Let me tell you my all-time favorite joke.
It’s from the movie “The Great Muppet Caper”. In it, Kermit (who is a frog) and Fozzie (who is a bear) play identical twin brothers. Now obviously a frog and a bear, even in the world of puppets, look completely different. But that isn’t my favorite part of the joke. When they tell the live actors, like Dabney Coleman, that they are twins, they always do it with a straight face. And even though the actor eyeballs them with a quizzical, confused look, Kermit and Fozzie always look back at them completely deadpan, almost as if they are giving the actor a moment to see the resemblance that clearly doesn’t exist.
But here is the part that makes it my all-time favorite joke. After a slightly too long moment of this back-and-forth between the earnest puppets and the confused actor, Fozzie slowly and simply takes his hat off. As if to say “do you see it now?” The scene usually lasts another beat and then the story progresses without the puppets or actor mentioning what just happened.
I think I love this joke so much because it’s visual, it’s silly and, most importantly, it’s completely subtle.
In a way, I’ve made a career out of this joke. No, I don’t coach people by using puppets nor have I hired Dabney Coleman to be my straight man. Rather I believe the one of the things I like most about coaching – observing, analyzing and improving movement – has the same characteristics as this Muppets bit. It’s very visual, it’s often subtle and I obsess about it so much that most people would consider it silly – or maybe just crazy.
Most gym-goers focus much more on the weight on the bar rather than how they are moving it. I think this is a mistake for a bunch of reasons which I will detail below. But before I do, a quick caveat to that sentence – there are also plenty of people who do just the opposite. They are so focused on perfecting movement they never put any weight on the bar. This is also a huge mistake. You will never really know how well you can move a weight until the weight challenges you somewhat. You will also find that, once weight gets heavy physics takes over, leverages change and you have to find ever-adapting ways to move that weight. To give you an example, the way you have to move to snatch 50 kilograms is very different than the way you have to move to snatch 150. So while I do think that movement quality is of very high importance, don’t be one of those people who never loads up the bar because they are always shooting for perfection. Perfection, unfortunately, doesn’t exist.
OK, in the words of Snoop Dogg, back to the lecture at hand. For those of you who have been stacking on the 45s and need a bit of convincing as to why how they are moving those weights are just as important as how heavy those weights are, here is some food for thought on why even the biggest meathead should pay attention to how they move.
You Gotta Move This
The more optimally you move, the more weight you can move. When you have proper technique as well as access to full range of motion of the joints you give yourself the best shot to express strength. I feel like the car analogy has been done to death but it works well here. If a car is well put together, with high quality parts that are all well lubricated and functioning, that car is going to move beautifully and run pretty damn well. Same goes with your body. If everything is balance and working optimally, you will be able to move properly. And proper movement and technique is the key to maximizing performance. If your hips or knees are so jammed up that you can’t keep the bar over you mid-foot in the squat, you are undoubtedly limiting the amount of weight you can move. Even guys who move a crap-ton of weight without great movement patterns could likely move even more weight if they had greater access to ideal movement.
It will also keep you safer. This is completely related to the above point. The better you move the less chance that you are over-stressing specific tendons, joints or muscles that are now shouldering more of the load due to your inefficiency. Good movements are safe movements – not always nor completely as there is inherent risk in nearly everything – but you give yourself the better chance of training longer and injury free when you move well.
It’s beautiful. When you watch someone who moves really well there is an inherent beauty to it. It almost cannot be explained, as if it were simply part of our evolutionary development to prefer people who move really well. And, given the above, that makes sense as people who move well are usually the most capable which makes them most likely to survive. In judged sports like gymnastics, figure skating or snowboarding the differences in movement quality are also the differences between winning an Olympic gold medal or being an extra in the movie Better Off Dead (both excellent achievements, by the way).
So, How Do I Move Better?
Coaches like Ido Portal, Dr. Carl Paoli and Dave Durante have all made careers out of getting people to move optimally so they can perform acrobatics, parkour and gymnastics. Unfortunately I have no idea how to make you move like the next American Ninja Warrior. I just don’t train gymnasts and, um, Ninjas so I’d be lying if I said I can make you move like them.
However I do train people on barbell and other strength training movements and, as I’ve mentioned before, when you watch a variety of people doing the same exercises day in and day out for years you definitely learn some things. So with that in mind here are some tips on how to optimize your movement when you are in the gym.
Get tight. We almost always categorize muscle tightness as a bad thing but when it comes to expressing strength nothing can be further from the truth. One of the absolute best ways to improve your squat, deadlift or any other lower body exercise is to make your torso as stiff and tight as possible. Doing so will stabilize your spine and allow your legs to move more weight. When it comes to the squat think about getting a big breath of air and tightening your abs. Then pull on the bar drawing your elbows in towards your ribcage (you can visualize bending the bar over your traps). This will create a good shelf for the bar to sit on and tighten the muscles of the upper back. And now that your abs and back are tight and you’ve developed some intra-abdominal pressure with that big breath your legs are free to actually move a stabilized weight. Same goes for the lower body on upper body movements. If you can get your quads and butt tight and locked in, your bench press max is going to jump through the roof. As we like to say around here, 80% of the bench press is 60% legs.
Think about your feet. Your feet are very often the only things connected to the ground, particularly in big lifts like squats, deadlifts and presses. Putting properly balanced pressure on your feet and into the floor is critical to getting the bar to move. Think about getting and keeping the balls of your feet (both under your big and smallest toe) and your heel on the ground at all times with equal pressure across all three. This is commonly known as a “tripod foot”. Doing so will allow you to maximize upward force. Most people tend to collapse into their arches at the bottom of a squat, in the dip of a push press or off the floor in a deadlift, so if you want to put your focus anywhere it is on the outside of your heels (particularly the left one which tends to invert to a greater degree in most people).
Knees over feet. This relates to both of the above and, again, seems to be most relevant in the squat but can be applied to any movement where there is any kind of flexion and extension of the knees. Think about keeping your knees in line with your feet. Most people, particularly females, will be more likely to have the knees collapse inside of the feet – an issue called knee valgus. Others, in an effort to overcompensate for knee valgus issues or in an effort to create torque in the hip joint will try to drive the knees outside of the feet. Neither is ideal. Simply think about keeping your knees in line with your second and third toes. A beautiful squat, deadlift and jerk will follow.
Ribs tucked down. There 100% is a reason to extend and arch your spine in many lifts – particularly if you have some thoracic mobility issues and the thought of arching gets you to a neutral spine position. However so many people flare their ribs up and pelvis down when performing all movements that they end up with a host of problems (lower back overuse, abdominal weakness, hamstring inactivity) that they were probably trying to overcome by strength training in the first place. On single leg movement variations like step ups or split squats, planks, hamstring curls, standing or seated presses and a host of other movements consider crunching your abs slightly so the bottom of your rib cage and top of your pelvis are parallel to each other. Your diaphragm and low back will thank you.
Bar behind your head. Our bodies certainly feel safest when we can see the object we are trying to move in front of us. However when pressing or jerking a bar over your head, the barbell should end up over your upper back/base of the neck when your arms are in the extended position with your head driven forward slightly. The bar will be most stable there and will rest upon the big muscles of your upper back rather than on the smaller more delicate muscles of the shoulders. Many people will leave the bar in front making the entire movement much less stable.
These five oversimplified cues are certainly just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to ways of optimizing movement but hopefully you can apply some or all of them and improve your gym lifts. Sometimes small, subtle things, like Fozzie removing his hat, can lead to big effects down the line.
And in case you are wondering what my second favorite joke of all time is, it’s this Andy Kaufman bit he did in the early days of Saturday Night Live.
Also visual and silly and, if you pay attention to what Kaufman is doing, remarkably subtle. He seemingly does nothing but has the audience eating out of the palm of his hand in less than 2 minutes. That can only be accomplished by someone who has worked and worked and worked at it. By someone who is completely dedicated to the nuance.
That is art.