Written by Adam Tzur
Last updated: 03.06.2017 - Added 3 more studies
- This article contains 31 videos, 42 studies, + articles about anatomy, biomechanics, individualization, physics, and exercise technique. You can read or watch the videos, it's up to you!
- The article is structured as follows: (1) intro to anatomy and biomechanics, (2) Practical application of strength training biomechanics, (3) other exercises, biomechanical models, discussion, and (4) scientific studies on biomechanics for humans.
- Several of the videos discuss how your anatomy affects lifting technique (it's not just about muscle tightness and mobility)
- There is no cookie-cutter technique that is ideal for everyone - See McGill's, Henoch's, and Purvis' videos for details.
- Moment arms change throughout the exercise (i.e. the squat at the top vs. in the hole). This affect when an exercise becomes difficult and also how difficult it becomes. When we hit the position we are least biomechanically efficient in, we tend to hit the "sticking point". Improving the sticking point is particularly important for 1RMs and competitive lifting.
- Overcome the sticking point with ROM-specific training (partials), momentum training, technique alteration, isolation training, and accommodating resistance (i.e. bands):
"If the momentum is supplied to the load at a point in the lift at which the target muscles are in a biomechanically inferior position to exert effective force, this weakness may be overcome" (Arandjelovic, 2012)
- Cheating can be useful in some exercises and for some purposes, but should we always use momentum to cheat? What about isolation exercises? (see Purvis videos)
- Free weights/cable exercises/machines do not provide constant resistance due to inertia, technique, "momentum cheating", and moment arms: "even a linear resistance has a variable resistance" (Purvis, 2015)
- Range of motion can be joint-specific, or exercise-specific (i.e. you can do a full ROM bench without utilizing full shoulder and pectoral ROM)
- Check the Customizable exercise simulations-section to play around with a deadlift/bench/squat biomechanics model (change limb length, ROM, etc.)
- There are 39 biomechanics studies in the studies-section (footwear, technique comparisons, strength-curves, etc.)
This is a collection of biomechanics resources you might find helpful. The resources presented here could help you improve your squat, bench, deadlift, etc. and improve your understanding of why you need to use certain techniques.
Note that some of the arguments made in some of the videos are actively debated in the literature so this isn't the undisputed end-all-be-all of biomechanics.
Anatomy and Kinesiology
Explains the following:
- Skeletal system: joints, girdles, bones, levers, range of movement, etc.
- Muscular system: muscle types, motor units, tendons, muscle insertions and origins, lever system of muscles, agonists, antagonists, types of movement, +++
[themify_icon icon="fa-quote-left"]"Muscle insertions are so frequently found close to the joints they move, therefore the effort is located between the pivot and the resistance (...) the levers of the human body are adapted for range, speed, and precision of movement rather than for handling weight"
[themify_icon icon="fa-quote-left"]"Most skeletal muscles of the body act in third-class lever systems (...) In a third-class lever, the effort is applied between the load and the fulcrum. These levers are speedy and always operate at a mechanical disadvantage (...) An example is the activity of the biceps muscle of the arm, lifting the distal forearm and anything carried in the hand. Third-class lever systems permit a muscle to be inserted very close to the joint across which movement occurs, which allows rapid, extensive movements (as in throwing) with relatively little shortening of the muscle. Muscles involved in third-class levers tend to be thicker and more powerful."
Example of human lever:
Source (illustration is edited for clarity)
Basics of Biomechanics
This is a simplified introduction to leverages, moment arms, and individualized anatomy.
1:36 - 10 lbs of weight is not necessarily 10 lbs of resistance
3:40 - "five lbs is different when it's sitting still and you try to move it, and five lbs moving becomes a different thing when you try to stop it" (...) "it's about changes in speed: acceleration and deceleration"
5:47 - "the way I choose to move [the weight] makes it zero [lbs] at some parts of the range, and 20 at other parts of the range"
6:10 - "did you know that the speed, or more importantly the acceleration and deceleration rate of your client's movement, of your movement, changes the load"
6:50 - "if your [movement] is always accompanied by a weight that is flying to zero, you're never training that end of the motion" (...) "you're using your (...) own inertia, your own mass to overcome that mass"
7:31 - "we're looking for the most weight moved, with the least amount of effect (...) because that acceleration and deceleration reduces the stimulation from the load"
[themify_icon icon="fa-quote-left"]"A moment arm (MA) determines the degree of effectiveness or influence of a force to produce or prevent the rotation of an object around an axis.
Moment arm is the most vital mechanical factor that is consistently ignored by the exercise industry, experts and consumers alike. When presented in formal study it is with such poor examples and lack of reverence that one must assume that the professors themselves don’t really understand its importance in exercise. Below are just a few of the numerous examples of moment arm neglect or misunderstanding.
- Moment Arms and Lever Arms Are Not the Same!
- Free Weights Are Not Constant Resistance
The only free weight that is constant resistance is one that is not moving. A weight that is moving will be a variable resistance due to the potentially dramatic influence of inertial effects, and a weight moving around an axis will always be a variable resistance due to the constantly changing moment arms to each involved joint.
- Cables Are Not Constant Resistance
- Tubing: Greater Stretch Is Not Always Greater Resistance"
[themify_icon icon="fa-quote-left"]the external moment arms at the hip and knee are very long at the start of a lift like the barbell back squat when the weight is closer to the ground, and they get smaller very quickly as you lift the weight. This means that even though the weight of the barbell does not change, the hip and knee joint torques produced by the barbell are greatest at the start of the lift, and reduce as you rise upwards.
Partial and full range of motion training are not as different as you might think from isometric training at short and long muscle lengths. Many exercises with free weights are like squats and have external moment arms that are long at the bottom of the movement, and short at the top. So the total range of motion of the exercise (partial or full) determines the muscle length at which the peak contraction occurs.
On limb length:
The further away a weight is from a joint, the more force is required to lift it. People with long limbs therefore must produce more force to lift the same weight as a person with much shorter limbs (i.e. doing biceps curls with really long vs. short forearms)
[themify_icon icon="fa-quote-left"]A secondary effect of this is that longer limbs mean that any given weight has to be lifted through a longer total distance. Long-armed people have to move the weight further in a flat bench and move through a longer distance when they squat for example.
On muscle length and attachments:
[themify_icon icon="fa-quote-left"]Muscles attach to bones via tendons and these tendons can attach at difference places along the bone in different people. Some people have longer muscles and others have shorter muscles or longer or shorter tendons. For example, common to African Americans are calves that insert very high on the bone; this is fantastic for jumping (for reasons I won’t get into) but terrible for calf growth. You can find people with pecs that simply don’t meet that close together (they lack cleavage), people with shorter or longer biceps, etc. And the end effect of this is that shorter muscles generate less force around a joint (thought they generate it faster) than longer muscles.
What should people with mechanical disadvantages do?
[themify_icon icon="fa-quote-left"]Sumo DL is often superior for people with a very long torso since their low back often gets beaten up or is limiting in the movement: the length of their spine means their low back muscles have to generate more force for the same weight lifted. By making the torso more upright, Sumo eliminates this particular weakness (and the wider stance may additionally benefit long legged folks).
Biomechanical implications of skeletal muscle hypertrophy and atrophy: a musculoskeletal model (Vigotsky et al., 2015)
[themify_icon icon="fa-quote-left"]"By doubling the anatomical cross-sectional area of the biceps brachii and brachialis, the moment arms of each increase by 27.2% and 37.3%, respectively."
Practical application of strength training biomechanics
"Dr. Quinn Henoch takes American Record holding weightlifters Colin Burns and Cortney Batchelor through a hip mobility assessment and along with Max Aita discusses what this means for their squat technique."
[themify_icon icon="fa-quote-left"]"The deep squat is primarily governed by genetics"
From one of McGill's slides:
Illustration below shows how different anatomical structures (genetics) affect our range of movement:
Source: Frederic Delavier (Strength Training Anatomy)
Individual genetics and anatomical variations determine how you need to squat.
Relevant squat quote from another Purvis video:
[themify_icon icon="fa-quote-left"]A 200 pound squat is getting heavier as you lower, due to the changes in moment arms, in other words (...) the torque of resistance at each joint [increases] progressively as you go down and regressing as you go up back to the top and are virtually balanced through each joint with a near-zero moment arm.
Why does this matter? Tom Purvis discusses leg extensions
[themify_icon icon="fa-quote-left"]There is no challenge (...) no moment arm in multiple joints exercises (squats, lunges, leg presses) at full extension
(...) if you were to stumble, you need strength at full extension, you need control at full extension, the leg extension is the best way to do that
I assume this is because the leg extension has a ~90 degree moment arm between the line of force (vertical) and your legs at full extension (horizontal), meaning a heavy workload for your quads at full extension. But I guess it depends on the construction of the machine. I could be wrong on this, maybe someone can comment on the biomechanical nature of leg extension machines
3:18 - "A lot of people think [they have to squat] ass-to-grass (...) it has to be specific to your mechanics, specific to what you're trying to train"
3:45 - "So here's the synposis (...) the joint that travels the most, gets the greatest amount of stimulus"
"if my knee joint travels the most (...) the muscles around that joint will work the most"
[themify_icon icon="fa-quote-left"]"Athlete’s won’t squat the same, and they SHOULDN’T! (...) Athlete comfort will dictate the stance that puts their hip in a better bony position. There are narrow squatters and there are wide squatters. That may have nothing to do with tight muscles or “tight” joint capsules and have more to do with bony hip anatomy.
Very few people are at the end range of their hip motion, so hip mobility drills are definitely a good idea."
08:00 - Why stretching isn't always the solution to butt wink or poor ROM
(this view has been challenged but is still interesting)
Check out Greg's long and detailed articles on squatting, benching, and deadlifting!
[themify_icon icon="fa-quote-left"]"Movements are governed by physical laws. Understanding and applying biomechanical principles to deadlifting technique can result in the lift being more energy efficient and allowing greater peak performance. In contrast, poor body mechanics become less efficient and may cause injury (Stone & O'Bryant, 1987)"
"Choosing a style of deadlifting can best be suited to a person's individual body mechanics. Many variables come into play that may affect the efficiency of the lift. These factors include torso, leg and arm length (Stone & O'Bryant, 1987)."
- You can't classify a deadlift variation as "the best"
- Bar+weight is a major influence in your centre of mass. Especially for those that lift more than their BW
- Bar must follow line of resistance
- Hence, forward lean and raised hip is required, compared to squats. Lifting around the knee is a big mistake
- Moment arms in the DL are not primarily at the knee. Hip/back muscles are primary workers
- Bad anatomical squat proportions may be beneficial for DLs
- Goals for the deadlift (power? Speed? Muscle development? Powerlifting?) affect the ideal execution for the exercise
- Individual genetics (i.e. anatomical proportions) and environmental influences (i.e. previous injuries) determine how you need to do the exercise
- Full ROM isn't necessarily always ideal. Choosing ROM is dependent upon the goal, individual structure, individual control, load, + other factors. Some individuals should not do conventional full-ROM deadlifts.
Check out Greg's long and detailed articles on squatting, benching, and deadlifting
Check out Greg's long and detailed articles on squatting, benching, and deadlifting
[themify_icon icon="fa-quote-left"]"Biomechanical reality everyone should know about: once the [leg press] is moving at a 45 degree angle, you're only lifting 75% of the weight."
"If I do put a 1000 pounds on there (...) this is still a variable resistance because as I lower, as the knee bends, as the hip bends, and the moment arms to each joint change as you lower, this resistance is actually getting heavier as you go down, and lighter as you go up. That's the same as a squat or anything else. A 200 pound squat is getting heavier as you lower, due to the changes in moment arms, in other words (...) the torque of resistance at each joint [increases] progressively as you go down and regressing as you go up back to the top and are virtually balanced through each joint with a near-zero moment arm."
[themify_icon icon="fa-quote-left"]"even a linear resistance has a variable resistance"
See 4:10 for a cable demonstration and practical application
Ben discusses the importance of supination to get the bicep to maximally shorten. Rippetoe also describes this phenomenon in this video.
[themify_icon icon="fa-quote-left"]The full contraction occurs at supination because the biceps are primary supinators of the forearm.
Note: I'm not aware on any studies testing whether bicep curling with supination is superior to neutral grip. This remains speculative, but I still think the video is interesting.
"To understand optimal tricep contraction you need to understand a couple of things."
- The elbow is a hinge joint that can only work in [a vertical] direction (0:32)
- Strength curves (0:56): "Where the cable happens to be at 90 degrees to my arm, is where the resistance is going to be greatest" (1:10)
Perspectives and discussion
Does cheating pay: the role of externally supplied momentum on muscular force in resistance exercise [Study]
[themify_icon icon="fa-quote-left"]"["Cheating" with momentum] is nearly universally considered counterproductive (Hay et al. 1983; Johnston 2005; Fisher et al. 2011). Indeed, this is readily apparent by noting that in the common vernacular the term used to describe it is ‘‘cheating’’ which is inherently associated with negative connotations.
The principal argument against the use of external momentum in exercise is that it reduces the force applied on the target muscles. When analyzed in more detail, the reduction in muscular force can be seen to emerge from two sources. Firstly, less force needs to be exerted against the load which already has some kinetic energy. Secondly, the ability of the target muscles to produce force is hyperbolically reduced as the speed of contraction is increased (Hill 1953).
While the aforestated argument certainly raises valid points, by itself it does not lead to a conclusive answer regarding the usefulness or lack thereof of external momentum in applying force on the target muscles. The key reason is to be found in the observation that the use of external momentum may facilitate the use of greater loads. If the momentum is supplied to the load at a point in the lift at which the target muscles are in a biomechanically inferior position to exert effective force, this weakness may be overcome allowing greater force to be applied in the range of motion which is better suited for overloading the target muscles. For e.g., at the beginning of the shoulder lateral raise"
[themify_icon icon="fa-quote-left"]"The phenomenon of a sticking point is multifactorial and underlain by complex interactions between different contributing factors that are both athlete-specific and exercise-specific. This makes the problem of addressing an athlete’s sticking point a major challenge in practice. A systematic approach is necessary—guided by empirical observations made in rigorous and controlled conditions reported in well-designed studies, a detailed analysis of an athlete’s performance should be used to identify the most promising training strategy. We identified five key strategies that a resistance training practitioner (coach or athlete) should understand and consider:
- Target muscle strengthening using isolation work,
- ROM-specific training using partial repetitions,
- Development of momentum preceding the sticking point,
- Exercise technique alteration,
- Accommodating or variable resistance use."
Customisable exercise simulations
You can use these links to simulate an exercise through its range of motion. You can customize limb lengths, ROM, etc.
(Below are images, go to the website to alter the models)
Practical applications (4 studies)
- Squatting kinematics and kinetics and their application to exercise performance
- Understanding and Overcoming the Sticking Point in Resistance Exercise
- The Sticking Point in the Bench Press, the Squat, and the Deadlift: Similarities and Differences, and Their Significance for Research and Practice
- Does cheating pay: the role of externally supplied momentum on muscular force in resistance exercise (Arandjelovic, 2012)
Lifting technique and exercise comparison (13 studies)
- A three-dimensional biomechanical analysis of sumo and conventional style deadlifts (Escamilla et al., 2000)
- Comparison of muscle involvement and posture between the conventional deadlift and a 'walk-in' style deadlift machine
- A biomechanical comparison of the traditional squat, powerlifting squat, and box squat
- The high-bar and low-bar back-squats: A biomechanical analysis
- Effect of Knee Position on Hip and Knee Torques During the Barbell Squat
- Stress for Vertebral Bodies and Intervertebral Discs with Respect to Squatting Depth
- Kinematic analysis of the powerlifting style squat and the conventional deadlift during competition: is there a cross-over effect between lifts? (Hales et al., 2009)
- An analysis of high-bar and low-bar back-squat techniques in Olympic weightlifters and powerlifters (Glassbrook, 2016)
- A biomechanical analysis of straight and hexagonal barbell deadlifts using submaximal loads (Swinton et al., 2011)
- A three-dimensional biomechanical analysis of the squat during varying stance widths (Escamilla et al., 2001)
- A study on muscle activity and ratio of the knee extensor depending on the types of squat exercise (Kang et al., 2017)
- Muscle Activation Patterns During Different Squat Techniques
Strength curves (2 studies)
- Human Strength Curves. : Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews
- Effect of initial upper-limb alignment on muscle contributions to isometric strength curves
Footwear (2 studies)
Force-length relationships (3 studies)
- Theoretical determination of force-length relations of intact human skeletal muscles using the cross-bridge model | SpringerLink
- Force-length, torque-angle and EMG-joint angle relationships of the human in vivo biceps brachii | SpringerLink
- Force–length characteristics of in vivo human skeletal muscle - Maganaris - 2001 - Acta Physiologica - Wiley OnlineLibrary
Misc (18 studies)
- Biomechanics of the knee-extension exercise. Effect of cutting the anterior cruciate ligament. | The Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery
- The Correlation between the Muscle Activity and Joint Angle of the Lower Extremity According to the Changes in Stance Width during a Lifting Task
- The Influence of Knee Alignment on Lower Extremity Kinetics During Squats (PDF Download Available)
- The relationship between torque and joint angle during knee extension in boys and men: Journal of Sports Sciences: Vol 19, No 11
- Effects of hip center location on the moment-generating capacity of the muscles
- Effect of knee position on hip and knee torques during the barbell squat. - PubMed - NCBI
- How muscle architecture and moment arms affect wrist flexion-extension moments
- Fundamentals of Biomechanics - Duane Knudson - Google Books
- Estimated mechanical properties of synergistic muscles involved in movements of a variety of human joints
- Hill-Based Muscle Models: A Systems Engineering Perspective - Springer
- Comparison of Strength Differences and Joint Action Duration... : The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research
- In vivo human knee joint dynamic properties as functions of muscle contraction and joint position
- The acute effects of targeted abdominal muscle activation training on spine stability and neuromuscular control (PDF Download Available)
- Muscle volume is a major determinant of joint torque in humans - Fukunaga - 2001 - Acta Physiologica - Wiley Online Library
- Effect Of Barbell Weight On The Structure Of The Flat Bench... :
- Biomechanical implications of skeletal muscle hypertrophy and atrophy: a musculoskeletal model (Vigotsky et al., 2015)
- The geometric curvature of the lumbar spine during restricted and unrestricted squats
- The Female Knee: Anatomic Variations and the Female-specific Total Knee Design