Torque – The Secret Sauce of All Movement

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Mary Kay
Mary Kay
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In last year’s CrossFit Games, we saw several men get injured (i.e., pec tears) while doing kipping pull-ups on rings. Experts speculated it was due to inadequate warm-up or not enough horizontal pressing in their training programs. But something didn’t add up. If that were true, why didn’t any of the female athletes get the same injury doing the exact same exercise? Well, I’m one of those who constantly asks why is something working or not working. And although I’m not a CrossFitter, my curiosity was peaked. I had to know why the men, but not the women, got pec tears? As I talked with my teachers, turns out some of the men were making a common movement mistake. They were applying the wrong force to the wrong muscle chain…in essence not using torque correctly. I also learned that torque is the ‘secret sauce’ that every adult strength seeker can learn, practice and master in order to grab and maintain high levels of strength and performance…even as we age. You just need to learn a few simple tenets.

What the Heck is Torque?

There are many opinions on what torque is. In fact, many strength coaches don’t teach lifters about torque because they think it’s too complicated. Kelly Starrett first talked about it in his book The Supple Leopard. He described it as the way lifters rotate their arms and legs in order to stabilize the joints so that they can receive heavy loads overhead or while in a squat. Movement specialist Julien Pineau, however, thinks of torque as the tension being created during movement. He says, whenever we go through a movement pattern (e.g., push, pull, hinge or squat), we must create torque. Simply put, torque is a force generated through rotation, and this tension is created internally (toward the body) or externally (away from the body). A twisted towel, for example, is denser and stronger than an untwisted one. Same idea applies to muscle groups and joints. When a boxer throws a punch, he turns his arm, wrist and hand inward…with internal torque. Hence, more torque = more tension, which means more power or strength.

Mapping Torque to Muscle Chains

If you think about it, the pec muscle cannot do anything by itself. It has to be activated as part of a movement pattern to do work. And each movement pattern uses a different type of torque. For example:

  • Push (Bench Press) = Internal Torque (aka pec as prime mover with assistance from triceps, teres minor and external obliques)
  • Squat = Internal Torque (aka inside head of hamstring, internal thoracic spine, external obliques and glute max) on the way down and up to parallel on the way up. Then, it switches to external torque (aka outside head of hamstring, lumbar spine, internal obliques and glute med).
  • Pull (Lat Pulldown) = External Torque (aka lats as prime mover with assistance from biceps, lumbar spine and internal obliques.)
  • Hinge (Deadlift) = Uses internal torque (aka inside head of hamstring as prime mover, internal thoracic spine, external obliques and glute max)

The key message here is all movement patterns use some form of torque. So, why did so many men suffer from pec tears during the last CrossFit games? It wasn’t because of poor warm-up, shoulder mobility or even too much volume. (Note: Some of the men actually tore their muscles during the first set of 21.) It’s because CrossFit doesn’t include much, if any, methods that are focused on horizontal pushing (aka bench press) or the development of internal torque. Thus, when an undertrained, relaxed muscle is asked to fully contract, repeatedly…for time, it breaks as it simply cannot handle the load. Women, on the other hand, naturally employ internal torque to do any sort of dip work. That is, they engage the triceps, pec minor and teres minor when pressing up on the rings. Remember the twisted towel analogy. Muscles that are entwined together are stronger together.

Torque is a “Feeling”

Interestingly, most people under-estimate the importance of torque in the way they move. They’ve even found a connection between internal/external torque and the sympathetic and para-sympathetic nervous systems. That is, some methods will help you sleep better and others make you sleep worse. It’s just another example of the brain-body connection. Additionally, Pineau says most people mistakenly believe if a movement patterns looks perfect, they’re fine. But torque doesn’t work that way. If the wrong force is applied, you’re activating the wrong muscle chain. Hence, he always gives his trainees a physical cue and a “feeling” cue to make sure they’re engaging the right torque. Let’s follow an example using the deadlift.

When learning the deadlift, one of the common cues trainers give are to:

1) Spread the floor with your feet and 
2) Initiate the pull by driving the knees out.

When you do that, guess what? You’re recruiting the wrong muscle chain: outside head of the hamstring, internal oblique and glute med. That’s external torque. It works fine for a while, but once you start moving heavier loads, those muscles get tired and pull on the muscles and SI joints of the lower spine. How many people have developed back pain or injury doing deadlifts? It might be because they’re using the wrong torque for that movement pattern.

The hinge (aka deadlift) uses internal torque, and it’s created by loading up the ‘inside’ head of the hamstrings and pushing the obliques out. This means with your toes forward, gently squeeze a ball between your thighs about ¼” (physical cue) until you feel tension in the inside of your thighs (feeling cue). Likewise, where do your hips need to be? If your hips are too high in the starting position (such as in stiff legged deadlift), you lose torque which means less strength. We don’t want that. If you start too low and can’t internally rotate, then you can’t engage the internal hamstring. We don’t want that either. So, the starting position should be one that allows you the ability to create tension in the inner thighs without moving the hips (up/down) before pulling the load. (Tip: if the best starting position is deadlifting off of plates or blocks, do it.) When you deadlift this way, you will feel a completely different sensation in your body…more load on the hamstrings, less on the lower back. Speaking as someone who once dropped deadlifts from her training because of lower back pain, I can now do them again with no issues. For more tips on how to use internal torque to hinge correctly, check out this video.

More Torqueing, Please

The role of internal torque is not just underrated, it’s completely missing in most adult training programs. I gave one example around the deadlift, but I’ve noticed it’s not well used for other hinge movements like the barbell or DB bent over row, BB good morning and many overhead pressing methods. I’m quite sure many adults are developing muscle imbalances and don’t even know it. Fortunately, the vast majority of these imbalances can be prevented through a fairly simple prescription of exercises: rope pulls, sled drags, sled pulls, DB farmer’s carries, Trap Bar carries, timed holds, goblet squats and specific isolation work.

To keep things simple, I recommend adding a few exercises at the end of your low stress training days (aka not heavy or max days).  Basic guidelines: 

  • Methods:  Pick 1 lower and 1 upper body exercise
  • Time:  3-5 rounds; no more than 15 minutes MAX
  • Sample Workout #1:  Sled drags or sled reverse pulls for 30-50 meters, followed by 10 kettlebell swings
  • Sample Workout #2:  Sled pushes for 30-50 meters, followed by 1-Arm KB shoulder carries for 30-50 meters

What makes these exercises so effective is besides being very low in skill and involving no eccentric movement, they target the inside of the legs, teres minor, triceps and external obliques very well (aka develop internal torque).

So, here’s what I want you to take away from this. In your upcoming strength training sessions, pay attention to whether you are doing a push, pull, hinge or squat movement pattern and whether you are using internal or external torque. If you’re not sure, simply think about and engage the prime muscle mover first.

  • Push= Pec (If you can’t feel it, imagine breaking the bar with your hands
  • Pull=Lat (If you can’t feel it, imagine holding a walnut between your shoulder blades)
  • Hinge=Internal Hamstrings (If you can’t feel it, imagine gently squeezing a ball between your thighs)
  • Squat= Inside and Outside of Hamstrings + Glutes (If you can’t feel the difference, practice the squat in 2 steps: first squatting or lowering to pins while keeping tension on the inner legs. Rest, then practice coming up from pins or from the lowest position that is comfortable. The key is to not lose tension at any time during the squat when transitioning from one torque chain to another.)

Julian Pineau continues to hold seminars for strength seekers and coaches alike. For dates, check out his Principles of Movement and Coach’s Week seminars on his website. So, hope you remain curious. And always…seek strength!!