Tag Archives: weight

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:



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


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.


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!


Is My Training Actually Making Me a Better Athlete?

Is what I’m doing in the gym actually making me better at my sport, or is it making me better in the gym? It’s probably not a question you’ve asked yourself when you stepped into the gym to get stronger for your sport, but it’s one you should ask yourself quickly if you want ensure you’re improving, or worse, actually hurting your sport performance. If you’re looking to get faster, hit harder, make quicker decisions, improve your conditioning or any other sport performance marker read on to see some of the key questions and concepts you should consider

Movements vs. Muscles

If you know how much weight you can use on the leg extension machine, there’s a pretty good chance you’re not training effectively for your sport. Bodybuilding and fitness training has taken over social media, which is awesome, however, this often gives the impression that this is the only way to train. I cannot think of a single sport where the quadriceps contract in isolation, in fact, unless you call going to the doctor to get your reflexes tested, I’m willing to bet my entire life’s savings that there isn’t one (dirty bet by the way, there’s actually no such thing as true isolation). The point is that in sport you’re required to produce power in specific movements, with contribution from many muscles all working together in incredible synergy to produce force in a specific direction. The further you get away from using common chains of muscles to do these movements and training one muscle at a time, the less likely you are to see an improvement in your sport by strengthening them. I wish we could all bicep curl our way to the NHL, but sadly biology screwed that one for us.

Athlete Specificity: Beginner vs Advanced

At the time of writing this article the 2016 Olympic Summer Games are underway, putting the best in the world on display in many sports, and along with all the coverage of the sports themselves, there’s little snippets of how the athletes are training, which is probably one of my favourite parts of the whole games, however, for sake of entertainment they usually cherry pick the most intriguing parts of the training process, leaving out the whole foundation of what makes those methods effective for that person at that time. Sports science has shown us that what may improve a beginners performance can actually make an advanced athlete worse and what may improve an advanced athlete’s performance may actually decrease performance or injure a beginner.

Let’s quickly define what I mean by beginner, intermediate and advanced. First and foremost this has nothing do with sport skill; you could be the best player on your team but still be considered a beginner when it comes to strength and conditioning. Since most sports require some level of leg strength and contact with the ground/ice/field for simplicities sake we’ll be using the squat as a basic measure of strength requirements.

Beginner: Anyone with less than 2 years of strength and conditioning experience involving a barbell. You squat less than 1.5x your bodyweight.

Beginners need to get stronger with basic compound exercises, meaning all the basic human motions: the squat, the hip hinge (deadlift, pull throughs, kettlebell swings etc.), the horizontal press (pushups, bench press etc.), horizontal pulling (barbell row, dumbbell row, t-bar row etc.), vertical pull (chin-ups, lat pull downs, single arm cable pull downs etc.) vertical press (military press, kettlebell press, barbell angle press etc.) core work and loaded carries (farmers walk variations, planks, rotational drills). now is a great time to learn some explosive drills like olympic lift variations, but these shouldn’t be loaded significantly until adequate strength and technique has been acquired. At this point getting the entire body stronger in al directions will make you faster, more efficient, and more powerful

Intermediate: 2-3 years of strength and conditioning experience. You squat between 1.5 and 2x your bodyweight. You have almost reached the required strength levels for your sport.

Intermediates have gained significant levels of strength and have seen some improvements in their sport performance due to their training. They can still get some performance improvements from further strength but we’re starting to reach the level of diminishing returns, more of the training time should be spent on the movements relevant to your sport, for example a sprinter would want to work more on the hip hinge and horizontal speed than on upper body pressing movements. Training organization should fluctuate in accordance to the time of the year (off season vs. in-season training). At this point you will have to start working on general qualities (i.e. power, speed, power endurance) with separate methods – as simply getting stronger won’t lead to the same level of fitness as separating these methods

Advanced: At least 3 years of strength and conditioning experience. You have reached the strength requirements needed for your sport. You squat between 2 and 2.5+x your bodyweight or more depending on the demands of your sport. You can no longer improve sport performance by simply getting stronger. Your training is now highly specific depending on time of the year, your specific qualities that need to be improved. How these qualities will be transferred from weight room skills in a closed environment to the unpredictable environment of competitive sports is one of the most complex and highly debated issues in all of sport training. At this point every athlete has a strength and conditioning coach, or at the very least a coach that also programs the strength and conditioning aspects of training.

Sport Specificity

First of all, there’s actually more similarity in many sports than athletes like to admit “Rugby is way different than American football, it’s not even close to the same sport!” it’s true, in terms of tactical means, there are some similarities but a ton of differences, but from a physical preparedness standpoint both sports involve contact with the field, quick cutting ability (aka agility), explosive straight line speed, contact with other athletes, etc. each position in each sport will require these in varying degrees, where the real difference lies is in the conditioning requirements of the athletes. Rugby is much more continuous sport whereas American football is divided into plays with separate offences and defences and special teams; this requires completely different energy system training. So here are some questions that you want to ask when determining the needs of your sport:

  1. How do I produce force? Is it in a straight line, or am I required to generate forces in many different planes?
  2. How much force do I have to produce? Think shot-put vs badminton
  3. How long to I have to produce this force?  Think powerlifting (unlimited, but average of 6s per lift) vs long jump (0.2s or less)
  4. How stable is my playing surface (field vs ice vs snow etc)? How will I balance?
  5. What do I come in contact with, and how predictable are these collisions? Remember to factor in collisions like hitting an implement like a puck or ball. What muscles will need to stabilize these collisions?
  6. How long are my games? Do I have breaks or shifts, or am I required to move for long periods of time?

These are just a start, but if you can answer all these questions, you’re well on your way to designing an effective program

Strength to Weight Ratio Requirements

“I gained 25lbs this off season!” is something you want your offensive lineman to say, or maybe your net front presence defenceman, power forward, or shot-put athlete. If your sprinter comes back and says the same thing you may have a problem, and if your cross country runner or triathlete comes in and says that, you definitely have a problem (provided they weren’t severely underweight to begin with).

As an offensive lineman your job is to put the D-Line on their ass, or make room for the running back etc. you generally don’t cover a ton field during a play, and that extra mass is going to make you harder to move, provided a good amount of it was muscle, you’ve improved your sport performance. Now a sprinter is required to move as quickly as possible, so 25lbs of mass is more weight that he or she now must move at an incredible rate. The name of the game in speed sports is power to weight ratio, so unless that 25lbs came all from fast twitch muscle fiber growth (which by the way is almost impossible)  you have a problem. Sure you may have marginally increased strength, but if it doesn’t offset the amount of mass that came along with it, you’re now slower.

If the endurance sport athlete comes in and says they’ve put on 25lbs over the off season, i don’t care if that weight was muscle or fat, you have a problem. 25lbs of extra tissue is 25lbs more you now have to keep alive, and supply oxygen to during your races, meaning that the demand on your metabolic systems is now much higher than it was before, and since the forces you’re required to generate in long distance running is between 6-10x less than those generated in sprinting, you’re not going to see much of a performance enhancement coming from that extra muscle mass. Don’t get me wrong, distance runners absolutely must strength train – it improves running efficiency and reduces injury risk, but their training had better have minimal impact on bodyweight.

What Type of Conditioning Do I Need?

This topic really deserves it’s own article, and it will get it, but for now, appreciate that the body has different energy systems and different fuel sources. Although there is some value to training some systems outside of the ones that you normally compete, the take home message is that as the season approaches you should be using conditioning exercises that closely replicate the duration of movement and the duration of rest that you’ll see in your competitive environment, which leads me to my last point

When Do I Practice and Compete?

Are you training in the weight room the same way in season as you are in the off season? This might be the biggest mistake I see athletes making, they either train way too hard during the season, trying to add 4-5 sessions on top of 4 practices and 3 games a week, then they wonder why their performance is suffering and they feel so tired all the time. On the other hand there’s the athlete that continues their 2x per week program into the offseason and doesn’t use the extra recovery ability to significantly improve their performance and therefore misses a huge opportunity to get an advantage over their competition. Your training should vary around the other demands in your sport training schedule, giving respect to the emotional demands of competition and their effects on the body systems. Some sports require general athletic abilities to be kept at a relatively high level most of the year, where some, like many fight sports, may require those abilities to peak at specific time several times a year – your training plan should reflect this!

If you take anything away from this article make it this: Training programs should be athlete specific first and foremost, sport specific, and take into consideration the other demands of the sport competition and practice schedule. If you do this, you’re way ahead of the guy following the program they got off bodybuilding.com