Updated: May 14, 2020
I have a major love hate relationship with block work. High blocks, low blocks you name it and for the first year of my lifting career I dreaded seeing the word “block” in my programming. I spent a good part of that time resisting their purpose and just chalking it up to the fact that they are hard and that I suck at them. I would just go through the motions until I got through my percentages for the day. Phil and Brenden would explain to me all the time, what I should be feeling and why I was doing them, but I was too stubborn and just felt shitty whenever I had them. It wasn’t until I really understood some of my flaws as a lifter that I began to appreciate the blocks as a great training tool. The truth is there are a lot of reasons why a coach might program block work for his or her athletes.
There are several technical flaws that can be corrected or improved through block work. Some of the more common flaws are not enough elbow bend when transitioning under the bar or yanking the bar by throwing your shoulders back. In the beginning, I had a terrible early arm bend and would throw my shoulders back when the weight got heavy. By doing so, I was cutting off all momentum from my legs, and didn’t know how to actively pull myself under the bar. As Phil says,” we want to do less to get more,” and I was doing the most. When you watch the video below, you can see the difference in my shoulders. In the first lift, I yank my shoulders back to try and help me drive the bar and in the second one I actually use my legs and then my elbows bend to pull under the bar.
I had worked through the early arm bend but was still super slow pulling under the bar. I felt fast until I went back and watched videos and couldn’t understand what was missing. There is a timing element that occurs after triple extension and if you bend your arms too soon or don’t bend them enough then that timing will never manifest. Low and behold my elbows were still the main culprit of my speed and timing. We use the cue “elbows up, body down” a lot and even if you understand the concept, if you can’t find the timing then it doesn’t matter. Block work is a great tool to force a lifter to pull under the bar. It places the bar exactly where the lifter needs it to be in order to extend and then rip the body down. As the elbows come up, your body should begin to move under the bar. Having the ability to pull yourself under the bar allows you to know where the bar is at all times and gives the lifter the control to put the bar where they want it; i.e. over their head or in their front rack.
Another important role the elbows play is that if you don’t bend them enough then the bar is going to stay out in front of the body and won’t create as much vertical ascension as it needs to in order to find that moment of weightlessness. Lifting from the blocks are one of the most glaring signs that you aren’t bending your elbows enough. You will end up doing what is known as “clarking the bar”, a term coined after a lifter who took three attempts on the platform and did a giant pull all three times without ever attempting to transition under the bar. Missing from the blocks gets dicey so if you don’t want to die, you’re going to bend your elbows and bend them fast.
We want our athletes to use their legs as much as possible because the legs are the driving force behind the lifts. In order to be able to bend your elbows, enough force must be generated by an athlete’s legs to drive the bar up and because there is no extra momentum, they have to be fast and find the connection in the timing. When you see an athlete yanking their shoulders back, they are cutting off the force generated by their legs and can often create a looping in the bar as they disconnect from it. That loop in the bar takes away any chance an athlete had to even bend the elbows without it turning into an awkward upright row. Either way, that disconnect from the bar will inevitably end in a missed lift. While using the blocks, the lifter is forced to move their body around the bar from a dead stop. The necessary production of force that is needed in the lift can be better understood coming from the blocks because other variables of the lift are removed. Once the power production is reinforced from the blocks it will translate over to the main lifts.
Aside from technical advantages to block work, athletes who are working through injuries can use the blocks to continue working on technical elements without compromising their rehab. Obviously, this depends on what the injury is and how severe it is, but the blocks are a great way to continue working on technique while giving the athlete the training stimulus they would get from other variations of the lifts until they are cleared. The blocks are used a lot for people who experience low back pain or have a low back injury. Not only does it reinforce the push through the legs but places the athlete in a better position to engage their core to move the bar. Other common injuries where block work can keep the athlete training are knee and hip issues. If the athlete has a tough time getting into his or her start position, the blocks can be placed at different heights to accommodate the injury. The blocks can be used in a variety of positions; at the shins, below the knee, above the knee, and even the top of the drive. If a lifter is experiencing some pain or discomfort in their low back, then pulling from the floor may not be an option. However, the blocks create a leverage advantage to allow them to get their training in without causing further damage.
In the end, whether the blocks are a temporary training solution due to rehab or a technical tool to improve your understanding of the technique behind the lift itself, the next time you see blocks in your programming, don’t think of them as a punishment. No matter how awkward or uncomfortable, remember that they serve a purpose. If you invest the time to understand what that purpose is, as it pertains to you, then you will begin to see a great deal of carryover from your block work into your regular lifts.