Category Archives: Lee Boyce

6 Truths About Squats

6 Truths About SquatsSquats are the ultimate test of total body strength and mental toughness and one lift that every strength athlete worth his salt takes very seriously.
However, being the big iconic movement that it is, it’s not surprising that there are 50 schools of thought on what exactly a good squat is and what isn’t.
I’ve always found strength and conditioning research fascinating, but some lifters let studies and research go beyond just an opinion with support and let them become indoctrinated dogmas in which there’s suddenly no other way of thinking.
This type of narrow mindedness leads to glorifying the minutiae in our field, not to mention a whole lot of failing to see the forest for all the damn trees. This article intends to break that trend and kick all the squatting dogma to the curb.

1. The Truth about High Bar vs. Low Bar

High bar squatting versus low bar squatting is a frequent point of contention. The few inches of difference between the two styles can significantly affect the geometry of your squat.
A high bar position (where the bar rests high on the upper traps) facilitates a more vertical torso, since the body doesn’t have to accommodate for the bar being too far behind the center of gravity by leaning forward at the waist.
As long as you’re mobile enough, having a vertical torso can have a huge impact on the depth you achieve in the bottom end range of your squat, .
Of course, if you’re looking to compete in the Olympic lifts and need that position ingrained to perfect your mobility for your first pull, then certainly train it.
I myself prefer not to load any barbell whatsoever on my cervical vertebrae (in the high bar position). I think the benefits of doing so come with enough disadvantages to make me skeptical of the overall need for it. I’d rather use other squat variations if bottom end range is the goal. 
Take home point: 

2. The Truth about Hinging

When people refer to “hinging” as it relates to squats, they’re referring to the initial “break” coming from changing the hip angle when they begin the movement. Many people will signify a proper hinge pattern by “spreading the floor” and pushing the butt back, possibly coupled with a notable forward pelvic tilt. This does a few things:

  • Allows ideal amounts of pressure to be placed on the back of the foot (the heel).
  • Encourages the low back to remain tight and not lose its arch, especially not too early.
  • Makes the posterior chain much more active.

A little more on that last point. When the pelvis tilts forward to create the hinge at the hip, the ischial tuberosities travel upwards, which pulls the hamstrings much longer and tighter. The added tension in the hamstrings acts to facilitate their activity much more.
One of my favorite coaches, Mark Rippetoe, uses this to his lifters’ advantage when squatting, since a pair of taut hamstrings will usually be coupled with a much smaller hip angle, potentiating much more hip drive to finish the lift. Check out a prime example below:

Here’s my take. If you want to work your posterior chain more, you’re going to have to apply tension to the right muscles so they’re highly active for a greater portion of the lift.
Hip hinging will activate the posterior chain more, and as a result of the hip hinge, the lowest possible back squat depth will be compensated due to the differences in geometry. And that’s fine, if depth isn’t what you’re after in particular.
Using a knee break to start the descent, Poliquin style, will encourage more quad activation since the knee gets to flex to a smaller angle and migrate differently. In his style, the torso also stays more vertical due to further forward tracking of the knees, and also due to the bar’s placement on the back. If depth and ROM are your goals, you can prepare for a deeper squat by using this style:

I’ve practiced both methods of hinging and prefer to break at the knees first. I find that if I don’t, my 6’4″ frame won’t get down nearly enough for me to comfortably deem it a “back squat” at all.
Below is a video of a heavy set. As you can see, my stance isn’t the widest (more on that later), but I do use the knees to break and track to get my most effective squat. There’s more lean forward than a high-bar squat encourages, and that’s because I still use a lower bar position – but that’s what works for me.

Take home point: 

3. The Truth about Foot Width and Muscle Recruitment

According to Stu McGill, professor of spine biomechanics, squatting foot width is more sensitive to depth and ROM than meets the eye. Most people consider an excessively narrow  wide width to take away from depth, and this is true in many cases.
However, as McGill mentions, we have to consider skeletal anatomy. The hip socket (acetabulum) isn’t located in exactly the same place on everyone’s pelvic girdle. For people whose sockets are placed more toward the front of the pelvis, they’d likely achieve more success deep squatting if they use a narrower stance to mimic their build.
There will be less resistance in the ball-and-socket joint since the femoral head will not be placed in an angled position in the acetabulum as the squat progresses.
To figure out what would be best for you, take this test:
6 Truths About Squats6 Truths About SquatsStart with your back mildly arched and knee angle at 90 degrees. Use your arms to “push” your butt towards your heels – it should look like you’re doing a sideways squat. Take note of what point in your “depth” your pelvis turns under and the low back begins to round.
Repeat the test with a different knee and foot width, narrower and wider. Whatever width promotes the deepest flat-back position is your money-maker, so use that same width when standing in your squat. As a bonus, you’ll likely feel less hip issues from squatting, especially if you squat often.
The cool part about all this is – depending on what width you use and what width is “correct” for your build – you may end up recruiting different muscles through your ROM.
A narrower stance deep squat keeps the hips closed and really curtails involvement of the inner thigh muscles, thereby doubling down on the quads. A wider stance squat on the other hand can activate more glute and hamstring tissue, along with the adductors doing their share to contribute.
Take home point: 

4. The Truth about the Hip Flexors

People always talk about lengthening and mobilizing the hips to assume a better depth. That’s all good and very valid, but people don’t talk about the importance of hip flexor strength relating to the stability of a bottom-range squat.
The hip flexors, in part, are made up of the iliacus, which is the common “go-to” when referring to the hip flexors group. These muscles flex the hip to an angle of roughly 90 degrees. Basically, anyone can train the iliacus muscles, directly or indirectly, through any weight training quad dominant exercise, even jogging.
The hip flexors to look at more closely are the psoas muscles. These bad boys flex the hip to an anglesmaller than 90 degrees. Translate that to a squat, and strong, responsive psoas muscles can actually helppull the lifter down into a deeper and more solid squat position far below parallel.
Of course, there are few exercises that target the psoas muscles directly, but if you’ve got any shreds of athleticism I’d recommend one thing: .
There are few other exercises or movements that accentuate a high-knee concentric action like sprinting, so it’s the easiest way to make the psoas muscles wake up from hibernation. Plus, it’ll get you lean and mean!
Take home point: and

5. The Truth about Tempo

In the previous videos, you’re given different examples of tempo to use when back squatting. My squats and the squats by the athlete in the Rippetoe video use a moderate-speed negative, and an inclusion of the stretch reflex to get out of the hole.
Again, there’s nothing wrong with this. Without getting into the different styles of squatting (like dead-stop box squatting or paused reps), it’s very important that you maintain your muscular tightness at all times when squatting, so load stress doesn’t get shifted to the ligaments. That includes abdominal pressure through the bottom phase too.
You’ll notice that by using a slower, more controlled negative, your stretch reflex will be slightly inhibited and you’ll also spend more time under tension, limiting the amount of weight you can ultimately perform for the same number of reps. The good thing about this method is that it allows the strongest muscle fibers to get trained.
Take home point: 

6. The Truth about Heels Elevated

Elevating the heels is usually done to ensure the full foot remains in pressure on the ground, and also to make up for any lack of depth from a flat footed position. Many view it as a “shortcut” in light of poor flexibility, but we have to remember that weightlifting shoes also perform the same function.
Taking a step back and looking at this objectively, if we want to have the deepest squat depth we can, as soon as possible, and elevating the heels was the way to achieve that, why wouldn’t we?
Elevated heels will change the pelvic angle and encourage the knees to track forward over the toes. This, as I mentioned earlier, will encourage much more quad involvement, depending on the depth you reach. Poliquin also uses heels-elevated squats as a way to tap into the strength of the quads, especially the rectus femoris and VMO, to specifically hypertrophy them.
I say to treat elevating your heels as an option, not only a solution. Work to achieve the ROM and mobility necessary to get as close to a full range squat as possible without anything under the heels. If you need to use heel lifts, use them, but do your accessory work on the side so that the end goal is you squatting without them.
Take home point: 

You Down With This?

6 Truths About SquatsIt’s just common sense. There isn’t a “best method” to do things – it all depends on your build and what you’re after in the weight room. Remembering this will help you keep your headspace open when it comes to the most universally revered (and criticized) exercise in the gym.

Deadlifts for Dummies

This is a guest post by Lee Boyce.
Deadlifts are one of those “no cheating” exercises. The steps are simple:
  1. Pick up bar all the way off the ground.
And that’s it.
For most of us, that’s about as far as it goes. Unfortunately, most of us are kinda stupid.  Deadlifting is one of those moves that looks so easy but has more particulars than meets the eye.  Less the cape and tights, I’ve come to save the day with the most comprehensive guide to deadlifting so you’ll be pulling strong, and pain free into oblivion.  Let’s get to it, step by step.

Grab a Hold

The grip for a deadlift can either be straight (palms over) or mixed. The mixed grip (one hand over, one hand under) is great for heavier loads, but I recommend not getting used to the same mix each time. It can begin to develop imbalances if you deadlift with it frequently. When performing a conventional deadlift, use a grip that’s just outside your hip width. Too wide and you’ll have issues keeping a strong grip on the bar. Too narrow and the bar will begin to lose its balance.  Remember to wrap the thumbs around firmly also.

Position Your Body

There are many schools of thought as to the technique used for a deadlift to be performed correctly.  My research and opinion leads me to use what you’re about to read as my choice way to keep a client safe, while pulling the most weight possible if need be.
The first step is to line the bar up with your shoelaces. The bar should be positioned over your foot to divide it into a front half and a back half. You should be able to see your toes come out in front of the bar, as it will be very close to your shins. Without changing anything, reach down to the bar and place your hands in your desired position – just outside hip width. At this point your back will be rounded and your butt will be way up in the air.  The next step is to lower your hips and raise your shoulders. Doing this simultaneously should encourage the low back to arch, and the chest to raise. Your shins should be right against the bar now, with the feet flat on the ground. Keep your head down.
Next, make sure your chest is what’s directly above the bar. If your chest is what’s over the bar, that means your shoulder blades are too. It’s a lot easier to transfer your forces into a heavy bar when you have your entire back helping you out. If you follow the physics by keeping your scapulae over the bar when you set up, you can’t lose.

Getting Tight

You may have thought that was what the last step was for, but you still have some tightness you need to achieve.  Grabbing a firm hold of the bar, with your shoulders where they should belong, actively try to squeeze the chest out. This will get the lats tight, low back tight, and arch your thoracic region so you’re ready to pull. At the same time, ensure your arms are fully straightened. Make an effort to “bend” the bar, or to “pull the flex out of it” without moving it off the floor.  Now you’re ready to pull.

So Pull!

Make sure the heels are dug right into the ground and stay tight. Drag the bar up your shins.  Now all the stuff we worked on in the setup section just became important. If the scapulae aren’t located over the bar, or the bar was located too far away from the shins, the hips would shoot upwards and the bar would move in against the shins, as soon as it was one inch off the ground. This goes to show that the physics are most closely followed through the setup above. Take a look at this bad deadlift and you’ll see what I mean.
In the video above, the girl does about everything you could do wrong in a deadlift wrong.  She doesn’t take her time in her set-up, and her feet aren’t in tight enough to the bar. As a result, the bar stays under her shoulders/armpit region and she has no stability in her pull. Her lats aren’t tight, her back isn’t arched and her scaps aren’t over the bar. So as you can see, the bar escapes her and the bar path is irregular on its way up.  Of course, this causes her hips to shoot up first and her back to round. But look what happens to the bar – it goes right where it belongs, under the scapulae, where the most support will be available.

Hip Drive

As the lift nears completion, what happens with your hips becomes important too. Remember that the deadlift dominantly works the big three muscle groups of the posterior chain – the glutes, hamstrings, and lower back.  It’s easy to let the glutes slacken up and not fully contribute to the lift, and it all depends on how we finish.
I hear a lot of different cues to explain “hip drive”. Many of them involve a subtle forward thrust of the hips to encourage the glutes to activate, especially nearing the end of the lift at the lockout. I like to think of a pulley system, something like how elevators work. To me, it’s the simplest way to visualize the muscles.
In the picture, the weight (m) represents the barbell. The rope (on the side the hand is pulling on) represents your hamstrings, and the fulcrum (the block) would be your pelvis. Drive your heels straight into the floor and feel your hamstrings and glutes contract downwards. Keep the tension on them as the bar travels up your shins and thighs to correspond.  Your entire back will be working whether you try or not, so just make an effort to keep it just as tight as it was when you first started your pull.
I don’t focus on “creating” a hip drive, because the angle will close on its own, especially if these cues are followed properly. Often people create false drives at the top of the lift that usually just throws the low back into hyperextension, with the glutes just coming along for a free ride.  Having said this, the pelvis needs to be “unlocked” at the top of the lift so that the glutes can assist in completing the lockout. Check out the RKC plank by my man Bret Contreras:
This is essentially the hip position that would be ideal at the end of the deadlift.  We can achieve them through practicing these positions through supplementary exercises like this one, and also exercises like glute bridges, shown by Nick:

The Final Product

In a T-NATION article I wrote a couple of years ago, I included a video that demonstrates properly executed deadlifts. You’ll note the bar travelling in a straight line off the ground, and my hip position being dictated by my glutes at the end of the lift.
In a deadlift, the lowering phase shouldn’t be a slow one. Let the bar drag back down the thighs with the chest staying out. As soon as the bar passes the knee level, let it drop to the floor much faster by dropping your shoulders. Get your scapulae right back over the bar as fast as you can. Using this approach in the negative half of the lift will make it feel not so negative at all. You’ll avoid injury by not spending too much time lowering a heavy bar.

That’s All, Folks!

Clear as day – a deadlift is a simple battle with physics to make heavy bars move off the ground. Applying these words of advice can take you through strength plateau, and through a development plateau too. It may be a matter of a few subtle tweaks to your form and technique.  Keep in mind this was a guide to the conventional deadlift, not sumo, defecit, snatch grip, single leg, Romanian, or Give-a-Dog-a-Bone deadlifts. We’ll save those for next time.

A New Take on 5 Things

A New Take on 5 Things
Every successful career has hiccups along the way. Making mistakes and learning from them are the bricks and mortar of a long and productive career.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve stolen points from the best of ’em to advance my own training knowledge. In doing so, there were principles and exercises that I readily accepted as gospel and would defend from the tallest tree.
This is how it is. Disagree? Well, you’re just misinformed.
But times change. New research is performed, new information becomes available, and it only makes sense that methodologies would evolve. That is, unless you’d rather stay “right” than admit you were wrong.

1. My Revised Take on Cardio

My one-track mind nearly eliminated the possibility of using conventional “cardio” for fat loss. I sided with the many coaches who argued that slow-go cardio was a potential muscle-waster, not to mention woefully inefficient at burning calories.
Though there is some science to support this position, I realize now that there’s a big fat exception to this:.
Steady state cardio – especially the fasted version – can be a great tool for intermediate and advanced trainees that carry a significant amount of muscle mass.
People generally support interval training as it will have a greater affect on the metabolism, primarily because it promotes two things:

  • Oxygen debt
  • Utilization of fast-twitch muscle fibers

But if you’re carrying a lot of muscle, chances are you’ve lifted, pushed, and pulled a lot of heavy things to get there. That means your fast twitch fibers have been thoroughly exercised – since they’re the strongest fibers available – so it won’t be the end of the world if you add in a bit of steady state cardio during fat loss phases.
Bodybuilders are perfect examples. While some high-intensity cardio has made it’s way into their fat loss programs, isolation splits combined with a good, clean diet, and fasted and/or post workout cardio still dominate the scene. This improves thermogenesis – heat production within the body – that helps burn fat.
While anaerobic training is what makes athletes like sprinters and running backs get so lean and muscular, most of us are just regular exercise enthusiasts, not pro athletes, meaning we can’t expect to train – or look – like Adrian Peterson.
But we can lift weights and train our strength and anaerobic capacity. Once we’re big and strong, as long as we don’t go overboard, we can use steady state cardio to achieve some solid fat loss.

2. The GHR – A Little-Known Knee Killer?

Don’t worry, I’m not about to completely outlaw such a great exercise. But here’s what I’ve found.
I’ve had several clients complain of knee discomfort during or after a workout that involved a variation of the glute-ham raise (GHR), most often the eccentric GHR.
At first, I didn’t think that this exercise was the culprit, but a couple of sit-downs with a practitioner-buddy of mine had me thinking it might be something to use on a case-by-case basis.
Some say the GHR is a “closed chain” movement since the feet don’t move anywhere during the movement, but here’s the catch. Just like a seated leg extension, a GHR makes only one set of muscles act on the knee joint during the movement (hamstrings). There isn’t a co-contraction of muscles on both sides of the joint.
This can produce the same amount of shear from the opposing side, and therefore pull on the corresponding ligaments that attach to the tibia away from the femur.
With an actual GHR machine, it’s normally not that bad. But when we go into variations like the makeshift eccentric GHR, the shear is intensified since the entire weight of the body is resting on the tibia, inaddition to the hamstrings’ contraction pulling it even further. That means a lot of stress on your PCL.
Still, some are more resilient to shearing forces than others. We all know guys who’ve been doing leg extensions and other open-chain movements for years with zero joint problems, while others get shooting pains if they so much as look at a leg extension machine.
The moral of the story? If you’re using the eccentric GHR in your training, be cautious of its effects. Hopefully you don’t fall into the contraindicated group.

3. “Functional Training” Revisited

A New Take on 5 Things
The more I looked into it, the more variety I found in trainers’ definition of the term “functional.”
Sure, we have the basic exercises that have carryover into typical day-to-day situations like squatting, deadlifting, and standing pressing. But do we avoid biceps curls, hamstring curls, or bench presses because they seemingly don’t carry over to our daily grind?
Fact is, functional training can take on whatever description we want it to. A hamstring curl action has very little “real life” application, but one of the functions of the hamstrings is to flex the knee, and hamstring curls recreate this movement.
I advocate the big bang movements as much as the next guy. If our muscles aren’t performing their prime actions the way they should, then the number one exercise choices should always be those that enhance those prime actions.
However, I’ll humbly add that most T Nation readers seek strength and hypertrophy. What if we want bigger arms, and we’ve already spent the last three months overhead pulling, farmers’ walking, and close-grip pressing our way to oblivion?
Do we continue to avoid biceps curls because they’re “isolation” movements despite the stimulation for the biceps they provide? Do we still steadfastly avoid skull crushers or pressdowns, even though our horseshoes better resemble shoelaces?
Focus on the must-do’s first, keeping your muscular and skeletal health in check, but sometimes building up your body means training like a bodybuilder. In certain cases, that means isolating right down to the muscle.

4. Stretching and Foam Rolling

For a long time I used this stuff as an “answer.” Today I use it as a “prescription.” In almost all cases, muscles become tight because of a deficient muscle somewhere else. Usually the tight muscle is taking on the role of a muscle that isn’t pulling its own weight. A perfect example would be a pair of tight hamstrings picking up the slack for a set of inactive glutes.
A good rule of thumb is that when a muscle appears deficient, the answer isn’t always to give that muscle more attention. Considering this, we should be able to look at our weak links to see which smaller muscles aren’t doing everything they should to contribute to a functional body.
Flexibility and ROM increases will come immediately through restoring your antagonistic balance. This can be as simple as activating dormant muscles that for a while have been compensated for by the big dogs.
The true “answer,” in my book, is mobility. One of my favorite books is Assess and Correct by Eric Cressey. It has hundreds of drills that make small muscles fire up to create or restore range of motion.
I’m not saying that stretching and foam rolling to respectively lengthen and improve tissue quality is a waste of time. I still use them, and you should, too.
My advice is to turn it into a tactical approach. Instead of prescribing stretching and rolling to any ailment under the sun, start thinking in three ways: improve tissue quality first, activate muscles second, reduce inhibitions third.
Use foam rolling for myofascial release, dynamic warm ups to add range of motion and activate dormant muscles, and then static stretching to muscles that are “blocking” proper movement patterns, such as tight hip flexors affecting pelvic position during a back squat or Romanian deadlift.

5. A Quiet Tweak to Training Volume

A New Take on 5 Things
This might be stating the obvious, but not all programs are for everyone.
Training volume should be tailored to each athlete, and failing to recognize this is what keeps some athletes from seeing continued progress.
I first experienced this as a collegiate track and field athlete. We sprint athletes would have our workouts set by the coach, though we’d train alongside the athletes from other disciplines (the jump athletes, etc). This was done for simple time management reasons, as it was the easiest way to train a bunch of athletes at the same time.
But each athlete isn’t going to respond to the same training volume the same way – especially when our “base” workouts, usually Mondays, would often look something like this:

  • Dynamic warm-ups/flexibility work
  • Drills
  • Plyometric/ballistic training – Static jumps, stairs, uphill jumps, med ball work
  • Base training workout – 300m + (2)200m + (2)150m @ 85% of max effort
  • Core training circuit or weight training circuit

Needless to say, that’s a tough workout and would leave me destroyed. I’d be so sore that it would sometimes affect the practice on Tuesday.
This example is intended to show that quality is everything where training for performance is concerned. Big, tough, and heavy workouts have their place, but if you want to get stronger, bigger, or both, you to know when your body is working at its physiological peak, and when it’s starting to go down hill.
Once that line is crossed, it’s a good idea to cut your workout short, or heavily modify its contents.
I’m sure my track coach had the best of intentions, but not everyone’s going to have the same threshold and work capacity. Some levels of DOMS don’t need to be reached, and certainly not repeatedly.
Since you’re not training with a team and can control your workout, don’t be afraid to modify your programming. It may not take longwinded workouts to make your muscles big and strong.

Don’t Worry, I Haven’t Turned Into a Pansy

The smarter I get as a trainer, the more I’m reminded that there are many methodologies, techniques, and strategies for doing things, and many ways to achieve a desired result.
However, true wisdom comes from recognizing that what might work supremely well for person A could be a disaster for person B. In reality, it’s not the exercises that are contraindicated, but the people who do them. Stay aware of that and play your game, not someone else’s.
With age comes perspective and more importantly, wisdom. A lot might change in the next five years, but I can’t see that principle going anywhere.

Cleans and Snatches Made Easier

Cleans and Snatches Made Easier

A sure-fire way to stand out at the commercial gym as a knowledgeable and athletic trainee is by performing solid, ball-busting sets of Olympic lifts. Nothing else in the lifting game requires as much skill, timing, athleticism, and power as taking something heavy and flinging it up to shoulder level or beyond in one explosive burst.
It’s out of respect for the presumed technical demands of the Olympic lifts that many lifters avoid them like post-workout soymilk lattes. “You gotta learn those lifts when you’re young if you want to be good” they say, before returning to yet another ass-numbing superset of Hammer strength presses and concentration curls.
To a certain extent, they’re right. Sort of.
What about folks who are interested in learning the Olympic lifts but have no intentions of trying out for the next Olympics? The effects the Olympic lifts have on fat loss and muscle growth have been well documented – why shouldn’t recreational lifters try to safely implement them into their training programs?
To that end, here’s an easy guide to learning two of the basic Olympic lifts: the clean and the snatch.

What to Mobilize

Achieving the desired catch position for the clean requires considerable mobility through the shoulders and wrists. Exercises like shoulder “dislocates” and static stretching the pecs, lats, and triceps will help optimize the quality of the wanted positions.
The second area of focus should be the thoracic spine. Foam roller extensions and a PNF intercostal stretch are your friends here. Nothing’s worse than pulling some cleans with a bad case of the turtleback.

What to Activate

Cleans and Snatches Made Easier

The number one thing to think about with Olympic lift technique is to have strong, responsive external rotators. This is dictated by several key muscles. Activating your rotator cuff muscles through face pulls, YTWLs, and dumbbell external rotations will help prime those muscles and assist in externally rotating the arm sufficiently to achieve a desired catch position.
Another key player in any Olympic lift are the traps. The traps drive the crucial shrugging action that “pops” the bar up to the transition point for the catch phase, and even the smaller, lower traps get in on the action by helping lift the ribcage. This promotes both good standing posture and a proper place for the bar to be positioned for a clean grip and for an overhead position. When programming, think trap-3 raises, pulldowns, and Yates rows.

Olympic Lift 1 – The Clean

Cleans and Snatches Made Easier

There are many variations that fall under the category of “cleans”:

  • The power clean (pulling from the floor and catching high)
  • The squat clean (hang position, and a “dive” under the bar for the catch)
  • The hang power clean (hanging start and high catch)
  • The pocket clean (starting very close to standing)
  • The hang clean (hanging start, and a deep catch)

The easiest to coach and to learn is the . It’s also usually the most useful to everyday lifters, so we’ll stick with that variation.

The How – To

  • Place your feet hip-width apart with the toes pointing dead forward.
  • Stand tall, and with the bar hanging at arms’ length.
  • With a flat back, slide the bar down the upper thigh until it reaches about knee level. In this position, make sure that the shoulders are positioned slightly over the bar for the muscles of the upper back to properly contribute to the first pull.

Next, to make the lift happen, a triple extension of the ankle, knee and hip joints are followed by a powerful shrug action to launch the bar up to shoulder level.

Where many run into problems is in the catch phase, “it’s all in the elbows.” In his DVD Starting Strength, Mark Rippetoe uses a simple drill to emphasize the need for high elbows. Mark uses his hands as a target, and makes the lifter “high five” his elbows into his hands as quickly and sharply as possible. Even if you don’t have a partner, you can still try this.

Don’t be afraid to pull slowly for this particular drill. Starting with the bar already in the rack position also helps get the right “groove.”

Unlike the power clean from the floor, most won’t be able to pull mind boggling weight from the hang position. For this reason, it can be implemented more readily into your conditioning workouts as a tool for a high tempo, fat burning exercise.
Here’s the finished product:

Olympic Lift 2 – The Snatch

Cleans and Snatches Made Easier

I’ll use the power snatch from the floor in this case. When performing a snatch of any kind, remember to grip the bar at least one full fist outside standard bench press grip, if not more. The remaining set-up mechanics are surprisingly similar to the previous lift.

  • The feet start at hip-width apart.
  • The same triple extension of the ankle, knee, and hip begins the movement. In the case of the snatch, there has to be a bit more force produced into the bar to project it overhead. This is where “target points” come into play.
  • Once the upward triple extension is completed, the bar should briefly contact the same spot on the upper leg each time you do the movement. Time this with a strong shoulder shrug.

Remember, based on human anatomy and biomechanics, you’re not going to be as powerful moving the bar from the floor to the knee level as you will be moving it from above the knee (already in motion) to overhead. So don’t intend to have full acceleration before the bar crosses the knee.
Use that landmark on the upper leg (somewhere around where the pockets end in your pants) to serve as a “launching pad” for the bar to blast upwards. There will be a high pull involved, though not as distinct as the one used for the clean.

A common mistake I’ve noticed performed in the snatch is the need to “lock out” the bar at the top of the lift. This can be a product of two things: the weight being too heavy, or not enough “dive” underneath the bar.
Again, in a full snatch (the kind you’ll see performed in the Olympics), the lifter will drop right under the bar into full overhead squat position. Since we’re just doing a power snatch, this degree of depth isn’t necessary, but there still needs to be a transition of slightly “pulling” your body under the bar as the weight moves to the top. Notice the shallow overhead squat that’s assumed to achieve this in the video below.


Let me humbly state that there are thousands of articles, videos, and YouTube clips dedicated to aspiring weightlifters who wants to improve their performance of the Olympic lifts. If you’re already a semi-proficient Olympic lifter, well, you basically just wasted 10 minutes of your life by reading this.
Yet as informative as these highly detailed articles are, they often neglect the lifter who’s just after some athletic muscle. Some guys (and girls) want to incorporate technically sound Olympic lift variations into their programming for strength, power, and fat loss. It might not be the Olympics but it’s a worthy cause nonetheless!
I look forward to your comments in the LiveSpill.


Surprising Reasons Why You’re Tight and Weak

Stretching for Strength
Tissue quality is paramount when it comes to building a strong, healthy body. For example, something as innocuous as weak scapular retractors or tight external rotators can stop a soaring bench press or shoulder press dead in its tracks.
The body seeks structural balance, and the quicker you accept this and adjust your programming, the more successful your lifting career will be. This means making time for some of the stuff we all hate, namely “sissy” pre-hab exercises and of course, stretching.

The Truth

Most lifters won’t admit how tight their muscles really are. Each week we make hundreds of loaded contractions; reps upon reps, sets upon sets. Then, when we’re at work or at home “relaxing,” we continue to make our muscles fire by holding all sorts of unnatural positions.
To help offset this, therapists and trainers advocate flexibility and soft tissue work, but oddly, consider someone who spends 15 minutes a day working at it to be doing a good job. That’s not even two hours a week!
It’s important to recognize the vital relationship between a muscle’s quality and its potential to gain size. Rather than being strictly size-obsessed, as we bodybuilders naturally are, a more “outside-the-box” holistic standpoint is at times necessary.

The Good Stuff

Muscles, bones, tendons, fascia, and ligaments all play a role in your welfare in and out of the weight room. Throw off your skeleton, and you get a lack of structural balance. Throw off your structural balance, and you get muscles being overloaded. Overload muscles, and you’re grieved with joint stress and connective tissue issues.
Let’s start things with a simple rule of thumb:

When a Muscle Appears Deficient, the Answer is NOT Always to Give That Muscle Your Attention!

Take a pair of tight hamstrings, for example. Lifters often suffer from hamstrings that have the elasticity of ropes. Yet despite the time spent before and during exercise methodically stretching the snot out of them, they see no improvement in their flexibility or in the performance of their given lifts.
Frustrating as this may be, it makes perfect sense – the hamstrings have all the flexibility they need, it’s thesurrounding muscles that are causing the not-so-pretty deadlifts and squats.
Here are some things that could infringe on muscles’ apparent flexibility or strength:

Reciprocal Inhibition

Stretching for Strength
In the case of tight, inflexible hamstrings, what often hinders ROM are tight hip flexors.
Stand up and try to touch your toes with stiff legs and a flat back. Take note of how close you get. Now, take 30 seconds and static stretch your hips. Now try the toe-touch again.
Notice an improvement? The hip flexors were acting against the hamstrings the first time around. Because they were tight, they inhibited the range of motion the hamstrings could achieve on the opposite site. A simple attention shift like this could be a make-or-break factor whether your muscles function the way you want them to.

Get Your Head Straight!

Stretching for Strength

Your posture is important for more than just looking impressive to the ladies. When you have a head tilt, the corresponding discs of the vertebrae are often being compressed. Not only can this lead to discomfort and chronic muscle imbalance, it can also lower your muscles’ involvement in many major upper body lifts.
Let’s say you tirelessly hit your biceps in pursuit of Thibaudeau-esque guns. Many lifters will crane their necks forward during heavy curls, or even look down at their purty biceps rather than focusing straight ahead while digging in for their set.
This impinges the nerve and lowers the electrical stimulation the nerves can send the biceps from their point of origin. Straighten up!
If it’s a true spinal postural issue and not just a bad gym habit, exercises such as neck bridges can strengthen the neck musculature, along with exercises like the trap-3 raise for the lower traps and thoracic extensions with a foam roller.

Antagonistic “Looseness”

Stretching for Strength

Often with muscles that directly oppose one another (like the trap-3 and pec minor, or calves and tibialis muscle), one side can tighten up due to no contributing balance from its antagonistic.
Loose tibialis anterior muscles (the long muscle on the shin that allows you to raise your toes) are often responsible for extremely tight calves that inhibit proper technique. For lifters who suffer from this, it’s as hard for them to drop their heels during squats and lunges as it is for Dennis Rodman to choose an outfit on awards night.

Think Fascia

Your muscle fascia is often like a giant, connected chain. Releasing one link can unlock several others.
Try this: Do a standing calf stretch off the edge of a box or step. Now squeeze the glute on the same leg you’re stretching. You’ll feel the calf stretch intensify.
The contraction of the glute tugs slightly on the entire fascial chain, so the stretch is felt right along the back of the leg.
Knowing this, we can apply it to crusty chronic pain spots. Try taking a golf ball or lacrosse ball to your plantar fascia if you suffer from things like foot cramps, Achilles aggravations, or calf tightness.

So We Shouldn’t Stretch?

It would do us well to first distinguish what we’re doing all this stretching stuff for. Stretching work for basic flexibility in everyday life serves a very different purpose than stretching between sets of a 365-pound squat.
Regarding programming, we shouldn’t be quick to focus on stretching as it isn’t always the cure-all “remedy” for everything. Rather, it should be one of many tools in your toolbox to attack a pesky weak point. This way, when we do decide to prescribe stretching, it’ll have the desired effect.
We all sit a lot. We also do tons of work using the muscles on the front of our body and minimal for the stuff we can’t see in the mirror. Flexibility training for health and comfort should be a staple! This brings me to my next point.
Smart coaches preach that we should strive to achieve adequate levels of structural balance. That means the same rule applies for stretching, right?
Stretching both sides of the body evenly is not the answer. Think about it. If one side is tighter than the other side, and you proceed to loosen both sides up, you’re simply maintaining the same imbalanced flexibility ratio, resulting in the same amount of strain and counter strain on the body.

Putting it All Together

Stretching for Strength
Here’s a comprehensive breakdown of muscles to give less or more attention to when stretching.

The Home Stretch

Sometimes we all need a tactful reminder – and a little help – to pinpoint the root cause of a given issue. If working the strength side of things hasn’t been panning out, put some effort into the flexibility side of the equation. You’ll be glad you did.

>Fix Your Front Squat


Fix Your Front Squat

Fix Your Front Squat

When most lifters boast online about their Herculean squat numbers, I’d guess that 80 percent or more are referring to back squats.
It’s the most popular squat variation in the world – and I’ll be the first to give it the credit it deserves – but there are times when it might be advantageous to give your traps a break and incorporate front squats.
So why does the front squat so often get thrown under the bus? For one thing, front squats are hard work, something that many commercial gym heroes tend to avoid like egg yolks and body hair. Since moving heavy weight for the cell phone camera is priority number one for your typical egocentric meathead, most stay in their comfort zone and bang out leg presses, leg extensions, and sordid half-rep back squat perversions, complete with more mid-set grunting and groaning than a porn casting.
After all, they reason, what can you get from front squats that you can’t get from back squats? Good question.

Why Should I Be Doing Front Squats?

Front squats will do three things if you do them correctly:
  • Increase depth achieved
  • Improve core strength
  • Activate glutes
When a barbell is loaded on the front of the body, the pelvis gets to tilt backwards somewhat, which makes the hamstrings less taut. This gives them the freedom to allow a greater ROM at the bottom of the lift. This pelvic tilt also allows the lower abs to contribute to the lift more, and takes the hip flexors away from “blocking” the movement.
So, just like a goblet squat, you get a hell of a lot lower then you do in a back squat. The torso also gets to stay more upright, which requires the obliques to provide stability.
Finally, due to the tremendous knee extension involved, the front squat is rightly seen as a major quad developer. Since the thighs drop far below parallel to the floor, it’s safe to say that hip flexion is greatly increased too, forcing the glutes to assist the concentric half of the lift.
With all of these kick-ass benefits, it seems like a no-brainer that front squats should make a regular appearance in a typical program.

Why You Suck At Front Squats

Other than the obvious (you aren’t doing them enough), there are a few things that limit lifters from achieving a decent front squat.

Your Abs Aren’t Strong Enough

Front squats require considerable core involvement. You’d do well to incorporate some exercises for anti – extension (to prevent overarch) and oblique work so they function well as stabilizers.

Ab wheel rollouts OR Blast Strap fallouts

Fix Your Front Squat

Suitcase deadlift OR Paloff press

Fix Your Front Squat
These are a few of what I consider to be staple movements to improve the function of the abdominals and wake them up for the real stuff.

Your Elbows Won’t Stay High Enough

The goal should be to keep the elbows pointing as far upwards as possible to promote parallel lines between the upper arm and the floor at all times.
If you’ve noticed that every time you front squat your elbows start pointing towards the floor after only two reps, causing you to rack the weight prematurely, there’s a reason for that.
In this case, the first thing to do would be to activate your rotator cuff. If these small muscles aren’t playing their part in externally rotating the upper arm, your elbows will drop faster than Tiger Woods’ “Just Do It” promo.
Luckily, there are a couple of things you can do to remedy that problem.

Face pulls

Seated dumbbell external rotation

You Can’t Stand Tall

Proper thoracic extension is very important for front squats, as the Turtleback syndrome affects many when they have to bear a front load.
Take a barbell and perform a set of five front squats. Do you notice your mid-back rolling like the Andes? Have someone watch you if you have any doubts.
Either way, there are a few simple fixes.
  • PNF intercostal stretch
  • Foam roller extensions
  • Trap – 3 raises
(See this article for examples of all three)
Something to keep in mind though – studies have shown that after the sixth rep of a typical set of front squats or front loaded work, the rhomboids begin fatiguing and can no longer hold a constant isometric. For this reason, try to keep sets of front squats towards the lower end of the repetition continuum.

Getting a Grip

Many lifters will use the “California” style or cross-armed grip on the bar to allow it to rest on the shoulders when performing a front squat. Big mistake. Since one elbow stays higher than the other on a cross-armed grip, under substantial load, it can act against proper structural alignment of the shoulders, and has the potential to refer imbalances right through to the hips and knees.
For this reason, I highly recommend using a clean grip, which also has better carryover to proper techniques involved with any Olympic lifts as well as overhead pressing. It may feel uncomfortable at first, but remember to keep a proud chest and get those elbows up!
It’s okay to remove a finger or two from under the bar (I like to remove my thumb and pinky finger as it helps take stress off the wrists and allows for the elbows to stay up). Otherwise, make sure the lats, triceps, and forearms get a good stretch before beginning. (See picture below.)

Fix Your Front Squat

The Cues

Here are some basic tips to look out for when doing front squats.
  • Keep the toes pointed slightly outwards, and make sure knees track in the direction the toes point
  • Keep the chest up proud
  • Elbows high at all times
  • Hinge from the hips, and let the glutes fire to come back up
  • Press through the full foot, keeping the heel on the ground
  • Breathe deep on the eccentric, and hold full of air at the bottom to increase intra-abdominal pressure
  • Don’t panic – the legs have loads of fight – or – flight in them. You’ll get out of the hole!

Lifters Who Should Be All Over Front Squats

Tall Lifters. It’s asking a lot of someone who’s over six feet to get far below parallel during a back squat. Front loading allows the center of gravity to shift backwards slightly, and unloads the low back and hips enough for them to achieve this depth. Your chicken legs may be due to lack of back squatting depth.
Lifters With Tight Hamstrings. As noted, a front load will make the hamstrings less taut, and therefore promote more range of motion during the negative phase of the squat.

Getting Out of The “Embarrassing” Category

If these pointers alone don’t substantially improve your front squat, I’ve put together a cool quasi-workout that serves as a good tool to bring up your fronts.
Think of this as a “front squat conditioning” workout. The goal is to get the abs firing correctly, get the upper back tight, and start practicing the movement properly and under decent load.
Begin by foam rolling and static stretching hip flexors, hamstrings, glutes, and lats.

Front squat workout

Exercise Reps % 1RM
A Front squat 6 70%
B Ab wheel rollout 12
Foam roller extensions *
C Front squat 5 80%
D Stomach-up pull-ups 6-8
E Front squat 4 80%
F Trap-3 raises 12 per arm
PNF intercostal stretch
G Front squat 4 80%
H DB external rotations 12 per arm
I Front squat 4 80%
This mini-workout will take 20 minutes to get through. You’ll notice reps are kept low, as are intensities. The reason for this is the abdominals and upper back muscles are being hit with direct exercises to mildly fatigue them between each set of front squats. Loading aggressively could be inviting injury. An elevated heart rate – thanks to the 90-second rest interval – will allow practicing keeping the elbows high and chest up while slightly fatigued.
There’s nothing fancy-shmancy about this workout, and it doesn’t even need to replace a real leg workout. Chances are you won’t be too sore the next day, either. This workout can find its home on a supplementary day for a few weeks.

Squatting to Oblivion!

Adding load to the body effectively trains muscle, of course. Contrary to popular belief, though, the answer isn’t always throwing on heavier and heavier weight. You’d be surprised how added ROM, improved technique, or a bit of both can be game-changers for tapping into sleepy motor units or just plain increasing difficulty.
Moreover, they just may be the missing link to make you the guy whose chicken legs flew the coop.


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