Tag Archives: technique

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!

 

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!