An Issue of Tightness

by Chris Olson, SSC | March 15, 2023

close up of a lifter in the middle of a press

This article will attempt to show you that many technique errors have one underlying cause (it’s in the title). Recognizing this cause can give you another lens through which to consider your own lifting. Once you understand this common thread, you can approach correcting any of the various subsequent errors with a clearer picture of what “correct” should look and feel like, and why. The problem addressed is rampant. For some people it is merely an infrequent hindrance, but for others, a severe handicap. But it probably applies to you in some capacity.

The following is not particularly directed toward the brand new novice lifter – one whose main goal is learning the very basics of how to get from A to Z – although this lifter will do well to remember the theme as he progresses in his training career. This piece is for the lifter who already knows what he should be doing, has a good, clear picture of the model of the lifts, but isn’t sure why he’s struggling anyway. Maybe this lifter knows he has some technique issues, but can’t understand why he hasn’t been able to solve them. My intention is to shine some light on the issue, and then provide a clear framework for fixing a whole mess of errors by just remembering one cardinal rule.

The Problem

The body constantly seeks the path of least resistance. This is an obstacle to you getting stronger. Put more directly, your body will always inherently seek easy, loose, and soft unless you consciously will it to do otherwise, because difficult, controlled, and tight are energy drains. This is a contributing factor for many grown men petering out in the low 200s squat and high 200s deadlift when “doing the program” on their own. Effortful, controlled, and tight movement takes a lot of precious energy – it burns up ATP. Our bodies are evolutionarily programmed to conserve energy, hence the existence of bodyfat. However, seeking the easy, loose, and soft way is not what makes a successful lifter. Your goal must be to use this finite energy properly, because the trade-off for energy spent well is our goal: a more efficient lift and longer sustained progress.

If prolonging progress is the goal, then the unconscious path of least resistance must be combated, because it will always lead to premature exhaustion of progress. It’s okay to not hip-drive up from a chair, because the load of your own bodyweight doesn’t demand that you seek the most efficient means possible to get this simple job done. The resultant benefit of a hip-drive-from-chair (except for in very untrained individuals) would be next to negligible. But when we load our movements with the goal of making progress, the efficiency with which we complete the movement pattern becomes important. By allowing the body to unconsciously seek the easy, you make the lift much, much harder.

Getting Tight(er)

The Blue Book discusses the concept of “getting tight” continuously. In fact, it’s so natural to the language of the text that it seems many have been blinded by its frequency and have taken it for granted. Just perusing the Squat chapter for five minutes, we can find the following:

“Lifting the elbows and the chest together tightens the supporting muscles under the bar, so do this before you let the weight bury itself in your back.” – page 40

“Before you lift anything heavy, you squeeze your abs (really, you squeeze everything in the vicinity of your abs) into contraction… These muscles contract isometrically… and in doing so they permit no movement to occur.” – page 41

“When pressure in the thoracic cavity increases with a big held breath, and this pressure is increased by the tightening of the abs and obliques, support develops for the spine as if a rigid cylinder were surrounding the spinal column.” – page 60

These words, like “tight,” “pressure,” “squeeze,” and “rigid” paint a picture of what we should be like under the bar, and just as importantly, how we should arrange ourselves before taking the weight of the bar. However, I can’t tell you how many lifters I’ve worked with that know they’re supposed to be tight, but still wiggle and wriggle and squirm their way through a set of 5 instead of moving deliberately through space like a column of steel.

An inherent problem with concepts like “control” and “tightness” is that they’re easy to understand in binary terms (i.e. tight vs loose, controlled vs uncontrolled), but much harder to grasp and quantify as a sliding scale, which is a more realistic representation of how they work. The degree to which a lifter needs to get tight is almost universally lacking in execution by novice lifters. In fact, this is one of the most overlooked differences between new, weaker lifters and experienced, stronger ones: the experienced ones are always better at getting tight and commanding control of their bodies. It’s not simply a difference in ability, but more importantly a difference in intention, practice, and skill.

Chances are very good that you aren’t squeezing the bar hard enough, you aren’t lifting your chest hard enough, you aren’t bracing your abs hard enough, you aren’t breathing big enough, etc. “Enough” is the operative word, and in many cases makes all the difference between an efficient rep and a sloppy one, or a made PR and a missed one. How much is enough? Of course, there’s no good scientific way to quantify this. But the lack of being tight enough shows up all the time as a sloppy, grindy, or missed rep. Go to a Starting Strength seminar and listen to the staff coaches in the room during the platform sessions. You’ll hear tons of “get tight” and “squeeze” and the like. They drilled it into my soul during my first trip to Wichita Falls. There’s a reason these concepts are emphasized.

Unconscious, easy, loose, and soft – the body’s preferred means of existence and movement – will compromise your technique and thus your progress. Because, remember: while proper technique is the best way to stay injury-free, it is also what ensures the efficiency of the lift. The easy way is inefficient. Take the squat: put simply, the easy way is easy (un-effortful, soft, loose, fast) on the way down, and therefore hard (grindy, energy-expensive, slow) on the way up. The better way is harder (effortful, tight, controlled) on the way down, but therefore easier (smooth, energy-efficient, faster) on the way up. Easy – either unconsciously or intentionally – leads to form errors that can artificially halt a novice linear progression. In essence, this is the crux of this article. A staggering amount of failed reps come down to being loose, soft, or seeking the easy way – intentionally or not.

In case you need some real world examples, let’s examine some common technique errors in the big four lifts and tie them back to this idea of unconscious, easy, loose and soft. Remember that technique errors are those things you do that make the lift harder to complete. In each case, the fix is not groundbreaking and shouldn’t be surprising: you must take the intentional road of getting and remaining tight and controlled and moving deliberately. This skill, and its application for each specific technique error, must be conscious, worked on intentionally from the first warm up set all the way up through the work sets. You may notice some of these issues only occur for you later in your work sets, reps 4 and 5 specifically. This is when fatigue often starts to win out, and you simply cannot let it. Following each example, I’ll attempt some different ways (which are of course not the only ways) to think about how to correct the issue.


As alluded to earlier, an easy way to see this issue is in a too-fast descent. In essence, this is getting loose and dropping down with relaxed muscle mass because fast is easier than slow (or controlled). Often this is done to “catch a bounce” out of the bottom, but correctly done, the bounce is about the intention to drive up rather than to drop down. A proper bounce is also controlled. Nothing about falling into the bottom is controlled. You must stay tight and descend under control so that you stay mid-foot and can bounce through the hips. It’s really not much more complicated than this, but some people can be slow to appreciate this idea.

For people like this, I may tell them, “Once you start going down, you should be able to start driving up at any moment I tell you to.” This turns out looking like a tempo squat, but the lifter has the explicit focus on his tightness in addition to his speed. This is not because I am trying to test his reflexes, and I’m not actually going to say “UP” when he’s ¾ of the way down in his squat. Rather, I want him to be so methodical and controlled (tightness in the hips, legs and torso is also usually a byproduct of this) that he could reverse his downward direction at any moment. Note that this same issue exists in the bench press, but instead of the lifter dropping loosely into the bottom, the bar will smash into the chest.

Another very common squat error is the soft torso. This is often, but not always, a byproduct of the issue above. Again, it’s easier to not put the effort into keeping the torso rigid than it is to do so, which, consciously or not, is usually what leads to this issue. This often shows as a loose upper back, but can also bleed into the lower back/abs. This is a problem for two main reasons:

1) The back is a transferer of force. If the transferring mechanism is a pliable, wiggly segment of softness, not much force can be transferred. A rubber wrench can’t turn any bolt worth turning.

2) A bar will move all over the place when its support is soft and unstable. Bar security needs to be a given, and if it’s not, many more downstream issues can arise.

Often, people lack proper thoracic extension (lifting the chest), but the other part of the equation is scapular retraction (pinching the shoulder blades together). Both add to the robustness of the shelf on which the bar sits, and both need to be achieved to keep the bar stable. Down below, the abs need to be braced hard (harder than you think). Think about them maintaining the same shape but tightening up in that shape, neither pushing out nor sucking in.

A helpful fix for remembering how to control the torso for the squat is this: breathing is no longer just breathing. Every time you take a massive breath, you open your chest up (squeezing your shoulder blades together), lift your nipples and elbows, and then bite your abs down hard. This is your new breath. When you practice batching everything together like this, it eventually becomes natural. You may still have to remind yourself of some of the pieces, but this is much more manageable. Doing all of this takes work, and it takes much more work with 315 lb on your back than it does with the 45 lb bar. Remember the third quote from the blue book above; do all of this before you let the weight of the bar mash into you, and it will all be more manageable.


The obvious error here is with the failure to properly set and/or hold the back in extension. The tendency to just “get it over with” is pernicious and is its own problem, and shouldn’t be tolerated. It needs to be nipped in the bud as soon as it starts, because it’s a problem that will only get worse with time. The correct setting of the back is integral to a good deadlift. But, again, setting the back at the bottom of the deadlift is hard. You’re making an already uncomfortable position even more uncomfortable, so it’s very tempting to just skip this step entirely. Many trillions of pounds have been left on the barbell each year in missed PRs this way.

Cues for setting the back have been discussed a million times over, but the process bears repeating. Your chest must be lifted so hard that you’re not entirely convinced that all the muscles controlling the spine won’t spasm into a forever-cramp. Your low back must be squeezed into perfect extension, every single time. Your lats need to be pulling as hard as they can to keep the bar wedged tightly against your legs and keep it mid-foot. The abs must brace (preferably with a belt) hard. All of this will be more difficult the bigger or less flexible you are, which means you need to work even harder to push into the tightness you already feel down there.

It's a good habit to intentionally get uncomfortable and tight, to start “floating” the bar off the ground during step four of the deadlift teaching progression. When lifting your chest and squeezing your belly down between your thighs – putting the spine into hard thoracic and lumbar extension respectively – you should try to gradually take the weight of the bar in your hands until the plates have actually lifted off the ground before you start step 5 of pushing the floor away and dragging the bar up your shins. The lats are heavily involved in this as well, so thinking about squeezing an orange in the back of the armpit works well. Don’t forget your abs.

Once you get this down, it will be relatively easy to float the bar at your first couple warm up weights. The same intention must still be applied at the heavier work set weights that won’t so easily lift off the floor. The key here is to not let the back slip out of extension. Going too fast off the floor (trying to get it over with) is a major culprit, and will almost certainly lead to a rounded back and/or a bar swinging forward away from the shins. Do it deliberately and slowly. Nothing really heavy has ever been moved fast.


Perhaps the least forgiving lift when seeking the easy way is the press. The long kinetic chain and smaller relative muscle mass involved in moving the load make this an easy one to miss with even the most minor form deviations at heavy weight. Following are a couple of common issues that result from a lack of tightness.

Letting the knees bend during the hip throw is an easy way to miss a heavy rep. The front of the body in the press can be thought of like a bow (as in bow and arrow). The apex is the point of the hips that gets pushed furthest forward, between the upper thighs and the lower abdominals. The reason we throw the hips forward in a violent yet controlled manner is to capture a stretch reflex that we can then direct as upward momentum into the barbell, making the lift more efficient. To do this, everything surrounding the apex (the abs and quads specifically) needs to be tight and contracted, otherwise throwing the hips forward will not result in a strong recoil backward. No recoil, no help.

If the knees bend, the quads have relaxed. Of course by now you know this, but it bears repeating. You relax the quads not because you want to, but because you allow it to happen. You’re tired or lazy or just want the damn thing over with, and squeezing the quads hard is more tiring than not squeezing them hard. The result is a sloppy bounce, probably forward travel of the barbell and your balance, and at heavy-enough weight, a missed rep.

I speculate that many people fail to keep the knees locked out because they still have an image in their heads that involves letting them go forward – even if just a little. One thing I’ve found helpful is to think about keeping the knees far behind the hips. This will usually reflexively keep the knees locked out. The other, more R-rated, picture I tell people to envision involves a male and the main organ that makes him male. There is a thrust-like motion that nearly everyone understands intuitively, either through experience or imagination, and that thrust-like motion comes from the hips, not the knees. Keep your knees where they belong, out of the way.

The upper body can also fail a press if allowed to be soft. One of my biggest pet peeves in the gym is a sloppy, lazy unracking of the press. When this happens, you’ve taken the bar out of the rack in a sub-optimal position, with usually at least one of the following occurring: elbows failing to get in front of the bar, bar floating excessively forward of the shoulder joint, chest sagged down, triceps not squeezed into the lats/forearms not vertical, wrists bent and loose, not full of air, abs not tight. The opposite of all of these things should be done – to the best of your ability – before unracking the bar.

It’s a very tight position, but again, you must go through the pains of getting to this position so that the lift itself is successful. Doing all of these things requires the work of getting into the proper position that gives the press the best chance of completion. Getting loose and letting the elbows and/or chest fall during the hip throw of the press will also wreak havoc on the bar path, instantly making the press more difficult. Letting the wrists bend because of a soft grip is another great way to lose a PR (ditto for the bench press).


The bench press may be less technically demanding than the other lifts, but failing to take conscious steps to getting and staying tight will still short your progress. Most people in most gyms in America will fail to take advantage of one skill in particular that involves getting and staying tight: the leg drive. When this is learned properly, it nearly instantly raises the floor of one’s bench strength. It kills a few birds with one stone, which is convenient and efficient, because a proper leg drive will include both the lower body and the torso. By arching the back, retracting the shoulder blades and then wedging them down into the bench, it provides a strong and stable platform upon which to balance the load. Then, by pushing the feet into the ground forward and down (as if trying to slide yourself backwards on the bench), the entire body gets tight, allowing the legs and hips to contribute to the lift in an isometric manner. I keep an image of an accordion in my mind – pressing the ends (hips and shoulders) closer to create tightness.

Still, many people who set the back arch and shoulder blade retraction will often lose this position either later on in the set when they get tired, or between each rep in general, because it takes effort and concentration to keep the upper back tight in the bench. Remembering to stay tight and “packed down” into the bench solves this problem. You may have to practice keeping the shoulder blades down and retracted while straightening the elbows to a lockout without the bar a few times – it’s not a particularly natural thing for some people to do. Resetting the leg drive each rep will ensure that the legs stay involved. If you find your feet start to float off the floor, you’ve lost your leg drive. The conscious lifter will go through a quick checklist before descending to make sure the chest is up, shoulder blades are down and retracted, and legs are pushing through the shoulders.

A Few Closing Thoughts

You probably knew you needed to be tight and stay tight during your lifts, but you probably underestimated the importance of doing so anyway. Chances are the first reps you ever failed were largely due to your failure to stay tight enough, especially if you’ve never had hands-on coaching from an SSC. I know mine were.

Don’t continue lifting the same way you always have. Look at your own lifts objectively and see where you can find some slop. Being tighter and more controlled will improve your lifting, at least to a degree. Be particularly aware during your early warm up sets (when it’s light and you’re fresh) and the end of your work sets (when it’s heavy and you’re tired). When it’s light and easy, you can very easily miss an opportunity to practice doing things the right way because “It’s just a warm up, I’m not gonna fail it.” When it’s heavy and you’ve just done the third of five reps, your lizard brain will tell you: “Shit, two more, let’s just get this over with.” This should be a trigger to your Higher Brain, the one that can observe your own feelings and emotions with objectivity, to lean into the difficulty and stay the fuck tight and controlled. Yes, I know it’s hard to be rational at a time like that. But it’s going to be hard either way. Do you want to put the energy into keeping the bar in the right place in space and on your body, or fighting to regain control of a bar that you let throw you all over the place? One will improve you for the next time, the other will just make you glad you didn’t get hurt.

Remember that air is support. Not taking in enough air is a problem universal in all lifts. Performing a valsalva needs to be a given with every rep, and to not do so on as big a breath as you can is simply throwing away free money. Usually, exhaling fully between reps is a waste of time and energy. Staying tight while letting all of your air out is a tough task – just exhale enough to be able to inhale again. I like to think of it as constantly recycling the top 10% of your air. Do it quickly with the intention of staying tight.

Getting tight is a skill, which is why the best lifters can do it naturally and new lifters almost always struggle with it. Practice this skill in all of your sets, not just the heavy ones, if you want to develop it efficiently. That means you should be leg-driving with the empty bar on the bench press, floating each and every light deadlift rep, and generally permitting no slop in your warmups.

It will help to be aggressive and get a bit of a chip on your shoulder. There’s a reason why you see videos of heavy-ass lifts being done by men and women who were just screaming, getting slapped around, or basically trying to choke out the bar. This is not just a physical process, but a psychological one. It’s not the body alone that gets the set done, it’s the mind as well. You must dominate the bar. You must try to break it in your hands. Like anything else, getting stronger takes effort and practice. Get better at getting stronger by deliberately seeking efficiency, which is never the easy way.

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