Sunday, August 25, 2013

How To Squat - One More Excerpt From the Book.

In light of how much "sciency" stuff I post on this blog, I figured it might be nice to give an example of the practical side of things. The following is a direct copy of the squatting instruction section of the book. Again, as I am still hunting for a good illustrator, there are no pictures. There will, of course, be pictures in the published copy of the book.

Back Squat
There are two exercises on this program that are absolutely indispensable, and the squat is one of them.  When performed correctly and to adequate depth, the squat provides a nearly innumerable litany of benefits.  It’s important to note that the squat should be performed either barefoot, or in footwear that is as close to flat-soled as possible.  Unfortunately, most shoes have significant heel lift, which canters the body forward and throws off the set up.  Get some lifting shoes, Chuck Taylors, wrestling shoes, or go bare.

Reasons to squat
  • Recruits large percentage of muscle mass
  • Unmatched anabolic hormonal response
  • Improves bone density
  • Teaches coordination of full body muscle contraction
  • Improves mobility and balance
  • Develops musculature in balanced, safe manner
  • Improves hip drive and posterior chain coordination
  • Improves power production and explosiveness
  • Develops an iron will and mental toughness
  • Develops stabilizing muscles

It must be stated that the squat is an inherently safe movement.  It’s something we know how to do instinctually.  The pattern can be lost as we age, become sedentary, lose some mobility and gain some injuries, but squatting itself is deeply ingrained in our natural body mechanics. If your body is capable of doing it safely, you should squat.  Some aspects of the movement can be mimicked via other exercises, but nothing gets the job done like a proper squat.  

Squat Performance

High Bar Vs Low Bar
A high bar squat requires that you place the bar across the top of the trapezius muscle.  It necessitates a more vertical torso and slightly more knees-forward position at the bottom.  It tends to target the quadriceps a bit more, while recruiting less of the posterior chain.  Its sometimes argued that it has more carryover to olympic lifting and most sports, though that’s a hotly debated topic that hasn’t been conclusively answered as of yet.  It tends to be favored by bodybuilders for the extra quad development, and by olympic lifters for the positional similarity to many olympic lifts.


A low bar squat requires that you place the bar in a subscapular position, just below the sticky-outies of the back of your shoulders.  It necessitates a more horizontal torso, hips back, knees back position.  As you may have guessed, it tends to emphasize the posterior chain over the quads (though still a major quad developer).  Likewise, supposedly has more carryover to powerlifting and sports with a heavy power component; again, hotly debated.  It tends to be favored by powerlifters because a bit more weight can generally be used, and by certain athletes for the increased focus on posterior chain development.


So, which should you use?  First, it’s the author's belief that this is a nearly moot argument.  There may be some unique pros and cons between the two, but it’s far less than many would have you believe.  Keep it simple and comfortable; try them both and pick the one that feels the most natural to you.  

Proper Depth
Below parallel squats are a necessity.  They are far safer and more effective than squatting to inadequate depth.  Squatting above parallel puts the work of rebounding and driving the squat out of hole directly on the low back and quads, taking the role of your butt and hamstrings out of the equation entirely.  This leads to both acute injury and long term muscle imbalance.  If you care about performance, safety, and aesthetics, you'll want to avoid this.  From here on, decide to squat to at least below parallel or not at all.
You’ll know you've hit parallel when there is a marked hip fold, with the hips dropping below the knees.  This is both visible to an observer and palpable to the trainee; you will feel a major difference the first time you get down past parallel. 


By the same token, there’s no real need to squat much lower than parallel.  Very few trainees possess the flexibility and mobility to do a true ass to grass squat, especially at the novice stage.  Trying to hit this depth can cause plenty knee, ankle, and low back pain and strain.  If you have the mobility to do it, you’ll need to adopt more of a high bar squat to keep the torso vertical enough to reach a true rock bottom.  

Squat Stance
Stance will be slightly wider than shoulder width, with toes turned about 30-45 degrees.  Outward pointing toes are necessary to keep leg joints aligned, and proper width is needed to prevent the stomach from hitting the thighs, which will allow you to squat with adequate depth.
A great tip exists for getting yourself into a proper stance.  Begin in a normal athletic stance, the kind you’d use for fielding a ball or making a jump shot.  Rotate the heels outwards, then rotate the toes outwards to about a 30-45 degree angle.  If done right, it should make you feel a bit like Micheal Jackson and put you in a solid squat stance.


Squat Foundation
Begin with just your body weight.  Drop down into a squat, forcefully pusingh your knees out on the way down.  Descend all the way into a squat, past parallel.   You must squat below parallel or lower to reap all the benefits of squatting.  At the bottom of the squat, the knees should be flared out and just slightly in front of the toes, the feet should be flat on the floor, the chest should be elevated, the low back should be locked in extension, and the gaze should be pointed downward at about 45 degrees.  


Your back will not be vertical by any means, but it should be relatively flat with a slight lumbar arch.  The pelvis will have marked anterior tilt as it follows the torso.  An astute observer will notice that the erector spinae will be flexed, which will help pull the lower spine into extension.  Likewise, the sacrum (tailbone) will be lifted upwards to maintain lumbar extension.  This position must be maintained at the bottom of the squat.

Adding the Bar
Set the bar in a power rack or squat rack to about sternal height, just below the nipple line.  Using the bar knurlings (the smooth markings on the bar), take a grip that evenly spaces your hands.  Grip should be an overhand hook, with the thumbs looped around the top of the bar.  Place the hands as narrow as comfort allows.  The closer the grip, the more the upper back musculature will cushion the bar, which is important for comfortably squatting heavier weight.  


Get under the bar, assume a squat stance, and unrack the weight by finishing a quarter squat.  Don’t unrack by trying to lift with the torso.  Always walk the weight back by taking one or two controlled steps.  Never try walk the bar forward out of the rack; you cannot safely rack the bar from this position.  
Grip tight and elevate the elbows to trap the bar.  Lift the chest, drop the gaze, and find a landmark to focus on.  You will look at this spot for the duration of the set.  Never under any circumstances should you look upwards while squatting.
Take a moderate to large breath of air directly into your stomach, then flex your gut hard and lock it as though you were bracing for a punch.  Don’t suck your stomach in, just brace hard.  You should feel a marked increase in abdominal pressure and tightness.  Hold this breath through the entire rep, or at the very least until you are nearly at the top.  Take a new breath at the top of the rep.  Do not exhale at the bottom.  
Unlock the hips and pull yourself down and back into the squat, ensuring that you drive the knees outward and keep the back locked in extension.  Don’t recklessly allow the weight to slam you downard; the descent should be an active process of staying tight and pulling yourself down into the hole.  Drop straight into a parallel or lower squat.  Do not pause at the bottom of the rep or you will lose your hip drive.  Feel the stretch in the hamstrings and glutes, and allow it to be your cue to rocket out of the hole.  Punch the hips straight upwards and drive hard.  Do not attempt to lift the weight by doing a curl with your upper body.  Simply drive the hips upwards.  Throughout the entire movement, the bar should track an invisible but perfectly straight vertical line that runs from where the bar is on your back straight down to your midfoot.  The path of the bar should not deviate in any direction off of this track.
Lock your hips and torso at the top, coming to full extension.  Exhale, take another breath, and relock the abdomen.  Repeat as the set prescribes.  Walk the weight back towards the rack until the bar makes contact with the rack, then let the weight slide down into the pins.  Do not attempt to drop the weight into the pins.  

graphic of back flexion, neutrality (extension), and hyperextension- trunk muscles stabilize this position

This is a lot to learn at first.  If possible, have an observer(s) check you over and tell you what needs to be adjusted.  Most issues can easily be fixed with feedback and adjustment.  Some are caused by a lack of mobility or flexibility.  These issues can be corrected with concerted stretching, but minor ones tend to work themselves out as practicing the squat naturally improves squatting flexibility and mobility.  

Solving Common Problems
Here’s a list of questions you should ask yourself before you begin squatting heavy weight.  Fix problems early so they don’t become habit.

Am I able to maintain a chest up, head down position with the lumbar spine locked in extension?
  • Use a thumbs-over hook grip and lift the elbows to trap the bar
  • Keep the chin tucked and the gaze fixed and pointed downward
  • Pull the scapula down and in using your lats, rather than shrugging your shoulders towards your ears
  • Perform static and dynamic stretching of the shoulder and chest muscles
  • Ensure that the low back is locked in extension
  • Improve hip mobility
  • Improve shoulder mobility

Am I able to maintain a hips back position at the bottom of a below parallel squat without significant low back rounding or sacral tucking (AKA buttwink)?
  • Ensure that gaze is fixed and pointed downward
  • Drive the knees out hard to allow the stomach to clear the thighs
  • Focus on keeping the torso and hips tight throughout the entire squat-do not allow yourself to lose tension or relax under the weight
  • Commit to going deep without pause or loss of tension
  • Squat less weight
  • Use a tennis or lacrosse ball to loosen the hamstrings, especially just beneath the butt where they attach to the ischial tuberosity.  Painful but worth doing
  • Perform static or dynamic stretching to loosen the hamstrings

Do I come up on the sides of my feet and lose sole contact with the ground?
  • Focus on digging the big toe into the ground
  • Think about grasping the floor with your feet
  • Don’t shove the knees out to the point where the arch of the foot needs to leave the ground

Do I rock front or back, or allow the bar to deviate from its path?
  • Focus on driving the heels down flat
  • Squat deeper
  • Push hard with the glutes out of the hole
  • Focus on activating the glutes and hamstrings to keep from rocking forward
  • Focus on locking the back in thoracic extension and maintaining hip and trunk tension to keep from rocking backwards
  • Squat with flat soled, wrestling, or lifting shoes, or barefoot

Are my ankles able to support a hips back position?
  • Ensure that the knees aren’t tracking too far forward and that the hips are pushed back
  • Keep feet flat on the floor
  • Shove the knees out hard
  • Lift with either flat-soled shoes, lifting shoes, or barefoot

Do I have the trunk strength to isometrically support a significant load without folding in half?  
  • Focus on a proper valsalva maneuver and breathing
  • Maintain trunk and hip tension, do not relax under weight
  • Ensure that the low back is locked in extension
  • Perform trunk and abdominal assistance work
  • Squat less weight

Do I have the kinesthetic awareness to force the knees out as I descend?
  • Practice this skill multiple times a day
  • Use stretch/x bands wrapped around the knees to activate the abductors and gluteus medius
  • Stretching/rolling of iliotibial band, gluteus medius, hip external rotators
  • Have someone scream at you to shove your knees out during the squat

Can I breath properly and perform a Valsalva maneuver to ensure core stability?
  • Wrap a weight belt tightly around the trunk and practice breathing in a way that pushes your stomach against the belt.  Picture trying to tear the belt off with just the force of your trunk
  • Consciously take a moderately deep breath at the start of the squat

Do I have the proprioceptive awareness to maintain proper form as fatigue sets in?
  • Use lighter weights and have an observer correct your form until it is habitual and autonomous
  • Do not lift heavy until you’ve built up the conditioning and mental discipline to match high intensity with proper form

Can I support the bar in proper position without pain, digging, or shoulder rounding?
  • Close the grip to tighten the trapezius and give more padding to the bar
  • Elevate the elbows to push the bar forward and against the trapezius
  • Engage the lats at the top of the movement to retract the shoulders and keep them from shrugging towards the ears
  • Avoid using any kind of padding or support as it will displace bar position