Universal Muscle Recruitment
by Erik Castiglione
Louie Simmons, the “Godfather of strength,” once defined strength as “universal muscle recruitment.” What this means is that to lift the most possible weight, that is, to be as strong as possible, you need to be able to fire all your muscles. Squatting? Great, brace your core, pull the bar into your shoulders and crush it in your hands, and now your upper body is active and will be involved in what is otherwise a lower body lift. Benching? Grab the bench with your shoulder blades, squeeze your butt, and “spread the floor” with your feet. Your lower body is now involved in an upper body lift. We can apply these same ideas to every lift – engage your whole body, and you will be stronger.
Our quote in this week’s Viking Lore was “Make light weight feel heavy, and eventually heavy weight will feel light.” What David Otey means by this is that we can practice universal muscle recruitment with unweighted or lightweight movements. By training ourselves to do this, we can tap into every possible muscle and FIRE when it really matters, which is under heavy weights. Practice tensing everything, and actually think about what you’re squeezing – the “mind-muscle connection” is a real thing. Look at the video below for example:
I’m squatting normally on the left side. I’m relaxed everywhere except for my legs, which allow me to descend and ascend into and out of my squat. On the right side, I’m squeezing EVERYTHING. My core is tight, my hands are clenched, and to be able to descend, I have to push my knees out to pull my hips into the hole. It requires much more effort. The process of tensing all muscles surrounding the ones being worked by a lift is called irradiation, and it’s immensely helpful in making us stronger, more efficient, and safer when we lift.
The downside of irradiation is that sometimes our muscles are firing when we don’t want them too, which can result in pain. Poor position, long periods of sitting, and lack of recovery measures (foam rolling, stretching, breathing, etc.) can exacerbate this. A great example of this is low back pain. When we talk about the low back, we’re generally referring to our lumbar spine, which is just below our rib cage. At the top of our low back is the T-12, or 12th thoracic vertebra. This joint is super important – our hip flexors (psoas, specifically) and our lats both insert at this joint. If we spend a lot of time sitting, we can “shorten” our hip flexors. This means that they are frozen in a contracted position, as if we’re “firing” them intentionally. Since they insert in our low backs, our low back muscles (spinal erectors) begin firing as well. The long term result of this is back pain.
(As a fun aside, ever do a pull-up and notice that you’re inadvertently pulling your knees up in front of you? This is due to unintentional irradiation. Since your lats and psoas insert at the same point, you’re unintentionally firing the psoas while intentionally engaging your lats.)
So, our goal is to learn to fire everything when we want to, and shut everything off when we don’t. Learning to fire can be done during our warm-ups – think about tensing your muscles during corrective exercises like bird dogs, glute bridges, and thoracic rotations. And, think about it during light and unweighted movements in the group warm-up, and in your light warm-up sets of the main movement of the day.
Turning muscles off requires some effort too. Post workout, foam roll the main mover of the day – if it’s a squat day roll out your quads immediately after the WOD – and then stretch. You can also practice “breathing into your muscles.” This is best done as a relaxation technique while in bed, right before you sleep. Start by taking a couple deep breaths. Then, you’re going to work your way from top to bottom. As you breathe in through your nose, contract your shoulders. Relax them as you exhale completely through your mouth. Next, breathe in again through your nose, and contract your chest. Relax as you breathe out through your mouth. Rinse and repeat for your arms, abs, glutes, quads, and calves, and you’ll sleep like a baby.
The bottom line – irradiation is our friend. We want to be able to use it when we need it, and turn it off when we don’t. This takes practice and conscious effort. Master it, and you’ll be stronger for it.