Tag Archives: squat

Squat Fix 101 Series: Sam Richardson, Beginner

A little background information on this week’s Squat Fix: Sam is new mother just getting back to the gym, she currently has no competitive strength or physique goals but would like to get back in shape and is using the squat as a tool to do so.

So let’s start with the good. Sam actually keeps a fairly neutral back posture (front to back) that doesn’t significantly change shape in any portion of the rep, she doesn’t display any “butt wink” or posterior pelvic tilt at least at this depth. Knee tracking is pretty good as well, no serious deviations from the hip or the ankle are observed at any time during the reps (small twitches can be ignored unless pain is present), the lower leg joints make nice stacked lines from the hips to the ankles. Although we can certainly optimize a few things, the most important think to note is that this is fairly safe squat that could be progressed, again, so long as no pain is present

Ok so now let’s get into some things we want to fix right away and some things we may want to change/optimize dependent on goals. First thing is we need to get you out of those running shoes! I’ve written an entire article on this and will direct you here https://blacksmithfitness.wordpress.com/2016/11/25/the-best-and-worst-shoes-for-lifting/ but the key points are: Running shoes have large amounts of relatively soft cushioning, this weakens spinal reflexes from the input from the feet that tell you where you are in relation to gravity and where the load is, this isn’t a good thing and makes you unbalanced and reduces the load you can use, leading to less muscle built and less calories burned. Second thing we want to fix right away is turning the head while under load, at Blacksmith Fitness we just call this “pulling a bro” because it’s a move usually reserved for checking yourself out flexing, but we’ll give Sam the benefit of the doubt here and assume that she’s just looking around. Aside from the narcissistic nature of “pulling a bro” the real problem lies in that although the spine can move segmentally (one piece at a time) it’s ability to do so is quite limited, and therefore even to create small movements, relies on several vertebrae to produce the motion. The body will follow the head or the hips, and creating rotation under vertical load is not something the spine enjoys very much – don’t wait for it to tell you! Find a spot anywhere from 10ft in front of you, to the just below the imaginary horizon to fixate your eyes when you squat.

The next thing is Sam is currently showing a more glute/lower back dominant squatting pattern, as you can tell from the forward lean of her torso being greater than the forward lean of her shins. There’s nothing wrong with this except in this case Sam isn’t hitting full depth and glute recruitment isn’t maximized until at least a parallel thigh position is reached (crease of the hip is in line with the top of the knee), leaving some valuable muscle growth on the table. More depth also equals more mechanical work done as well as more time under tension per rep, both of these things have positive influence on muscle growth as well as energy burned. If the lower back becomes a limiting factor later on as loads increase, Sam may want to learn to use a belt or move towards matching her shin angle to her torso angle to continue progressing – this may be a simple as thinking “sit down” as opposed to “sit back” or there may actually be an ankle mobility issue preventing her from doing so. In the case where a mobility issue may be the limiting factor, Sam could use plates under the heels or specific squat shoes with a raised heel while she works on the requisite mobility to hit the desired position without the use of external aids.

The last thing we’re going to talk about it is Sam’s bar set up. First, let’s get away from the preloaded barbells, they force you to shoulder press the weight into position, which limits the amount of weight you’ll be able to use, and even if you don’t have any competitive goals, to get anything out of the squat you’re going to need more weight than what you can shoulder press into position. Definitely find a squat rack to do your squats in. Right now the bar is in a high bar position (meaning the bar sits on top of the upper traps) this is probably one of the most comfortable places to put the bar, and also the easiest to prevent rolling down the back, however, it’s not a license to leave the bar there passively. Instead of leaving the bar sitting in place, instead think “break the bar over my back” and you should feel the whole back light up, this engages the lats, which attach all the way down into the sacral fascia and an exert a force on the hips, keeping you from folding forward as you start to use heavier weights.

All in all you have fairly safe progress-able squat that needs a few tweaks to get a bit more out of it, and definitely to change your shoes or just take them off, and to find a spot to fixate your head and eye position, and may need to make some long term tweaks to ensure continued progress. Happy squatting!

If you’d like to see a powerlifter’s squat broken down, check out our last article here:

https://blacksmithfitness.wordpress.com/2017/02/15/blacksmith-squat-school-case-study-bryan-wong/

 

Squat Fix 101: Bryan Wong, Powerlifter 

A couple weeks ago we sent out a post looking for people wanting to improve their squat technique by sending us some videos of them squatting, and today we’re breaking down Bryan Wong’s squat, so if you have more advanced strength or powerlifting squatting goals, sit down, strap in, and get ready to learn about the squat!

The basics:

  • Mid-bar narrow stance squatter
  • Competing in powerlifting, goal is to move the most weight possible, an important distinction between the main goal being to build the most amount of muscle in the quads or glutes
  • Weak point, 3-4inches out of the hole

Bryan is a coach’s dream in the sense that he already has developed an appreciable level of strength for his bodyweight, but has a huge potential to improve his squat by modifying his techniques to take advantage of his leverages. Here’s some of the videos that Bryan sent us

 

Now you can either work from the ground up or the top down, but in Bryan’s case we’re going to work from the top down. If you watch Bryan’s competition squat, one of the first things you’ll notice is that the weight of the bar collapses his chest position, pushing the upper back into kyphosis (an exaggerated forward rounding of the upper spine). This moves the bar in front of the centre of his ribcage and causes him to unrack the bar with the weight on the balls of the feet, not only does this make the weight feel way heavier and destroy lifter confidence, it actually IS HEAVIER because of the longer lever from the bar to the centre of the chest. This also causes you to unlock you hips backwards or lean the torso forward to centre the weight over the mid foot, which creates a longer lever between the bar and centre of the hips at the start of the squat, meaning that a full glute contraction cannot be achieved before commencing the squat (maximum voluntary contraction happens at a fully hip locked position); this is of particular note as Bryan falls forward 3-4inches out of the hole in his squat, and a full activation of the glutes could potentially clean up his weak point through the post-activation potentiation effect of a maximum voluntary contraction, without requiring him to actually strengthen that muscle group, which takes significantly longer time. Below is a video of how we would change Bryan’s bar position to a more advantageous position

 

The next thing we’re going to look at is how Bryan is breathing in the squat. If you take a look at all of his squat videos, you’ll watch the shoulders rise before he squats. This rise is a function of using the upper respiratory muscles to draw the ribcage up to increase the volume of air in the upper portion of the lungs, the problem here is that the ribcage is already highly stable, and is supported by bone on bone structure; however, the space between the bottom of the ribcage and the top of the hips is only supported by the lumbar spine, and relies heavily on the forceful contraction and compression of the abdomen for support. In his videos you can tell his belt is too tight, restricting the downward movement of the diaphragm and not allowing the lower abdomen to expand into his belt. The expansion before contraction allows you to take advantage of the stretch reflex and achieve higher intra-abdominal pressure, which acts almost as hydraulic support for the spine, it also allows you to push out against an immoveable object, which increases the force of an isometric contraction beyond what you could do if you just flex the muscle as hard as possible. A great illustration here is to flex your biceps in a classic “which way to the beach?” fashion, as hard as you possibly can, now try to lift an immoveable object using a bicep curl motion, which contraction did you feel was harder? The same thing happens with a belt if you use it correctly. Here’s a quick tutorial on how to breath for the squat, although it’s important to note that although many people grasp the concept in theory, undoing years of improper breathing often takes a more targeted approach, so don’t get too frustrated if you can’t get it right away, and if you really struggle with this, feel free to give us a shout and we’ll try to point you in the right direction

We also happen to know that Bryan has suffered a minor peroneal strain, which by the way is a very uncommon squat injury, however if you watch Bryan’s squat, and if you understand the role of the peroneal group, it starts to make a bit more sense. The peroneals act to evert the ankle, aka turn the soles of the feet outwards and the pinky toe rotates towards the shin, but if you fix the ankle in place by planting it on the ground, the peroneals can act upon the shin to create a varus force (think bow legs).

Left: Lucas demonstrates the varus knee position, right shows a more stacked joint position

Bryan does this at the bottom of his squat most likely to create space for the femurs to clear the bone of the hips, but is still unsuccessful, as you can note by his “butt wink” or posterior pelvic tilt that is evident the deeper he attempts to squat. Although we would need Bryan in person to assess whether this is actually a bone on bone limitation, a soft tissue flexibility issue, or a lack of stability causing compensatory movement, the clues are there that this is actually a bony impingement caused by the angle and position of his hip socket and femoral neck; therefore the solution here is going to be to widen his stance. As noted above this should also allow him to stack his joints to the line of force and produce force in the same direction.

One of the ways you can check to see if you have a soft tissue flexibility issue, a stability issue, or a bone on bone issue in the hips is to check your stance with a rack supported squat, pictured below

rack-supported-squat

If you can drop right into position, with a neutral back, no significant change in your hip position in the bottom position, and can let go of the rack and hold that bottom position without any shifting and stand straight up, you’re awesome, you have an appropriate stance, and I hate you. If you need to pull yourself down into position and push on the rack or hold it for support but can hit the bottom position or close to it and keep a neutral back and hip position, you likely have a soft tissue flexibility issue in either the hips or elsewhere in the chain, like me and my achilles tears (you’ll notice that I can’t hit depth, and if i let go I comically fall over backwards, sorry we didn’t film this). If you can’t hit depth and feel a pinch or go into pelvic tilt even in a supported position, most likely you have a bone on bone impingement and no mobility drill in the world will make this a useable squat position for you, most likely you will need to widen you stance and turn your toes out, or some combination of the two until you can hit depth comfortably in the supported position. This is an oversimplified test, but, it will help many of you find a useable squat stance

Ok next we’re going to make the case that Bryan should switch to a low bar squat with more torso lean, Lucas an I are also going to show you our white ass legs and some absolutely horrific mugshots, so at least that part will be entertaining. The number one mechanical advantage you can have in the squat is a short femur, not very many of us are blessed with this trait and sorry to say Bryan, you aren’t one of them, but don’t worry you’re in good company of many great squatters. What Bryan does have is a short torso, so lets take advantage of that. First and foremost, the low bar position brings the bar closer to the hips and shortens the lever whenever there is forward torso lean (the bar is now closer to the hips) if you need an example of why this is an advantage, try holding a 20lb dumbbell outstretched in your arm, now have someone place that dumbbell and stabilize it at your elbow, how much easier did that just get? in this case the fulcrum is the shoulder joint and the lever length is how far down the arm the weight is placed. The same thing happens at the hip with the back being the lever arm, although it’s not as easily envisioned. The low bar position causes the hips to shift backwards further than mid or high bar position, it also requires less forward travel of the knee, which means that the centre of the bar will be closer to the centre of the knee, this creates a shorter lever arm between the centre of the weight and the centre of the knee, negating some of the disadvantage of having a longer femur. Doesn’t this technically create a longer lever at the hip than mid bar? Technically yes, but we’ve shortened the lever by at least an inch by moving the bar down the back, and Bryan’s leverage is much more advantageous at the hip, and since the upwards force on the bar is the SUM of the hip and knee joint, we should get a larger net force once he adjusts to the new position. Below is comparison between Lucas and I showing the difference in our seated height and femur length.

super-hot-seated-height-photolucas-and-joel-femurs

Above: Lucas is about 2-3inches taller than me, but you can see our seated height is about 4+inches apart, showing that I have a shorter torso, below: you can see our legs are almost identical in length despite our difference in height. My short torso and long femur suggests I’ll do better with a low bar squat, where Lucas’ more even ratio will allow him to use whichever squat works best with his current strength ratios.

So that’s it for Bryan’s squat, he’s got some work to do, but if he implements these changes he should see a large increase in his squat numbers and efficiency. Stay tuned for the next one in this series, we have squatters with varying abilities and goals, and you’re sure to find someone you relate to! Thanks for reading and be sure to fire us any questions in the comments section!

 

Article Request Series: What’s With All the Different Bars at Blacksmith Fitness?

We have a ton of different bars at Blacksmith Fitness: we have 5 different types of straight bars and 7 different specialty bars (and counting) and each one of them has a specific purpose! Because of how many questions we get about the different bars, I wanted to put together this article for you to show you how to integrate them into your training. Whether your goals are to build insane levels of strength and muscularity, work around an injury or immobility, or build explosive power or improve your sport, below is a detailed description of each bar and what they do

Straight Bars:

I’ve put together a little video that gives quick overview of the different straight bars, and you can check it out here https://youtu.be/f3BfTdp66TQ  and read on for more detailed descriptions

Texas Power Bar:

texas-power-bar

We have three of these, and they’re our best all around training bars. They’re 28.5mm meaning mid-thickness and have a good compromise between whip for the deadlift and explosive movements, and stiffness for the bench press and squat. They have moderate to aggressive knurling and grip is almost never an issue. These bars are rated well over 1500lbs, and we challenge you to load enough weight on them to do them any harm.

Rogue Ohio Deadlift Bar:

deadlift-bar-11_2_

The deadlift bar vs. a standard length power bar (pictured above)

The deadlift bar is longer and thinner to allow for more bend in the bar before the plates break the floor, this allows the lifter to get a slightly higher hip position and generate more tension through the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back before the bar breaks the ground. This is the standard competition style bar for pretty much every other powerlifting federation except the IPF. Pictured below is the deadlift bar at 635lbs, you can see how much the bar flexes under moderate to heavy loads

deadlift-635

Rogue Ohio Power Bar:

20kg-ohio-power-bar-header-h_1

This is an IPF approved competition power bar. This is the stiffest bar we have, it’s also the thickest standard bar we have at 29mm, making it the best and most stable bench and squat bar in the gym. If you’re squatting anything above the mid 400’s you’ll notice how much less this bar flexes in the reversal portion of the lift, allowing you to track perfectly according to your technique, instead of the bar flex pulling you out of your path. With max attempts, or even heavy triples, the margin for error between an easy lift and one that staples you can be millimetres, so this extra stiffness really comes in handy. Pictured below is the bar loaded with 570lbs displaying very little noticeable flex. Since we now have squatters who have hit 685 and are approaching 700 (raw) we’ll soon be adding an even stiffer 65lb squat bar into the mix570-squat-opb

Texas Crosstraining Bar 25mm

rogue-bella-bar-2-0-web2_1

If you have small hands (coughcoachmegancough) then this is the bar you’ve been waiting for. This bar is 6ft making it sway less from side to side for smaller lifters, and has a significantly thinner shaft that will allow even the smallest hands to get full finger wrap and grip. The bar has a little more flex at lower weight for smaller lifters to learn how to use bar flex to load the hips and start more explosively.

Rogue Olympic Bar:

This is a 28mm 20kg men’s olympic bar. The main difference between this bar is the different markings (slightly wider for IWF standards) and the fact that it has bearings instead of bushings in the sleeves. The bearings allow the bar to rotate faster without causing any rotation or shift in the plates that would alter the bar path on explosive movements like cleans and snatches. It also serves as a great all purpose training bar and is our second stiffest squat bar

Specialty Bars

Ok here’s where things really get fun, these are the bars you may not have seen before, they’re made for one or two specific things, but they do them better than any other bar out there. They allow lifters to key in on weaknesses and work around injuries that would normally significantly hamper or stop them from training completely. Here they are in no particular order.

Buffalo and Duffalo Bar:

fullsizerender

Believe it or not, this bar is supposed to bent (buffalo bar, not duffalo pictured)

These bars are mainly meant as squat bars, but also serve as a way to work bottom end bench press strength if you’re weak off the chest by allowing a slightly increased range of motion; however, you’d better have healthy shoulders and ensure you still feel the chest doing the work. The main reason these bars are bent is to allow a slightly lower hand position in the squat, reducing the elevation of the humerus in the shoulder joint, keeping it away from some of the more sensitive tissues in the top and back of the shoulder joint. The advantage of these bars vs some of our other shoulder friendly squat bars is that the load point isn’t changed that much from a regular straight bar, so the transfer is pretty high. When I tested my one rep maxes in November I had a small tear in one of the rotator cuff muscles in the right shoulder and hadn’t squatted with a straight bar in over 3 months, the highest I went in training was 525 for 3 sets of 2 with the buffalo bar, which was good for a 570lb squat on test day with the straight bar. The Duffalo bar, which is on it’s way as we speak, has a multi-radius bend that angles the wrists slightly better for benching, and is flatter across the back, feeling a little more like straight bar on the back.

Safety Squat Bar aka The Yoke Bar

hatfield-safety-squats-ssb

Performing some Hatfield overload squats with a pause with the SSB

 

The safety squat bar is the most shoulder friendly option we have in the gym. It allows a totally neutral shoulder position or even a hands free position once there are plates loaded on the bar. Because the hands are elevated in front of the body or not anchored at all in free squat variations, the role of the lats in keeping the torso stiff and upright is greatly reduced. If you’re one of those squatters that falls forward in the hole, and your chest has sunken (i.e. you can’t see the logo on your chest very well anymore) or you tend to get compressed when you unrack a heavy squat, this bar is for you. It forces you to work the vertically running thoracic extenders harder than almost any other bar, and the load position makes it a really nice blend between the upright torso of a front squat but still keeping a little more load on the posterior core and chain. Another excellent use for this bar is getting those with AC joint pain to do any type of squat by turning the bar around and loading it like a front squat. This takes the arm pads and displaces the pressure across the traps instead of the collar bone, reducing pain, as well as allowing a more neutral grip putting less total pressure on the joint. Below Aaron (aka “Socks”) is pictured using the safety squat bar in this manner

aaron-410-ssb

There are so many other cool uses for this bar, but the last one I’ll touch on is using them for dead squats to develop the deadlift. You do this by loading up the bar on the safety pins with your hips around the same height you’d start start your deadlift, and then squatting the weight straight up using your deadlift pattern. This is great for adding some extra volume to the deadlifting muscles in their specific muscle action without taxing the central nervous system as hard as putting the a bar in the hands. With stronger lifters or heavily stressed athletes this can be the difference between getting a productive session in or driving a nail into their recovery

The Cambered Spider Bar

cambered-bar-good-morning

This 80lb beast is always trying to pin you to the floor! Say you fall forward in the squat, but it’s not because your chest is falling, it happens when you come out of the hole, and your hips shoot up while your shoulders go nowhere. There are many reasons this can happen beyond the scope of this article, but the cambered bar fixes all of them. It’s an awesome bar to work the hamstrings and glutes with exercises like the good morning (shown above). As opposed to a straight bar that just wants to push you down, the weight is on a hinge off the shoulder that wants to drift forward, increasing the action of both the hamstrings and the glutes in their hip extension role (think hip thrusting). Use the forward handles if you want to decrease the role of the lats and focus more on the lower and upper spinal erectors, or use the side handles to keep the back tight like you would in a regular squat, allowing you to handle more load with the hips. Like all of our other specialty squat bars, this allows for several shoulder, elbow, and wrist friendly positions

Swiss Bar Aka Neutral Press Bar 

aaron-swiss-bar-press

Aaron aka “Shorts” has had multiple shoulder dislocations but still gets his pressing in with the swiss bar

This is one of the most versatile bars we have in the gym. It centres the shoulder in a more neutral position than a straight bar, it works the shoulders harder than a straight bar and is great for anyone with a weak midpoint in their bench press that isn’t related to a technique error, it’s wicked for hammer curls, working the hard-to-train long head of the triceps, allows people with posterior shoulder pain to overhead press, and I could keep on listing. Long story short, if you have a limitation in the shoulder wrist or elbow that is keeping you from pressing with a straight bar, there’s a good chance that you’ll be able to find a grip on the swiss bar that works for you. It also works great for rows, allowing you to bring the shoulder blades together and squeeze the mid back harder than you could with a straight bar. The neutral position with arms tucked more closely replicates the pressing pattern that most athletes will use in a standing position, especially if they have to deal with contact from other opponents. This bar allowed me to still get some pressing in with a torn rotator cuff and reduce the amount that I lost on my bench press to only 30lbs over 12 weeks, where had I had to stop pressing completely I most likely would have lost 40-60lbs more

The Trap Bars aka Hex Bars

luke-460-trap-bar

Luke Allard Deadlifting 460lbs with the wider trap bar (80lb bar)

You’ve probably seen these before, so instead of telling you what to do with them, I’ll tell you why we have two different ones. The first trap bar, pictured above, has wider handles, working the traps and the upper back harder than the narrower version. It also has a built in deadlift jack for loading and unloading plates, and is long enough to fit inside a rack, meaning you can throw on some straps and do some serious overload work with it if need be. Combined with the extra long loading sleeves and our interlocking plates, you’ll give up before it will, guaranteed! The other cool thing you can do with this bar is perform a partial or full range overhead press where the bar travels perfectly overhead, vs a straight bar that you have to move the head out of the way, placing more stress on the front of the shoulder capsule. We also have a more standard length trap bar pictured below

camille-farmers-walk

Camille rocking some farmer’s walks with the standard length trap bar

This trap bar is better for smaller people, Camille is approx 5’2″ and the wider handles put her in a snatch grip position, severely limiting the amount of weight she could lift or carry, but the smaller trap bar isn’t just for smaller people. The straight down arm position is better for trap bar jumps, and allows most people to carry more weight on loaded carries, overloading the hips, feet, knees, and ankles more effectively than they could on the longer bar.

So that outlines our current assortment of specialty bars at Blacksmith Fitness, but we’re always looking to solve problems and make our assortment even more effective. Hopefully now you can see that if you’re using the same generic straight bar for everything, you’re missing out on some serious strength, speed, power, and growth, and most importantly the ability to stay healthy while training. At Blacksmith we’re all about the important details and providing the most effective training and equipment available. In the coming weeks I’ll be doing some more articles on the other types of specialty equipment we have in the gym, but for now it’s onto the next requested article!

The Best and Worst Shoes for Lifting

What gym shoes should I get? I get this question quite often, probably due to the fact that there’s a pile of shoes beside my computer in the gym, but it’s a question that I wish the people wearing their brand new Nike runners would ask more often.

For you busy folk, here’s the best and worst footwear to wear in the gym, if you’re interested in more details, read on afterwards

  • Olympic Lifts and Variations: Olympic lifting shoes, no surprise here look at the 2016 Olympic games, I didn’t see many running shoes…I’m not even going to address this later as most of you doing the Oly lifts already know this
  • Narrow to Mid Stance Squatters: Olympic lifting shoes, a small percentage may do better with flatter shoes if they have the requisite mobility, and athletes may want to consider barefoot
  • Wide stance squatters: Chuck Taylors or wrestling shoes, look for the flattest sole and the least cushioning
  • Bench Press: If you use a high arch and tuck the feet behind you, but your federation requires you to have flat feet, use olympic shoes (you can get up to 2″ heels for the IPF). If you bench flat footed use Chuck Taylor’s or another flat soled shoe
  • Deadlift: barefoot, deadlift slippers or Chuck Taylor/equivalent
  • General training shoe: barefoot/rubberized socks, New Balance Minimus, Chuck Taylor/equivalent
  • Worst Footwear to wear for lifting: Running shoes (worst), most cross trainers (almost as bad)

So looking at this list you’d think you’d see a lot of people in bare feet, Chuck Taylors, Olympic lifting shoes, and minimalist shoes at the gym, and guess what? If you go to a serious powerlifting gym or athletic training facility, it’s exactly what you’ll see, but head to your average public gym and what do you see speckled all across the gym floor? Runners with massive heel cushioning (the worst is nike shox, thank god those have almost gone extinct).

We all know the newest Nikes make the best Instagram photos, but after that their benefits abruptly stop. On the soles of your feet are some of the most important pressure sensors (proprioceptors) in your body, they communicate to the spine and brain where your centre of mass is in relation to your the centreline of your body, they are responsible for reflexively firing the appropriate muscles to keep you from face planting in epic fashion while you stand and wait for the guy to finish curling in the squat rack. Those proprioceptors also allow you to intentionally change the focus of an exercise to accentuate the contraction of a certain chain of muscles just by placing the weight in different areas of the foot, for instance, want some more glute on the squat? Get your weight on your heels. Want more quadricep activation? Put some pressure on the ball of your foot. Want more lateral stability and to control the knees from caving in? Grind your feet into the floor so there’s some pressure on the outside of the foot. Each one of these actions signals to the body that you may fall towards the direction of the weight shift, so reflexively it will fire the muscles that will push you back towards centreline. If you buy something with even small amounts of cushioning, you reduces the strength of these reflexes resulting in reduced muscle activity, poor balance and delayed muscle firing, less total weight lifted, and you may complete that faceplate (probably not, but THAT would make a great instagram post).

So you’re all grown up now, you’re serious about training now and are ready for some serious footwear upgrading, so what should you get? I’m going to break down shoes by their usage and give you a little better idea of which ones you should consider

Squatting

If you use a narrower to mid stance more quad dominant squatting style, an olympic lifting shoe can help put even more pressure on the ball of the foot allowing for more quad activation. The raised heel acts as artificial ankle range, allowing the knee to travel further past the toes and the increased joint angle at the knee again allows for more quad activation. These can be especially useful for taller lifters who must stay more upright to avoid falling forward. Heel heights range from 0.5 inches (something like the Adidas powerlift trainer or some Rogue Do-wins) to the standard 0.75 inches (the most popular being the Adidas Adipower and the Nike Romaleos) to some models going as high as 2inches, although these are much rarer and harder to find. Choose your heel height by finding the lowest heel that allows you to hit full depth without any serious movement compensations. Long term this will allow you to get the benefits of using a raised heel while still getting significant contribution from the glutes and other important squatting muscles that can add to you total poundage lifted. m21865-web2

the Adidas Adipower, my personal favourite squatting and olympic lifting shoe

while there are a plethora of options for olympic lifting shoes, you’re looking for some main things when buying a pair:

  1. Hard heel material – avoid rubber or any type of foam, no matter how hard it may feel to your hands, it will compress under high loads
  2. Metatarsal strap – lock the foot in, may control some pronation or deformation of the foot under load
  3. Correct heel height for your squatting style

when in doubt, choose from the two most popular shoes out there, they’re popular for a reason: if you have a narrower foot, buy the Adidas Adipower, if you have a wider foot, buy the Nike Romaleos.

If you use a wider stance, use a flatter shoe to allow more glute and hip activation with slightly less contribution from the quads; the less cushioning the better. The all time classic is the original Chuck Taylor; I don’t have any concrete data in front of me, but I’m willing to bet that more world record squats have been set in this shoe than any other shoe on the market. Sadly, the new Chuck Taylors have more cushioning and sadly are not as good as the predecessor for our intended purposes. Some other options include:

  • Rubberized socks such as those by pedestal footwear (may not be legal for competition in your federation, worth checking into)
  • Chuck Taylor knockoffs with removable insoles, and take the insoles out

Chuck Taylor knock offs may be the best option as they allow you to upshot 793e94ef9246237623ad3d23fa492230_original.png

The Pedestal Footwear rubberized socks (thanks to Tony Gentilcore for letting me know these exist)

Lastly if you’re an athlete no matter what stance you use, you may want to consider minimalist options or barefoot. Minimalist shoes or barefoot squatting will require you to make small corrections in foot posture to maintain balance and apply power, much as you need to do while jumping, running, or cutting on a field or court.

Bench Press

Anything that allows you to grip the floor with a solid connection is good to go. Some lifters who lift in the IPF or other federations that require a totally flat foot may want to consider olympic lifting shoes if they bench with a large arch, this will allow you to tuck your feet further underneath you while keeping the feet flat on the floor, many female benchers with great spinal mobility will bench like this with great success. I’ll repeat this for the last time, but again, we’re looking for as little cushioning and the best connection to the ground.

Deadlift

You’re looking for the lowest profile hardest soled shoe you can find, if you deadlift conventional you want as close to barefoot as you possibly can, reducing the total range of motion of the lift. For competition you can get deadlift slippers, which are really glorified socks but fit the legal requirements as footwear for most powerlifting federations. If you deadlift hybrid or sumo style, you still want to be as close and connected to the ground as possible, but you also want something the you can push out against to allow for better glute and hip activation, again something like the original Chuck Taylor that allows you to sit inside the sole works best. If you don’t have competitive plans, or just want to do a majority of your training barefoot, this is also a great option

Best General Training Shoes:

If you don’t have competitive goals and just want a good all around shoe to lift in, Chuck Taylors, the aforementioned rubberized socks, or the New Balance Minimus MX20 are your best options. Although the original Chuck Taylor is tough to beat, people with wider feet may find them uncomfortable for longer periods of time or downright unbearable, this person may benefit from the wider toe box of the New Balance, or could go with something like the Pedestal 2.0 sock (I’ve yet to hear of anyone who’s had fit issues with these). I spend my entire days in the gym, and when I’m just training other people, but need to be ready to demonstrate an exercise at a moment’s notice, I’m in my MX20s all day.

chucks-low

The timeless classic, the original Chuck Taylors

For what it’s worth, I personally use the Adidas Adipower for squatting, Chuck Taylors for benching and deadlifting, and either barefoot/socks or the Vibram Five Fingers for kettlebell work, and whatever I’m wearing for general training and accessory/machine work. Hope you enjoyed reading this article and feel free to shoot me any questions you may have

 

 

Does Your Workout Scare You? It Should.

I was reading an article by Charles Staley about the psychology of lifting weights and it got me thinking about my own training and the research I’d done on the topic. Like Charles, I too often wonder why the arguably most important aspect of physical performance is just brushed off as an after thought. The brain is your most powerful weapon when it comes to displaying the abilities you’ve trained your muscles to do.

I’ve talked previously in the “how mirrors make you weaker and ruin your fitness” articles how your brain actually lifts the weight; your muscles simply do what they’re told to do. If you get a large impulse of electrical activity from the brain and spinal cord, you get a massive contraction of the muscular tissue, although it’s slightly more complex than that, barring any underlying disease, it’s not that much more complicated. Pavel Tsatsouline has a great quote “your muscles already have the strength to lift a car, they just don’t know it yet”

We’ve all heard the stories about the untrained woman who lifted a car off her child after a car accident, or the 100lb woman who while under the influence of suspect substances managed to snap her leather restraints and throw an entire hospital bed at the hospital staff – so what explains these feats? Whether through the extreme stress of a life or death situation or the altered chemical state, the brain was able to bypass all its preset limitations and apply a true maximum effort. If a 100lb untrained woman can do these things, just imagine what you could do. Now I’m in no way recommending that you put a gun to your head or munch on some bath salt preworkout powder before your next squat session, but it gives you some insight into just how powerful your mind is

“Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right” – Henry Ford

I have 110lb women that are significantly stronger than many 250+lb men, even some of those who are actively training, do you dare try and explain this difference quoting “genetics” as the reason? Of course the 250lb man has every physical advantage here, the real difference is the way the two groups approach the task. One group approaches the task with focus, they expect to get stronger each week, expect to see results, and have faith in themselves and the process, the other group doubts themselves, doesn’t believe they have the power to change, makes excuses, and fears the task, or mild discomfort. Group 1 will outperform group 2 every time, regardless of the genetic potential, especially if given enough time. I used to believe you were either group 1 or group 2 and nothing could change that, however, I no longer believe this to be true, but it will take a focused effort inside and outside of the gym/sport to commit to this new style of thinking.

“I think therefore I am” – René Descartes

If you’re looking to take advantage of the mind’s incredible power, Josh Bryant, my friend and coach has a great article here http://www.joshstrength.com/uploads/PLUSA_Article_Sep2009.pdf about the power of visualization and belief systems, he sent me this article before testing my 1 rep maxes in one of the first training blocks I did with him and it really didn’t have impact it should have at the time.

Back then I was invincible (or so I thought), nothing scared me, not 600lbs on a deadlift or squat bar, not insane training volumes that would leave me in hilarious predicaments when I had to somehow make it down to the toilet the next day, not my separated sternum or torn rotator cuffs, that nagging pain in my right knee, none of it mattered, every bar I walked up to I expected to lift it – I could recover from ANYTHING! Until one time I couldn’t…

The Power of Fear

Most of you who read my writings know that I had a head and spine injury that sidelined me for 3 years and kept me from training up until late march of this year. I’m now for the first time attempting to peak and seeing where my strength lies in comparison to my pre-injury numbers, and in the last week before deloading I missed my squat weights not once but twice. I’m dealing with medial and lateral elbow tendonitis and a minor migration of the radius across the elbow joint that is especially painful when I squat, to the point where my spotter had to take the plates off the squat bar after I missed the lift and I could barely untie my shoes until the elbow moves back into place. For the first time in my life I’m afraid of pain, and afraid to get under the squat bar.

The squat is especially terrifying right now, because it puts pressure directly on the previously injured area of my spine and I can feel the pressure there more than anywhere else, coupled with the pain response from the elbow, I get an overwhelming rush of negative images and my mind wants to give up, as a result while doubling 510lbs last week, I missed 515 completely the first time, and singled it and got pinned on the second rep the second day I tried it. All I can think about is getting crushed and spending another 3 years trying to walk down the street without getting dizzy, all those experiences are sitting there in the back of my subconscious waiting for me to let them in, and this time I did.

Just like you can use your mind as a weapon, you can let it work against you, this to me is where the character development in training lies. If you ever hear people who have achieved great things through weight training talk about how training has made them a better person, a better business owner, communicator, helped them conquer their fears/phobias etc. this is how it happens. On Saturday I’m going to get another chance to hit 515 for 2, and all the same thoughts will be there, the same fear, that same pressure (I’m fine, I’m medically cleared to train max intensity), and the same elbow pain (ok maybe not so medically cleared here), and I’m going to have to make the decision to get under that bar, put it out of mind and get after the squat.

I may fail again on Saturday, and I may fail again the week after deloading when I test my maxes, I may fail next training block and the one after, but none of it matters. I only lose when I stop trying to conquer my fear, stop trying to fix my elbow and the shoulder causing it, stop trying to dial my training program, stop communicating with my coach, and give up.

If your training program doesn’t scare you a little, it’s probably not making you the best person or athlete you can be, it’s not giving you the opportunity to develop the skills to deal with fear or failure or to appreciate success when you achieve it. Conquer in training, and dominate in competition. In the words of Dave Tate, “prepare, perform, prevail”

Now get after it!

How Mirrors Make You Weaker and Ruin Your Fitness (Part 1)

“Why do you always have your athletes facing away from the mirror when they’re in the rack?” – Great question. Actually I often take this a step or two further and partially blindfold or have them close their eyes completely depending on the stability demands of the exercise. Here’s why, and how you can instantly improve your fitness by the simple act of turning around.

Those of you who have ever trained in a hardcore gym, athlete specific weight room, or spent some significant time in a good physiotherapist’s training room will probably have noticed one of the biggest differences between these facilities and a commercial gym (aside from the lack of redundant machines) is the lack of mirrors, but unless you’ve asked, you probably don’t know why. So here’s the slightly watered down technical explanation and some common sense examples

Lifting with your brain, attention pools, the visual system, the power of proprioception, and the blind man that can hear exactly where you are:

The first myth that needs to be dispelled is that you lift weights with your muscles. Sure they actually provide the force to overcome the inertia, but muscle tissue is actually pretty dumb tissue, it’ll respond to pretty much any electrical impulse, like a electrostim machine, a taser, or sticking a fork into an electrical socket (seriously why in this day and age do I actually have to tell you not to do this?). However, we’re going to assume you’re not hooking yourself up to your car battery every time you want to move the couch, so in everyday life the “battery” creating the electrical impulses that command your muscles to contract is actually your brain. Without the brain and spinal cord sending small electrical impulses to the muscles at all times you are literally reduced to a glorified immobile puddle of flesh that is being held together by your ligaments and bones.

Ok so the brain is pretty important; however you may have heard it doesn’t multi-task very well. Which is partially true. I don’t want to get too much into multi vs central attention pools and their effects on motor performance, but one thing we can agree on is that the more complex the task, and the more options we have, the less likely it is that we will be able to do anything else at the same time with any shred of competence. For example, If I take you out to the driving range and ask you hit a few balls, whether or not you suck to begin with, you will suck way more if you’re asked to recite the alphabet backwards while setting up and taking your shots, or you will slow significantly in your reciting while you hit the ball, but without fail, you will suck more at one of the tasks than if you were to do them separately. Now what the hell does this have to do with squatting in a mirror?

Vision is extremely complex; not only does visual information come in upside down, but it must be broken down and then reconstructed before it is interpreted and the brain makes its best guess as to what’s out there – and make no mistake, it is a guess; our visual systems are easily fooled. How complex is the system? The process is so specific that some neurons respond to lines that are exactly 45 degrees, but not to ones that are 44 or 46 degrees. So needless to say your vision is taking a lot of cognitive energy (about 30% of the cortex is dedicated to this task vs 8% for touch and 3% for hearing), and when you look in the mirror you’re inverting the image again, and your brain thinks you’re an asshole for making the process even harder. Consequently, you must focus more of your attention on processing visual information and less on the task of coordinating those millions of electrical impulses that are controlling the muscles involved in your squat. Just like when you were 10 and playing with your remote control car, when the battery dies the car gets slower and reacts poorly; your muscles are no different. So by simply looking in the mirror to improve your form, you’ve actually made yourself worse at the task, and made yourself slower and weaker. You’re also taking away some of the attention from a very powerful system of motor coordination: the proprioceptive system.

Unlike the visual system that focuses on the external environment and how you relate to it, the proprioceptive system is an internal system that communicates positions of joints in relation to each other and muscular tension differentials, among other things, and it just so happens to be way faster and more accurate than the visual system for coordinating movement. The problem is that we’re hard wired to accept visual information as more important and more accurate; however, if you just turn around and face away from the mirror, you never give your brain the chance to override proprioceptive input with doubly inverted visual information,  and you’ll instantly starting moving better. A common phenomenon that occurs when you turn someone around and face away from the mirror is that previously painful movements are suddenly pain free; this occurs by correcting small, visually imperceptible, movement errors that cause tissue to be overloaded.

So this proprioceptive system is pretty bad ass, but can we make it even better? What about the blind man that can hear exactly where you are in a room, how does he fit into all this? Well he provides a real world example of how you can hack the visual system to improve the other sensory systems. Most of us know that blind people have better developed sense of smell, hearing, and touch to respond to their external environment, and this is partially due to the attention that is not being used to run the visual system. We can take advantage of the same effect and increase the sensitivity of the proprioceptive systems by partially blindfolding athletes or asking them to close their eyes. There are specific instances as to when to apply one over the other, more on that in part 2.

For now, the take home points are:

  1. When you look in the mirror you make form worse and your output is weaker
  2. Turn the hell around.

Make sure you don’t miss part 2 by subscribing to the Blacksmith Fitness Facebook page, and for many other fitness/athletic training articles ranging from elite hockey training to cutting up for summer

How Important is Exercise Technique Actually?

“Fit the exercise to the person, not the person to the exercise”

Like all things in the fitness and physical training world, there seems to be a varying degree of importance placed on exercise execution; opinions vary from extremely stringent “technique nazi’s” and “keyboard cowboys” that believe there is only one correct way to perform a given task, and even a small variance creates an instantaneous injury, to the “just lift heavy shit, then lift heavier shit” crowd that believes all these functional movement pansies just need to quit doing Pilates and grow some balls. As much as I enjoy watching these two opposing opinions debate on a daily basis, the importance of technique is not a clean cut, black and white, one side of the fence or the other, type argument; the importance of exercise technique actually fits along a continuum that looks something like this, first explained in easy to understand terminology:

SHITTY (you have no idea what you’re doing and you’re not doing it very well, consider signing up for the disc herniation olympics) —–>RISKY TECHNIQUE TO WIN (yeah, dive-bombing your squats and letting the knees come in slightly in the bottom of your squat isn’t great for the hips or knees, but you can squat more weight in the short term, you’ve spent years perfecting this competition technique, but chances are you will pay for this when you’re 40 though)—–> SAFE FOR YOU (no glaring errors that would cause joints to instantaneously explode or immediate dismemberment. Takes into account your own structure and ability, but you’re probably not as effective as you’d like) —–> MASTERY (you can do this in your sleep, you’ve done this 10 000 times and fixed multiple subtleties, some not visible to the eye. This is your perfect technique, things as small as a breath too shallow, a half degree off one way or another means the difference between winning and losing. Your technique will be unique, and may share some similarities with others, but is entirely your own)

For you sport science types (myself included), in proper terminology it would look more like this:

BIOMECHANICALLY DISADVANTAGEOUS (possibility of acute and instantaneous injury, poor leverage angles)—–> COMPETITION EXECUTION FOR MOST STRENGTH SPORTS (best possible performance execution, less possibility of acute and instantaneous injury but likely to produce chronic deficiency)  —–> SAFE FOR A GIVEN POPULATION (safe distribution of load, unlikely to produce instant or chronic injury) —-> OPTIMAL FOR A GIVEN POPULATION (advantageous distribution of load for desired outcome, unlikely to produce instant or chronic injury; mastery of technique determines outcome, variance from perfect form is marked by lower performance)

Today we’re mainly talking about strength training exercises; keep in mind when it comes to the continuum, just because you’ve mastered one exercise doesn’t mean you can do another; approach each exercise accordingly. So the question remains, how can you tell where you fit in this continuum and what should you do once you know? Let’s explain the categories in a little more detail.

Biomechanically Disadvantageous (aka shitty): 

Characteristics of this type of technique are:

  • Excessive shaking
  • Loss of balance
  • Jerky or stalled movement
  • Spinal flexion or excessive rounding of the back in vertically loaded planes
  • Pain
  • Load transferred to passive structures instead of the muscular system
  • Favouring one side more than the other
  • Excessively small range of motion or inability to hit key phases of the movement without compensation
  • Joints moving in planes that put them at risk of injury

Who should train in this range:

  • Total beginners and trainees new to an advanced movement
  • You should strive to spend as little time as possible, no one should intentionally train in this part of the continuum

How to Progress:

  • Reduce the load to as close to zero as possible while gaining confidence with the new movement. Keep the movement slow and controlled, this gives the central nervous system the time and ability to make mistakes in the motor pattern and determine the correct patterns of activation/inhibition of involved muscle groups. Wait for the movement to smooth out before adding load or velocity.
  • Locate the specific reason you may be having trouble with the movement, you simply may not be strong or stable enough for the movement you are attempting: I have yet to see someone capable of a full range body weight pistol squat or one armed pushup with zero training experience, but if the movement is relatively simple and you can’t get into position, try to find the stiff or unstable joint and improve it before integrating it into a compound movement
  • Regress to a simpler version of the movement or use a partial of the full movement. For instance, if you are trying to learn the full snatch (now a popular goal due to the rising popularity of crossfit) Instead of of trying to learn the full lift, learn the first phases of the pull, master the high bar back squat, front squat, overhead squat, high pull, power snatch from the knees, snatch from the knees, and finally the full snatch.
  • Hire a coach. Hopefully an educated and experienced coach that will deliver on their promises.
  • Find a different movement. Yup, sometimes it’s that simple; despite what some Crossfit coaches will try to convince you of, not everyone is built to snatch, or even to deep squat, no matter how much coaching or mobility work you do with them, certain structures will not allow the movement to be done safely. Maybe you can’t snatch, but you can probably still high pull from the knees. There’s always a way to train though.

Risky technique to win (competition execution for most strength sports):

Characteristics or this type of technique are:

  • Compensatory movements to lift a larger load that may have a negative long term effect
  • Only used with a near maximal load
  • Examples include, slight knee buckling in the squat or catch phase of the olympic movement, slight rounding of the back in the deadlift or truck pull, atlas stone lift, and other powerlifting/strongman movements. Cranking the neck back to shorten the lever in backloaded movements.

Who should train in this range:

  • Advanced powerlifters, strongmen, and Olympic weightlifters only in peaking or competition
    • This isn’t technique error, this is an intentional changing of leverage to lift more weight over a very short period of time, the lifter understands the increased risk, but considers it a necessary part of the sport. So no, the lifter bouncing out of the hole while lifting 800lbs isn’t “doing it wrong” and chances are he doesn’t do it all the time either.

Who shouldn’t train in this range:

  • Everyone else.
    • Seriously. I don’t care if you can bench more with your wrists folded back, or you squat more by pancaking, rising the hips fast and then lifting with your back. This will most likely lead to chronic injury and also impedes progress (you’re not actually doing the lift or using the correct muscles). In the long run you will be stronger and have a better physique/transfer to your sport if you commit to a more biomechanically sound form. It may mean initially taking one step back to make 5 steps forward.

Safe for you (safe for a given population):

Characteristics of this type of technique:

  • Smooth controlled movements
  • Full range (for you)
  • Pain free
  • Able to hit key phases of all lifts without compensation
  • Passes the “looks good” test
  • Feel the muscles that are supposed to be working
  • Using the best variation of an exercise for you; some modifications have been made to suit your individual structure, such as plates under the heels in the squat, using 3 finger or holding straps in the front squat, using partial range presses for compromised shoulders, using more knee bend in the deadlift for longer legs etc

Who should train in this range:

  • All recreational bodybuilders, people trying to improve their physique, beginner to intermediate athletes

How to progress:

  • Get stronger. Yup that’s about it. Use an effective written program.
  • Progress to full range movements and less assisting modifications, if possible. Learn to squat without the plates, improve shoulder and wrist mobility to get full grip on front squats etc.

Mastery (optimal for a given population):

Characteristics of this type of technique:

  • Small changes in form that allow an exercise to modified to a person’s specific structure and strengths
  • Most cannot be seen with the naked eye to most people and require an experienced coach, high speed camera, force plate, accelerometer, or other high tech monitoring equipment to implement
  • Examples include: the exact amount of breath to obtain maximal contraction in the transverse abdominus muscle to pneumatically stabilize the spine, learning to use the whip and bounce of the bar in the olympic lifts to create microseconds of zero gravity, hip flexor pinching in the squat to create a stronger stretch reflex, changes in head and eye position to activate different muscle groups in sequence, varying the speed and attention to a specific range of a movement to illicit more growth in a certain muscle group, sport specific transfer of skill

Who should train with this type of technique:

  • Strength athletes in 90% of their training (bodybuilders, powerlifters, strongmen, olympic lifters,  very high level competitive crossfitters)
  • Elite individual and team sport athletes that need an exceptional level of physical preparation and are already extremely strong

Who shouldn’t train with this kind of technique:

  • Everyone else.
    • There’s no need to confuse or over-coach people, some people just need more practice not more cues. If you’re not a competitive athlete or strength athlete then don’t worry about the minutiae.

How to progress:

  • Practice
  • Work with an experienced coach
  • More effective programming and self education

So there you have it: the exercise technique continuum. Hopefully now you realize that the olympic weightlifter dive bombing and caving in their 500lb snatch isn’t doing it wrong, the guy benching with bent wrists and bouncing the bar off his chest isn’t actually getting “mad gainz bro”, and the person who’s squatting slightly above parallel may or may not be “cheating”, so don’t be so quick to point the finger. You need to adapt the exercise to you, not try to force yourself into a cookie cutter technique because so and so on the internet told you to. The more advanced you become the more the technique becomes uniquely your own; this can take years to decades to develop. You’re never done learning. If you’ve made it this far and have specific questions about exercise technique or a certain exercise, don’t be afraid to ask here or on the Blacksmith Fitness Facebook page. Look forward to hearing from you all!