When is it good to be tight?

There’s a secret that world class athletes use to produce phenomenal lifts…superhuman efforts…and world records. The secret is that strength is about tightness. So what is that? There’s a secret that world class athletes use to produce phenomenal lifts…superhuman efforts…and world records.

The secret is that strength is about TIGHTNESS

So what is that?

Well, the weight on your back produces a force on your body (the amount of weight x force of gravity) that must be dissipated down through to the ground.

Your body’s job is to effectively transfer the force from the bar, through your body, to the ground. If you cannot control that force you cannot lift the weight…although you may get a great ‘gym fails’ video.

Therefore your ability to keep your body tight… and not leak force…. has huge implications on the performance of the lift.

Tightness is developed using both centralized and peripheral control strategies.

Every joint in the whole kinetic chain adds to the complexity of the stability challenge so it’s prudent to consider every joint, its function and what can be done to ensure its stability….

….so you can focus on overcoming gravity!

Central control refers to stabilizing the spine. This happens primarily in the sagittal plane and involves primarily the thoracic and lumbar spines.

Both these parts of the spine need to remain stiff and not move during the lift.

The key central control strategy is to take a big breath and brace your abdominals (like you’re going to get punched in the guts) to create massive intra-abdominal pressure.

This keeps your lumbar spine stable.

You will also lift your chest up and lock it in by engaging it with the peripheral control systems.

Note that some people like to lock their chest down, especially if it’s a low bar squat. Your thoracic spine is strong locked down into flexion (consider how a gymnast does) but just remember flexion at the thoracic spine will want to couple with flexion at the lumber spine (unless you have excellent core control) and that can make it hard to stand up, if you’re are under load and will put the lumber disks under excessive load.

The peripheral control strategies involve the appendicular skeleton and include the jaw, the wrists, the shoulders, and the ankles, knees and hips.

Let’s look at each joint…

The ankles are inherently stable at talocrural joint…in fact it’s a lack of mobility that’s usually the issue here.

However the subtalar Joint is prone to inversion and eversion dysfunctions. In the case of inversion, this will cause the knees to want to collapse in, putting your knee joint under excess strain.

There’s not too much you can do for control at this joint except have good proprioception and wear the correct footwear. Unstable ankles may be strapped for some external support.

The knees are a hinge joint and are really at the mercy of the ankles and the hips….however they do have an action at terminal extension where they cork screw the knee to end range.

We will use this analogy in our coaching of the cues as we encourage the athlete to “corkscrew” out the feet causing the knees to track out over the medial to lateral part of the foot.

This helps combat the inclination to roll in at the knees.

Strengthening the Vastus Medialis Origin (VMO) will have a pronounced effect on the stability of the knee.

For supra-maximal loads the knees may also be wrapped to create a tighter joint that will withstand more force.

The knee’s need to be trained in both end-range and terminal range as those are the parts on the strength curve it works hardest.

The hip’s act as both a foundation of movement to the spine and also a control joint affecting the lumbar spine and knees.

They need to be mobile to meet the positional demands of the lift, and then completely engaged to them to help control the body as well to overcome the force!

They are the body’s biggest joint and are served by the biggest muscles so the hips contribute hugely to the overall tension created throughout the kinetic chain.

We turn on our hips by trying to “spread the floor” with our feet.

Our shoulders are in contact with the bar and also work with our thoracic spine to lock the bar tight onto our body.

Our elbows are another hinge that work to help anchor our shoulders back and last but not least…

…the hands and wrist.

Even the wrist is a potential power leak. Extra tightness can be achieved here by wrist wraps and perfect positioning.

The hands are our other anchor point to the bar and it all starts there!

Using the Sherrington’s Law of Irrigation we can generate massive force through the body to get tight on the bar.

Sherrington’s Law of Irradiation states:

“A muscle working hard recruits the neighboring muscles, and if they are already part of the action, it amplifies their strength. The neural impulses emitted by the contracting muscle reach other muscles and ‘turn them on’ as an electric current starts a motor.”

So try this…

If you squeeze your fist hard you will feel tension in the hand and forearm.

If you squeeze your fist harder you will now feel tension in your upper arm along with the tension in your hand and forearm.

If you squeeze your fist even harder again you will now feel tension in your chest, shoulder and lat along with the tension in your upper arm, hand and forearm.

And if you try to squeeze even harder again you will feel the tension in your abdominal muscles along with the tension in your chest, shoulder, lat, upper arm, hand and forearm.

This co-tension from several muscles contracting strongly together will magnify your overall strength.

So when you lift, you tense all your muscles and adjacent muscles really hard during the lift not just the primary muscle being used.

This is Irradiation.

Clenching your jaw, squeezing the bar, pulling your shoulders and elbows back, spreading the floor and forcing your knees out will help provide the tightness you need to manage a heavy weight.

Here’s a process you can use…

Once you have placed your upper back against the bar, you will drive your body up into the bar, wedging the bar between your body part and rack (either the rack or supports).

Place a significant force into the bar, just not enough to lift it off the supports. Now squeeze the bar tight and pull it into your body.

The bar should be now severely wedged into your body, like you are as one.

Now grip the bar as tight as you can, squeeze your shoulder blades together, lift your chest up slightly, fill your belly with air and brace your abdominals.

This makes a huge difference to how heavy the weight feels when you lift the bar off the rack.

You want it to feel as light as possible!

As you drop into the squat use a cue, like… “Butt back,” “knees out” and “spread the floor”.

These cues encourage you to engage the hip musculature which will in turn help maintain good posture during the lift (knees over toes and a flat back)

Remember tension=force

To overcome the weight in a lift (x gravity) you must be able to exert more force on the bar than it’s exerting on you.

So by using the Law of Innervation and conscious engagement, you can exert allot more tension on the bar, control it… and lift more weight.

And that is what allows athletes, like Lü Xiaojun, to squat more than 3x their bodyweight.