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Tag Archives: squats
I spend a lot of time fixing people’s squats. A lot. I’m really good at it. I often find that my best success in fixing a squat comes when I have them do it wrong. It’s a great paradox and one that many people have a hard time accepting but it works.
Many people fall backwards when they squat and their knees cave in and their weight shifts into their toes and their heels lift. Classic errors. When working with them I ask them what they are focusing on when they squat and the answer is always “Keeping my chest up.” I ask “Why?” They respond, I was told “I have to be upright when I squat.” It is that motivation to have their squat be more upright that causes their squat to look like shit. If you insist on trying to remain upright when you squat at the expense of all the other points of performance then you will forever have a shitty squat. If you are reading this and you can squat upright and keep your heels down and knees out and go through a full range of motion and lift heavy weights, then continue to do so. That’s great. However, many many people cannot and, for the foreseeable future, should not bother with trying to maintain an upright torso.
Please remember that I am not saying they should round their backs. A neutral spine should be maintained under load always, but the angle of the torso can shift to nearly horizontal while maintaining a neutral spine under load. Do not confuse “good” with “optimal.” An optimal torso angle is closer to vertical but a good squat with a non optimal torso angle is better than an upright squat on your toes.
We often refer to uprightness in a squat as maturity and horizontal as immaturity. Think about why that is. A more mature and experienced lifter that has more years under her belt can evolve to a more mature position, but a beginner lifter will often have to train in less optimal positions before they can even access more demanding positions.
Here is why the immature squat works better for many lifters:
- They are better balanced. An athlete that is out of balance is inherently unstable and cannot access muscular control when the nervous system is preoccupied with not falling down.
- An immature squat allows the hips to sit back further and puts tension in to the posterior chain. Once the glutes and hamstrings are on tension they can fire better to drive the knees out and pull the knees back allowing more weight to settle into the midfoot and heel.
- An immature squat properly loaded can help strengthen the back muscles which allows the squat to be a great assistance exercise in developing the deadlift, clean and snatch which require the spine to loaded in a similar position.
- Greater flexion at the hip reduces the amount of flexion at the knee and ankle to achieve proper depth thus it is easier for athletes to squat to depth with their feet flat on the ground.
- It reduces a lot of knee pain symptoms associated with squatting upright. Primarily due to greater recruitment of the glutes and hamstrings as well as the reduction on knee flexion.
It’s okay if you don’t believe me, but find the worst squatter in your gym and see if it works on them. Don’t judge a squat by how it looks, judge it by it’s functionality. Can the athlete maintain a balanced position? Can they go through a full range of motion? Can they have their knees track their toes? Can they maintain a neutral spine? If these criteria are met, then don’t worry about how it looks. Let your athletes get strong with good mechanics. Once they have a better base of strength and have more experience, then go back in and see if you can improve their positions.
What about catching cleans and snatches? Maybe make your athletes get good at power cleans and power snatches before rushing to get them down into the bottom and receiving load in a bad position. Do not be in a rush. You can’t cram for strength. Crawl. Walk. Run.
Most of us have blind spots: areas we do not propriocept well. These blind spots hide in the movements we never do, but also live in the movements we do all the time. Sometimes it pays to take a fresh look at some movements we know well to see if we can discover these blind spots. I have a few exercises that I do for squats and lunges to help me break out of my routines. I find these are extremely useful in targeting imbalances and in strengthening my core. I learned these from Raphael Ruiz and am passing them on to you.
I will start with the squat variations which progressively get more challenging and then show you the lunge variations. I recommend you video yourself doing these and watch them back to see how your body reacts to the uneven loading (just from watching these videos I see some areas that need improvement in my squat), also video your regular squat before and after doing these to see if there is a noticeable change in your squat. Perform the squats slowly enough to feel where you lose balance or integrity and can reclaim it. Roughly a 2 to 4 second descent with a 1 to 2 second pause in the bottom is good to get the most out of these squats.
Off-axis back squat. Take a barbell place it on your back as far to one side as you can manage. Try to stand symmetrically and keep the bar horizontal. Perform 5 back squats trying to remain symmetrical. Shift the bar to the other side and repeat.
The stimulus varies depending on how upright or “mature” your squat is. For a vertical squat, the challenge is to avoid side-bending. What you find is that your obliques work extra hard trying to keep you balanced. For an immature squat, the stimulus is rotational in nature and you will be using your lower back muscles and obliques to counter rotate and keep yourself squared.
Barbell tip drops. Use the same off-axis barbell position. Perform a squat and hold the bottom position. Now slowly bend sideways and touch the long end of the barbell to the floor and come back up to neutral before standing. Perform 5 reps on each side.
This variation requires you to surrender your good squat position into a very unstable, off-balance position and then reclaim good position. It will definitely work your core very hard as well as increase your strength and confidence in the bottom of the squat.
Unilateral, Posterior to Anterior Banded Squats. Tie a band to your squat rack and loop the end over one side of your barbell. Walk out until you feel the tension is strong but not pulling you out of alignment. Do a set of 5 squats. Repeat on the other side.
Now instead of gravity’s usual pull down, you are contending with a rotational torque trying to spin you around as you squat. This unusual force will cause many new sensations and cause you to focus on many muscles that you often do not focus on when squatting. Screwing your feet into the ground and driving your knees out becomes the best strategy for stabilizing against this force. Also the pull from back to front will encourage you to lift your chest and cultivate a more upright posture in your squat. I found this to be a great corrective exercise for people that squat unevenly.
You should always be striving to master the basics. Using variations like this to challenge yourself is a great way to build confidence in your mechanics, to uncover imbalances and to correct them. Give these a try and let me know what you think.
Articles like this really annoy me. People write in and ask questions and some supposed expert gives terrible advice.
My friend Mark Rippetoe used to say, “Doctors shouldn’t talk about things that they know nothing about.” Sound advice for all of us.
Not only is the advice in the article wrong, the fact that it comes from a doctor automatically fools people into thinking it must be sound medical advice. It is not.
Let’s imagine we replaced squatting with skiing in the example in the article.
Patient: Doc, every time I ski I hear funny noises in my knees.
Doctor: Those noises are usually nothing. However skiing can be dangerous, therefore if you ski you should only ski half way down the mountain because the further down you go the more speed you build up and the more likely you are to get hurt.
Patient: Thanks, doc. I will only ski half way down the mountain from now on.
The only real difference between skiing and squatting is that skiing is an entirely avoidable activity, but you one cannot go thru an entire day without bending the knees past 90 degrees. Every time you go to the bathroom or get in and out of a car or a chair, you are squatting. So avoidance is not an option. The best option is to learn how to move in a manner that is orthopedically sound. Whether it is skiing or squatting there is probably someone out there that can help you do it more efficiently and safely. That person is probably not an MD and probably does not earn their livelihood replacing the knees of injured athletes.
Telling people not to squat below parallel is the low fat diet advice of exercise. If a doctor tells you that you shouldn’t squat below parallel, they have basically admitted to not ever having read the research (because there has only ever been one study that claimed quarter squats were better and it was debunked) and they have never actually squatted because people that squat know empirically that full range of motion squats work better than half squats.
Getting squatting tips from a knee surgeon is like getting diet advice from a soda company.