One of my objectives in this series is to point out the importance of perfecting technique on every exercise. Regardless of your background and level of proficiency, you can always make improvements when it comes to form. When you’re continually enhancing your form, your lifting benefits.
Learning better technique always helps to move the numbers up, and it also cuts down on your risk of injury.
Every full-range movement consists of three segments: the beginning, middle and finish. That’s true for squats, deadlifts, bench presses, inclines, overhead presses and any variation of the two Olympic lifts. You must do all three parts of any lift correctly in order to elevate higher numbers. Most people who train seriously fully comprehend that idea, but few make use of it. They pay much more attention to the start and finish of a lift than they do the middle.
The midrange of an exercise is often taken for granted’or overlooked. That doesn’t pose a problem when you’re using lighter poundages because in most cases a strong start is enough to override a weaker middle; however, it does show itself when you put max weights on the bar.
That particular form error is rather difficult to spot. You may seem to be pulling and pushing to your full capacity through the middle, whereas in fact you’re not. You’re using the momentum created by a powerful start to carry the bar through the midrange. In most instances the mistake can’t be identified until the weights get heavy. With lighter weights the bar zips through the middle, and an observer can’t easily see the lack of intensity. Often, a relatively weak middle is a direct result of your having made a strong start. Take the squat. Lifters who know how to use their hips to drive out of the bottom forcefully seldom run into any difficulty bringing the bar through the middle range because the acceleration generated by the start carries it upward smoothly’that is, until the weight on the bar approaches a personal best. At that point the weaker middle starts having a negative influence on any heavy lift. Sometimes lifters are able to grind through the middle, but they don’t have sufficient energy left to complete the lift. Many falsely assume that they’re weak at the top and spend time trying to improve that part of the lift. They’d be better off strengthening the middle.
In some cases it’s not a disproportionate weakness in the middle that’s causing the lift to be missed but, rather, a lack of concentration. Most lifters concentrate on making a perfect start on any exercise, then shift their focus to the finish. That leaves the middle to take care of itself. On any max single or the final reps on a heavy set it just doesn’t wash. You can’t take anything for granted when you’re attempting a max poundage on a strength exercise.
Neglecting the middle of a lift is most evident on the bench press. In their quest for a higher number lifters ignore proper technique and rebound the bar off their chest, or they heave it upward with a bridge. Such cheating moves help to vault the bar upward, right through the middle range, so that all they have to do is concentrate on locking it out. The problem is, sloppy form like that doesn’t work well with max weights. When it’s loaded with heavy poundages, the bar doesn’t shoot through the middle. Instead, it hangs, and since the muscles and attachments that are responsible for moving the bar through the midrange haven’t been worked sufficiently, it stays there.
The same is true for those who knee-kick their overhead presses and rebound the bar off their shoulders rather than resetting it after each rep. Eventually, when they stack enough weight on the bar, the form mistakes work against them. Because the muscles needed to grind the bar on through the sticking point have been bypassed with the cheating moves, the bar hangs at the top of the lifter’s head until he or she runs out of air. Even when people use correct form and don’t cheat, they’re often guilty of thinking of the exercises as having two segments rather than three. On any pressing movement’flat bench, incline or overhead’they’ll think about driving the bar upward, then instantly focus on a strong finish. That allows the bar to float free for a brief moment’a split second where there isn’t forceful pressure being applied to the bar. That hesitation causes the bar to slow its ascent ever so slightly. With light weights the pause doesn’t have much effect, but with max weights it will result in failure.
The middle is particularly critical on any pulling exercise because most of them have a longer range of motion than presses or squats. So, when you neglect the middle on lifts like the power clean or power snatch, the results are going to be more evident. That’s especially true for anyone trying to learn one of the more complicated pulling movements like a full clean or full snatch.
There are quite a few keys to remember when you’re learning how to pull a heavy weight off the floor and then explode under it. Most lifters know how critical it is to start the bar off the floor correctly and that they must have a strong finish to give them the time to rack the weight. What often happens is that because there are so many points to think about on both of those quick lifts, the middle phase gets lost in the shuffle’which results in poor technique.
If the bar isn’t in the proper line through the middle, it becomes difficult to bring it back in the correct line for the important finish. If you’re somehow able to make the correction and bring the bar back into the proper groove for a strong finish, you’ve still wasted valuable energy in the process. Better to keep it in the right groove through the middle phase.
Then there are those who maintain a correct line through the middle range but make the transition from the start into the middle too slowly. If you watch them pull a heavy weight, the three separate segments are clearly evident. There’s almost a pause between the start and second pull and another before the finish.
Another problem that occurs whenever you ignore the middle of your pull is that you let your back relax, and when that happens, it adversely affects the lift. If you concentrate on a strong middle, however, you’ll likely keep your back tight, which is a major plus.
The remedy for such a form problem is a two-pronged approach. Insert specific exercises into your routine that will help strengthen the relatively weaker middle and also learn how to involve the middle more effectively.
The first step is to start giving more thought to the middle. If you concentrate, the problem is likely to solve itself. The middle is an extension of the start, a rapid extension that should include no hesitation when you’re moving from one phase to the next. Whenever lifters learn to make a solid start and a dynamic middle, the finish takes care of itself.
The best lift on which to learn the concept is the incline-bench press, for several reasons. The incline is more controlled than any pulling movement or any form of squat, so it gives you more of an opportunity to feel what I’m saying about incorporating the middle. The incline is also useful because the bar is visible, so you can use optical feedback. You can see if the bar is stalling through the middle, and by paying closer attention to that part of the exercise, you can solve the problem. I also like the incline more than any other pressing movement because it’s purer. It’s almost impossible to cheat when you’re doing an incline. Any attempt to rebound the bar off your chest or to bridge only causes it to run forward. On the incline the bar has to stay extremely close to your face, almost touching your chin. If it dances forward even slightly, there’s no way to bring it back into the proper line to finish the lift.
In learning how to drive forcefully through the middle, it’s essential to start from a dead stop. That’s true for any pressing exercise but doubly so for the incline because the line on that lift is so exact. The bar moves upward in a perfectly straight course.
Set the bar high on your chest, right where your breastbone meets your collarbones. Your elbows will be down and out. Drive the bar off your chest forcefully. This is where you start activating the middle more effectively. Once you drive the bar upward, follow through instantly, aggressively extending it, and it will glide on through the sticking point smoothly, making the finish much easier. When the weights get heavy, the start won’t carry the bar quite as high, but because you’re assertive with the middle portion of the lift, you’ll be in a much better position to grind it home. With a bit of practice the division between the start and the finish will blend into one powerful move.
After you master this technique on the incline, you can easily use it on the flat-bench and overhead presses. It’s critical to pause on those two lifts just as you did on the incline because it lets you concentrate on following through behind a strong drive. If you rebound the bar, the technique doesn’t work nearly as well.
I also use a pause to help lifters learn how to do this technique on squats, both front and back. Pausing for a brief moment at the bottom-most position in the squat forces you to stay extremely tight. You learn that right away. From that tight position you explode upward and continue to put pressure on the bar through the middle range.
To help apply the concept to pulling exercises, I use the high pull. High pulls work well because all you have to think about is pulling the bar as high as you can. You don’t have to worry about racking the bar, so it’s easier to feel the faster transition from the start into the middle.
Those are some excellent methods that will help teach you how to activate the middle faster and more offensively. Many times, however, they’re not enough. If you haven’t been using the middle correctly simply because you’ve been ignoring its importance or haven’t understood how much it can help you, that’s one thing. Many people, however, don’t use their middle range because it’s a relatively weak area. They must get stronger in the midrange in order to incorporate the above concepts into their exercises.
The best way to strengthen the midrange of an exercise is inside a power rack. Immediately following your regular routine on a certain exercise, go to the power rack and do just one set of isometrics or isotonic-isometrics. Select a position in the middle range. The exact placement of the pins will depend on where you determine your weakest area to be. It will take some trial and error to find the right poundage.
Keep in mind that when you do this type of strength work, the time factor is more important than the amount of weight on the bar. In other words, it’s more productive to use 225 and be able to hold it snugly against the top pins for the required count than to use 275 and only be able to hold the bar for five or six seconds. Doc Ziegler, the man who invented this form of training, recommended an eight count. I use a count of 10 because I’ve found that most lifters take a second or two to really lock into the top pins and push or pull with all their might.
You can use the power rack in yet another way to help improve strength in the middle range. Remove the top pins so you can move the weight from the pins in the middle to lockout. That will replace your regular workout on whatever lift you choose to do in the power rack, so you can do lots of sets. Keep the reps low’threes work well’because you want to handle as much weight as possible. Six or seven sets of three is generally enough, and you work to failure. Then, each time you work that lift inside the rack, try and improve the top-end number. Start each rep from a dead stop at the pins. Any rebounding the bar off the pins is taboo, for it defeats the purpose of the exercise. Only do this routine once a week for any given lift. You can do a different lift every day, and that works fine. If you prefer doing the isos, you can do one for every exercise in your program for that day. If you start including some strength work for the middle range and at the same time begin practicing the technique of driving through the start into the middle, all your lifts will benefit. You can use that idea on all the exercises in your routine, even those aimed at the smaller muscle groups. It works well for curls and pullovers because the middle is important in those exercises as well.
Once you decide that the middle range is as important as the start and the finish, you can learn to involve it more’and you’ll become stronger.
Editor’s note: Bill Starr was a strength and conditioning coach at Johns Hopkins University from 1989 to 2000. He’s the author of The Strongest Shall Survive and Defying Gravity. IM