I had a few athletes once come to me during a session with their club team complaining of their backs hurting “like crazy.” Like any normal person would, I asked them when the pain started. For all three of them, the pain started when deadlifting in their PE class (all of them were in the same class). While some may jump to conclusions and start the battle cry for needing high school strength and conditioning coaches, I knew their PE teacher and that they do a decent job teaching and monitoring form with kids. Just in case this was a scenario where something was missed in their class, I had them do some light deadlifts to see what their default form was. Knowing the teacher, I figured the form was going to be fine, which is was. So what was the problem?
Before I continue, I want to address my opinion that those who teach any kind of strength training should have experience in doing it correctly (another can of worms that could get opened). This does not mean that you currently have to be a meathead or chasing some crazy strength goal. But having experience in lifting weights and a good strength program is something I think is highly valuable, because lifting correctly feels a certain way. Which brings us back to our original case regarding these young athletes.
After realizing the form they displayed was correct, my next question was: “What do you feel working when you do them?” The resounding answer was “My back.” The issue wasn’t the form, but the muscle actions created within it.
Especially movements such as deadlifts, kettlebell swings, and back squats, the form can look correct but the muscle action may be off. In these scenarios, coaching someone the correct feeling for a lift is an important component of keeping athletes safe and making progress. Part of this is knowing what the lift should feel like, and the other part is knowing how to communicate that feeling. In the situation with these athletes, none of them felt any type of hamstring or gluteal effort. The movement wasn’t hitting the whole posterior chain, and instead was only a concentric muscle contraction in the lumbar spine.
In working with athletes who have limited to no experience in strength training, communicating how lifts should feel is crucial to their success. Athletes need to be in tune with their bodies and how they work, which is a skill that can be more quickly developed by someone who can describe that same feeling. Not only will it help them perform better, it will keep them healthy for a longer time. Longer health means more time spent on the field/court and less time sitting on the bench. For the athletes above, sitting on the bench means less exposure to college coaches and possibly missing out on scholarship opportunities.
If you teach our athletes to feel movement, you ultimately put the power in their hands for their own success. And when you give them that freedom, they will have the opportunity to shine.