Powerlifting may sound scary and even dangerous to some. Thoughts of testosterone filled men in fits of rage smacking and yelling at each other come to mind. The idea of telling someone trying to maintain general health and fitness to do these lifts seems irresponsible. That is if we’re to believe that doing them inevitably leads to injury.
Some would have us believe this but let’s take a step back and discuss the lifts themselves. The powerlifts include the squat, press, and deadlift. These lifts were originally thought of to support and strengthen the natural, novel movements they were based upon and that are found naturally in unrestricted human movement.
Human beings were doing a perfect squat to gather berries and deadlifting the animal they just hunted for their families thousands of years before some fitness expert created the first exercise machine that restricted movement in a fixed axis. If you need a reminder to how innate this movement is, watch a toddler pick his toys up off of the floor.
Let’s go through these lifts and discuss if the powerlifts are for those who just compete in a sport or if they are rather the practice of human movement.
At some point, we’ve all been told squats are bad for our back, knees, etc., and that we shouldn’t do them. If we follow this line of thinking, we should all stop sitting down in chairs and just straighten out our legs from a standing position and fall into a chair. Yes folks, sitting down and getting up from a chair is performing a squat.
At some point, it’s wise to add some load (external resistance) to this movement to essentially rewire the movement from the ineffective way we’ve inevitably been practicing it due to stiffness caused from a sedentary lifestyle. Safely and moderately adding resistance in this movement through the classic lift aptly named the squat, will actually improve back and knee health provided you practice performing the movement correctly.
When we perform a squat our hips (led by our rear-end) should shoot back first followed by our knees shooting out in opposite directions due to the external rotation of the hip.
Put your hand on the crease of your hip — around the area to the side you would label the groin. That’s where your leg inserts into the hip socket. Now lock out your knee and turn your foot away from your body. The top of the leg should rotate outwards too. This is external rotation.
When we squat, our feet should be pointing straight forward or slightly out. We should then think about turning our leg out without letting our feet shift. This is creating an external rotation force at the hip and it puts the hip in a stable position.
Once the hip is in a stable position, provided you have the mobility, function is restored and stability and strength can now be built in this natural movement.
This is especially important for athletes who run and jump. Stand up right now and jump as high as you can. Stick the landing with bent knees and look down at them. Did your knees cave in?
I bet that if they did, they will also cave in when you squat heavier loads. This is your default position in times of stress and it’s a very dangerous one that you cannot afford not to fix through that not-so-dangerous lift called the squat.
In the sport of powerlifting, the bench press is used. My only caveat in recommending the powerlifts for the practice of movement is that I would include the overheard press/push position as well.
The hip and shoulder can fundamentally be thought of as the same joint. Just as the hip, the stable position of the shoulder is in external rotation. Pressing objects away from you correctly either in a lying position as in a bench press, or an overhead position such as a military press or push press, requires the person to learn to create force by first bracing from the midsection (where all force should generate from) and then transferring this force to the extremity (in this case the shoulder and the arm). This force is then transferred to the object to move it safely through the stability created through external rotation.
Learning and practicing this movement, trains the pattern used to put a heavy bag in overhead storage on an airplane or to throw your kid up and the air and catch him or her.
Every bad thing that has been said about the squat has been said about the deadlift, and then some. The deadlift if the fundamental movement involved in picking something heavy or awkward off the ground.
Due once again to our sedentary culture, most have a disconnect between our hips and our backs when they should in fact act as one joint. This means that while we bend over to pick something up, we bend just using our low backs and not our hips. The body was not designed for this and yet we still wonder why back pain is so prevalent.
To get the idea in your head, take a broomstick and place it along your back in a standing position. Hold the stick with one hand at the base of your neck and with the other hand on your low back. Now, make sure the stick is in contact with the back of your head, your mid-back, and your tailbone.
Unlock your knees and now without bending your knees further, bend over by bringing your face closer to the ground. Ensure the stick stays in contact with all those three points.
You may not get too far before you feel your hamstrings screaming and are restricted from bending over any further without the stick coming out of contact with those spots.
This is what bending correctly at your hips mean and this is what you’ve forgotten how to do. Without a formal movement practice, such as the powerlifts provide, you cannot practice proper function even after you may restore it through other means.
Not everyone needs to use the powerlifts as their movement practice but we need to be thinking about how we move and what we’re doing to improve it.
Written by Jesse Irizarry of JDI Performance