Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

Elegance and Its Place in Lifting

by Andrew Lewis, SSC | October 25, 2022

lifter in the middle of a clean

When I did gymnastics as a teenager, I always enjoyed watching Andreas Aguilar on the still rings. He performed routines that were poetry written in human motion. The bodily control in mechanically-disadvantaged positions was immense, but he made it look effortless. Similarly, my favorite lifters have always been calm, focused, and smooth. They never yank the bar before a deadlift. They never rip the bar off the ground in a clean or snatch. They never drop dramatically into the bottom of a squat. They are always fluid and precise – elegant, in a way. There is something to be learned from the precision and fluidity of these elite athletes. Elegance in motion is not just a subjective characteristic to be enjoyed by a viewer – it is a mechanical description of fluid motion, controlled changes in direction, and precision.

Many lifters do not concern themselves with fluid motion. They move fast and uncontrolled; in part because they don't know any different, and in part, because they perceive speed to be important in overcoming the difficulty. They jerk the bar off the ground in the deadlift. They fall into the bottom of the squat and bounce out aggressively. They press too early after throwing their hips forward. They slam the bar into their chests on the bench press.

Or they move slowly at the wrong times. They stop at the bottom of the bench or squat, killing the stretch reflex and making the lift less effective. They sense difficulty in the deadlift and start to give up instead of continuing up at what was a constant speed. They hold the bar at the top of the press for five seconds – 4.8 seconds longer than is productive.

None of this is desirable. Force should be applied smoothly to prevent excessive stress on the body's segments. The deadlift, if jerked off the ground, can create stress on the low back that the erectors cannot resist at their current ability and, therefore they will not be able to keep the back in rigid extension off the ground. This is why the cue "squeeze the bar off the ground" is so frequently used: to prevent a jerk and produce a smooth increase of force on the bar.

A common error in the press is mistiming the hip motion – lifters will rush pressing the bar overhead before the hips are in the correct position on the way back. For this reason, I frequently explain that they have to be patient and think about performing the press in two smooth steps. 1) Throw the hips. 2) On the way back, press the bar. "Hips, then press." Lifters who rush this process and mistime it will throw the bar forward instead of vertically upwards.

The bench press has a short list of timing issues: dropping the bar quickly, slamming into the chest, or stopping on the chest. These are easily fixed. First, grip the bar hard at the top of the bench press, and then pull the bar down. This will not literally happen, but it is a helpful way to think of it in order to descend smoothly. Second, softly bounce the bar off the chest at the touch spot mid-sternum. The idea of "bouncing" eliminates the stopping, and the modifier "softly" eliminates the slamming into the chest.

Additionally, smooth does not always mean slow. A lifter can smoothly break the bar off the ground, accelerate it quickly so he can get under it in the clean, and then quickly, but smoothly stand the bar up. A dynamic effort squat can be smoothly squatted down, then quickly and fluidly lifted up.

Sloppy movement produces inefficient bar paths and poor body mechanics. So, make your lifts elegant. Make them look effortless and beautiful: smooth and fluid. Do not rush the procedure in an attempt to get the set over with. Focus on the procedure you are trying to execute to create the best mechanics. Your lifts will have better technique with a lower likelihood of injury and more strength progress as a result.

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