Lately I’ve had a lot of stuff swirling around in the ol’ noggin, what with training clients, organizing a couple different products to be released soon, getting some presentations ready for future seminars and workshops, plus building a house and digging out of the occasional spring snow storm. 2 words: SNOW BLOWER!!!
As a result, I’ve been thinking more about what I’ve been doing in terms of my own training as well as the training of my clients, and wanted to pass along a couple of thoughts about some of the stuff I’m considering more these days. Todays post will look at stuff that rolls around squats.
1. Pause squats are highly underrated
Lately I’ve been taking a bit more of a shine to squats over deadlifts. Last year I developed a bit of a digestive issue from heavy lifting and wound up with a minor hiatial hernia. Essentially, it felt like my esophagus was being ripped out every time I lined up for a deadlift, and I would wind up with some nasty acid reflux following heavy lifting. I started doing more squats, and funny enough I’ve had no issues.
One aspect I’ve really enjoyed with squats is involving loaded pauses at the bottom of the reps. This is usually done with 225 or even 315 for a 5-10 second hold, all while trying to maintain tension through the core and breathing to ensure a higher level of control compared to just going through the movement.
For those who don’t have the hips to get to the bottom of their squat without feeling like a walking ball of hurt, a pause squat can be a great isometric exercise to help them feel where they are in terms of their anterior-posterior placement. Essentially, if their line of gravity is forward towards the ball of their feet, their initial movement out of the hole will cause a little more valgus collapse and also cause the knees to extend sooner than the hips will come forward, and as a result will make the movement more of a near-max good morning compared to a squat.
When doing pause squats, start with a light weight, such as the bar, and work on holding a steady position at the bottom for 5-10 seconds, moving up to 30 seconds if you’re bored and have nothing better to do. Gradually increase the weight to a point where you’re challenged, but still able to complete the movement. These shouldn’t be done to failure or essential fatigue, just to the point where you’re feeling groovy and ready to push some more serious weights. For me, 315 is the max I would use, and I recently managed to squat 405 for 3 singles. Not bad for an old-ish guy with a bad back and a Fivehead.
2. Most squat restrictions aren’t muscular
Let’s say you try to do an overhead squat and it winds up looking like a rusty hinge. in many cases people would look at it and say you needed more mobility, and in some cases they may be right.
In my experience there’s a huge difference between skilled execution of a well-heeled exercise and movement novelty in terms of the overall mobility an individual can display. For example, the individual above may be told by any number of trainers that they have tight ankles, hips, or thoracic spine.
Let’s see how they perform in a different scenario and see if those areas are actually “tight” by doing similar movements in different directions or under different loads/stressors and see what happens. In this example, let’s see how mobile his hips are by having him do more of a horizontal squat and see how he performs.
If the person can replicate a similar squat pattern here to full depth, it’s not a mobility problem. Likewise, if they can do a goblet squat to the floor, it’s not a mobility problem.
They may very well be tight through the thoracic spine or shoulders, in which case you could test their movements in a similar manner, and if the outcomes are consistently good, then mobility won’t solve anything.
Practice is a key component to many sports where skill is necessary. No matter how many times a pro basketball player has shot a free throw, they still miss on occasion. They probably were much less skilled when they started too, so when someone has never performed an overhead squat, you’re damn right they’ll suck at it. Once they’ve had a chance to get 500-1000 reps under their belt, they’ll likely be much better at it, not by any mobilizing or what not, but simply because they improved their skill at the movement.
I’ve rarely had a deconditioned beginner client who was great at any movements, and also very few athletes who have never had to perform an overhead squat in their sport or training universally are terrible at them. That doesn’t automatically mean “muscle imbalances” or “restrictions,” just a skill deficit.
3. Valgus collapse is less about technique and more about reaction
We all know that if the knees collapse during a jump landing it increases the risk of ACL injuries, plus robs the body of vertical leg drive that will result in some piss-poor performance.
This is obvious when you look at a lot of beginners learning how to do the squat, regardless of the type or position of the loading. Most people will gain some significant pronation from the feet, internal rotation from the hips, and knee valgus as a basic instinct of their squat pattern since they have no other idea of how to squat. Women specifically seem to demonstrate this, and there could be something culturally recognizable in terms of how they’re constantly told to bend and squat with their knees together. That’s just my two cents though, maybe it’s something else.
When you look at elite lifters performing olympic lifts or near or at max lifts in powerlifting, they will still occasionally exhibit some valgus collapse. The amount of valgus is a big limiting factor to whether they can pull the lift off or not. In many cases, more than a 20 degree collapse will cause them to miss the lift.
Some of this has to do with the alignment and activation of the adductors and glutes from the bottom of the squat position. It’s very difficult to get the glute max to fire when it’s at the bottom of the squat.Hip extension power is typically at its lowerst at the bottom of a squat, increasing to max at about 80% of the top of the movement. A big influence of the glute max is not simply to extend the hip but to produce external rotation to combat valgus collapse. If at the bottom of the squat the glute max power output is less, the external rotation force coming from the glutes is less as well.
Likewise, at the bottom of the lift, the adductor muscles are in a more power position being in a flexed hip situation. Essentially, the muscle is slightly shortened compared to standing, and has a greater leverage to producing power. When driving out of the squat, the entire hip musculature contracts to produce vertical power, including the adductors, which would cause internal rotation if not combatted by the glute max to resist it. The two combine to produce frontal plane stability through co contraction, while also producing hip extension. There’s always a cost of doing business, and in many cases, loaded to max or near max loading squats at the very bottom of the movement will likely produce some valgus.
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When you watch even the strongest guys and girls in the world move weight at or above their max, they’re almost inevitably going to have some valgus collapse. Is this a bad thing? If it’s greater than 20 degrees, it will likely cause some problems, and if it’s repeatedly done during training and not adjusted to reduce the total repeated frontal plane movement. At the end of the day, when you’re on the platform going for a new PR, it likely won’t be pretty. Many lifters will tell you they spend much more time at lower resistances trying to work on technique and actively reducing their knee movement so that they can stay healthy for a longer career.
4. Long torsos squat better than long femurs
If you have a longer torso, that’s a long lever acting against your favour in a deadlift, whereas is you have a shorter torso and longer legs, you’ll likely be able to pull a Mac truck off it’s suspension. Conversely, longer femurs can give some poor geometry when it comes to squatting and finding your vertical axis for a reasonable depth. In many cases, someone who has longer femurs and a shorter torso will suck ass when it comes to back squatting, but do favourably well with front squats or goblet squats simply because of the repositioning of their center of gravity in relation to their vertical axis.
Someone with a longer torso and shorter femurs will have a much easier time squatting, and if they’re fortunate enough to have a more anteriorly centrated acetabulum, they’ll be able to drop it like it’s hot without even batting an eye.
Some people will just have the genetic luck to excel at certain activities, but at a cost of poor performance at others. If you’re fortunate enough to be good at both, more power to you.
5. Breathing Patterns will change with load and fatigue
Breathing is somewhat of the new hot button topic in fitness, and in many ways rightly so. More people are becoming aware of how the impact of restricted breathing patterns can cause an effect on core performance, but as with anything we can have people overdoing it. I’ve heard trainers talk about how some clients diaphragms aren’t working or aren’t doing anything, to which I respond “how did you get them to reattach their phrenic nerve?”
If they are able to walk in and talk to you, their diaphragm is working, but might not fire as the first instant of abdominal bracing or get full range of motion with respiratory cycles. That’s different from not working. It kills me a little every time I see a weekly boot camp class getting all of their participants to do very specific breathing drills in a group setting with people who may not need it and who have just decided that they need to work on breathing mechanics.
Not everyone does or should need breathing mechanics exercises.
Additionally, many people wind up throwing the baby out with the bath water and make the diaphragm the focus of everything involved in breathing. The downside to this is that there’s other muscles and zones that cause breathing, including the scalenes, intercostals, and thoracic extensor longus through the spine. Breathing needs to look at everything if it’s going to be looked at, so focusing entirely on diaphragmatic movement without considering the entire capsule is a bit of a fools errand, and additionally it’s going to change depending on the situation.
Do you really think the diaphragm is going to obey the same rules when you’re on your back as when you have a house on your back? The techniques are going to be antagonistic to each other, so learning how to do abdominal expansion drills without letting the obliques and rectus dominate the movement and doing a strong valsalva with a bar on your back while you take a dip are going to be two very different objectives with very specific techniques and learning curves.
This again comes back to the learning aspect of training. If someone is breathing too inconsistently during their sets, without getting a strong valsalva through the eccentric and amortization phases of the lift, they’re going to wind up having a hard time creating the kind of spinal stability needed to move weight without exerting a lot more effort than needed, which will kill their gains. It could also cause their intracranial pressure to spike, leading to them taking a quick nap.
I hope you’ve enjoyed some of these. Again, they’re just stuff I’m thinking about, and some of the conclusions I’m coming to from what I see on a regular and irregular basis.