What’s the most important lift in your routine? Ask this question of any number of folks in the gym and you’ll get a variety of answers typically based upon their individual bias, background, or interest. “The power clean,” will be one of the most popular answers from athletes and ex-athletes. A hardy “bench press” or “squat” will be the answer from many of the traditionally minded, “mass before isolation” guys. You may even have a few spot-reduction myth addicts who claim that the “crunch” or “walking lunges” are key.
Debunking A Few Old Cliches About Lifting Technique
Every one of the exercises mentioned above may be valuable to you at some point in your training. Whether or not they become appropriate for you as an individual will of course depend upon your goal and ability level.
But there is one exercise, or as I stated before, one lift that could be labeled as a priority above all of those mentioned above. For all of pressing, pulling, rowing, and curling that occurs every day in every gym, and in some homes, around the country, we typically never think about how we actually lift the weights off the rack or off the floor…and of equal importance, the manner in which we return those weights to the rack or the floor!
Furthermore, this is the only “lift,” the only “technique” in the gym that consistently becomes part of our everyday lives. We put so much effort and concern into the correct method for performing a dumbbell press or a leg press, but we pay no attention to how we got those dumbbells into position or how the plates got on or off of the leg press machine.
One of the few acute injuries I ever received in a gym was a back injury. What was I doing? I had finished a set of seated dumbbell curls with 60 pounders and I just bent right over to get those things out of my hands. In my haste, and out of poor habit, I left my butt on the bench as my back fully flexed forward and slightly to the side as I released the right, and then the left. Zing!…Sharp pain!… Grrreat set!… Nearly intoxicating biceps pump!…. Couldn’t straighten up!…Felt stupid!!!
Didn’t I know better than to do such a mindless thing? Of course, but it seems that we, as humans, must make a considerable, significant, and often painful, mistake in order to truly learn a lesson.
Now, everybody thinks they know how to lift things correctly….even if they don’t regularly, or actually never, do so. What we are talking about could be called “basic lifting technique,” “body mechanics,” “lifting mechanics,” or as it is often referred to, “functional lifting.” And there have been just as many ways of teaching this skill. I refer to it as a skill because it is in fact a relatively complicated activity that requires considerable practice. Nobody “just does it” right! Actually, there are two major instructional cliches that are, at best, misleading as cues for correct lifting:
Cliché 1 “Lift with your legs!”
I’ve witnessed dozens of back injuries in my days at the gym. Each of the individuals who claimed that his or her injury was a direct result of lifting also stated something to the effect of, “I dunno know why I got hurt. I lift with m’legs just like your s’pose to.” The problem is that this cliché over simplifies the goal. Lift with your legs does not mean “…while ignoring the position of your spine.” In fact, you should be more conscious of your spinal position or posture than anything else.
The natural tendency is, of course, to simply bend over in an attempt to reach an object. The concept behind “lift with your legs” was to learn to lower yourself to the object rather than bending over at the waist. The problem is that most people still bend at the waist and flex the spine, even as they use their legs. In fact, most books and safety posters I’ve seen on the subject illustrate the “correct” version or technique INCORRECTLY! They show the legs bent, but also typically show the spine rounded. In reality, we must learn to maintain the spinal alignment or posture even as we incorporate the legs into the lift.
Cliché 2 “Keep your back straight.”
This is somewhat misleading. First of all we don’t want a straight spine. We want the natural curves to be maintained in what is commonly called a neutral position, which is to say, not gravitating toward either extreme of flexion or extension. So if those ideal curves are what you mean by “straight” then you may be okay. Another huge misinterpretation of the word “straight” is to think that it refers to vertical. There is no way to even begin to lift something from the floor, much less something heavy, while trying to maintain the spine vertical to the world. For this reason, some authors refer to the spine’s position in space as being diagonal e.g., the diagonal lift.