Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Knowing Squat

Regardless of my clients' goals, I always seem to spend more time coaching the squatting movements than any other exercise. It's amazing how such a simple (and effective) movement can be so difficult, and while correcting it requires a unique combination of assessment, analysis and instruction for each athlete, there are some universals worth sharing to help you move better, lose weight, and get strong.

For simplicity's sake I'll stick to the barbell back squat in the article, but my thoughts apply to  any squat variation.

Step One: what to wear.

Choosing the appropriate singlet, multi-ply suit or booty shorts depends on your training goals. If you're not a competitive powerlifter, olympic lifter, bodybuilder or crossfitter, you can't go wrong with shorts and a t-shirt. Choosing footwear, however, is a much more significant decision.

Squatting requires sufficient ankle, knee, hip, spine and shoulder mobility. While footwear alone does not fix mobility issues, the right shoe can help lifters squat more safely as they address the underlying issue with stretching, soft tissues and mobility drills.

Olympic weightlifting has exploded in popularity in the US, so much so that Mark Cannella, world-class coach and president of the Columbus Weightlifting Club, believes the US will compete for medals in the next 5 to 10 years. As a result, more people are squatting in weightlifting shoes.

If you're a competitive olympic lifter, wear the shoes you use in competition. If you're not, consider the impact they have on the biomechanics of your squat.

Weightlifting shoes possess are hard sole and elevated heel usually .5 to .75 inches tall. Elevating the heel shortens the distance the ankle needs to dorsiflex during a squat. It also allows the knees to travel further forward. The "forward" position that weightlifting shoes promote also helps some lifters maintain a neutral spine at a lower depth. It also becomes more quad-dominant than its counterpart.

Flat-soled shoes, on the other hand, require greater dorsiflexion at the ankle, which allows the lifter to maintain a reduced shin angle. In other words, the lifter can sit back further and keep the knees behind the toes.

Here's a picture of me squatting approximately 85 percent of my max in both weightlifting shoes and flats:

In the left image (wearing weightlifting shoes), my knees are in line with my toes, and my torso is parallel to my shins. In the right image (flats), my knees are behind my toes, my shins are more upright and my chest is further forward. Both variations are "correct," but the footwear significantly changes the ranges of motion needed to complete the lift.

What should you wear? It all depends on your own mobility.

If you possess poor ankle mobility (test it) but adequate knee and hip mobility, try weightlifting shoes.

If you have knee issues, wear something with a flat sole. Chucky T's, Adidas Sambas, Nike Frees and New Balance Minimus trainers and runners have all worked for me. 

Step Two: Does this make me look fat?

Squatting does not make you look fat. It will make you strong, lean and athletic.

While you actually perform the squat, however, you should look "fat." To maintain a neutral spine under load, I tell my clients to arch, take a deep breath into their bellies and push their abs out.

Note Spider Man's arch at the beginning of the video and how it neutralizes when he "fills his belly." His core is now tight and ready to squat.

Step Three: Which looks better?

After dialing in your wardrobe in part one, it's time to implement your most important accessory: the bar. To make sure its placement on your shoulders is both stylish and efficient, let's consider the two most popular options.

High Bar - the choice of olympic lifters and bodybuilders for years, placing the bar high on your shoulders keeps your torso more upright and rests comfortably on the upper traps (provided you have them).

Low Bar - positioning the bar lower on your shoulders shortens the range of motion which, in theory, should allow you to handle more weight. That's why powerlifters prefer it. It also allows the lifter to sit back further, reduce the shin angle and emphasize the hamstrings, hips and lower back.

Here's a side-by-side comparison:

In the high bar position (left), my chest is more upright and my knees further forward, making it more quad-dominant than the low bar position (right), which pushes my chest forward and my knees back, which places less emphasis on the quads and more on the hamstrings, hips and low back.

Which one works best for you? The high bar position and its longer range of motion will facilitate more muscle growth and a more balanced development between the quads and hamstrings. Even competitive powerlifters should spend at least some of their time training in the high-bar position. The low bar position and its reduced shin-angle works better for lifters with a history of knee issues, as it keeps them behind the toes.

Consider your own injury history and goals and draw your own conclusion. Or, try them both and see which one you wear well. 

Step Four: How low?

Depth depends on your goals. If you're a competitive powerlifter, the crease of the hips must reach below the knees. If you're an olympic weightlifter, squat depth should mimic the catch position of the full snatch or clean. If you're not a competitive lifter, than it depends on your mobility.

The two keys I assess the first time a client squats are the spine and the knees. The spine should remain neutral throughout the movement, but the lower back often rounds if the lifter lacks the mobility to reach his or her desired depth. This rounding of the lower is also known as the pelvic tuck or butt wink. If you tuck your pelvis at the bottom of the squat, you're setting yourself up for problems. 

The knees should stay in line with the toes throughout the movement. The most common mistake I see is valgus collapse - when the knee falls inside the toe. The knees should never collapse inside the food during an athletic movement.

Keeping these two simple cues in mind, it's best to squat as low as you can with proper form. The easiest way to maintain a consistent depth is box squatting. In addition, increase your range of motion with supplemental exercises, stretching and mobility drills. Over time, both your strength and depth will improve.

Step Five: How much? How many? How often?

Like squat depth, programming is a personal decision. Consider your experience level, time available to train, performance goals and preferences. If you're an absolute beginner, hire a good coach or trainer and learn under a watchful eye. If you know what you're doing, then commit to a training program that calls for consistent practice and adding weight to the bar. Finding the right one for you can take as little or as much time on the internet as you want. Just pick one and commit to it for at least six months.

Here's a sample squat cycle that begins with multiple sets of low reps to dial in technique, then pushes the reps for increased muscle growth. In the final weeks, the reps decrease as the weights increase so you can set new personal records. You can repeat the cycle several times. 

Week 1: work up to a conservative 8-rep max (leave 1-2 reps in the tank)
Week 2: 4x6 (4 sets of 6 reps) with 80-90% of week one's weight
Week 3: 4x6 with 5% more than week 2
Week 4: retest rep-max with week 1 weight
Week 5: deload
Week 6: work up to a conservative 5-rep max
Week 7: 6x3 with 90% of week 6 weight
Week 8: 6x3 with 2.5-5% more than week 7
Week 9: retest 5-rep max

By now you should have what you need to get under the bar, do some serious work and reap the benefits. Leave a question or a comment below and watch out for another program in the coming weeks.


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