Get ready, because the concept of torque is about to change your life! (Well, the part of your life you spend in the weight room, at least.)
Ever seen one of those pick-up truck commercials that talks about torque? As in, "check out the mega TORQUE this Ford F-150 has"? With the truck's TORQUE at your disposal, the commercials tell us, you can haul around all your boats, rocks, and wagons full of anvils with the greatest of ease. (FINALLY, I can haul my anvils just where I want them. Thanks, Ford!) But besides being a cool buzzword for truck advertising, torque is one of the most important—and least talked-about—concepts in the world of athletic performance. Want to lift more weight? Use torque. Want to lift more efficiently? Again, torque. Want to train your body to create the most stable positions for optimum performance and injury prevention? You guessed it, friends: torque is the answer.
What is Torque?
But before we get too bogged down in the nitty-gritty of how to apply torque in the gym, let’s first wrap our heads around the term. Torque is, by definition, force generated through rotation. Think about using a screwdriver to assemble your new Ikea bed frame: that’s torque. It’s a super-efficient way to generate a ton of force, or power, with relatively little effort. That’s what all those truck ads mean when they tout the TORQUE capabilities of their machines—more torque means generating more power. And the same concept applies to training in the weight room.
Using Your Big Engines
In order to generate power in weightlifting using the concept of torque, we need to think about where our arms and legs meet our axial skeleton (spine and skull): at the hips and the shoulders. These are the sites of the big muscle “engines” of the human body—glutes and hamstrings at the hip; traps, lats, and rotator cuff muscles at the shoulder—and this is where athletic power comes from. Whether you’re spiking a volleyball or performing a breaststroke, you want your big engines doing the bulk of work. Just like you wouldn’t use a VW Bug to tow a yacht, you wouldn’t use the small muscles of the forearm to perform work when you could be using the biggest muscles of your shoulder, right? This is where the “rubber” of stability and torque meet the “road” of athletic performance.
"Using torque in the gym means rotating your arms and legs into stable positions before and during movements."
Using torque in the gym means rotating your arms and legs into stable positions before and during movements. It’s as simple as that! Ever heard a coach tell you to “shove your knees out” or “screw your feet into the floor” when you’re squatting? That's your coach helping you initiate torque at your hip joint to engage your "engines" of your glutes. How about cues like “spread the floor with your hands” while doing a push-up, or lifting with “armpits out” while pressing a barbell overhead? That helps you create torque at your shoulder joint, ensuring your scapulae are the most stable position possible. The rotational power of torque essentially “screws” your limbs into your axial skeleton, meaning you transfer the work of the movement to those big muscle “engines” and move with more stability, and thus, more power.
The Dowel Test
But don't just take my word for it! This simple test illustrates the power in using rotational force, and is meant to mimic the stability created in your joint capsules when using torque during weightlifting. Find a dowel (or broomstick, baseball bat, etc.) to act as your humerus (arm bone), and a dish towel to imitate the the structures that join your humerus to your shoulder capsule (ligaments, tendons, and fascia). By looping the towel around your dowel without twisting, as illustrated in the first photo below, you can see there is a lot of slack in that "joint" capsule. This slack allows for extra movement, which can put unnecessary strain on your muscles and even lead to injury. But if you twist the towel, like in the second photo, mimicking torque, you create a much more stable structure. Torque literally takes up all the extra slack in our joint capsules, ensuring that our joints are in the most stable positions possible. Torque creates stability; stability transfers the most power; and more power means better athletic performance!
Here at Volt, we are pretty obsessed with good form—because building correct movement patterns is the foundation to improving athletic performance. Squatting 400lbs with terrible form isn’t worth much because it won't create the kinds of performance gains you’re looking for. And worse: it can lead to serious injury. By applying to concept of torque to our strength training exercises, we can create more stable body positions from which to move, and build movement patterns that are efficient at expressing the most strength and power possible.
So, how do you "do" torque? The next time you're in the weight room getting ready for a lift, pause for a second and pay attention to your body positioning. Are your hips and shoulders in the most stable positions possible? If not, how do you get them there? Just like tightening a bolt or screwing the cap back on your water bottle, try to create rotational force at your hip and shoulder joints—for example: during a bench press, create rotational force at your shoulders by trying to "bend" the bar. This helps externally rotate your humerus to more efficiently transfer power from the shoulders through the arms and against the bar's resistance. Or during an RDL, create rotational force at your hips by "screwing" your feet into the ground. This helps your hips transfer power from your legs against the ground to pull your torso upright. It doesn't take a ton of torque to make a difference in your lifting—just around 20% effort is enough to stabilize your limbs. Keep practicing, and you'll be hauling anvils—or, at least, heavier barbells—in no time.
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Learn more about Christye and read her other posts | @CoachChristye