Active Lifting vs Passive Lifting: The Key to Training Longevity

Mark Clevenger

There are two types of lifters in this world, those who primarily lift with active structures and those who lift primarily with passive structures. In order to understand what type of lifter you are we need to give some definitions to these concepts. I define active structures as contractile tissues, or skeletal muscle. This tissue is the driving force of all biomechanical motions in lifting. Passive structures I define as connective tissues that help facilitate the movement produced by the active structures. I’ve chosen to grossly oversimplify each tissue type for the sake of keeping this article form being too nerdy or technical. I want the bigger picture painted with broad strokes in order to make the concepts easy to understand and apply. So hang on to your seats as we discuss the concepts of active and passive lifting, determine what type of lifter you are, and how becoming one type of lifter over the other will increase your lifting lifespan.

The idea that the body lifts, or moves, an object with great form and technique we will call active lifting. This is where joints are stabilized and moved through active structures in order to execute a given lift. In this scenario, the active structures are the pure driving force of motion with the support of passive structures helping them do their job. I equate the active structures to someone driving a car from one destination to another while the passive structures are Google maps telling the driver where to turn step by step on the journey. Google maps aren’t driving the car, you are. You are in control from point A to point B, Google maps is just telling you how to get there.

“…there’s essentially a right, and wrong, way of lifting.”

The idea that the body lifts, or moves, an object with bad form and technique we will call passive lifting. This is essentially where some point in the kinetic chain is inactive while contractile components around this snow birding segment are creating an area through the inactive segment where motion is primarily being facilitated by passive structures. A good example of this the Ninja Turtle rounded back in a deadlift. The spinal erectors and lats have turned off and now the leg muscles are generating pull through the passive structures of the lower to mid back while your arm muscles and traps are holding onto the bar for dear life. Here Google maps in the lower to mid back is driving the car with you in it… and we all know apps can’t drive cars, Google maps is not Skynet and Terminators haven’t time-traveled to stop a robot induced apocalypse… yet.

So why does our body assume the passive structure posture in certain lifts? The answer can be as simple as a muscle weakness. The muscle giving out is not strong enough to hold the position or perform the task it’s asked to perform while a given weight is being moved. The correction for this should be obvious, strengthen the weak muscle (or group of muscles). Sometimes the answer is a matter of mobility, the athlete is not physically capable of assuming the position it’s being asked to assume so the muscles required to prevent passive lifting are never active to begin with. Maybe the problem isn’t one or the other but a combination of both.

“A good coach has eyes for both gross motor function and muscle activation.”

The mobility scenario is more often than not a cop-out for many athletes and coaches who are not skilled enough to coach complex movements or adapt movement patterns to allow a lift to be performed with active structures over passive structures. While true examples of this scenario are less common, when they do occur it’s usually due to postural changes that have occurred over long periods of time (protracted shoulders, shortened hip flexors/hamstrings, ect…) or are purely anatomical in nature (excessive anteversion of the femur). In the case of postural mobility restrictions, start doing soft tissue work and exercises to correct the defective posture. For the anatomical problem, get creative and find a pain-free way to perform a given lift. An example of creativity would be having an athlete with anteversion perform sumo deadlifts from low blocks which clears the hip of impingement in most anteversion scenarios.

So how do you know what type of lifter you are since there are so many different lifts and endless strength deficits or mobility scenarios that can apply to all of these lifts? My best advice is to find an experienced coach to work with. A good coach has eyes for both gross motor function and muscle activation. I know everyone cannot afford a quality coach so for these athletes simply set your fancy smartphone up and record the lifts, record them from different angles, then watch for both gross motor function and muscle activation. The internet is full of great sources to teach us how to perform almost any lift imaginable and what muscles are doing what at each phase of these lifts. Watch the video and ask yourself, am I using the muscles I’m supposed to be using to move this weight? Do I look like a Ninja Turtle when I deadlift? Do I do the chicken wing when I bench? Coach yourself through intrinsic (I feel something) and extrinsic (I see something) feedback into a perfect movement pattern. When finding a weakness this tells you what muscles need more attention in training. When you find yourself unable to get into positions, figure out why and address that mobility problem when applicable. If the problem is suspected to be anatomical in nature get it checked out from a medical professional then get creative and find ways to keep lifting pain-free.

“…passive structures are like a fully loaded AK-47. You only have so many bullets to use before you’re empty.”

By becoming an active lifter you’re improving your quality of movement and increasing the shelf life of your passive structures. I tell people all the time that passive structures are like a fully loaded AK-47. You only have so many bullets to use before you’re empty. If you waste all of your bullets before you’re thirty, you’re going to get to the performance battleground of your 30’s without any ammo and will hurt yourself. These passive structure injuries take a long time to heal which will keep you from training/competing, and what fun is that? No one want’s to dish out copays, visit Dr’s, and go through surgeries that will leave you on your rear end for weeks or months… Plus that whole time you’re out of the gym the weights will miss you. So train to become an active lifter and keep the weights company so they never forget who you are.

Over the course of this short article, I’ve tried to simplify a complicated subject to make a point that there’s essentially a right, and wrong, way of lifting. One way is the long game which leads to a lifetime of training and all of the health benefits that come from it… like looking good with your shirt off. The other way is a sprint where short-term gains are sacrificed for lifting longevity which keeps you from a full life of the health benefits of lifting. I think we can all agree which of these two scenarios is ideal. So go forth and lift with your active structures carrying that full magazine of passive structure ammo with you throughout life, never having to worry about whether or not you have enough ammo to make it through a training session or competition.

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