A couple months back, I released an article on the details of how to teach Olympic weightlifting. It was the first article of a series where I try to share my personal journal of sorts and offer a look into my own education. I was, and still am taking, a different approach to my self-education in exercise and sports science. Instead of trying to consume as much as I can all at once, I’ve been trying to focus on one subject exclusively until I think I have a better understanding of the intricacies than I did before I started the study.
I intended to release one of these articles in which I highlight my notes, reflections, thoughts, and share all the additional facts I’ve picked during my study every month. But I forgot I also have real responsibilities like coaching athletes every day and running a business. So this second focused study took longer to get through than I anticipated and even longer to gather some practical ideas to share in an article.
All that said, these last couple of months I’ve been studying the biomechanics of lifting and brushing up on anatomy. I’ve especially been reading up on the biomechanics of the powerlifting movements – the squat, bench press, and deadlift. This article focuses on these. I may do one for Olympic weightlifting in the future but for now I’m going to stick to powerlifting.
Most of my study was a review on what I’ve learned both in my formal and informal education in exercise science. But there were definitely some ideas questions I was actively seeking answers to. My hope was to gain a more accurate view as to what has been studied and repeatedly observed in both controlled research and practical settings so I could separate it from the opinions of trusted coaches that may only be an educated guess.
Full Transparency About This Article
I’m going to be 100% honest from the start and state that a good deal of the information that I’m sharing in this article is from the Squat, Bench, and Deadlift guides by Greg Nuckols of Stronger By Science . I’ve included the links for these amazingly comprehensive guides below for anyone who wants to read more on these topics and so much more laid out in a far more intelligent and detailed way than I could ever manage.
While I did read through other resources, most of what I’ve included in this article comes from Greg’s guides because they laid out the topics best that I thought would be most helpful for the highest percentage of readers. These guides had by far the best and most easy to understand explanation of the questions I wanted to answer that I could find.
But don’t worry, Greg is a buddy of mine and I reached out to him to let him know I was blatantly ripping him off.
The 3 Myths
In brushing up on biomechanics and anatomy, I settled on three basic points of discussion to cover here. While I did study some more minute details that I found interesting, it wouldn’t be helpful for most people to discuss them because there are probably only ten people ever who care about any of it.
There is, however, a ton of confusion as to whether the hamstrings do indeed limit the amount of weight you can lift in a back squat, what causes the back to round in the deadlift, and in what path the bar should move in a bench press. So, I’m going to take others hard work in researching the biomechanics of these lifts and address three myths surrounding these. You’re all very welcome.
Myth #1: The Hamstrings Limit the Squat
You’ve probably heard all types of conflicting information from coaches and articles as to how the hamstrings contribute to squatting heavy weights and how much relatively weak hamstrings limit performance.
Let’s put this to rest. There are far too many uneducated claims that a squat which resembles a goodmorning (where the hips shoot back and up and the chest dips down as the lifter ascends out the bottom of the squat) is due to weak or improperly functioning hamstrings. The problem with this line of thinking is that the hamstrings are two-joint muscles. Their origin is on the ischial tuberosity and the insertion is near the top of the tibia.
Picture origin: https://www.physio-pedia.com/Hamstring_origin_tendinopathy
So this means that when they contract, not only do you create torque for hip extension but you also create torque for knee flexion – which is the opposite action you’re trying to produce when trying to stand up from a squat (you need to extend the knee when standing up not flex it). You don’t get to pick and choose what a muscle group does when it contracts. So if the hamstrings are strongly engaged, as those who blame bad squatting mechanics on poor hamstring function would say they want, you’d be creating a strong force against the extension of the knees.
Your quads in fact work hardest at the bottom of the squat. But if the demand of the load is too high for them, your body will shift more of the demand to your hips, which is why you fall forward and your hips shoot back and up. But this happened not because your hamstrings weren’t strong enough, it happened because the demand was too high for the quads to maintain posture and drive the weight up without more contribution from the hamstrings and hips toward the top of the movement. Your body did this to keep you safe. This last resort action actually shows that the hamstrings are actually the last thing to fail. When the hips shoot back it’s effectively putting the hamstrings on stretch which will allow them to chip in more with a greater hip extension action to help you stand upright. The strength, or lack of strength, in the hamstrings had nothing to do with why you tipped over in the first place.
Practical Experience In The Biomechanics
Even as a newer lifter years ago, I gravitated toward a more knee forward squatting technique. I always came back to it even after I was told by some more experienced lifters and coaches to sit back in my squat. It never felt like the strongest position to me and I didn’t understand until much later how much the specific coaches I spoke with were influenced by geared powerlifting.
For a number of years, I taught my athletes to sit back in their squats because it was what I was taught. But eventually I went back to practicing and teaching the style of squat I had learned from Olympic weightlifting in which the knees and hips break (bend and flex) at the same time and in which the knees are allowed to track more over the toes.
The result was that most people found this to be a stronger and better feeling squat. The increased contribution from the quads due to the better position, which allows the quads to be used more effectively in the first place, also seemed to decrease knee pain in lifters who previously reported knee pain in squatting. I’d be getting too religious if I didn’t mention that there were exceptions to this. Some people do better with sitting their hips back further. But allowing the knees to track forward and keeping them forward when reversing back out of the squat seemed to be better for the majority of people I came across.
Coaches like Max Aita of Juggernaut Training Systems, have also been more vocal about this principle and I got to hear about it from Max firsthand in more detail from him when he visited my gym. Max teaches to actively load the quads (pushing the knees forward while keeping pressure on the mid-foot) and push the traps into the bar (think about pushing the bar behind you) while you stand up from the squat to keep the knees forward and keep the hips under the bar. This will allow you to keep driving with the quads to stand the squat up.
Likewise, in this article: https://www.strongerbyscience.com/squats-are-not-hip-dominant-or-knee-dominant-3/ , Nuckols talks about the same technique and why it works in biomechancial terms. He comments that the “co-contraction of the hamstrings and rectus femoris repositions your body under the bar.” So that you can keep driving with the quads and finish the lift when you do this, even after the bar speeds slow and the lift becomes most difficult at the spot of greatest mechanical disadvantage.
Myth #2: If You Round Your Back in a Deadlift, Your Back and Abs are Definitely Weak
This is something I grappled with and tried to understand and test in practice for a number of years. I’ve heard arguments from both sides but needed to dig into it to understand the details a little better. Arguments from those who blame the inability of the back to keep extension or the dysfunction of the anterior trunk musculature to brace and stabilize the spine make complete sense to me.
It’s obvious that you wouldn’t be able to keep extension in the back if it’s weak. But still, I’d see many lifters with strong backs or trunks who would round in the deadlift at weights below their limit strength. I knew they had strong backs by seeing them do special exercises designed to load and isolate the back as much as possible.I was also very aware of how my back was much weaker relatively to my hips when I competed in powerlifting (I tested this often myself with other special exercises that prioritize hip extension strength over back) and yet I was almost always able to keep a perfectly straight back up until I would try for a new max. My back wasn’t weak, but it was weaker relative to my hips and yet I could keep a straighter back than other lifters who had obvious stronger backs.
What I found through my study of this first reading through Greg’s guides and then through even more detailed papers, was that when the spine flexes it gets a little “shorter” from front to back. Well duh. But what I hadn’t thought about was that this shorter position naturally moves the hips slightly to the bar. Anytime a joint or muscle group is closer to a load, the demands on it decrease. So flexing the spine actually reduces stress on the hips. Put another way – the rounded back reduces hip extension demand. So it’s possible that your body would instinctively flex the spine to compensate for weaker hip extensors. The hips were tapped out at the angle they were at when the back was extended, so you moved your hips closer to the load so that you could reduce the demand and complete the lift.
This can be observed in true maximal weights. A lifter may be able to keep an extended spine up until a 1RM attempt. But at the max attempt, the spine rounds to basically pick up the slack because the hip extensors were already maxed out at a slightly lighter load.
That’s not to say that every lifter who deadlifts with a rounded back or who misses the lift at lockout because the back is rounded and can’t be re-extended has weaker hips than back erectors. This needs to be assessed and tested on a case by case basis. Newer lifters just need to focus on getting everything stronger but a more experienced lifter can purposely try special exercises to determine which it is.
Myth #3: The Best Bar Path in a Bench Press is a Straight Line
Toward the end of my time working under and training with Bill Gillespie, who I’ve talked about here, I started to specialize in the bench press with him as a powerlifter. We would often talk about and test every minute detail in bench press technique.
Anytime a new lifter would come and train with us, the first thing we’d cue them to do was push the bar toward their face (or top of the head) as they pressed up. We’d also practice first pushing the bar straight up with our elbows right beneath the bar and after it was half way up, we’d flare our elbows out as we pushed toward our faces.
I intuitively knew this was a better bar path and that it maximized leverages and I understood the biomechanics behind it on a rudimentary level, but I decided to go back and look into this with more detail this past month. I studied this a bunch but I’ll keep it short here for your practical use. When the bar touches your chest, provided the setup is proper and elbows are pretty close to right under the bar, the shoulders are in a pretty stressed position, they are internally rotated under a load that had drifted down and away from them a bit.
When you press, your shoulders are basically performing a front raise. Yes, the other muscles are involved and it’ not this simple but it’s a basic idea from which to understand it.
If you reposition the bar more over your shoulders once it’s pressed half way up (in an arcing motion) the demands on the shoulder are reduced because the moment arm isn’t as great and the pecs can contribute more to the lockout of the movement. This also puts more of the burden on the pecs but it allows for it to be shared more equally between muscle groups. Flaring your elbows out at this mid-range point also helps reposition the elbows under the bar as it drifts toward the top of your head increasing extension demand thereby allowing the elbows to contribute a bit more to lockout as well.
Yes, pressing a barbell straight makes complete sense as to being the easiest but the body has to use levers and positions in a way where it can produce the greatest amount of force with the highest contribution of muscle, and an arcing path is best for this.
My purpose in writing these articles on what I’m learning isn’t necessarily to blow anyones minds. Maybe you knew all this. Maybe you didn’t. But my hope is that whether you have or have not studied any of this, that these articles push you to seek more answers and continue to study all the details in your craft that are labeled unnecessary to have in order to “help people” like those who are too intellectually lazy to do so like to say to justify themselves. Because if you’re not going to “go all the way” why start in the first place?