Category Archives: Tony Gentilcore

Does Everyone Need To Squat (Deep)?

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

Squat Technique

Of course, much of the time it’s simply a matter of placing a premium on coaching someone to squat properly.

  • Groove a proper hip-hinge pattern (learn to sit back).
  • Coach a more vertical shin angle (especially for those with chronic knee pain), although we can’t forget that there’s going to be some forward translation of the tibia during any squat.
  • Teach clients to push their knees out. I can’t even begin to tell you how this simple cue works wonders in helping to clean up squat technique.
  • Learn to engage core stiffness (get tight). Each set should begin with taking a big breath and encouraging more apical expansion of the torso. This is something that I’ve recently started to realize that I’ve missed the mark on for many years.

Physical therapist Bill Hartman keyed me in on the notion that it’s unwise to only focus on pushing the belly out (which encourages more anterior pelvic tilt, and places far more stress on the facet joints of the lumbar spine). Along with pushing the belly out, we also need to be cognizant of attaining lateral and posterior (apical) expansion.

  • Learn to engage the lats, and as a result, the thoraco-lumbar fascia to provide more stability to the spine.
  • Try not to shit a kidney.

While there’s more to it than that, if everyone made it a point to hone in on those key objectives when squatting, we’d undoubtedly see less injuries and (probably) bigger numbers under the bar.
Nevertheless, it can’t be understated: 
A safe and acceptable depth for one person could be harmful for the next. It’s still possible to reap all the benefits of a squat without necessarily going “ass to grass,” so it behooves everyone to take the time to find out exactly what their “acceptable” range is.

Assessing Squat Depth

Does Everyone Need to Squat DeepA quick aside:  It’s a way for me to delve into the bigger picture and construct a program that will allow for the quickest and safest results possible.
More to the point, it’s also a way for someone to prove to me that they move well enough that I’m confident they’re capable of performing the movements or exercises I deem appropriate for their skill level.
It’s important to reiterate that squatting deep is  dangerous or bad. Contrarily, and without getting derailed, squatting deep (whatever that means to you) can be argued to be safer than the alternative, as I noted in this article.
But how do we “assess” the appropriate squat depth ?
While there are dozens of ways to do so effectively, a great starting point would be a simple drill discussed in the book Deadlift Dynamite, where both Andy Bolton and Pavel quote the godfather of spinal biomechanics, Dr. Stuart McGill:

Check out the video below for a demo:

But even this is a somewhat convoluted or limited way to assess things, as squatting by its nature isn’t performed in a quadruped position (not to mention squatting is a bit more dynamic in nature, especially under load).
At Cressey Performance, part of our initial assessment with every new client is to take a look at their standing overhead squat and ascertain their squatting proficiency.
If you’re curious to play along, here are some simple screens you can perform yourself.

Squat Screen # 1

Assume a shoulder width-apart stance with your toes facing straight ahead and your arms fully extended overhead and then squat down as far as you can go.
What do you notice?
If you’re one of the few who can squat all the way down without any major compensation(s) coming to the forefront (heels coming off the ground, knees caving in, excessive lumbar flexion, excessive forward lean, to name a few), congratulations, you get a gold star!
This is more of an evaluative squat assessment, and isn’t how I’d go about coaching someone to squat, but more on that shortly.

What this demonstrates is that you have ample hip internal rotation to go into deep hip flexion with very little (if any) ramifications. Granted, we could make a case for hypermobility/laxity, which has it’s own set of drawbacks, but the majority of people reading won’t have this luxury anyway.
More commonly people will have difficulty attaining proper depth performing this particular assessment, which is why I’ll tweak it further.

Squat Screen # 2

Widen your stance, allow for a little “out-toeing,” and perform the exact same drill.

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

Squat Screen # 3

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

Squat Screen #4

Lastly, get rid of the heel lift, grab a 10-pound plate, hold it out in front of you with your arms fully extended, and again squat.

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

So Now What?

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

Like the Tuck Under (Butt Wink)

Some people picked the right parents, have awesome levers, and are able to squat ass-to-grass with no issues at all.

Due to any number of reasons, namely atrocious ankle mobility and lack of core stability, the butt “tucks” underneath the pelvis when attempting to go into deep(er) hip flexion.
As a result, it causes a boatload of compressive load on the lumbar spine, and to a lesser degree, which I can’t prove with any science, drives Dr. McGill bat shit crazy.
Returning to the quadruped rockback test, lets compare a passable test with a god-awful one.
We saw this one earlier:

As you can see, I’m able to get to a decent depth without any major red flags or noticeable compensation patterns rearing their ugly head. My spine stays relatively “neutral” throughout, and my arms look pretty freakin gunny, thank you very much.
But let’s look at what a train wreck looks like:

You should immediately notice a lumbar hinge, and unfortunately, if this were some random person, I’d probably refrain from having them squat past that point of no return.
I mean, if it’s this bad with no spinal loading, can you imagine how much of a walking ball of fail this hypothetical person would be if I placed a barbell on his back?

How Can We Fix It?

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

Foam Rolling

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

Hammer Ankle Mobility

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

Hammer Anterior Core Strength

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

Squat to a Successful Depth

Even if someone elicits faulty squatting patterns, that doesn’t mean he or she can’t squat.
Instead, squat to a depth that prevents him or her from going into lumbar flexion and allows them some success.
Enter the box squat and squat to box, both superb training tools to teach proper squatting technique and allowing people the luxury of still attaining a killer training effect. Check out the tutorial below.

I know it may give some people a bad taste in their mouth, but if I have to resort to having a client squat to a 16-inch box, so be it. I can always progress them lower, and at the same time not feed into any dysfunction or cause anymore harm.

And I’m Out!

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

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Push-Upalooza

Push-ups are like the Rodney Dangerfield of the fitness community – they get no respect.
Often deemed a waste of time, or worse, “too easy,” push-ups are generally an after-thought with regards to exercise selection. I mean, who has time to do push-ups after four sets of bench presses, seven sets of incline presses, and 14 sets of decline presses? Dude, everyone knows you have to hit all the angles!
What’s more, if you really want to blast the pecs, you can’t forget dumbbell flies, cable flies, and the pec dec!!11!1
Sarcasm aside, it’s readily apparent that push-ups aren’t quite as “sexy” as their bench press counterparts, and aren’t considered a high priority for most trainees when it comes to getting their pecification on.
Heck, they’re not even in the same stratosphere as the bench press.  I mean, when was the last time you walked into your gym and saw someone rocking some legit push-ups?  Let alone perform them correctly, or with any external load?
Yeah, I thought so.  You’re more apt to see a Real Housewife win a Pulitzer.
Nevertheless, if I were to make a top five list of exercises that give you the most bang-for-your-training-buck, push-ups would easily make an appearance. For starters, most people can’t do them correctly, let alone do them for reps, so that alone means something.
Ironically, people have a tendency to do what’s easy and what they’re good at.  Push-ups, for all intents and purposes, are considered “easy” by most standards…
….but not a lot of people are good at them.
Most of the time you see the following: for the visual learners in the crowd, refer to the picture to the right.
1.  Head juts down
2. Excessive lumbar curve
3. No scapular retraction (or protraction)
4. Abs “sag” (rectus abdomimus picks up the slack for woefully weak external obliques)
5. Limited range of motion (it looks more like an epileptic seizure than a push-up)
While I’m not going to break it down joint by joint and cue by cue, here are some standard things to focus on when trying to perform a proper push-up:
  • Keep chin tucked  – don’t poke it towards the ground
  • Abs should stay tight or braced (sometimes I’ll gently tap the stomach to help the trainee engage their core)
  • Squeeze the glutes (provides more posterior pelvic tilt and keeps people out of lumbar extension)
  • Hands/elbows should be directly underneath the shoulders.
  • Likewise, hands should be around shoulder width apart
  • Knees should be locked and legs in a straight line.
  • The backside should make a straight line.  Here, I LOVE using a PVC pipe to place on people’s backs so as to teach them what a neutral spine should feel like. There should be three points of contact – the back of the head, in between the shoulder blades, and the sacrum*** Photo courtesy of elitefitblog.
  • Elbows should NOT flare out during the set.  Instead, they should stay tight to the body, or at a 45 degree angle.
  • Chest touches floor on every rep
NOTE:  For those interested, you can check out THIS post where I discuss some push-up variations for women (and men) who can’t yet perform a standard push-up from the floor.
Moving on (because I don’t want to make this a “how to” post), compared to the bench press, push-ups are a closed chain exercise, which offers a gulf of advantages, particularly with regards to scapular kinematics and overall shoulder health.
In short, when you’re lying on your back performing a bench press, your shoulder blades aren’t able to move – they’re stuck in place.
Conversely, with a push-up, the scapulae are now able to move more freely, which has huge dividends towards overall shoulder health.
It’s not uncommon for someone to walk into the facility complaining of debilitating shoulder pain (in no small part to the amount of benching they do), only to realize that they can perform push-ups pain free.
Thirdly, push-ups offer a lot of variety. Whether I’m working with an elite athlete, a newbie, or with someone who has a bum shoulder, push-ups offer me a lot of leeway, and I can make them as easy (or challenging) as I want. Literally, the options are endless.
Lastly, and arguably most important of all, from a anterior-posterior perspective, push-ups are a fantastic way to train the core in a more functional manner, as you have to learn to “engage” all the stabilizers in the lumbo-pelvic-hip area to achieve better pelvic alignment.
With this established, the prime movers now appear stronger because the stabilizers are doing their job and force is more easily transferred.
Suffice it to say, I really feel that push-ups should be a staple in everyone’s programming, and it’s unfortunate that they’re often dismissed altogether.
That said, while the first step is to make sure that everyone can perform a push-up correctly (see points above), lets be honest, they can be about as exciting as watching paint dry. Sometimes we need to kick it up a notch, and with that in mind…..it’s not uncommon for us to make them more challenging by adding things like bands, chains, etc.
When those aren’t an option, here are some other variations I like:

T-Push-Ups (with DBs)

The first point to consider is that DBs aren’t necessarily mandatory here.  For some, just using body weight alone will be challenging enough.
Even so, the key thing here is to make sure that the body is locked into place.  A HYYYYYOOOOOGE mistake I see is when trainees tend to rotate with their lumbar spine first and then with their upper torso.
Instead, what should happen is that the rib cage should be locked into place with the lower back so that the entire body moves in unison.
From there, I generally shoot for anywhere from 4-5 reps/PER SIDE.

1-Arm Bodysaw Push-Up

This is definitely one of the more advanced push-up variations we implement at Cressey Performance, but one that’s definitely popular amongst our athletes and clients.
Obviously, having access to a slideboard is useful, but not mandatory:  purchasing a ValSlide or even a pair of those furniture glider thingamajigs would be advantageous (not to mention cheaper).
Here, all of the same rules apply with regards to push-up technique, but with the addition of the slideboard, there’s a definite increased challenge on core stability (especially with the increased range of motion).  Additionally, there’s a bit of a unilateral component which is unique and something I feel is important to consider.
Again, much like the t-push variation above, I like to implement sets of 5-6 reps per side.

Push-Up Kickthrough

Admittedly this is a variation that I’ll only typically use as part of a metabolic circuit, but it’s still kind of badass (despite the Katy Perry playing in the background).
The premise is pretty standard – perform a push-up, and then bring the contra-lateral knee towards the opposite elbow – maintaining a neutral spine as best you can, of course.
I prefer to do this version for time (20-30s) as part of a circuit, but you can certainly shoot for a standard # of reps per side, too.
And that’s it.  While I could easily sit here and plow through 20 more variations, those are just a few (hopefully) new push-up variations you can start to incorporate today.  Just so we’re clear, though, I still feel it’s imperative that people learn to do REGULAR push-ups correctly.  Once that’s in the bag, the options are endless.

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