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Stacking the Bones

Lately, I’ve really been enjoying the work of Todd Hargrove on his blog, Better Movement. Todd is a Seattle based Rolfer (similar to an ART specialist or chiropractor) who writes about improving human movement. One very interesting concept I came across in this post recently is the idea of maintaining awareness of your skeleton during movements. In the fitness world, we’re usually taught to think about firing certain muscles during a given movement and never really consider the position of our bones. But as you’ll see, using the imagery of aligning your bones can be very powerful for improving movement efficiency, which is the holy grail of improving at CrossFit.  Here is a great intro from Todd’s post to get us started:

they [the bones] can do “work” with no energy expenditure required.  Just as blocks that are well stacked can resist gravity from pulling them down, bones that are well aligned can hold us up with minimum effort.  This work is “for free” because it does not require muscular energy.  So, if you stand with your knees straight, that is, the femur stacked right over the tibia, the force of gravity that is pulling you downward can be counteracted with a minimum of muscular effort, because the bones are stacked.  However, if the knee is bent and the bones are at an angle, the tensional forces of the quadriceps muscles must be used to prevent a collapse.

This stuff may be old news to CrossFitters, but I think concentrating on your bones is good imagery to understand that a body in motion is simply a bunch of levers working together. Let’s look at an example:

The Dumbell Curl (oh the horror!)

Say you’re standing there holding a dumbell at your side with your arm fully extended downwards. You could probably stay in that position for an hour or so if you had to because your upper arm is stacked over your lower arm which is stacked over your wrist and hand. The weight is balanced directly under the fulcrum (the elbow) with the bones stacked, which is a very advantageous position for resisting gravity in an efficient way. Similarly, picture curling the weight up to the top and holding it at the top with your hand almost touching your shoulder. Still a pretty good leverage position with the weight stacked over the fulcrum, but not as good as the bottom position. Now picture trying to hold that weight statically in the middle of the bicep curl with your forearm horizontal. There is VERY poor bone stacking and alignment in this position, which is evident by how hard your bicep has to work to keep the dumbell there.

Keeping the Weight Close to the Fulcrum

One takeaway from this example is that the closer the weight is to the fulcrum, the better your leverage and the less your muscles have to work to resist the weight.  For this reason, the most efficient path of most movements is to keep the weight as close to your body as possible. This will allow you to stack the bones more vertically as well as keeping the weight close to the fulcrum.  If you watch an elite Olympic snatch in slow motion from the side, the bar cuts a close, precise path around the lifter like a woodworker using a band saw.

Putting Bone Stacking to Use in CrossFit

Before I read Todd’s post, my best consecutive double under number was about 120. I’d get exhausted near the 100 mark, and hang on for dear life on the rest. The day after reading it, I did 197 and felt like I was good for another 100. The only thing I did was change my head position. Before, I had been looking down at the ground in front of me, which had pulled my head and neck slightly forward and out of balance. Over the course of 100 double unders, my muscles had to do so much work compensating for the poor leverage and stacking of my head and neck that I got exhausted. When I did 197, I concentrated fully on keeping my ankles, legs, hips, spine, neck, and head in a perfect vertical line, which hugely improved my efficiency.

In CrossFit, we’re often asked to do many repetitions of various exercises in a workout. If you can improve your leverage and balance even just a tiny bit on each rep, it can mean significant improvements over the course of a workout. And not only that, proper bone alignment will reduce the strain on your joints and keep you healthier and injury free. Let’s look at a common CrossFit movement and use the image of skeletal alignment to make it more efficient…

  • Kettlebell Swing: I’ve seen the downswing of this movement be the undoing of people during workouts. When the bell is coming down, not only are you resisting gravity, but you’re also resisting the weight of the kettbell and the inertia required to stop the object in its tracks and change its direction. From a leverage perspective, the most efficient way to resist these forces is to keep the body balanced and relatively vertically stacked. The more you bend at the waist and bend your knees to receive the bell in the bottom position, the more work your spinal erectors and hip and leg muscles have to do to resist the forces. Additionally, the horizontal bending at the waist will send the bell even further from the fulcrum, making the leverage even worse at the bottom of the movement. Keeping the chest up and the knees only slightly flexed will save a great deal of time and energy during a long kettlebell workout. A good example of how a high level of movement efficiency translates to huge work capacity is watching Tomio swing the 2 pood.
  • These same mental cues can be used the next time you do wall balls or box jumps as well.

May the force be close to you,


5 Responses to “Stacking the Bones”

  1. Geoff S. says:

    Excellent post. Thanks Tom!!
    PS Let’s see a video of Tomio with the 2 pood.

  2. Karen says:

    I knew there was a great trick to how you did those double unders! That’s exactly what I noticed when you were doing those: total efficiency. You inspired me before I read this post and even more so after getting the low down. Thanks, Tom!

  3. Nick says:

    In jujitsu, we call this posture. If you can maintain good posture, you can resist most attempts to be thrown, and your efficiency in throwing others is drastically improved. Good post.

  4. Bill says:

    Excellent post Tom. Coached three or four people about double-unders and they saw significant improvement.

  5. Tomio says:

    Putting me on the spot! Now I have to really make sure my KB swings are up to par.

    This is an awesome post Tom. I definitley need to work on my alignment on DUs. I get fatigued really fast. Thanks for the tips.

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