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Think “Spread” to Lift Heavy: Part 2

In last week’s post, I began by touching on the importance of maintaining full body tension in order to effectively lift heavy weights. This concept is expecially important with the barbell lifts we do at the gym. If we were doing leg curls or bicep curls on a machine, a rigid, stable spine would not be terribly important for performing the exercise well. Conversely, this type of rigidity can make or break your performance in a back squat or standing barbell press.

The Overhead Squat

Last week, I talked about how spreading the floor during the back squat will improve our hip tension, knee position, and stability in the bottom of the movement. This week, I want to continue to move up the body with the spread concept in order to help with lifts like the overhead squat. The next time you’re in the gym, grab either a PVC pipe or a jump rope and while standing, hold it over your head with your hands very close together and your arms straight. In a shoulder width stance, push into the outside of your heels and really feel the tension and stability come into your hips like we talked about last week. Feel that tension move up your body on either side and really activate your obliques, lats, shoulders, and triceps. As you do this, slowly slide your hands apart on the PVC pipe. Instead of thinking about your hands sliding apart, think about spreading the bar apart using that tension coming up from the ground.

If you’re in proper alignment, you should feel the tension on either side of your body that draws a line from the outside of the heel up the side of the leg through the hamstring and glute, up the side of the trunk through the obliques and the lats, tieing in through the bottom of the shoulder into the tricep, across the elbow, through the forearm, and straight into the bar.

Do this bar spreading exercise a few times over until you can really feel that line of tension from the ground up to the bar. Now grab a light bar and put your hands in an overhead squat/snatch grip and feel that same tension as you keep a tight grip on the bar but still try to spread it apart. Now take that feeling straight into a smooth overhead squat, continuing to push outward through the heels and trying to maintain that tension up through your body as you think ’spread the bar’.

At some point on the way down, you’ll probably become conscious of losing tension. The loss may occur in the hips, as your knees drift inward and you lose good push on the outside of your heels. It may also occur in the obliques, lats, shoulders, and triceps as you lose the shoulders forward and get some rounding in the upper back. The key is to be conscious of this loss of tension. Try to feel where and when that slack occurs.

In many cases, I’ve found that it’s not a lack of flexibility but simply a lack of muscle awareness that causes the leaks in the system. If it takes conscious action to create the right tension in your body by simply standing up with PVC overhead, think about the concentration necessary to maintain ideal tension in a snatch or an overhead squat. This is where the spreading cues can be helpful.  Simply trying to spread the floor with your feet while spreading the bar with your hands can quickly turn on that line of tension from head to toe in overhead movements. This gets very important in workouts like the Games WOD we have this week. After getting fatigued from the burpees, it’s easy to get sloppy with the overhead squats and kill your efficiency by losing tension. By simply concentrating on a small list of helpful cues like, “spread the floor”, “spread the bar”, and “bar path over mid foot”, you can keep your form efficient and on point even at times of mental fatigue.


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