One of the best technical focuses you should think about in your upper body training is the “break the bar” cue. To perform this technique properly, there is a good chance you will need to fundamentally change the way you currently perform all your upper body exercises; be prepared to go through a several month process of re-learning and re-building your technique and strength.
What is the “break the bar” cue?
“Break the bar” is a way to visualise keeping the shoulders in a strong, stable position of external rotation during upper body barbell exercises. To feel what this is like, hold a broomstick out in front of your body with double-overhand grip keeping your arms straight. Next, externally rotate both of your arms from the shoulders so that your whole right arm turns clockwise and your whole left arm turns counter-clockwise. As you do this, keep your grip firm. You should notice two things happen: firstly, the rotation will make your hands feel like they are trying to snap the broom, and secondly, the rotation will turn your elbows so that their points turn down towards the floor and their creases turn up towards the ceiling. If you try to maintain this feeling during all parts of the range of motion of your upper body exercises (i.e. continuing with the external rotation as you bend your elbows) you will then be employing the “break the bar” cue.
Why is “break the bar” so good?
We wrote in our “Don’t fold your arms!” article that rotating your shoulders internally can create a hunched posture and, more importantly, weaken important muscle groups. The “break the bar” cue promotes external rotation that counters the forward-slumped shoulder position that has been made especially common by activities such as typing at a computer.
What does “break the bar” imply for my favourite upper body exercises?
Let’s consider how you can use this tip across a variety of effective upper body exercises.
Press ups: Keep your elbows close to your sides as you push your hands into the floor and rotate them to break the bar (in this case, you’re breaking the floor). Your hands will feel they are rotating into the floor much like the feet feel when externally rotating the legs during squats.
Bench press: Tuck your elbows in closer to the sides of the body. Lockout the bar with your elbow points facing the foot of the bench, instead of pointing away from each other. This will feel very strange and weak at first, and takes lots of practice.
Pull ups: In the bottom position you may find maintaining external rotation of your shoulders really challenges your flexibility. Do not sacrifice external rotation for the sake of getting a full hang at the bottom of the lift, though. Instead, start each pull from the lowest position you can keep external rotation from, and build your flexibility over time.
Overhead press: Similar to pull ups, you may find you are used to achieving lock-out of the bar by allowing the shoulders to internally rotate. You need to stop doing this. Instead, work half-range reps from the neck to the top of your forehead with strong external rotation, and only increase your range upwards when you can lock-out with a degree of external rotation.
Where these exercises might feel weird, or impede your usual results, it’s important to remember, as with most of our tips on this site, that correct technique is a priority over playing a numbers game. Get the movement right and your body will thank you.