Category Archives: Lee Boyce
Squats 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, if that’s what you’re going for.
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. But that’s just me.
Take home point: If you’re looking for size and want to kick your posterior chain into gear when you back squat, use a lower bar position. Low bar squatting will allow you to use slightly more weight as well, so you’ll see a faster rate of change in your strength training.
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: Much like the above section, if you’re after posterior chain recruitment, a hip hinge is your best bet. It also goes well with low bar and box squatting. If you’re going for both depth and quad activation, play around with a knee break.
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 or 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:
Start 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: Remember that the wider the stance, the more inner thigh you’ll have available to contribute to the lift. Above all, use the right squat width for your height and build by using the above testing method. That way if you’re lacking in ROM, you can find your way into a deeper squat and out of injury territory.
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: start sprinting.
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: Strength and flexibility are both important in basically all weight training movements, and squats are no different. If you notice instability at the bottom of your deep squat, or realize your squats just aren’t making it deep enough to begin with, giving your hips some added attention can do you good.
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: Depending on what you’re training for, using a slower negative can lead to huge gains in strength since you’re taxing your strongest fibers through the eccentric portion. If you’re used to a tempo like 10X0, take a shot at some 30X0’s and see how they make you feel for the days to come.
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: If you have weak quads or want to develop them, try deliberately elevating your heels during squats. If you lack depth in your squat, heel elevation will help, for now. Don’t rely on them forever, though. Get your flexibility up, and you’ll get more work done in your sets from the added ROM.
You Down With This?
It’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.
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:whether to perform steady state cardio depends on the size and musculature of the individual.
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
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
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
- 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 haveto 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.
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
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
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 hang power clean. 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
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.
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.
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:
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:
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!
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.
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.
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
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
Why Should I Be Doing Front Squats?
- Increase depth achieved
- Improve core strength
- Activate glutes
Why You Suck At Front Squats
Your Abs Aren’t Strong Enough
Ab wheel rollouts OR Blast Strap fallouts
Suitcase deadlift OR Paloff press
Your Elbows Won’t Stay High Enough
Seated dumbbell external rotation
You Can’t Stand Tall
- PNF intercostal stretch
- Foam roller extensions
- Trap – 3 raises
Getting a Grip
- 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
Getting Out of The “Embarrassing” Category
Front squat workout
|B||Ab wheel rollout||12|
|–||Foam roller extensions||*|
|F||Trap-3 raises||12 per arm|
|–||PNF intercostal stretch|
|H||DB external rotations||12 per arm|
† see video below – be sure not to allow the feet to do anything but hang straight down to get full stimulation of the abdominals. It should look like you’re trying to pull yourself to horizontal.
‡ at a 3010 tempo