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Think “Spread” to Lift Heavy Weights: Part 1

When doing heavy compound lifts, one of the keys to being successful is to maintain as much tension under load as you possibly can. With a max effort deadlift, success is not just predicated on how well you fire your glutes and hamstrings, but on how well connected your body stays during the entire lift. After all, the load is being held in the hands, which is quite a number of muscles and joints from the prime movers in the exercise, the glutes and hamstrings. The most efficient way to transfer energy from the prime movers to the bar is by keeping everything as tight and rigid as possible. This makes intuitive sense. If someone offered you a choice between a solid oak oar and a soft foam paddle to get away from a hurricane in a canoe, I’m guessing you’d choose the former. When it comes to the deadlift, this means maintaining isometric rigidity in the low back, upper back, abdomen, lats, shoulders, triceps, biceps, and forearms. Tension under load is a lot like plumbing. You want well threaded, tight junctions in your pipes so the water flows smoothly from one end to the other. Any increase in pressure at the valve will be translated directly to the faucet. Losing tension in your muscles is like springing leaks in the plumbing. Every time you, for example, let your abdominals go soft in a deadlift, some of that force is being lost on the way to the bar.

Since maintaining tension in the body is so important during the heavy lifts, what are some good ways to cue it? One very simple cue that is helpful for a number of lifts is ’spread’. Let’s talk about what I mean by that in the context of the back squat.

The Back Squat

There are few exercises, if any, that can accommodate as much weight as the back squat. The reason for this is that we can take advantage of the massive muscle fibers in our glutes, hamstrings, and quads to move the weight. Part of the reason big squatters can move so much weight is because of the stretch reflex in the hamstrings and adductors. Think of a rubber band running from the back of the heel all the way up the leg, ending at the top of the glutes at the lumbar spine. A good squat will store up tension as you descend and the band is stretched across multiple joints. Then the elastic energy is released as the movement reverses with the powerful drive out of the bottom. Doing this effectively with a heavy load requires an enormous amount of tension throughout the body, especially in the hips.

One cue for powerful tension in the squat is to spread the floor. We always talk about pushing through the heels, which is a very good cue. But where specifically do you direct your force? Do a little experiment for me. Stand up and get your feet into a squatting stance, toes slightly turned out, torso inclined forward similar to a back squat, getting tension in your glutes and hamstrings. Now do a squat pushing straight down through your heels.┬áNow take the same stance and setup and push against the outside of your heels like you’re literally trying to pull the floor apart beneath you. You should feel a number of hip muscles immediately switch ‘on’ when you do this. Now descend into the squat as you continue to spread the floor and push into the outside of your feet. You may notice a LOT more tension in your hips when you try to descend into a squat while pushing into the outside of your feet. Here’s why…

Those muscles that switched on when you spread the floor included the external hip rotators like the glute medius and piriformis. These muscles keep the knees shoved outwards as you descend into the squat. The additional tension you felt was from the adductors (the groin muscles), which attach to the inside of the thighs. Typically when someone isn’t cued to turn on their external hip rotators, the groin muscles never achieve a good level of tension because they tug the knees inward near the bottom of the squat. But when pushing into the outside of the heels and consequently keeping the knees pushed out thanks to the external rotators, a tremendous stretch is put on the groin muscles as well as the hamstrings. And this is exactly the type of tension we’re looking for in a heavy back squat to take advantage of the powerful stretch reflex at the bottom of the squat.

Spreading the floor can also be a good diagnostic tool. If you can’t maintain good pressure against the outside of your feet throughout the full range of the squat, it’s very likely you’re losing your hip external rotators, which will cause your knees to slide in and your adductors and hamstrings to lose tension, killing your stretch reflex tension. Some of this may be caused by short hamstrings and adductors, in which case one of the best ways to lengthen them is to work very hard at squatting correctly. It will be a hard fought battle. Your external rotators and adductors will battle for control of your knee position. Don’t let the adductors win. Stretch them actively while squatting by keeping your knees shoved out and pressure on the outside of your feet. This will vastly improve your power potential in heavy squats.

It’s a little late right now and I’m running on fumes so give me a holler in the gym if this didn’t make sense or if you want to discuss. ┬áNext week I’ll talk about using a ’spread’ cue for getting tension in overhead lifts.


7 Responses to “Think “Spread” to Lift Heavy Weights: Part 1”

  1. debbie p says:

    great article, thanks Tom!

  2. Sara LaMarch says:

    Thanks again for the great article Tom. I always look forward to them and think your doing a great job educating our community.

  3. Nick says:

    Thanks for the post, Tom. We did 5×5 back squat the other day, and when I told people to squat wide and split the floor, a lot of people didn’t get it. Once they figured it out, we had a bunch of PRs. I’m glad we’re on the same page.

  4. Tom W says:

    Thanks Debbie and Sara!

    Nick - I think that’s a great call to have people experiment with a wider, more glute/ham dominant back squat. A lot of the squatting in our workouts (front, overhead, air, thruster, wall ball) can rely too heavily on the quads, making it very difficult to call on the posterior chain when you need to.

  5. Nick says:

    Tom, again, we’re on the same page. The other squats train for different movements, namely the Olympic lifts in the case of front and overhead. But the back squat is a whole different animal and I prefer to have people always go wide with that lift. You can lift more weight that way, too, so you get more core stability stimulus.

  6. Patricia says:

    Great post. I think the basic fundamentals you’re talking about need to be focused on more, perhaps with lighter weight and/or special workshops..? knees buckling in, pitching forward are so common and I think it’s a lot for people to take in and “get” under heavy weight in a workout. I know better and still do it without realizing. The other night, i was pausing in the bottom of the back squat to stop and “think” about my form, engage core, knees out, back and head angle etc. Nick, not realizing what i was doing, thought I was “stuck” and urged me to keep moving. I would have liked to have just stayed there and figured it out, but i had a “WOD” to finish. Hence it’d be nice to have more time to figure this stuff out and connect the brain to the body. If it were just me, I wouldn’t mention it, but I see people dealing with this stuff all the time. And i cringe when i see knees buckling in under heavy weight. My feeling is it should be required to have good squat form - knees out and posterior chain engaged “before” heavy weight can be loaded, instead of teaching this move while people are under heavy weight. Drais is really good about having people drop the weight immediately and focus on the form when he sees this, but not everyone does.

  7. Marcia T. says:

    Very cool article, Tom, and I will certainly takethe info with me when I test it next time. Especially useful is the description to “spread the floor with your outer foot” — the visualization makes a huge difference.Thanks!

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