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.

Movement Economy in Sports

April 5th 2017

If I asked the average athlete to define movement economy for me, I would probably get some form of a generic answer in the ballpark of “exercising correctly.” While variations of this answer, along with this specific answer itself are not entirely incorrect, they do lack substance. In this article I aim to clarify this concept and operationally define movement economy as it relates to sporting performance through a detailed and layered description for athletes to use in both training and competition.

The broadest sense of movement economy in sports starts with the theory of specificity. The idea that the things we do the most, and the manner in which we do them, are the things we become best at. So if I’m an Olympic swimmer, I would want to perform exercises that have the most transfer of training to my sport in both movement selection and energy system utilized1,2. Now, this doesn’t mean other less specific exercises and energy systems don’t have a place in my periodized training depending on what phase I’m in, it just means they don’t make up the bulk of any of my training cycles. In this instance with regards to movement economy in sports, according to the theory of specificity, I would want to become proficient at the exercises that directly make me a better swimmer. You can see that this broad concept is also rooted in the idea of programming economy for sport. I will refer you to my article titled ‘Programming Economy’ for a more detailed description of this foundational concept of movement economy.

While the theory of specificity and the concept of programming economy, broadly outline the programming aspect of movement as it relates to sporting form, it fails to cover the specific movement patterns of the individual performing the exercises prescribed. After learning new movement patterns our bodies tend to quickly and grossly adapt these patterns to the capabilities of the individual in an effort to merge the function of movement with the minimal amount of metabolic energy expenditure required3. Our bodies will integrate and accommodate their own unique combination of dimensions and mechanical characteristics so that they arrive at specific movement patterns for an exercise which is most economical for them4. Essentially our bodies will perform the exercise prescribed, outside of the influence of fatigue and intensity, within our physical limits in a way that uses the least amount of energy possible. This sounds like the epitome of movement economy in sport right? I mean, how much more economical can our bodies be if they naturally adapt to movement in the most energy conserving way possible within the physical limitations of the individual? While this notion sounds like the holy grail of an operational definition, it fails to address the effect of fatigue and intensity on movement, which is the foundation of any sporting event. It also fails to address the potential for increasing movement economy, which as we will see is correlated to increases in sporting performance.

So when thinking about increasing movement economy two big questions should come to mind that need to be addressed. Can an athlete’s movement economy be increased? If so, how?

With regards to these questions, we must start by understanding the role of movement economy on energy consumption. Generally, the less dynamic appendicular and axial displacement that a person mechanically generates outside of what is absolutely necessary to complete a physical task, the less energy they will use. Example: If I perform a bicep curl where I bend forward, pop my hips, curl my arm, and flex my shoulder, how much energy have I used compared to standing erect and neutral while performing a strict arm curl without flexing my shoulder? They both achieved the desired outcome but the ‘cheating’ version created the most appendicular and axial displacement, and thus used more energy. The less body movement utilized to reach a movement objective is the backbone of our operational definition of movement economy in sport.

Now that we understand the backbone of our operational definition, we can start to address the two big questions. Any deficiency in movement economy can essentially stem from 3 major sources, they can be fatigue induced, structurally induced, or strength failure induced. Fatigue induced refers to how our attention to movement detail goes out the window as our heart rate and respiratory rate get really high. Our focus shifts from monitoring our movement in space to, “I hate this, why am I doing this” and then to “just get the next rep.” This is when our elbows start to drop in front squats causing a forward trunk lean, or kipping pull ups become less rhythmic and more spastic like a flopping fish. If you just took the time to slow down a minute and refocus on your form it will save you energy (and help prevent injury) for the rest of the workout. Sometimes to take 2 steps forward we have to take 1 step back. The best part about this movement economy deficiency is it can be fixed right now and everyone has direct control over it.

The second movement economy deficiency source refers to those which are structurally induced. This is where we lack the functional range of motion (ROM) across certain joints to perform a specific exercise as efficiently as it could be performed if we had full functional ROM in those joints. This is where mobility work and redneck strength coach engineering comes into play. The long term answer to this problem is stretching and mobility work aimed at achieving a desired ROM across a restricting joint in a certain movement pattern. The problem is this takes a lot of time and doesn’t happen overnight. That doesn’t mean you should ignore it, it just means you have to work at it a little every day until the mobility fairy visits you one night and blesses you with the ROM needed to efficiently perform the movement you’re aiming to improve. Not sure where to start on this? Find a local Physical Therapist and make an appointment.

The short term answer to structurally induced movement economy deficiencies is what I call redneck strength coach engineering. Let’s say you have trouble getting into the front rack position for front squats (this is my go to example). Should you just perform them to the best of your abilities? Even if this makes you hunch forward during your squat, creating greater torque demands on the spine, and shifts your COM forward forcing you onto the balls of your feet? The correct answer is no you shouldn’t. This not only requires much more energy to perform the movement in this manner, but performing broken reps like this increases your risk of injury. Plus, it does nothing to increase your ROM/mobility. This is where you become a strength coach and engineer ways to perform prescribed movements closer to the economical standard so you can safely put in more work. For the example given, you could use lifting straps around the bar that will help you achieve higher elbows, a more upright posture, and more stable front rack position. Just by tweaking how the movement is performed you have increased your work abilities for the training session and reduced your chance of injury.

The Third movement economy deficiency source is strength failure. This is where you are performing perfect repetitions and everything’s going great, then one muscle group gives out and you find yourself performing reps in a manner that is sapping every ounce of available energy from you. A good example of this is yoke walks for strongman. The reason you wrap your arms around the implement, or have your hands inside and press out on it, is to create stiffness in your upper back. This helps stabilize the core which creates a more efficient walk under heavy loads applied to the upper back. If your upper back gives out because it’s not strong enough to perform the action it’s tasked to do, the implement starts to move around, your steps become random, and your core begins to torque and flex under the load. Moving in such a manner requires so much more energy than when walking with the yoke and the only thing moving on your body is your legs. The moral of this story is, if you have a limiting factor in your movement economy that is strength failure related, back off the weight to perform the reps correctly, and start to program more exercises into your training to bring this freeloading muscle group up to speed with the rest of your body.

If you’re an athlete in any sport finding ways to improve your movement economy in your training and sport should be a top priority for you. One of the common denominators for successful athletes at the highest levels of all sports is impeccable movement economy within their sporting performance. With increases in sport-technical indicators we see an increase in sport qualification, which leads to high achievements and sport mastery5. In other words, at these higher levels of competition the natural selection process tends to eliminate athletes who have failed to either inherit, or develop, characteristics which favor movement economy in their sporting performance6. I like to use Rich Froning as a good example. This man won the Crossfit games 4 years in a row and every time I watched him compete, every repetition of any lift he performed looked the same. From the first rep, to the last, there was very little variation. His movement economy was almost perfect and that’s one of the reasons why he was always in the top 3-5 finishers in every event, and subsequently had more gas in the tank at the very last event compared to all the other competitors. So if you compete, in anything, movement economy in your sport should be something you pay attention to for every repetition you spend at the gym and on the platform. Need mobility work? Do it. Not strong enough in a certain area of your body? Get stronger there. Tired and not paying attention to your body while training? Suck it buttercup and pay attention to it. This is a major part of how great athletes are created.

To review the outline of this operational definition, we started by talking about the theory of specificity and programming economy, and how this helps narrow the scope of our programming, exercise selection, and means of exercise application. With the programming in place, it’s important to understand that outside of the influence of fatigue and intensity, athletes will quickly learn to perform the prescribed exercises as efficiently as possible within their physical limits, but sporting performance is not void of fatigue and intensity so we shouldn’t be content with this. We should ask ourselves, can we make it better? This led us to defining the means by which movement economy is decreased and movement deficiencies occur, excessive axial and appendicular displacement. From here we worked to categorize the 3 types of movement deficiency sources that create this energy consuming movement pattern, fatigue induced deficiencies, structurally induced deficiencies, or strength failure deficiencies. Being able to recognize the source of these gives us the opportunity to either spot correct them (fatigue induced), or work to correct them through mobility training and exercise selection (structurally induced and strength failure). At this point, understanding the impact of these dysfunctional patterns on sporting performance is to understand the correlation between high movement economy and sport mastery achievement. All of this information together helps complete our understanding of how movement economy is compromised, corrected, and maximized which gives way to an understanding of how this operational definition is applied across the spectrum of various training environments and sporting events.

Now I’m not a smart guy, nor did I stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night, so I’m not just trying to make something more difficult than it has to be. Just like anybody else, I appreciate simplicity for simplicity’s sake, but as athletes we have to understand the complexities of certain concepts as they relate to our sport in order for us to progress. This is why I have clarified the concept of movement economy and operationally defined it for athletes to use both in training and competition. So take this information, implement it into your training, and become a movement master in your sport. Your PR’s will thank you for it.


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