How to Gain Strength Instantly with “Invisible” Squat and Deadlift Techniques
This article is a follow-up to a previous article about squat variations.
What was your 1RM squat or 1RM deadlift the first time you maxed out?
What is your 1RM squat or 1RM deadlift now?
If you’ve lifted consistently for maybe a year or even several years, hopefully your current 1RMs are much higher than when you started out.
There is no way to short-cut this long-term process. That’s not what the title of “instant strength” hints at.
Gaining “instant” strength refers to the amount of load you’re lifting now, in a typical training session, and the amount of load that you could be lifting now if you were using your body optimally.
This article covers several techniques that, in many cases, are invisible to someone watching you lift yet make a big difference in your performance.
If you’ve been in the world of lifting for a while, you probably will have heard about some of these techniques. You may also have come across (strong) lifters who say that some of these techniques are unnecessary and that they don’t do them.
Some lifters perform these techniques without ever having received the specific instruction. Other lifters lift well simply without doing them. Most lifters, however, greatly benefit from including these techniques in their repertoire.
The techniques are introduced in the sequence they are performed during the setup for a deadlift starting from the floor. Some of the techniques are applicable to both lifts, and some only to one of the lifts (see the detailed explanations). Many of the techniques are executed both before and during the set. The last cues (see the end of the article) are relevant only during the movement.
“Grab the floor with the toes”
Purpose: Increase tension of the superficial backline (SBL), a fascial line that runs from the plantar surface of the toes, covers the entire backside of the body and the head, and ends just above the eyebrows. The overall movement function of the SBL is to help create extension, hyperextension or prevent flexion of the back during squats and deadlifts.1 During heavy lifting, we want to summon strength from as many sources as possible; this fascial line is one of them.
Test: Stand with parallel feet and soft knees. Place your fingertips in the low back area. Now grab the floor with your toes by pressing the tips of your toes into the floor as hard as possible. You might feel the tissue under your fingertips “move.”
“Feel the entire foot pressing into the ground” (before Olympic-style squats or Olympic-style deadlifts).
“The weight can be slightly towards the heels, but you should never lose the pressure from the toes into the ground” (powerlifting style squats or powerlifting style deadlifts).
“Imagine that you are standing on a big piece of newspaper and pull it apart.”
Executing the above cue produces an isometric abduction and external rotation of the hip joint. These “actions,” when emphasized during squatting, produce higher activation of both the gluteus maximus (hip extensor) and gluteus medius (hip abductor and external rotator).4 Gluteus maximus activation creates the necessary hip extensor torque to support the lift during both squats and deadlifts, and gluteus medius activation prevents “leaking strength” by preventing the knees from dropping inwards. Gluteus maximus activation also plays an important role in creating tension through the lumbodorsal fascia (another fascial structure that helps prevent flexion of the back during squats or deadlifts).5
“Widen the pelvis.”
“Spread the floor.
Test: Stand normally. Place four fingers in front of the pelvis and the thumb on the side of the pelvis. Feel the tissue (muscle) under your thumb. “Widen the pelvis” or “spread the floor” and feel the tissue thickening (i.e., the muscle contracting).
“Imagine that you have lights on your butt cheeks, and shine those lights on the ceiling.”
The purpose of this cue is to create a straight – not vertical – lumbar spine (as straight as the bar!). The optimal position of the spine to start the lift is with the low back straight (zero degrees lordosis). In this position
- the compression is optimally distributed over the surface of the disc,
- the load on the facet joints is reduced without a reduction of the compressive strength of the back, and
- the strength of the back muscles are maximized and an extension torque from the passive tissues is created, which further helps stabilization of the sacroiliac (SI) joint (two small but important joints between your glutes).5
Further, the gluteus maximus, the latissimus dorsi and the abdominal musculature must be activated to optimize the tension in the lumbo dorsal fascia and the passive tissues.
Note: Some powerlifters don’t maintain a straight back, but instead experience a kyphosis in the low back during the latter part of the deadlift, possibly as an unavoidable consequence of the heavy loading; this is possibly a choice in order to minimize the lever arm from the barbell to the spine.6 No studies that we are aware of directly associate deadlift with back injury, but in one investigation, the low back was the most often injured body part among powerlifters.7
“Press the chest out.”
The purpose of this cue is to straighten the upper back (thoracic spine).
“Press the chest bone out.”
“Place your shoulders in the back pockets.”
The purpose of this cue is to create tension through the lumbodorsal fascia through activation of the latissimus dorsi muscle. Tension in the lumbodorsal fascia creates an extension torque over the spine and can prevent curving of the back in the thoracolumbar area (the intersection between the rib cage and the low back).5,8
“Lock your shoulder blades on to your pelvis.”
In the squat, the corresponding/additional cue is to “break the bar over the back” (as in a lat pulldown).
“Lock the shoulder joint.” (“Break the bar over your shins.”)
The purpose of locking the shoulder joint is to stabilize the shoulder joint through activation of the external rotators; this is important only in the deadlift, where the bar is hanging from the hands and load is transferred through the entire body.
“Grab the bar so hard that your knuckles turn white.”
This cue is relevant only in deadlifts to ensure that your grip strength is “turned on” and that all the force that is being produced by the other muscles of the body can be expressed through the grip. (“If you can’t grip it, you can’t rip it.”)
Further, maximal activation of the grip may increase activation of other muscles through a phenomenon known as irradiation. Irradiation is defined as the “spread of muscle activity to other muscles besides those primarily responsible for the task.”10 Irradiation may happen during high-effort contractions.
Test 1: Make a soft fist. Notice the feeling in your hand, forearm, upper arm, shoulder and abdominal muscles. Next, gradually increase your effort until you’re making a fist with as much force as you possibly can. You should notice that as you increase the contraction of the muscles in your hand, gradually the muscle activation spreads “backwards” to your forearms, upper arms, shoulders and abdominals.
Test 2: Perform this test on a separate day. “With a partner, shake their hand and then squeeze it as hard as you can. Now, fine tune your posture in the following manner. Take a wide foot stance and “grip the ground” with the toes and the heel. Then, using the hip musculature, isometrically abduct and externally rotate to “spread the floor.” Activate the gluteal muscles by squeezing an imaginary nut between the buttocks. Stiffen the abdomen with an abdominal brace. Lift the rib cage. Stiffen and depress the shoulder girdle with latissimus dorsi contraction. Make a fist with the non-shaking hand and squeeze. Now repeat the handshake.”8
“Reach in opposite directions with the crown of the head and the tailbone, and look for the eyebrows.”
The purpose of this cue is to make the spine taut, and through increased activity in the transversospinal muscles (some very small back muscles), make the spine stronger and more stable.12 When this cue is performed, the chin should be slightly tucked in. Essentially, this cue is the final step in making the entire spine as straight as possible.
The optimal head position during squats and deadlifts varies among lifters, and there might not be a single way that is optimal. Below is a discussion of some of the factors that are involved in determining the optimal head position for you.
- Hyperextending the cervical spine shortens the superficial backline (SBL). The structure and function of this line was previously discussed. Shortening the SBL at the neck may take critical tension of this line that otherwise might have served to help prevent flexion of the back during squats and deadlifts.1
- Hyperextending the cervical spine shortens several muscles in the upper back and neck area, including the upper trapezius muscle, the iliocostalis thoracis and cervicis and the longissimus cervicis2 Shortening these muscles slackens them and may reduce their contribution to spinal stability.
- Hyperextending the cervical spine during squats and deadlifts can cause an unnecessary increase in disc pressure in the cervical spine, particularly during deadlifts with the load in the hands, and it may reduce strength through the entire body through an arthrokinetic reflex (a protective reflex in the joint).12
- Looking up without extending the neck is enough for eye movements to facilitate activation of the extensor muscles (back side) of the body.
There is at least one argument for hyperextending the neck.
During any standing activity, a person must maintain his or her center of gravity above the base of support; otherwise, he or she is going to fall.
A bar also has a center of gravity. A bar on your back forces you to shift your center of gravity forward. Try it with a back squat. A bar on your anterior deltoids forces you to shift your center of gravity backwards, with more pressure on the heels. Try that with a front squat. Thus, during a lift, it is the centre of gravity of you plus the bar that must be maintained over the base of support.
Particularly in the bottom position of deadlifts and squats, the combined center of gravity (you plus the bar) moves forward a lot because the extra load is in front of the body. The head weighs about 8 percent of the body weight.14 Bringing the head backwards by hyperextending the cervical spine will work to bring the center of gravity of you plus the load backwards and thus help the lifter to an optimal placement of the center of gravity in relation the base of support.
This effect can be hypothesized to be more important for lifters with long torsos and lifters with a style of great forward flexion (which is more important in conventional-style deadlifts than in sumo-style deadlifts).
“Perform French press diaphragmatic breathing.”
French press diaphragmatic breathing is a form of combined forced inhalation and forced exhalation. Forced exhalation has been shown to increase strength to the same level as the Valsalva maneuver (breath holding) but with less increase in blood pressure. Forced exhalation is recommended rather than the Valsalva maneuver as the way to breathe during heavy lifting.15
French press diaphragmatic breathing is covered here.
All the previous cues served to “turn on your strength.” The last cues focus on how to program yourself for an optimal movement during squats or deadlifts.
Initiate the lifting phase
Cues to use during wide-stance squats or partial deadlifts:
“Initiate the lifting phase by pressing your feet down/outwards forward and push your shoulders through the bar. Complete the lift by driving the tailbone forward.”
“Drive the hips forward and press the neck into the bar.”17 – don’t hyperextend!
“Wedge the hips under the bar.”
Cue to use during narrow-stance squat and full-range deadlifts:
Begin the lift by “pushing the floor away” or “static stomp” – complete the lift by “driving the tailbone forward.”
Initiate the lowering phase
Cues to use during powerlifting-style squats or deadlifts:
“Tailbone back, then down.”
Cues to use during Olympic-style squats:
“Pull the tailbone straight down towards the ground.”
“Push the knees forward.”
You may practice each of these techniques separately – for example, during your specific warm-up, before you attempt to integrate them in your squats and deadlifts. Practising these techniques requires a lot of attention but becomes easier over time – but never automatic, in the sense that you can stop paying attention to it.
“Keep every body part tight during the entire movement.”
Multiple world champion powerlifter16
This article discussed a range of specific cues to contract specific muscles, from toe to head, in order to maximize performance. For each cue, the purpose and the science, when available, were discussed.