Mechanically Safe vs. Mechanically Ideal

By Colin Farrell

Athletes around the gym may notice, from time to time, hearing coaches dish out cues or tips to other athletes that don’t, on their face, seem to sync up with what another coach (or maybe even that same coach) has told you. There could be a variety of reasons for this, but in this post we’ll address a major one.

Coaching cues, things a coach does/says/demonstrates in order to get an athlete to move a particular way, are a reflection of the relationship between that coach and the athlete, and no one else. Some athletes are visual learners and need a demonstration. Other athletes may be tactile learners and need a coach to physically pull them into the proper position. Coaches are taught that the best cue is the one that works, regardless of how silly, outlandish, or sometimes seemingly “incorrect” it may sound. Consider the following...

Coach Amon is coaching deadlifts today. At the 5AM class, he works with a former gymnast in developing a neutral midline and tells her, “flat back.” Because she is an athlete characterized by incredible amounts of mobility, she is able to flatten out her back with no problem. At the 6AM class, Amon is working with a former ice hockey player. He is not mobile. When Amon cues him to flatten out his back, there is no visible change. As someone who spent their entire career hunch over and leaning forward on a pair of skates, he may feel as though his back is flat, when in reality it looks Quasimodo trying to bend over to tie his shoes. Next, Coach Amon asks him to arch his back. Quasimodo flattens out his back.

When deadlifting, athletes should not, in fact, fall into hyperextension and over-arch the low back. However, that’s what Amon had to tell this particular athlete in order to get him into a good position. Had he told the former gymnast to do this, she would likely have genuinely arched her back into a less-than-ideal situation.

As coaches, it is eternally our hope that you are always getting better. We want you to become stronger, more powerful, more mobile, faster, more coordinated, more agile, and have better balance. As athletes get better, we will aim to move you from what could be referred to as “mechanically safe” or “mechanically efficient” towards “mechanically ideal.” Athletes may hear a coach issuing a set of instructions to one athlete that sound as though they may conflict what they had just been told moments before. In this case, one of you may be working to achieve a mechanically safe position, while that same coach is working with another athlete to get them into a mechnically ideal position. Depending upon the athlete, one may be more appropriate than the other. Here is a great example:

When athletes who are new to working with the barbell, and in particular the Olympic lifts, it is important to get the “big pieces” down first. Once the general, gross movement patterns have been nailed down, coaches and athletes can work together to start getting into the nitty gritty. When the split jerk is first taught to athletes, they are often told to grip the bar “just outside of [the] shoulders”. This a mechanically safe and efficient position, and if athletes performed their jerks like this until the end of eternity, there would be nothing inherently incorrect about it at all. However, if you watch a lot experienced weightlifters, their jerk grip is quite a bit wider than “just outside the shoulder.” They have moved away from what is not just safe or efficient, but towards what is also ideal for them and their performance.

Weightlifters widen their grip because it keeps the bar closer, gives them a greater ability to drive under the bar, and helps them achieve lockout more quickly. However, this also requires a good bit of shoulder mobility and experience under the bar. Thus, it is not taught in this way to brand new athletes. For newer athletes, we just want to get them into safe position so they can nail those “big pieces” of the lift first, not struggle to achieve a wide-grip front rack position.

As you progress as athletes -- as you become stronger, more mobile, more coordinated, faster, et al -- work with your coaches to establish what might be ideal as you become more comfortable with each movement.

One of the great aspects about the functional movements performed at District CrossFit is, more often than not, the fact that the safest way to perform a movement is also the most mechanically ideal. However, we always want to look for ways we can move that needle just a little bit. Even if all it is simply entails is widening up the jerk grip once you have the shoulder mobility to do so.

Keep moving the needle.

Andrew Killion