I love getting people stronger! That is one of my biggest passions as a coach. As a full-time coach, I have been fortunate to watch some of my clients reach levels of strength that they never thought possible, which is awesome. It makes them much more confident, and they are also happy to see their body comp results from training to get strong.
I am usually successful in this regard not because of good programming (although this definitely helps) but because of an understanding of good movement and biomechanics. I believe proper technique and body positioning play a very important role in being strong and adding weight to the bar.
To prove this point, I am going to share an experience I had a couple of weekends ago working with an extremely strong powerlifter.
I am not going to give out his name, but he is a world record holding powerlifter and a super nice guy. He has been training at our gym for the past few months on the weekends, and I have been lucky enough to pick his brain a few times on training topics. He has even been nice enough to help me with my girlfriend’s powerlifting meet preparation.
So anyway, this past weekend he was working on some squats and good mornings. An excellent local coach by the name of Grant Gardis (a.k.a. Rufus) was watching him and noticed that he was losing his neutral spine position at the bottom of both lifts. Specifically, his upper back was rounding in both the good morning and squat and his lower back was tucking in the squat. Rufus called me over to have me watch him and to chime in on what I thought was the problem.
One thing that stood out to me was that as soon as he set his back position at the start of the lift he seemed to extend from only one area (his upper lumbar region). So I told him to reach his arms overhead and perform a backbend. When he did this it was clear that he was getting extension from only one area of his back (he had a “hinge” at his thoraco-lumbar junction, instead of a nice curve where the back bends segmentally).
Because of this when he attempts to “get his chest up” during a lift he is really just extending his low back and never getting good extension in his upper back. Therefore, his upper back is never locked in and it easily caves over under load. In fact, he was caving with only the 45# bar, which is a huge energy leak. For a guy that squats and pulls over 700 lbs and won a gold medal at the Open World Championships, it was scary to think what he could do with a strong upper back!
He reiterated to me that he trained his upper back hard, but it had always been a weak point for him. I explained to him that it is weak due to its positioning (caved forward) – no amount of rowing and chins will fix it. To improve his upper back strength, he first needed to fix its position.
So, I decided to show him just a few drills (this list is by no means exhaustive – remember to always check and recheck to see what works for your client(s)) that would help him improve his multisegmental extension (especially extension in his upper back).
First, I had him use two lacrosse balls and perform some t-spine extension mobilizations over them. I had him exhale hard before extending back over the balls (the exhalation helps get the ribs down and keeps him from extending from the hinge area). I had him perform a couple of reps and then move the balls up, working each segment of the thoracic spine.
Next, I had him perform a side-lying extension-rotation drill to drive more of that increased range of motion we gained from the previous mobilization. I chose this drill because lying down requires very little stabilization and makes it less likely for him to drive extension from his low back.
Up next was a drill I got from Craig Liebenson, which I am calling supine shoulder flexion with kettlebell. Basically, the drill helps drive thoracic extension, but in a way that requires you to hold down your rib cage with your core musculature. The reason I wanted to do this was because, even though we had improved his t-spine extension, we can never be sure that he will use that extra motion. What will stop him from going back to extending only from his “hinge”? The answer is by getting his core musculature strong enough to prevent it.
To perform this drill you will lie supine on a foam roller. The foam roller helps you maintain a neutral spine position (you can feel if your low back comes up). Then you grab a KB with both arms and hold it straight above your head. Next, lock in your obliques and simply lower the kettlebell behind you – going as far as you can without losing your low back position. I had him perform 8-12 reps.
Lastly, we wanted to take that increased activation of his obliques and the new range of motion in his upper back and perform a legit squat. I had him hold a heavy kettlebell and perform several goblet squats. His upper back position looked a lot better, but he was still getting some lumbar flexion at the bottom of the squat.
This must mean he lacks the hip mobility, right? Not so fast. That may be the right answer, but how can we be sure?
To determine if it was a mobility issue, I simply had him perform a quadruped rock back. When he did this he was able to rock his butt almost to his heels with a neutral spine! Sooo definitely not a hip mobility problem (and his ankle mobility was also fine).
Therefore, his low back tucks under due to a stability problem. Specifically, he has an anterior center of gravity. With a pretty severe anterior tilt and a rounded upper back, his weight is very forward. If you saw him from the side you would think he was on his toes.
This anterior center of gravity is problematic in the bottom of a squat because it tenses up the muscles on the back of the legs to prevent you from tipping forward. These posterior muscles then pull down on the back of the pelvis leading to a posterior tilt/”tucking under”.
To make sure that it was really a center of gravity issue I hard him perform another goblet squat, but this time with a heartbeat (pushing the weight straight in front of you) at the bottom. When he performed the heartbeat his low back position returned to neutral (you cannot see this in the video below because Emme does not get much “tuck” at the bottom)! So this demonstrated that it is not a lack of hip mobility, but in fact, it is a poor center of gravity, which will take some other corrections that I may write up about later.
This powerlifter came in the following weekend and is continuing to work on the above drills. He knows that his upper back has always been a weak point and really believes the drills are helping. As I mentioned above, he has worked his upper back hard in the past with chins, rows, etc., but with a poor thoracic spine position those strength moves are not going to be very effective.
When you lack t-spine extension, your shoulder blades do not sit in a good position, which makes it very difficult to train the periscapular muscles well.
Therefore, not only do I believe this will help his squat but also his bench because he will finally be able to train his upper back more effectively.
I hope you enjoyed this little case study and realize that everyone is different in how you approach their corrective and strength work. I will hopefully provide you updates on this powerlifter’s progress.
If you have any questions and/or comments, please leave them in the comments or contact me.
Have a great week everyone!