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Even the best athletes in the world often have suboptimal stabilization strategies that leech their performance. This is not to say that this makes them any less impressive, actually the opposite, they are able to produce incredible amounts of power despite suboptimal setup. However, here we will go over how to reclaim that performance.
Whether going for a one-rep max, or lifting sub-maximal weights for multiple reps, how you've set up your musculoskeletal system will greatly determine your ability to produce force. This goes beyond simply technique and body position as can be seen superficially by a coach or trainer. Things like load ordering and creating torque/tension in your setup can be very difficult to see, but can be critical to making a lift.
Here, I will explain the various aspects of a proper setup that are critical to optimizing performance. I will also lay out a general sequence to go through to prepare for any given weightlifting movement, which can be modified slightly to accommodate different movements.
All of the setup should take place when your body is minimally loaded, before you lift the weight, as you will not be able to adopt a perfect setup once a heavy barbell is on your back or in your hands.
At the end is a video showing how I personally do this in real time setting up for a lift.
1) Spinal Position
In order to produce maximum power in weightlifting movements, the spine must be in a neutral position. The reasons for this are multiple, but a major one is inhibition of muscle contraction when the spine is placed in a compromised position (check out this video for a demonstration of this concept by Kelly Starrett).
Another important aspect of maintaining a neutral spine is positionally-induced muscle inhibition. In overly flexed or extended spinal positions, the muscles that attach on the ribcage, spine and pelvis can become overly stretched or overly shortened, which limits the ability for a muscle to produce force. Muscles produce the most force when they are at a resting length, due to a maximal number of overlapping myofibrils.
|Spines: A. Neutral; B. Extended (arched); C. Flexed (rounded)|
Finally, a neutral spine is safer, evenly distributing compressive forces and minimizing shear forces on the spine by keeping vertebrae evenly stacked. You won't be able to keep training hard and making progress if you herniate a vertebral disc.
Take-away: Start and finish the lift with a neutral spine. As Kelly Starrett says, "You can't un-bend 'bent'."
2) Setting and Bracing Spinal Position/Load Ordering
In any movement, the muscle that is loaded first will be loaded maximally. For example, if you shoot your knees forward at the beginning of a squat, you load your quadriceps, and they will remain preferentially loaded. In contrast, try pushing your hips back first and you'll notice the glutes and hamstrings will be loaded to a greater degree. This same principle applies to the core muscles.
Before bracing the core and thus spinal position, you'll want to set the spine into a neutral position. Do this by squeezing your glutes isometrically, without tucking your pelvis under.
Now, we can address the core set-up. The abdominal and thoracic cavity provide a great deal of support to the spine during heavy lifting, watch any athlete automatically hold their breath during a heavy squat and this is quite obvious.
When you hold your breath, you create a tight thoracic diaphragm, which serves to increase pressure in the torso, stiffening the upper portion of the abdominal cavity. However, very few people will also contract the pelvic diaphragm (aka pelvic floor), leaving a weak spot in the system(bottom of cylinder) by causing the pelvic diaphragm to become stretched and inhibited. This can lead to urinary incontinence (failure to control urination; more common in women, especially after pregnancy), inguinal (groin) hernias, and reduced stability of the trunk, leading to lower force production.
|Diagram of the abdominal cavity, with thoracic diaphragm at top and pelvic diaphragm (aka pelvic floor) at the bottom.|
|Pelvic floor contracted|
Now that the bottom of the cylinder is solid, you will want to contract your abdominal muscles(sides of the cylinder), paying close attention to the transversus abdominis (TVA). This muscle acts like a corset (or weightlifting belt), wrapping horizontally around the lower torso and functioning to stabilize the spine and create intra-abdominal pressure.
|Transversus abdominis muscle|
|Pelvic floor + abdominal wall contracted|
*Make sure to avoid taking a breath where your ribcage rises significantly (a chest breath), as this will overstretch the abdominal muscles and inhibit their force production.
|Pelvic floor + abdominal wall contracted + tight held breath|
3) Creating Torque and Tension
If you perform a movement such as a heavy squat without creating a stabilized system, you are inviting injury, inconsistency, and loss of power. When there is no torque in the system, your body will resort to secondary positions to create stability, and these are often detrimental to health and performance. This is most often seen in the squat as knees and ankles caving inward and loss of pelvic and spinal position. To optimize your power output, you must put your joints in stable positions, and creating torque through rotational force is how you do this.
Your joints naturally have some slack in the joint capsule, this allows for full range of motion to be expressed. When you create torque in a joint, it becomes tight and stable, a good thing when a small deviation from optimal position could cause a missed lift.
In most weightlifting movements, you will want to create external rotation torque at both the hip and shoulder. In the hips, you can do this by pushing your big toe into the ground and screwing your feet in an outward direction without actually sliding your feet. At the same time attempt to split the floor apart, pushing laterally with your feet.
|The right picture shows a foot with external rotation force, notice how the arch of the foot is regained.|
|Generating external rotation torque at the shoulders|
|Creating tension and activating upper back muscles (rhomboids, lats, etc)|
Take-away: Create external rotation torque in the hips and shoulders prior to lifting in order to stabilize joints and maintain rigidity in the trunk.
Review of Setup:
1) Squeeze your butt isometrically to create a neutral spine (don't go so far that your pelvis tucks under though)
3) Brace abs and take a tight breath.
4) Create external rotation torque through your hips and shoulders.
5) Keep everything tight and continue creating torque while assuming your starting position and performing the lift.
Thanks for much of this information goes to Kelly Starrett and his efforts to educate the world through Mobility WOD and his book, Becoming a Supple Leopard.