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Severe pain is often a wonderful teacher, and a low back injury gave me the opportunity to revisit key principles of full-body tension.

The cause was seemingly innocuous, but after playing with some rib and torso alignment cues left me hardly able to move, I needed to to delve deeper into what had happened.

Breathing — the Basics and Beyond

For a baseline, here’s the video I refer to constantly with students to illustrate the diaphragm at work within the body.

I was recently introduced to hypopresives, or “low pressure fitness,” by Janet Kimmel. The apneas and false inhales (as described in this Canadian Physiotherapy Association summary) gave me a new and critical tool in bouncing back more quickly.

Now It Gets Interesting

The hypopresive technique has helped me more fully access a problem area of my diaphragm. Okay, great, good to have a new tool in the kit.

But surprisingly, it also opened up a problem area related to my hip asymmetry, one that was affecting my powerlifting and that I knew I needed to address before moving up in weight too aggressively.

Had anyone else tried putting together the hypopresive approach with heavier lifting? Dean Somerset’s article looks at blending the two approaches.   

Given that there’s not much material in English yet, so far, the consensus seems to be that this helps set resting tone in the pelvic floor in particular, but that it is not an ideal approach during a heavy lift. A more full-body approach was still required.

Could the Malady Also Be the Cure?

Okay, but what had I done wrong to mess up my back, anyway?

Specifically, I had been playing with isometric holds in various positions in an attempt to target more serratus anterior. While in a prone, prayer-style position, with forearms flat and shoulder blades spread wide, I remember thinking, “Oh, my goodness! There’s serratus!”

I had completely neglected, though, to keep the lower core portion turned on — and it came back to bite me hard within minutes.

It’s easiest to think of muscles contracting as they work against external forces, but they can also contract isometrically, i.e. without actually moving anything, either against an immovable object or while remaining static.

Focusing on the matter at hand, I reasoned that if I had sustained an injury using isometrics, that would be the way to fix the situation — but body parts don’t tend to work in isolation, so it was time to reconnect the whole.

The Subtle Stuff

Janda’s “Crossed X syndrome” and Thomas Myer’s tensegrity theories are two pioneers’ ways to describe cross-body balance over multiple planes. Fascia, or deep connective tissue that weaves throughout our bodies, is in the spotlight more and more lately, in fields from massage therapy to fitness. I think of these as being more subtle, underlying, unconscious linkages.

Trueing the Lines with Isometrics

Isometrics have moved (or not–ha ha) in and out of fashion throughout the years.

The comics I read when I was younger invariably featured ads in the back for Charles Atlas, the former “97-pound weakling,” who developed an isometric training system and was later crowned “The World’s Most Perfectly Developed Man.”

An approach that was less bodybuilding-oriented and more full-body functional was followed by the iconic Bruce Lee, who heavily incorporated isometrics into his training, and there are legends built around circus strongman, such as Alexander Zass, who even escaped jail in WW1 by bending his prison bars open.

For isometric strength to work for us instead of against us, it must be teamed with an intention of full-body tension. For me, the best metaphor is that of getting my body lines straight.

I believe in the StrongFirst approach. No one could put it better than Doc Hartle in his explanation of generating full-body tension before loading it, whether for bodyweight, kettlebell or barbell exercises.

So, in Practical Terms?

I spent some of my recovery time playing with how to isometrically work with the torso in better alignment — which would of course be bench press-specific. To remain static, that meant holding a low paused pushup, and to contract against an immovable object, I stood with my feet squared and literally pushed against a wall.

A huge “thank you” goes to my powerlifting coach, Shawn Adair of The Bar, who suggested a pin press, which I’ve now incorporated into my bench days while training at the gym. To do this, set the bottom of the pins at your sticking point, and press an unloaded bar up against them from underneath. It works very well to feel what part of the lines are lagging and need to turn on more.

My Personal Setup Cues

During my first SFG1 kettlebell certification in 2013, I remember Doc Hartle sharing the secret to how he had achieved his national powerlifting titles: “Setup. Setup. Setup.” It’s stayed with me ever since.

I needed to clarify my own setup cues for lifting.

While the breathe and brace sequence is crucial, if the lines aren’t true over those multiple planes, something is eventually going to give, and under a heavy load, it ain’t gonna be pretty!

Working from the inside out, the central line is our axial skeleton, in which the spine descends from the skull. Any Star Trek fan will remember the Borg Queen’s first appearance… yep, just like that.

Our appendicular skeleton includes the limbs that are attached to the skeleton. The hips branch off directly in the middle, rather like a tuning fork — and then there were two (lines) to keep true and symmetrical. In contrast, the shoulders are basically just hanging off of us, as from a coat hanger floating around the top bits. This is why, working from the outside in, I’ve placed them first in my setup cues.

So for now, at least, my setup cues, in order, are:

Lats → lines → lungs → lift tight!

As I work towards my next meet, the 2018 BC Powerlifting Provincials this June, this approach (along with the requisite mobility work…sigh) is helping me correct some of my gaps and imbalances. My deadlift has become way more solid, and my squat and bench are improving.

For input on truing the lines within your own strength training, please contact me