lumbar extension

How to Learn Midfoot Balance and Set Your Back

Even the relatively basic movements like the squat and deadlift are built on more fundamental skills, each of which is a threshold to mastery of the larger movement. There are two basic human skills that you have to master before you can squat or deadlift at a high level. One is identifying and maintaining your balance. The other is setting your back.

How to Learn Midfoot Balance and Set Your Back 

Last week we talked about the phenomena of phantom limbs and the treatment of them as a window into how our minds control the feel of our limbs and trunk in space. (Read Phantom Limbs and Proprioception.) Additional sensory input—such as visual stimulation from a mirror box—augments the central map that your brain stores of your body. Doctors have used additional sensory information to relieve phantom pain and even “amputate” phantom limbs. We employ the same tactic when learning physical skills. Often we start with a mental image of what the movement entails. Then we begin the process of developing the “feel” of that movement through a combination of mental practice and sensory input. Learning is mostly about how to execute skilled movements in a predictable, repeatable fashion. 

Having Great Skills

There are three basic ways to improve a physical goal: You can train your body, improving your general capacity to perform; you can train your mind, training everything from the practiced motor patterns to dealing with pain and emotions; and you can train your skill, becoming more adept at the specific coordination, precise timing, and consistency that marks high-skill levels. There is some obvious overlap between these domains: Most sports-related tasks have some physical threshold before you can manage to attempt the skill or mental aspects of the task. As we discussed last week, training your mind is part of learning movement. And, a massive skill disparity can often trump physical ability. Still, when we are talking about how to learn movement, we are mostly talking about skill development. 

Skills are entirely task-dependant. Sports offer the most obvious expressions of physical skill. There is a reason that improving your skill at a martial art does not simultaneously improve your basketball, soccer, and baseball skills. Some people are naturally talented and pick up skills in multiple sports quickly, but there are few Bo Jacksons in the wold. The intentional development of a skill requires intentional practice, often built on smaller, more fundamental skills.

Even the relatively basic movements like the squat and deadlift are built on more fundamental skills, each of which is a threshold to mastery of the larger movement. There are two basic human skills that you have to master before you can squat or deadlift at a high level. One is identifying and maintaining your balance. The other is setting your back. 

Maintaining Your Balance

Balance is a state in which the center of mass of an object is located vertically over its base of support. Every object that exists within the gravitational framework of the earth has a center of mass—it is the mathematical average of gravity acting on your body—and because gravity pulls straight down, we are concerned with maintaining that average vertically over your base of support,  an area created by your feet. Front to back, your base of support is represented by your toes to your heels, and from side to side by the width of your feet.

Center of mass and base of support isn’t the whole story, however. Your ability to maintain balance is a combination of sensory input, how you process that input (your sensory perception), and muscular output. There is a lot that goes into keeping your balance.

The sensory input part of balance is concerned mostly with your visual, somatosensory, and vestibular systems. These systems work together. Your brain receives and processes visual input, input from your sense of touch and your sense of position and movement, and movement of your equilibrium determined by the structures of your inner ear. This is a lot of information for the brain to process, so it has dedicated areas for that job.

Your sensory input is transmitted to and sorted out by your brain stem. The brain stem regulates your central nervous system and controls many of the “automatic” muscular responses that help keep you alive, such as your heartbeat and breathing. It also helps control your balance by combining sensory input with learned information. That’s why riding a bike is just like riding a bike. Once you’ve done it enough, your brain knows how to process the information of your balance and make adjustments.

From there, the brain sends signals to the muscular systems that make adjustments for you to maintain your center of mass over your base of support and maintain balance. This motor output mostly results in subconscious micro-adjustments. Lab studies have observed that the more a person tries to control his or her balance, the more difficult it is to do so.

A lot happens for you to simply not falling down. There’s input, processing, and output, with the ultimate goal being one of basic physics determined by gravity. With so much going on, it is difficult to quantify balance in human beings, particularly if we want to know who has it and who doesn’t.

Setting Your Back

Setting your back is lifting shorthand for consciously assuming a position of normal vertebral extension. If you are standing on your feet, any force, including the force of gravity, is going to tend to collapse or bend your vertebral column. This is true of all the joints in our bodies, and your vertebral column is made up of 33 interlocking bones. What keeps us from being a pile of bones on the floor, allowing us to stand upright under the force of gravity, is our muscles. 

Just standing tall, like you are standing at attention, your muscles have stacked your bones and alighted your vertebral column to hold you upright while gravity tries to pull you down. In this position, your body is being compressed in as efficient a way you can manage, meaning your bones are stacked to resist gravity, and your muscles are using the least amount of energy possible to maintain that position. But your muscles are still working. Within your torso, your spinal erectors (erector spinae) are maintaining your posture. This is why if you go from standing at attention to sitting in a chair, you can feel your back muscles relax. They had been working. 

Maintaining posture in this way is critically important to barbell training and is confounded by the fact that we aren’t standing still when we lift, but we are bending over and moving a barbell through space. As soon as you start to lean over, your vertebral column is no longer in compression. Whereas, when you were standing at attention, your spinal erectors were working only to stack your bones one on top of another. Once you lean over, those same muscles work to maintain your posture against a load. With a barbell on your back or in your hands, your spinal column is not only being compressed but also exposed to opposing perpendicular forces. 

Again, because we don’t want to end up crumpled on the ground, the musculature of your hips are working to oppose the force of the barbell that is being pulled down by gravity. These two forces are at war along your spinal column. The rigidity of the column determines how effectively your body can resist the force of the barbell. In essence, you must maintain the same posture you have when standing at attention, in a bent over, loaded position. Your spinal erector muscles’ job has not changed, but the amount of work they have to do to perform that job becomes exponentially harder when you start to bend over and lift weights.

Fortunately, these muscles are massive and strong. The erector spinae is a group of muscles that run the length of your spinal column on both sides, attaching to your vertebrae and posterior rib segments. They are also trainable. Strength and power athletes tend to have large, easily visible spinal erectors, “similar to having two baguettes along each side of the vertebrae.” (Quote and info from “Anatomy Without A Scalpel,” By Lon Kilgore.) And developing these muscles is one of the great benefits of barbell training. Nothing protects your spine better than strong spinal erectors.

The problem is that while most people can stand tall and at attention with no difficulty, many people struggle to hold that posture when they bend over and lift weights. Failure to do so means that your body cannot efficiently resist the load of the barbell, limiting the amount of weight you can safely lift, limiting the training effect you get from lifting weights, and undercutting one of the best benefits of strength training. It is like trying to pry open a door with a rubber hose instead of a crowbar. 

Learning to set your back and learning to maintain a midfoot balance point are two of the most basic skills upon which the big barbell lifts are built. They are also two of the most difficult things to learn by reading a book or watching a video. Here are a few tips for learning or practicing these basic skills

Learning to Control Pieces of the Kinetic Chain

The Superman exercise trains the same muscular contractions needed to assume and maintain extension.

We can use the lessons of the mirror box to develop basic physical skills. Physical movement can be tricky because proprioception (the ability to sense and feel your limbs and torso in space) mostly goes unnoticed. “[N]ot all of the signals generated by a movement reach consciousness, and we perceive only the exafferent component. So, for example, the sensation when we are tickled by someone else differs in quality and is much more intense than when we attempt to tickle ourselves. Part of the mystery of the proprioceptive senses is that much of the afferent information generated by self-initiated movements does not reach consciousness.” (Uwe Proske and Simon C. Gandevia, “The Proprioceptive Senses: Their Roles in Signaling Body Shape, Body Position and Movement, and Muscle Force.”) We do not tend to notice the expected effects of a movement. Instead, the sensory input that makes it to our brains is a combination of what is expected and what has actually occurred. “[I]f a movement goes to plan and there is no mismatch between the expected signals and those actually generated, do definable sensation is produced[.]” (Id.)

Your brain doesn’t know what it doesn’t know. If you are unused to identifying and controlling your balance or your back position, you likely lack the ability to identify and reproduce certain sensations. You must learn to create these sensations where your experience is lacking. You can do this by intentionally replicating the outcome and through additional sensory feedback to establish the correct movement. The additional sensory inputs that will help you develop physical skills are the proprioceptive senses, tactile sense, and visual confirmation of the movement.

Training your midfoot balance cue means being able to feel the pressure on your foot in a particular place. This is, in fact, one way that balance is measured in a lab. If you were standing on a force plate in a lab, being “in balance” would mean you had to control your center of pressure and could move that center of pressure to the middle of your foot. The easiest way to practice this is first without a barbell. Stand upright and rock back and forth (slowly). Feel your balance shift toward your toes and feel the muscles of your leg engage to keep you from stepping forward. Rock back and feel yourself get back “on your heels.” If you rock too far one way or the other, you will have to take a step to keep from falling over. Finally, setting into a point where you feel the least amount of strain or effort to maintain the position. Pay attention to where you feel your weight on your foot. The next step is to squat down (again without a barbell) and do the same thing. Rock forward and back, identify your midfoot balance position. Then stand up while keeping centered on the middle of your foot. People do not usually have to pay attention to their balance. Your body is pretty good at not falling over during everyday tasks. By intentionally taking yourself out of balance and paying attention to your position, you are beginning to develop the sense necessary to make a correction when, while lifting you start to feel yourself getting on your toes at the bottom of a squat or being pulled forward by the load during your deadlift. Through barbell training, you also gradually challenge this skill by loading the barbell incrementally and continuing to execute each lift with perfect form.

Training to set your back is a little trickier. Without a coach, you are going to need to confirm your own ability to set your back. First, use a mirror. You should be able to consciously contract and relax your spinal erectors so that you stick your butt out without moving any other part of your body. This is NOT the position you want to lift in, but being able to create this movement signals conscious control over your spinal erectors. 

If you can’t perform this movement, then it’s time to add additional sensory input to your practice. Lie down on your stomach and perform the “Superman” drill. 

Lying prone, lift your arms in front of you and your legs up behind you so that your shoulders and thighs leave the floor. Squeeze for a slow three count, then relax. Perform 8 to 10 of these contractions. When you do this, you are giving your body a different task (lift your thighs off the floor) that requires the same muscles used to control and maintain your posture. 

Now, stand back up, you should be feeling the modest strain in your spinal erectors from the superman drill. Now, use that feedback to reproduce the contraction. Squeeze and hold. Then relax. Look in a mirror if you need to do so, confirming that you can consciously control your lower back erectors. 

To test this ability, you can lift while having a coach watch you or video yourself performing deadlift setups. Load a deadlift bar and go through the first four steps of the setup. Finishing by squeezing your back into extension but without actually lifting the bar. You should be able to see yourself flatten out your lower back during the final step. This is perhaps the most difficult position in which to set your back. If you can do that here, you have enough control over your back to squat and deadlift efficiently.

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