Tout dans la vie est une question d'équilibre d'où la nécessité de garder un esprit sain dans un corps sain.


Everything in life is a matter of balance therefore one needs to keep a healthy mind in a healthy body.


E. do REGO

Monday, December 31, 2012

Stretching Doesn't Work

The Contreras Files IV: 15 Practical TipsI spend most of my day working with sedentary office workers who toil in cubicle mines for an average of 8-12 hours a day. Not surprisingly, most arrive at my door with the mobility of a clam, which makes training them to do even simple things like hip hinges, squats, and other staples of a training program a challenging endeavor.
However, static stretching alone is not the answer. In fact, it barely provides any benefit at all.
No matter how much time a client spends stretching, they typically see only transient improvements in flexibility and negligible improvement in motor control when performing any movement using that new range of motion.
As a result, I've dropped almost all static stretching from my programs in favor of some more advanced mobility methods I'll discuss here.

Banana Hammock Splits

Let's start with the basics. "Mobility" means increasing the usable range of motion at a joint or joints in the hope that this increased range of motion allows for performance benefits and injury prevention.
This new range of motion should stick, or at least be something you can get back relatively quickly, as the only limiting factor should be the joint structure itself.
Everyone should theoretically be able to do the splits. The hip joint can get to 170 degrees of flexion, and in some angles outside of the saggital plane it can get to more than 200 degrees flexion. It can also extend to between 40-60 degrees, which adds up to way more than the necessary 180 degrees to do a split.
This leaves soft tissue restrictions as the reason most people can't tea bag the floor. Sure, some have structural issues with the shape of their hip joints, but that can't be something that could account for the entire population.
Flex Wheeler used to hit the splits on stage, carb depleted and dehydrated while packing more muscle than 95% of the population, proving the concept of being "muscle bound" to be complete and utter horse shit.

Why "Stretching" Won't Make you Stretchy

The common thought process regarding static stretching is to hold an elongated position for 20-30 seconds to create additional length within a muscle to allow for a greater range of motion.
This is good in theory, but in practice it doesn't seem to happen. If stretching is supposed to increase range of motion, why do people keep stretching while remaining chronically "tight"?
A better question would be why is that muscle or tissues so tight that they require stretching in the first place? Muscles are stupid creatures and they only do what they're told to do. The nervous system calls the shots and if it says contract, the muscle contracts.
If the brain tells a muscle "get tight," it's for a reason, usually to produce movement (eccentric or concentric action), provide stability, or to protect joints during novel movements or ranges of motion.
The muscles of the hips are getting tight to try to provide some level of stability for another area of the body that doesn't have it, so you can move efficiently and without pain.
This means that simply stretching a muscle without figuring out why it's tight will just result in it getting tight again.
Below is a video to show the thought process in action with a live assessment and corrective strategy. Watch what happens with her left hip internal rotation:
She didn't have to move her hip through any kind of range of motion to gain that new mobility, so we know stretching wasn't going to be the answer.
Some people claim that static stretching helps increase the length of the muscle, which is almost as possible as me caring about Kim Kardashian or not being glued to the TV when the movie, Blood Sport,is playing.
If you grab a rope and pull it, it gets longer for as long as the tension is applied, but then when you let it go it returns to its normal length. That is unless you start ripping fibers and causing some irreparable damage.
Gymnasts and dancers have crazy mobility for life because they tend to go through deformational changes as children to help them get deeper stretches and more range of motion through alterations to their femoral head and neck, hip capsule, and almost every other joint where freaky mobility is necessary for their sport.
Static stretching a muscle is the same. Sure, it changes length for a little while, but returns quickly. There's no way stretching will add sarcomeres in series – which would actually increase the length of the muscle – without long sustained holds of about 20-30 minutes, as shown by some studies.
Additionally, static stretching reduces your ability to produce muscular force, meaning you're less likely to push massive weights and catch the attention of someone who may want to see you naked. Who would want to limit themselves like that?

What Else Could You Do?

While many people think foam rolling is a method of stretching, it's not. The length of the muscle or tissue isn't undergoing any kind of length change, but rather a neural down-regulation that reduces resting tone in prime movers, meaning you can move more easily and with a better chance of having balanced tension around the joint.
It's a testament to how resetting the neural tone of a tissue can help increase range of motion faster than simply stretching.
But again, un-gluing a chronically tight area without restoring stability to the tissues it's trying to help stabilize will only result in it getting tight again.
Chronic IT band pain? Look at how your hips and feet are moving, how your knees are positioned during your squats, and also your lateral core stability on that side.
Start off by gripping the floor and trying to form an arch in your foot whenever you have it in contact with the ground. You should be thinking of using your heel and the ball of your foot to shorten your sock without curling your toes.
From there, drive the knees out when squatting and deadlifting, so you keep the knees vertical over the feet instead of letting it cave in a valgus stress.
Foam rolling should be the first step to regaining lost mobility, specifically for the hips, typically occupying the first 5 minutes or so of any training session. Go super slow through all the tight spots, slow enough to make glaciers say, "Slow down!"
Traction is another form of mobility that can be applied to anyone and is a very effective form of mobilization to help un-glue sticky joints. I picked up a version of a dynamic traction movement with a thick elastic band from Kelly Starrett.
This involves having the band up high on the thigh, close to the hip joint, and rocking side to side. The elastic is pulling the hip joint slightly apart, while the action of the rocking helps to get the muscles working around the hip while in the new joint position.
(Just watch out so you don't get your junk caught in the action.)
This can help reduce the resting tension of the muscles around the joint as it reduces the compressive signaling in the muscles supporting the joint.
An additional benefit is that the mild compression on the adductor muscles of the inner thigh can help increase activation and provide a better chance of total joint stability rather than simply addressing hamstrings and glutes.
The adductor magnus also causes a degree of hip extension, so spend some time on that as well when you're trying to build your posterior chain.
Traction has commonly been used in therapeutic settings to provide a decreased stimulus to overactive muscles and receptors, and encourages an increase of fluid delivery into the joint spaces. Decompression tables for disc injuries are a common method of traction.
In passive settings it's effective, but again doesn't address the muscular stabilization component mentioned earlier. Having the dynamic rocking as shown here helps clean this up nicely.
Active mobility comes into play with the newly unlocked joints and tissues. The role of active mobility is to train the body to use the range of motion in the most effective way possible so that the likelihood of maintaining this new range is higher than simply rolling in to the gym at peak hour, squatting heavy, high fiving everyone in the gym and then going home.
The major directions that tend to be lacking in hip mobility are full hip flexion (bringing the knee to the chest), abduction (legs wide apart), external rotation (crossing an ankle over your knee), and even hip extension.
When doing any active mobility, it's best to try to get all the movements down as fast as possible while focusing on getting the movement to come from the hip and not from the lumbar spine.
Focus on keeping the spine tense and the core active while sinking deep into the stretches, hold each for a single breath per rep, and continue on to the next one.

Putting it all Together

So to outline a plan of attack to get your hips going in the right direction:
  1. Foam rolling: Super slow, hips, IT band and adductors – 5-10 minutes
  2. Traction: Super slow and concentrated – 2 sets x 15 reps
  3. Active Mobility: Core tense and focus on breathing – 2 x 8-12 reps each side
The total time needed to get the hips singing a happy tune should only be about 15 minutes. If this 15 minutes means the difference between squatting deep into the hole and developing a bigger and better squat, or getting your hips back in a deadlift without having your low back flex to compensate, you'll have a greater chance of pulling big numbers and not getting injured.
I should also say that having more hip mobility opens up more possibilities for exercises you can do, which will help reduce boredom and monotony in the gym. It can also increase the number of, ahem, positions you can get into outside of the gym.
You're welcome.


Winchester et al (2009). A single 30-s stretch is sufficient to inhibit maximal voluntary strength. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport. Vol 80 (2) pp. 257-261.
Liebenson C: Rehabilitation of the Spine Ð A Practitioners Manual. 2nd edition Williams and Wilkins. 2006.

6 Interesting Things About Strength

The Contreras Files IV: 15 Practical TipsStrength is a seductive temptress and I have no shame in proclaiming my love for her. But like anything in life that gets your juices flowing, to truly understand strength you must consider both the stuff you like and the stuff you don't like.
Here are 6 very interesting things about strength.

1. The Best Thing About Strength

The best thing about strength – in my opinion of course – is that anyone can improve from their starting level of strength. I'm not suggesting that everyone is capable of becoming a world record holder, but everyone can get better.
You might start out struggling to bench the bar and then a year later be using 150 pounds – not fantastic but still a lot better than where you started.
Being strong is an inherently relative concept. The good news (which I say with tongue planted firmly in cheek) is that as the general fitness level of the average person declines, it actually becomes easier to set oneself apart and become that much stronger than average.
Train several hours a week or more, train hard, incorporate the main lifts, follow progressive overload, stick with it for an extended period of time (measured in years, not months), and you'll get significantly stronger than when you started, not to mention a hell of a lot stronger than a "normal" person. In addition, as the strength comes, so do all the health benefits that accompany it.

2. The Worst Thing About Strength

The worst thing about strength – in my opinion – is that strength is specific, not general. Most people think strength is a single, all-encompassing quality, i.e., a person is strong or not.
An example of this line of thinking would be the comic book character The Hulk. The Hulk is super strong, which means he can do anything that's related to strength – pick up cars, throw tanks, cause earthquakes by smashing the ground, even fly because he can jump super high. Hell, his muscles are so strong that bullets simply bounce off him.
Unfortunately it doesn't work that way, as there's no single "strength quality." If there were, then the world champion arm wrestler, powerlifter, weight lifter, shot putter, and the World's Strongest Man would all be the same person. But it's not, nor has ever been the same person. Fact is, nobody's ever been on top in even two of those categories, except for the immortal Bill Kazmaier.
The reason for this all relates to the principle of . Muscles don't function independently of the nervous system, and for every movement we need a motor pattern. In order to operate at very high levels, this motor pattern must be trained regularly. If it isn't, an individual may not be able to use the strength they've developed in one context in another, unrelated one.
In the classic Supertraining, Siff states that strength should not be viewed as "the ability to produce force by the action of the muscles," but instead that "strength is highly context dependent" and "can manifest itself into many forms."
To be clear, I'm not saying that there's never a relationship between strength in one activity and strength in another; what I am saying is that it's more of a tenuous relationship than one might assume.
If two activities are very similar – for example, deadlifting and picking up the back end of truck – there's likely considerable transfer, but bench pressing and punching through bricks might not be as related.
Strength is specific and not general, and therefore we can't simply rank people on something as broad as "strength" and accurately predict how they'll perform in all settings.

3. The Best Thing About Strength that Gets the Least Attention

Strength is easy to measure if you accept the common standards of testing it, such as seeing how much weight can be lifted with a barbell. This is an invaluable though often overlooked attribute – because strength can be easily measured, every set and rep gives the lifter precise, instant feedback.
Consistent practice with a focus on self-improvement is the key to mastery of any skill. Strength training brings that idea home like nothing else.
Imagine if an expert sat behind you as you typed up a paper, and after every paragraph gave you feedback about what was good and what was bad. Initially it might drive you crazy, but because she had expertise in the subject, the feedback would ultimately make you more confident in what you were writing about.
Nowhere else in life do we get such constant, clear feedback as at the gym, and this goes a long way towards building confidence and boosting self esteem. It's very empowering to see yourself succeed at something challenging as a result of your hard work, and I believe that all those positives can be traced back to the fact that strength is easy to measure.

4. The Thing You Might Not Have Known About Strength

8 More Random Thoughts and Training TipsFor a single, all-out effort, assuming accuracy and injury are taken into consideration, it's likely impossible to be too strong. However, for other activities, particularly where endurance is a component, one can be too strong for the activity.
A few years ago I was helping my brother move. He'd boxed up everything and packed it into a U-haul truck and drove to his new place, and then I unloaded everything for him.
Let's assume we both did the same amount of work (i.e., we each moved the same number of boxes and the boxes weighed the same). My brother is moderately fit but not strong, certainly not by powerlifter standards – I would estimate he could deadlift 350 as his 1RM. To keep it simple, let's say that I'm twice as strong as he is, at least in the deadlift.
So there I am, unloading the truck and moving 120 boxes into the house and I started getting tired. More specifically, it was my erectors that were getting tired. How could this be possible if I was twice as strong as him? How could he do the same amount of work without much problem?
Each muscle has a certain number of motor units (a motor nerve and their accompanying muscle fibers) in it. Each motor unit can generate some level of force. Let's say for simplicity's sake that we both had 100 motor units in our erectors. Keep in mind that one benefit of training is the trainee learns how to better contract, or turn on, the tougher-to-fire motor units (type IIB), which generate the most strength. Also remember that the boxes didn't have weights labeled on them, and when moving objects of unknown weight one typically over-contracts to make sure their muscle force overcomes the resistance.
When my brother was loading up the boxes he may have contracted half or fewer of his motor units, and he was likely hitting mainly the slow twitch ones with just a few fast twitch thrown in. These motor units don't generate much fatigue and these boxes weren't super heavy – most were likely less than 50 pounds – so a huge level of strength wasn't required to lift them.
I theorized that I'd be more likely to stimulate the bigger type II motor units, which generate more force but also produce more waste products when they contract. Each individual box likely felt a bit easier to me but rep after rep, my erectors were over-contracting, using too much force per motor unit to get the job done, which ultimately led to the feeling of fatigue.
It's worth noting that training doesn't increase the total number of motor units you have; instead it increases how much force each one can produce and how many motor units you can use.
To summarize, my brother might have been contracting 50 of his motor units, each one generating 2 pounds of force, and thus his total level of fatigue wasn't great. I might have been contracting 65 motor units, each one generating 4 pounds of force, and thus I was working too hard for the task at hand.
So in essence, I believe one can be too strong for certain tasks, especially in relatively low resistance, endurance type activities.

5. The Thing You Kind of Know About Strength

Joint health is extremely important to strength. The body has sensors and proprioceptors throughout its framework to tell it what's going on. Joint stability and joint integrity is a very important concept for the body. If your joint is in pain, the body will turn off (deactivate) parts of the agonist muscles that cross the joint and produce the movement.
The body does this because the lower levels of force represent a reduced chance of injury to the already fragile joint. This is why, in my opinion, it's generally not advisable to train through joint pain. Even if you're tough enough to do it, you're using less of your muscle so you'll get compromised results – this is ignoring the fact that the pain is a warning something is wrong and further work might really mess up the joint.
While many factors affect joint health, a big one is joint stability. This is a reason why lifting aids like a belt or a bench shirt have become popular – the belt adds to the stability of the joint by externally stabilizing it. This allows the muscles that cross the joint to contract more strongly (recruiting more motor units) and thus more weight is lifted or more force generated.
This is also why powerlifters who wear gear (bench shirts, squat suits, etc.) often have a hard time calculating how much their gear helps them. In one sense it's simple – how much can you lift raw versus how much can you lift in gear – but another factor is how much the gear is adding to the stability of the joint and thus allowing the muscles to contract more forcefully.

6. The Thing You Always Read About Strength But Never Take to Heart

Bodyweight has a huge impact on strength. Some exercises are more affected by bodyweight than others, such as the bench press, military press, and squat. It's not just how much actual muscle or lean mass you have, but simply total bodyweight.
This ties in closely with the point made above. One of the ways to boost joint stability (and thus increase the muscles ability to contract) is to gain weight.
As you gain weight (10 pounds is usually enough to notice a bit of a difference) your surrounding tissues (even if it's extra fat) will buffer and support the joint, similar in the way that an external wrap would cover and help the joint. This increases stability and in turn increases strength (relative strength may or may not increase, absolute strength almost assuredly will).
I'm not advocating you gain 50 pounds of fat so your bench goes up 10 pounds, but I am suggesting that if you've been at a plateau for quite some time (both with your strength and your bodyweight), you might think about allowing yourself to gain weight to see if that allows your strength to increase noticeably.
That increase in turn, tends to make the training more fun, your enthusiasm is renewed, and you always have the option of losing that weight later on and seeing what happens to you.
Take a look at the line-up from the World's Strongest Man competition. None of them look ready to step onto a bodybuilding stage, but they all look like they're ready to dominate some serious weight, and that extra bodyweight is increasing their joint stability.

It's Time For Strength To Shine

8 More Random Thoughts and Training TipsThere you are my friends, 6 interesting tidbits about strength. Some may seem more obvious than others but I'd argue they're all important. Which points do you agree with or disagree with? Which one's are new to you? Have you any points of your own?
That's what the Live Spill is for. See you there.

Does Everyone Need To Squat (Deep)?

Does Everyone Need to Squat DeepThis article is about squatting and whether or not everyone needs to (or should) squat deep. To cut the suspense, the answer is no!
Actually, the answer is "it depends."
There's a gulf between the word need and want. They're two very different things.
For example, do you need to crush beers every weekend? No, but you want to. Do you need to bench press three times per week? No, but you want to. Do you need to DVR the Victoria Secret fashion show and watch it every time your girlfriend leaves the room? Yes, yes you do.
As a strength coach, I say people need to squat, and squat well, period. Depth, on the other hand, is more of a "want" issue; I want people to squat deep, but it's just not always feasible. So I work with what I can.
Squats are invaluable for building strength, power, and improving athletic performance.
You'd be hard pressed to find another exercise that helps engage the entire body and, as a result, burn more calories, so even for those more concerned with fat loss or aesthetics, squats are an unparalleled exercise.
Furthermore, squats do a fantastic job of offsetting many of the postural imbalances we see from those who spend much of their lives sitting in front of a computer perusing Facebook or playing Angry Birds on their iPhone.
Someone who can perform a proper squat demonstrates that they have the ample ankle dorsiflexion, hip flexion, hip abduction, t-spine extension, core stiffness, and glenohumeral ROM (among other talents) to do so. This is quite a feat, given many people can't sit down onto a chair without blowing out their back.
So the real question isn't, "Does everyone need to squat?" but rather, 
While I'm 100% in favor of people squatting with a full ROM (which for me is when the front surface of the thighs drop below knee level), sometimes it's just not feasible, and borderline counterproductive.
As an example, encourage someone with chronic anterior knee pain or Femoral Acetabular Impingement (FAI) to squat "ass to grass" and you're setting him or her up for something bad.
Likewise, having someone with a degenerative disc issue do squats could be bad news, as it could for someone who goes into lumbar flexion (butt wink) when going to a certain depth, or someone who has any number of postural imbalances.
Of course, context must always be considered. Every person has a unique injury history and training experience that may or may not dictate what kind of squat variation is indicated.
Too wishy-washy? I don't know about you, but my bullshit meter goes into hyper drive whenever I hear anyone use the words , or .
It's human nature to seek out absolutes, but there really aren't any in the fitness world, or in the "real" world for that matter.
Listen, I'm not saying that I don't do it – I certainly have my biases. I feel everyone should deadlift (in one form or another) at least once a week.
Also, if you have a history of shoulder issues – especially dislocations – you should never perform another dip. Like ever.
Those examples aside, I do a pretty bang up job of not leaning too far to the left or right on any given topic. With few exceptions, I feel there's a time and place for everything – yes, even leg presses (as much as it pains me to admit it), and I'd encourage everyone reading to foster the same approach.
Still, the squat is one hell of an exercise, and I generally lean towards the camp that thinks (most) people should include it – to some capacity – in their programming.

Squat Technique

Of course, much of the time it's simply a matter of placing a premium on coaching someone to squat properly.
  • Groove a proper hip-hinge pattern (learn to sit back).
  • Coach a more vertical shin angle (especially for those with chronic knee pain), although we can't forget that there's going to be some forward translation of the tibia during any squat.
  • Teach clients to push their knees out. I can't even begin to tell you how this simple cue works wonders in helping to clean up squat technique.
  • Learn to engage core stiffness (get tight). Each set should begin with taking a big breath and encouraging more apical expansion of the torso. This is something that I've recently started to realize that I've missed the mark on for many years.
Physical therapist Bill Hartman keyed me in on the notion that it's unwise to only focus on pushing the belly out (which encourages more anterior pelvic tilt, and places far more stress on the facet joints of the lumbar spine). Along with pushing the belly out, we also need to be cognizant of attaining lateral and posterior (apical) expansion.
  • Learn to engage the lats, and as a result, the thoraco-lumbar fascia to provide more stability to the spine.
  • Try not to shit a kidney.
While there's more to it than that, if everyone made it a point to hone in on those key objectives when squatting, we'd undoubtedly see less injuries and (probably) bigger numbers under the bar.
Nevertheless, it can't be understated: 
A safe and acceptable depth for one person could be harmful for the next. It's still possible to reap all the benefits of a squat without necessarily going "ass to grass," so it behooves everyone to take the time to find out exactly what their "acceptable" range is.

Assessing Squat Depth

Does Everyone Need to Squat DeepA quick aside:  It's a way for me to delve into the bigger picture and construct a program that will allow for the quickest and safest results possible.
More to the point, it's also a way for someone to prove to me that they move well enough that I'm confident they're capable of performing the movements or exercises I deem appropriate for their skill level.
It's important to reiterate that squatting deep is  dangerous or bad. Contrarily, and without getting derailed, squatting deep (whatever that means to you) can be argued to be safer than the alternative, as I noted in this article.
But how do we "assess" the appropriate squat depth ?
While there are dozens of ways to do so effectively, a great starting point would be a simple drill discussed in the book Deadlift Dynamite, where both Andy Bolton and Pavel quote the godfather of spinal biomechanics, Dr. Stuart McGill:
Check out the video below for a demo:
But even this is a somewhat convoluted or limited way to assess things, as squatting by its nature isn't performed in a quadruped position (not to mention squatting is a bit more dynamic in nature, especially under load).
At Cressey Performance, part of our initial assessment with every new client is to take a look at their standing overhead squat and ascertain their squatting proficiency.
If you're curious to play along, here are some simple screens you can perform yourself.

Squat Screen # 1

Assume a shoulder width-apart stance with your toes facing straight ahead and your arms fully extended overhead and then squat down as far as you can go.
What do you notice?
If you're one of the few who can squat all the way down without any major compensation(s) coming to the forefront (heels coming off the ground, knees caving in, excessive lumbar flexion, excessive forward lean, to name a few), congratulations, you get a gold star!
This is more of an evaluative squat assessment, and isn't how I'd go about coaching someone to squat, but more on that shortly.
What this demonstrates is that you have ample hip internal rotation to go into deep hip flexion with very little (if any) ramifications. Granted, we could make a case for hypermobility/laxity, which has it's own set of drawbacks, but the majority of people reading won't have this luxury anyway.
More commonly people will have difficulty attaining proper depth performing this particular assessment, which is why I'll tweak it further.

Squat Screen # 2

Widen your stance, allow for a little "out-toeing," and perform the exact same drill.
Things tend to clean up significantly with this tweak, namely because you're giving yourself a wider base of support and the out-toeing provides a bit more stability, which serves to open up the hips more to attain more depth.
This is how I prefer to coach someone to squat, and deem this more of a performance-based screen.
Plenty of coaches and trainers like to teach squatting with the toes pointing straight head – and more power to them, it's not necessarily wrong – but I argue from a performance standpoint, squatting with a wider base and with some slight out-toeing allows for more weight to be lifted.
That said, if things still look a little dicey, we can move onto the next tweak.

Squat Screen # 3

Perform the exact same protocol as above, but this time, elevate your heels with a 10-pound plate underneath each foot. Most likely you were able to squat much deeper.
Much in the same way why Olympic lifters wear shoes with a high heel lift, it places the body at a mechanical advantage to squat deep(er).
In the likelihood that using a heel lift drastically improves your depth, it may dictate that you have the ankle mobility of the Tin Man and that you need to address it rather than rely on the heel lift as a crutch.
But let's say that after all those screens you're still having trouble attaining ample depth without compensating in some fashion. What happens then? Are you forever relegated to endless corrective ankle, hip, and t-spine mobility drills, or worse, those cute exercises on a BOSU ball your local pencil-necked personal trainer would have you believe is "functional training?"
Sadly, for many, this is the route they end up taking, and it's all because they don't take the time to dig a little deeper.

Squat Screen #4

Lastly, get rid of the heel lift, grab a 10-pound plate, hold it out in front of you with your arms fully extended, and again squat.
Usually we see a profound improvement not only in squat technique, but also squat depth.
By holding the weight out in front of you as a counterbalance, you're forced to engage your anterior core musculature, which in turn gives the entire body the stability it needs to allow for more squat depth.
Without performing this last screen, many would automatically assume that the reason they can't squat to depth is because of a mobility issue, when in fact, as Alwyn Cosgrove has noted on numerous occasions, it's a stability issue.
Without this differentiation, we can see how many people would be barking up the wrong tree, and doing themselves a massive disservice on the training side of things.
Think what would happen if we omitted or neglected to perform the last squat screen – we'd assume that we have a mobility deficit somewhere and just focus on that one component, rather than address the realissue at hand, namely lack of stability.

So Now What?

Does Everyone Need to Squat DeepHopefully you understand that using the above screening process can help better determine what would be an appropriate depth for any individual.
And with that information at our disposal, we can also ascertain how to go about addressing some common squatting mishaps.

Like the Tuck Under (Butt Wink)

Some people picked the right parents, have awesome levers, and are able to squat ass-to-grass with no issues at all.
Due to any number of reasons, namely atrocious ankle mobility and lack of core stability, the butt "tucks" underneath the pelvis when attempting to go into deep(er) hip flexion.
As a result, it causes a boatload of compressive load on the lumbar spine, and to a lesser degree, which I can't prove with any science, drives Dr. McGill bat shit crazy.
Returning to the quadruped rockback test, lets compare a passable test with a god-awful one.
We saw this one earlier:
As you can see, I'm able to get to a decent depth without any major red flags or noticeable compensation patterns rearing their ugly head. My spine stays relatively "neutral" throughout, and my arms look pretty freakin gunny, thank you very much.
But let's look at what a train wreck looks like:
You should immediately notice a lumbar hinge, and unfortunately, if this were some random person, I'd probably refrain from having them squat past that point of no return.
I mean, if it's this bad with no spinal loading, can you imagine how much of a walking ball of fail this hypothetical person would be if I placed a barbell on his back?

How Can We Fix It?

Fixing a majority of problems with the squat isn't complicated. While everyone is different and I don't like making general recommendations, I've found a few universal themes that generally work wonders for most:

Foam Rolling

It's no one's favorite, it's admittedly not sexy or exciting, and I'm sure many are rolling their eyes as they read this, but just do your foam rolling. Staying on top of tissue quality is important, and foam rolling is one of the easiest ways to do so.

Hammer Ankle Mobility

Specifically hammer ankle dorsiflexion. We need roughly 15-20 degrees of dorsiflexion in order to perform a "clean" squat pattern. Unfortunately, most people live in plantar flexion.
To that end, getting out of any shoe with a heel lift and into one that encourages more of a "minimal" approach – say, the New Balance Minimus – would bode well in your favor.
Likewise, including more ankle mobility drills (knee break ankle mobilizations, wall ankle mobilizations, rocking ankle mobilizations) into your warm-up or as part of a filler to do in between sets of major compound movements would also be wise.

Hammer Anterior Core Strength

If I had to choose one component to serve as the umbrella or main area to spend, this would be it.
As I noted above, lack of core stability/strength is a major monkey wrench in what prevents many people from squatting to a safe depth without something funky happening.
If you're tucking under when you squat it's probably a relative stiffness issue, and it stands to reason that your anterior core is weak or unable to stabilize the pelvis.
There are a number of articles on this site that will provide ample core exercises to choose from, but my favorites in this context would be Pallof presses, various chops and lifts, and plank variations like "stir the pot."

Squat to a Successful Depth

Even if someone elicits faulty squatting patterns, that doesn't mean he or she can't squat.
Instead, squat to a depth that prevents him or her from going into lumbar flexion and allows them some success.
Enter the box squat and squat to box, both superb training tools to teach proper squatting technique and allowing people the luxury of still attaining a killer training effect. Check out the tutorial below.
I know it may give some people a bad taste in their mouth, but if I have to resort to having a client squat to a 16-inch box, so be it. I can always progress them lower, and at the same time not feed into any dysfunction or cause anymore harm.

And I'm Out!

It seems everyone on the Internet can squat 500 pounds ass to the floor without so much as putting a crease in their Under Armor shirt. These same posters, however, are curiously absent when asked to post videos of their awesome "squat so low you leave a wet spot on the floor" technique, especially using superhuman poundages. Pity.
Hey, it's the Internet, where the curtain of anonymity allows chest thumping and bravado to supersede logic and reasoning.
So don't be discouraged. Use the test above to figure out your own personal "best squat depth" while incorporating the drills to help improve it.
And above all else, keep squatting. At least that's something everyone online can agree with!

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Why You Need to Know Your Squat to Clean and Jerk Ratio

The back squat, or simply the squat, has the greatest carryover value of any exercise to the Olympic lifts, short of the actual lifts themselves. It is simply not possible to develop a weightlifter to his or her full potential without performing thousands of repetitions of heavy back squats. It is not only an obviously great strengthener of the legs and hips, but also of the torso musculature, and furthermore stimulates the anabolism of the musculature.

Now before I proceed further, let me answer the obvious question of many - low bar or high bar. I am discussing the high bar squat as it is performed by weightlifters all over the planet. The low bar squat is an event, and as an exercise it has great benefit at improving results in the low bar squat. For weightlifters there are many more useful ways of directing energy than performing low bar squats. 

weightlifting, olympic weightlifting, back squat, clean and jerk, clean ratioPreviously I wrote about the snatch to clean and jerk ratio, but today I'm going to discuss the squat to clean and jerk ratio. In the 1950s and 1960s there were frequent incidents of elite level weightlifters being forced to withdraw from competitions because of knee injuries. These types of situations have abated greatly and in today’s world level competition their occurrence is extremely rare. The reason for that, I believe, is the increase in the squat to clean and jerk ratio along with better selection of athletes.

In the late 1970s the Soviets gathered data and found that their best lifters had best back squats that averaged 131% of their best cleans and jerk. As time passed there was anecdotal evidence that many of the top lifters in the world had even higher figures. 

As a coach I’ve used this 131% in calculating the target squatting figure for my athletes. For instance, if I am planning on having a lifter target a clean and jerk goal of 120 kg for the next cycle, I will plan all the training percentages for the back squat off of 157 kg or more, which is 131% of 120. This seems to provide the proper amount of loading on the individual, and enables to athlete to stand easily with whatever weight is cleaned.

Naturally there are variations among individuals, and since I work with Americans and we have no infrastructure for talent selection, the variations are even greater. Once my athletes have mastered technique, and their bodies have been balanced through training, we can plan on targeting back squatting weights at that 131% figure. This can be difficult for those with especially long femurs and who are lifting at a less than optimal bodyweight. Others have excellent squatting leverages and can routinely exceed that target weight. These adjustments in training weight have to be made when planning the training. 

weightlifting, olympic weightlifting, back squat, clean and jerk, clean ratioSince I’ve been developing weightlifters by teaching technique, balancing their bodies, and then prescribing appropriate squatting poundage, I have seen very few knee problems and no injuries. The strength levels have been appropriate as evidenced by the proper ratio of snatch to clean and jerk weights. 

So how often do I have my lifters squat? For my veteran lifters, I program squatting five to six days per week during preparation cycles, with one of them being front squatsFor very advanced lifters they may even squat twice in the same day. During pre-competition cycles, the back squats are done once or twice per week and front squats once or twice per week, depending on the individual’s needs. 80% at a minimum is programmed for each session.

Front squat intensities are calculated at 105% of the clean and jerk. Personally I prefer them to be higher. This will insure that the recovery from the deep squat in the clean is relatively easy and there is enough leg strength left for a successful jerk drive. 

This piece is being presented to assist coaches in understanding the interrelationship between back squatting, front squatting, and cleaning so that training can be designed in a manner that most effectively uses the energies available to the athlete.

Why Don't Olympic Weightlifters Overhead Squat? Part 1

I got a text the other night from a drunk lifter of mine who was in the middle of an argument with a bunch of his CrossFit friends. He asked, "Is your snatch or your overhead squat bigger?" I responded, "I have no idea."

"Oh," he said, "because we're arguing about which is usually bigger."

After the obligatory giggle regarding size, and how much it matters, I said, "That depends. Overhead squat if you're not a snatch, overhead squat, weightlifting, olympic weightlifting, nick hortonvery good lifter, snatch if you are." That seems to ring true most of the time (or close enough) and we were texting, so I didn't want to write him an entire article on the subject.

I did find his question rather serendipitous, though, because I'd just had another discussion about the relevance of the overhead squat to your snatch and I think that's what was at the heart of the argument he was having. No one cares which is bigger. They do care about the following question:

Is doing the overhead squat - as a standalone exercise - going to make me a better snatcher?

The short answer is: Unless you are a rank beginner and are seriously lacking core strength, probably not. But there is a longer answer that bears explaining. First, though, lets figure out why one would ask such a question in the first place.

Overhead and Out of Mind: How Myths Are Made

These are the two arguments that are made the most often for why you should be using the overhead squat to increase your snatch:

  1. The Analogy: We front squat to help our cleans, so it makes sense to overhead squat to help our snatch
  2. The Confidence Booster: A bigger overhead squat will help you feel more confident getting deep into the hole.

Both of these are wrong. But they stem from valid concerns, and I can understand why you might think them true at first blush.

The Analogy is wrong because it assumes the overhead squat's strength building benefits will affect the snatch in the same way the front squat’s strength building benefits affect the clean. That assumption is false. The front squat functions as a primary strength builder for the muscles in the legs, hips, and back. The overhead squat functions as a primary builder of core strength. (Yes, both exercises are compound and affect a wide range of muscles, as well as the nervous system, but we need to focus on their primary purpose since it is those reasons why we'd choose them over something else.)

snatch, overhead squat, weightlifting, olympic weightlifting, nick hortonThe overhead squat is a great torso stabilizer and core destroyer, but it is a rather wimpy lower body exercise. It isn't going to help you much if you're struggling to stand up out of the bottom of your snatches. For that you need heavier squats of the front or back variety. What's more, all of the core strength benefits of the overhead squat as an exercise are gained through heavy snatching anyway, because once you are as efficient as you should be, you'll be close to your best overhead squat on every lift. Any additional benefit would be marginal at best.

In other words:

  • We need front squats to build up primary strength reserves in the exact positions of both Olympic lifts.
  • Snatching heavy includes overhead squatting already, which builds in plenty of the core strength we need.

The two areas of strength building the overhead squat would need to promote if we were going to adopt it based upon The Analogy argument are already being covered by front squats and full heavy snatches. The overhead squat is redundant where the front squat is not. That is, The Analogy fails.

NOTE: If you can clean your best front squat, you can snatch your best overhead squat. The opposite is rarely true. That fact may help you understand the above argument a little better if you are having doubts.

Who Is Scared of a Little Snatch?

The Analogy is the boring argument for overhead squats. The Confidence Booster is much more interesting, has far more merit, and brings up the most important fact about weightlifting: it is a mental sport first, and a physical sport second.If you have the ability to snatch a light weight with perfect (or near perfect) form, then you have the technical ability to snatch a heavy weight with perfect form. The trouble is you won't. And the reason you won't is because heavy weights scare you and light weights don't.

snatch, overhead squat, weightlifting, olympic weightlifting, nick hortonYou pull the bar off the floor and it feels HEAVY. This causes some small part of your mind to worry that it might be "too heavy." It isn't. But you THINK it is. Panic sets in, and in that nanosecond of time, that minuscule space in which you have the chance to make a choice, you make the wrong one.

Your fight or flight response is activated and you buckle. All of the time and energy you spent drilling your form and technical skills goes out the window. You look as though you have never snatched a day in your life. You make a mistake (maybe many mistakes) that you KNOW are wrong, have fixed at light weights, and thought you were past.

But you never fixed your greatest flaw: your inability to control your fear.

All it takes is the smallest amount of self-doubt to ruin your snatch attempt. The faintest spark in a dry forest can light a monstrous fire that grows out of control and takes over your mind, causing you to lose all confidence in your ability to lift that son-of-a-bitch.

Overhead Squats to the Rescue?

Clearly, if we could just overhead squat far more weight than we could snatch then we would finally have the confidence to go for it, right? We wouldn't have to overcome our fears because we wouldn't have any. We'd KNOW that so long as we could pull that bar into position, then we'd be able to catch it, stand up, and slam that bar back down to the platform in a triumphantly loud display of awesomeness.

Man, that sounds good. But it is so wrong.

Unfortunately, you'll have to wait until next time to find out why. In part two, you'll learn all about the four scariest phases of the snatch, why the overhead squat has nothing to do with them, and how to overcome them scary bits so that you can add even more kilos to the bar.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Why Don't Olympic Weightlifters Overhead Squat? Part 2

I show you doubt, to prove that faith exists." - Robert Browning

Snatching is a bitch. It simply isn't like any other lift in the gym.Getting good at the snatch is nothing like getting good at the squat. It is more like getting good at the piano. And that means your approach to becoming a great snatcher must be different than your approach to anything else.

In part one of this article I discussed why the analogy of "front squats to cleans" with "overhead squats to snatches" didn't make any sense in the argument for why a lifter would use the overhead squat as an exercise to increase their snatch.

But honestly, who cares?! That was the boring stuff.

snatch, overhead squat, weightlifting, olympic weightlifting, nick hortonWhat is interesting is what is happening between your ears. Snatching well has more to do with your mind than your body. And it is for this reason that after your early beginner phase overhead squats will not help you anymore.

NOTE: I want to avoid being dogmatic here. There are obviously cases where the overhead squat might have some benefit. But the population I am discussing is Olympic weightlifters who are no longer beginners. (This point will aid in the avoidance of confusion.) Overhead squats are simply not a part of the programs of most lifters in this population. That is a fact. I aim to answer the question, "Why is this true?"

To Overcome A Fear, You Must Face It

Everyone thinks the scary part of snatching must be catching it in the hole with that heavy weight held precariously overhead. And this is why they think the overhead squat is the fix. But that is not an accurate assessment of the problem.

The fear of catching in the bottom is a theoretical fear. It is the fear you have when you arethinking about the snatch. The fear we're concerned with is the one that hits you when you are in the middle of actually snatchingUnderstanding this difference is imperative.

You don't have a conscious fear during the act of snatching. It is not a fear you can put into words easily, other than, "Damn! This weight feels heavy!" It is an emotional (and immediate) response, a knee-jerk reaction that has broad consequences.

Your only recourse is to figure out where in the chain your fear response is triggered the most often, and then attack those spots as often as possible with as heavy a weight as possible - AKA, you face your fear.

The Four Scariest Phases Of The Snatch

Here are the places fear will getcha:

  1. Immediately off the floor
  2. Past the knee
  3. At the hip
  4. During the pull-under

In other words, the entirety of the pull, NOT the parts of the lift associated with the overhead squat.

snatch, overhead squat, weightlifting, olympic weightlifting, nick hortonWhen the weight comes off the floor it will feel heavier than you want it to. This is because what is good form for a snatch is crappy form for a deadlift - you are in a "weak" position for pulling. But that doesn't matter because your snatch is less than half of your deadlift. Your goal is a better sweep into the hip, not maximum strength off the floor.

Suck it up and stick with it.

When the bar gets past the knee you need to keep your shoulders over the bar, your hips up, and your heels down for as long as you possibly can - FAR longer than you will feel comfortable. A shift too early into the double knee bend is a mistake that is fine for beginners who are still learning how to hit the hip, but is a disaster for more advanced lifters. It will feel too heavy to actually get over your head. It isn't.

Suck it up and stick with it.

Once the bar is in the hip, your job is to explode as hard and fast as humanly possible - or even faster. This means your hips need to fully extend (which is a hyperextension at the hip joint), your quads need to contract maximally, your feet need to drive through the platform hard, and you need to make sure that (through all of that) you don't allow yourself to fall forward and ruin everything. If you go all-out, you'll make it. If you wimp-out and cut this short by even a tiny bit, you will miss.

Suck it up and stick with it.

Finally, you must pull yourself down under the bar. Falling down under it is not only less efficient, it can be dangerous. The pull doesn't stop at the hip; it simply shifts directions. Instead of pulling on the bar to bring it up, you are now pulling on the bar to bring yourself down. An aggressive pull under is far more likely to result in a rock solid lockout than a dive bomb will. Fear will cause you to fall rather than pull yourself down.

Suck it up and stick with it.

If you can do all of that, then all you have to do is stay tight, stabilize, and stand up. In other words, the easy part psychologically is the overhead squat, because by the time you are there, you are basically done.


snatch, overhead squat, weightlifting, olympic weightlifting, nick horton
I watch people snatching for hours every day. And these are the four places where I see the biggest breakdowns in form during a snatch done with weight heavy enough to cause problems. Only rank beginners are honestly failing on their snatches because of a weak overhead squat. Everyone else is failing because their mind is screwing up some part of their pull.

The overhead squat is a great exercise for people who aren't snatching heavy weights every day. But it becomes irrelevant once you ARE snatching heavy weights everyday.

If you want to snatch big, then you need a lot more time workin' that pull - mostly through more snatching!

Hitting Bottom: 3 Tools to Perfect Your Olympic Lifts

One of the major problems with teaching the technique of the Olympic lifts is that newcomers often are not comfortable and/or familiar with the bottom position before they ever attempt to learn the movements. I’ve always felt that learning to achieve a certain position or result was best accomplished if there was familiarity with the goal of the movement. For most people just learning the Olympic lifts, the overhead squat, front squat, and split jerk positions are neither familiar nor necessarily comfortable. 

Squat Snatch Press

bob takano, weightlifting, takano athletics, olympic lifting, squat snatch pressI begin by teaching the squat snatch press, a movement in which the athlete assumes a full back squat bottom position while taking a snatch width grip with the bar resting on the shoulders behind the neck. The movement then commences with the athlete pressing the bar overhead while remaining in the full bottom position. The exercise has been mistakenly called the Sots press when in actuality a Sots press is performed with the bar in front of the neck with the hands in a clean width grip. 

The squat snatch press is a fabulous exercise for familiarizing the athlete with the bottom position of the squat snatch, while simultaneously improving mobility in all the relevant joints. The most difficult problem for many people is learning how to fire the rhomboids in order to stabilize the scapulae, so the shoulders have a proper platform from which to exert force upon the bar. 

Front Squat

bob takano, weightlifting, takano athletics, olympic lifting, front squat, cleanThe best movement for learning the squat clean bottom position is the traditional front squat. This movement performed with an optimal amount of weight will force the body into the bottom position, while simultaneously stretching the tendons and ligaments involved in achieving the position. At this point the front squat is not a strengthening exercise, but a positioning and stretching exercise. The hands are not gripping the bar, but rather cradling it to keep it resting on the shoulders.

Overhead Lunges

bob takano, weightlifting, olympic lifting, jerk, split jerk, lungeThe split jerk is best learned by performing overhead lunges. The weight is supported overhead with the hands taking a clean width grip. The athlete then steps forward with the preferred leg into a lunge position and lowers the hips until the thigh of the front leg is parallel with the floor. The athlete then recovers to the starting position. This movement, like the previous two, is to acquaint the athlete with the bottom position before any attempt is made to assume the position at the end of an explosive movement. 

Once these positions become comfortable for the neophyte lifter, the technique training can then commence to the process of learning how to get the barbell to these positions.