Forcing Bar Path Article
What you’re in for:
-the importance of gravity
-why you should care about your bar path
-why you shouldn’t care about your bar path
-how biomechanics tie into ideal bar path movement
-how biomechanics shouldn’t be a consideration for bar movement (kind of)
-realizing how some things matter and how some things don’t.
Gravity and the Barbell
We know that the friend and foe of strength is gravity. It’s our foe when trying to beat it to set new PR’s and increase our total. It’s our friend in making us bigger, faster and stronger. It’s a love/hate relationship because it’s difficult and painful to work against, but without there would be no gains.
Why you need gravity.
Spaceflight osteopenia – In short, loss of bone density and atrophy of muscle is what happens when you lack gravity. This is what happens to astronauts in space; they can lose anywhere from 1-2% in bone density a month. This is adaptation at its finest. The body is adapting to the environment. There is no need for the body to have big muscle and strong bones in near zero gravity.
With the gravity on earth, the human body reacts and adapts accordingly. This is why heavy barbell lifting will induce bigger and stronger bones and muscles; the body has to or it is in risk of not surviving the harsh environment.
Okay Ryan, what the heck does space have to do with lifting weights?
Hang in there with me for a moment and let’s translate this into something that is somewhat similar to what can happen on earth: being sick and bed ridden.
Zero Gravity on Earth
An environment similar to space would be your bed or your living room couch. Prolonged lack of movement and being sedentary will lead to similar effects of being in zero gravity (near zero).
What about being sick and bed ridden with a bad flu or other illness?
Have you or know someone that got really sick and then returned to training feeling like you’ve damn near lost everything? Some will say it’s just being sick that does it, and I’m sure it is, but I’m of the opinion that severe restriction of physical movement has more of a detrimental effect.
This is why if you’re sick or injured and you really care about your performance, you should always try and do something to maintain your fitness without making it worse.
When bar path doesn’t matter (or matters less)
The best clues in building strength is observing biomechanics and bar path. Moving a heavy barbell at all costs will guarantee gains in strength. No matter how lackluster your technique is or how the bar moves, moving heavy weight will make you better at moving heavier weight.
Suboptimal technique like doing squats until they look like good mornings will make you stronger. They will make you stronger because the poor technique will result in making the lift more difficult. And as we know, difficult barbell movements are very effective at building strength.
What about when you deadlift a heavy weight and the bar gets a little too far in front of you? Grinding that up will inevitably make your deadlift stronger.
At any time the bar doesn’t move in the optimal path against gravity (typically vertical) you are training your muscles and movements to have more error room.
This is why the bar path doesn’t matter (as much) when you’re accumulating volume in your training to build new strength. Errors in bar path are part of the game and will build you up.
Biomechanics and bar path
Form and technique will always matter. It’s always going to be major part of any good strength training philosophy. To be more accurate with what “good form” means, and for the sake of this article, I will define biomechanics as the way your body moves with least risk underneath the barbell.
In short, it matters and it matters a lot. And if you happen to coach other people, it’s the only thing that matters when you get someone to squat a barbell for the first time.
I realize that when I talk about biomechanics (especially squat mechanics) it can get really messy with all the do’s and don’ts. But I want to simplify things so that you can see things as I see them for normal everyday people trying to get stronger.
Knees in and butt wink
If someone can’t squat to parallel, and you force them to squat their thigh below their hip crease without assistance, there’s a good chance that they will express poor biomechanics to get there. Such as, knees going in or having an excessive of a ‘butt wink’.
Now I know that last sentence can spur a lot of debate, but I want you to keep in a mind that there is a sliding scale here. Someone that’s been squatting heavy barbells for years will have a different interpretation than someone that’s been squatting for 3 months. There is a lot of individual variation with each persons’ leverages; past injuries as well as training age. Some people will be able to handle more ‘butt wink’ and more knees in than others.
Someone that have a history of a serious back or knee injury will want to avoid these “faults.”
Notice that I put faults in quotations. Each person is a little different and each person can handle more risk than others. It’s really up to the coach and the individual to determine how favorable or unfavorable the risk benefit ratio is.
But to touch on it, having the spine flex and extend under heavy load puts more sheer force discs of the spine. Knees going in under heavy load is a generally a less stable position than being in neutral, and as a beginner, you want to have zero of these faults.
Squatting Full range of motion
This is a difficult topic to tackle in just a few sentences but I will do my best to express things as they apply to the broader audience.
Full range ATG squat should not be your priority when doing squats.
Over the course of your strength training life, you will be doing countless reps and sets. As amazing the human body is, it can only buffer so much suboptimal movement before the stuff that holds our joints together begin to respond negatively.
In short, how you squat to or below parallel matters.
This article isn’t designed to go into nitty and gritty of biomechanics, but is primarily meant to provide you with some practical applications (as well as my opinion) to make the best decision for you and the people you work with.
Why Strength is dangerous
Strength gains are damn near guaranteed for the novice. If you are benching, squatting, and deadlifting with a flawed philosophy, there’s a high risk that you will hurt something as you begin to squat, bench, deadlift, clean/jerk and snatch increases. A few scrapes and bruises is normal and part of the game of life and lifting, but repeating mistakes is will eventually lead a path you wish you had not taken.
One of the greatest challenges I face as a coach is trying to share my thousands of hours spent observing people with “issues” and abbreviating the sum of their human movement error faults into a sentence or two to help those that are willing to listen. There’s a good chance you’re one of those people.
I try my best to get people to think about how their strength training programming scales for them. In other words, I try to encourage people to think for themselves. And for the purpose of this article, I’ve come up with a good way to help you and those you coach.
Is the way you’re lifting causing you joint pain? If yes, which of the following should you do?
a.) ibuprofen [photo]
b.) suck it up and ignore it
c.) take the day off
d.) stop doing that exercise
These are some common options to the joint pain problem.
With so many different situations (history, experience, goals, etc.,) the answer will depend on a lot of things. But I want to share insight into my thought process.
Is the pain or problem progressing? Is it exhibiting instability, weakness, or more pain?
For the average lifter… wait, what the hell does this mean anyway? As far as I can tell, the average lifter doesn’t know what the hell they’re doing and I’m going to assume you’re well above average since you’ve gotten this far down in the article.
The truth for the average lifter is that they should probably stop and do something else until they can get some good coaching. But for you…the one that gives a fuck about how much they squat, bench, and deadlift, it’s probably best you consider sucking it if it’s not getting worse.
I’m not suggesting you’re bitching about your boo boo, but let’s say you are. There’s a good chance your body will figure it out, as you get stronger and the pain might go away.
This is why I say consider it. I don’t know your athletic background, your age, experience, or if you have a knee injury or some recent surgery. A good coach’s opinion will differ greatly for the 24-year-old who’s been lifting for a year vs the 30-year-old who’s been powerlifting since 19 years old. Context is everything with how you interpret fitness advice (or hear people’s lifting PR numbers).
It’s really important that you think outside the box and learn to be creative. If you’re anything like me, you really care about your numbers. It’s not motivating to hear, “stop doing squats and do leg press.”
or maybe it is….
But I digress.
Here’s the solution:
“What is the next best thing I can do to keep me moving in the direction of my goals?”
I will provide 2 examples of people / clients. One of myself (powerlifter/fitness enthusiast) and one of a client of mine.
Mary and Deadlifting
Mary is in her mid-30s and in absolutely fantastic shape. She grew up an athlete and is about 23% body fat. Her goal is to improve her lower half (glutes). She also has a history of back pain with some bulging discs around L-4 and L-5. Every time I have her deadlift (sumo or conventional) the next day she experiences symptoms she’s experienced in the past when her back bothered her. I can tell she has a slight phobia of deadlifts because she has a slight hesitation when picking up what she perceives to be a heavy barbell. Also during barbell squats below parallel she experience knee pain on one side.
Heavy weights will always be an important way to improve her lower body development, but she’s not one to push in to higher risk movement territory (like in my next example). So instead of doing progressive overload in standard deadlifts and free weight barbell squats, we figured out the next best thing for Mary’s glute development.
So… “What is the next best thing I can do to keep me moving in the direction of my goals?”
No it’s not glute bridges. It’s a decent choice but not the next best thing (of course this really is up for debate).
Over the course of training her, for the past months, her best exercise choices to get the best for her goals are as follows:
1.) Barbell Squats: Squatting to just above parallel
2.) Box Squats at varying heights
3.) Box squats very wide to simulate effects of a sumo deadlift
4.) Glute bridges (they’re last on the list)
Ryan Novice Powerlifter (yours truly)
I’ve got lots of examples but a common recurring problem I’ll discuss is the knee pain I’ve been having. To be more specific, knee pain that starts above the patella radiates up the quadriceps tendon. I have the symptoms of quadriceps tendinitis. It’s not diagnosed and I’m not going to pretend to be an expert about what it exactly is, but if my weight lifting is negatively impacting my ability to do normal everyday tasks, there’s a problem. Time to stop squatting.
Of course I’m just kidding. But seriously, is there a way to work around this and still keep making progress in the direction of my strength training goals? If there is one thing I don’t want, it’s regression. If there is a will, there is a way, and it’s as follows:
Make progress by any means necessary. You have to have a ‘whatever it takes’ approach, but don’t misunderstand me, you can still make a well-educated decision of what you choose to do to make progress.
And because my experience is different than yours, I’m going to deconstruct this in a manner that can immediately be applicable to anyone in a similar situation.
If it hurts, don’t do it. What’s the closest thing I can do to improve my squat without aggravating my problem? I can do body weight squats pain free. So the next question is, how much weight can I squat without pain. Maybe I can squat to full depth with lighter weights and squat higher with heavier weights. Using a box at varying heights as a guide is choice, maybe I can just do traditional box squats. Maybe I should try pushing my knees out more and/or turning my feet out as well. Wider stance, closer stance and/or maybe feet straight.
So that’s my thinking process as best as I can describe in writing. You really are a unique snowflake when it comes to your problem in the regard of how you manage it for yourself. Your relationship with your knee pain or whatever injury is really unique to you. Although the actual injury, pain, or problem may exactly not be unique, the way you interpret it is. My point of personifying your pain is that you have a pretty good sense about it for what makes it worse and what makes it better. The more you train and the more you think about making progress around or on your problem, the better you will get at being smarter about getting stronger injury free.
So what did I ultimately do? To make a long story short as I got stronger, my knee would get more and more “funny.” I would manage to hit some volume and rep PR’s but I knew something wasn’t right. A few days after the workout I would get some instability and random achiness. I backed off and reduced my volume. I started squatting less frequent. In a nutshell with my problem, the poison is in the dose. Volume and weight have a dramatic effect and from what I can tell it’s really about squatting frequent enough to make progress but not so much that I don’t aggravate my specific problem.
When to care about your bar path
When you talk about bar path, you are really talking about squeezing every ounce of leverage out of your technique. With bar path you are trying your best to make sure physics is working against you in the least unfavorable manner (too much forward movement of the squat or deadlift).
Under most circumstances (if at any time the bar moves away from a vertical line), you instinctively know that you’re leaving weight/reps on the platform. Bar path is a good guide for weakness management. It’s not always easy to interpret exactly what’s wrong (or what can be improved upon), but when a squat or deadlift looks terrible (or just looks a tad bit off), you know that there is a weakness somewhere.
And for those of you without a coaching background, if you just focus on improving your technique you will get better. Whatever use to look wrong will look less wrong.
Conclusion: Risk management: Biomechanics trumps everything
The poison is in the dose. Every time you pick up a heavy barbell there are risks involved. The more risks you accept, you will typically get a bigger return. The problem with this “big risk vs big return” analogy is that we can sometimes oversimplify what this means. More is in fact better for some things and worst for others. Aggressive week to week increases in weight are great for peaking strength and typically worse for joints and overall body recovery. Conservative progression, quite often, has a better effect on solidifying technique and building longer term strength. How you get there has a good chance of determining how long you’ll stay there and how long you’ll be able to keep lifting what you want. I’m in awe when I see a 700lbs squat. I’m in even more awe when I see someone squat 500lbs for reps week to week for months. At one point this seemed unattainable to me, but over the past year of following some strong guys on Youtube and making consistent progress in my lifting, these guys have been training with the barbell seriously for years. Don’t get me wrong, I know there are exceptions, but I’ve come to conclusion that I’m not the guy that picks up 400lbs the first time they decide to deadlift.
How you get there matters and what I mean by this is sound biomechanics. Are you squatting, benching and deadlifting in a way that you can extrapolate into months and years of training? Don’t oversimplify my statement into: “lift with perfect form all the time.” Understand that working on technique and movement shortcomings will always be central piece to any solid strength training philosophy. You will eventually have to test your technique with more weight (isn’t that the point?).
That’s the dance between testing strength and building strength. High volumes of good movement ensures that when your time comes to test your strength, you will fall to the level of the training that you’ve worked so hard and long for. Thanks for reading.
About the author: Ryan Saplan has been a personal trainer since 2001, coaching everyday regular people get in shape. Specializing in corrective exercise and post rehab. He’s also a new-found, novice powerlifter. You can learn more about him at http://www.youtube.com/ryansaplanpt