Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

Mid-Foot Balance: A “Master Cue”

by CJ Gotcher | May 19, 2016

The “Master Cue” – imagining a slot in the air directly above the mid-foot and trying to keep the bar in that slot – triggers an “aha” moment for many lifters. It works because, most of the time, the bar is a good approximation for the combined center of mass (CCOM) of the lifter-barbell system, and this CCOM must stay over the mid-foot for the greatest power and balance.

However, the CCOM isn’t always in line with the bar. If the weight on the bar is light enough in a squat, for instance, the lifter’s body will have a greater influence on the CCOM than the barbell, and the correct body position for moving heavy weight will set the hips back far enough that most of the lifter’s mass will be behind the mid-foot, meaning the bar has to be forward of the mid-foot to stay in balance. 

Balance in a light squat

Molly, a new lifter post-hip replacement, executes a squat under the watchful eye of the coaches at Westminster Strength and Conditioning. Note the bar position (red line), the mid-foot (yellow line), the weight distribution on the feet (balanced), and the lifter’s body in relation to their mid-foot. Used with permission.

You’ll often see this in warmups with bigger lifters and in brand new novices (especially women, who tend to have proportionally more mass in the hips).  We want the lifter to learn the correct body position as good practice for bigger weights when the bar will be over the mid-foot, but we don’t want him ingraining the wrong feeling by envisioning the bar over the mid-foot when it’s not. Luckily, we have another type of master cue – focusing on the center of balance.  

We generally don’t pay much attention to it, but the pressure on your feet is a good indicator of our center of mass (COM).  If the pressure is on the balls of your feet, your COM is forward.  If it’s heavier on one foot, the COM is to the right or left. At the exact moment an uncontrolled fall starts, there is no pressure on the feet because the center of mass is outside of the foot entirely

This is convenient because it provides a built-in, accurate sense of when you’re out of balance and lifting less efficiently than you could be. Unfortunately, with the sensory distraction of a heavy weight on your back or in your hands, you tend to miss what’s right in front of you.

The Drill

Most lifters I’ve worked with respond well to balance cues, especially when the weight is light. We also sneak it into the standard teaching progression for the squat and deadlift by shifting the lifter’s position if they’re too forward or back in the setup. Once they have an idea for what it feels like, a simple “center up” or “where’s the weight” usually solves the issue of a too-forward weight or an overly vertical back. 

Some lifters, especially as the weight gets heavy, will roll forward towards their toes consistently and don’t respond to the standard over-corrections: “Heels,” “stay back,” etc. This is usually made worse by a lack of weightlifting shoes. For these hard cases, I’ll ask if they can feel where their weight is. Often, the answer will be “no.” They’re either distracted by other concerns in the lift (overthinking it), or they’re not aware of how it should feel. I’ve found a quick series of awareness drills that helps.

  • Standing evenly, with eyes closed, I’ll have the lifter identify where his balance is (if you try this at any given moment, you’ll often find it’s not quite centered) and shift his stance until he is in balance.
  • Then, I’ll direct him to slowly shift his weight around, feeling where the pressure goes and what muscles tense to keep him in place.
  • I’ll have him do a few correct air squats under varying conditions: slowly, pausing at the bottom and top, and then pausing on cue, trying at all times to maintain the weight on the middle of the foot.   

This is meant to be a quick reminder, no more than two or three minutes, but it can be done as often as necessary. I go through an abbreviated “check-in” version of this process for a few seconds before my work sets.

Mid-Foot Balance: A “Master Cue”

The end goal is to make the lifter aware of a sensory input that provides immediate, accurate feedback in real time that is relevant to every standing lift. If the balance is centered, full range of motion is achieved, and the back is neutral or slightly extended, the lift will be good even when the barbell can’t follow a perfectly vertical path, and it will remain correct as the lifter progresses up in weight and the bar path approaches the mid-foot.

Like the first “master cue,” the attention to mid-foot balance occupies the conscious brain with a simple sensory task – feeling your weight – and challenges the body to solve this movement problem (a problem it’s been solving quite naturally since you took your first steps) without the need for conscious interference. Multiple form points must be correct for the weight to remain balanced throughout the whole rep. If the lifter rounds his back, loses tension, or gets too vertical/horizontal at any point in the lift, it will reflect in his feeling of balance. 

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