Chalk Talk #4 – Trunk Stability When Pressing

The press is a fantastic exercise because it integrates the entire body and creates the largest kinetic chain exercise; everything from the feet articulating with the ground to the hands holding the bar overhead. It’s a significant trunk builder, but press mechanics and strength are better expressed when the trunk is purposely contracted and tightened.

In this video you’ll see an example of a press without trunk tightness followed by reps where an emphasis is placed on tightness.

There’s something I cued her to on a few days later that made an additional impact: I cued contraction of the quadriceps after explaining the importance of making the entire body stable. If the quadriceps have tension, it will prevent the knees from unlocking. If the knees unlock as the press rebounds out of the bottom, the lifter loses some of that force application in the soft, unstable knees. Maintaining quadriceps tension prevents that force loss, but also helps provide a very strong, stable base to press from. Contracting the quadriceps with the entire trunk (with an emphasis on the lower abs) made Aly’s reps much faster and easier, even compared to the final reps in the above video.

Note that this emphasis on trunk stability via tightness and keeping tension on all relevant joints and muscles should be applied into every lift.

External Hip Rotation in the Squat

QTsoGXhFriday I put the image to the right in the PR Friday post and asked people to explain what was wrong with it. There were a variety of good points, but I wanted to focus on the thing that stuck out to me. Before we begin, let’s all agree that the fact this girl is squatting is more important than not squatting; this concept always trumps any bickering that follows. With that being said, I teach that if you’re going to spend the time doing something, do it in the most efficient manner possible.

For the sake of giving this girl credit, she’s got a decent bar positioning, is trying to apply force with the lateral part of her foot (to prevent a navicular drop AKA collapsed arch which medially rotates the knee and hip), and she is probably at an appropriate depth (this picture is a weird angle). It’s possible she’s doing this weird-ass squat on purpose, but we’re gonna talk about it anyway.

As a lifting coach you’ll see many things wrong with a given lift – feet, knees, hips, trunk, shoulders, chest, elbows, grip, neck, etc. — and you can’t and shouldn’t try and correct all of them at once. Fix the thing that will have the greatest effect on the gross movement. In this case I’d start with the stance.

A wide stance inherently does not allow significant external rotation relative to foot position. External rotation allows the following:

1. It contracts the external rotators.

2. It lengthens, and therefore creates tension on, the internal rotators.

3. Therefore it creates greater tension about the hip. Tension around ball and socket joints means more stability therefore strength.

This is a what a pooping dog looks like. As a man.

This is a what a pooping dog looks like. As a man.

4. It maximizes the musculature used about the hip. In this case, assuming a good foot-to-ground interaction, force is more easily distributed across the lateral portion of the thigh on both the front and the back. Valgus, or knees in, knee positioning removes this area of musculature and emphasizes the medial quadriceps. As I explained last week, external rotation also allows greater posterior chain involvement, even in the high bar.

5. Externally rotating the hip prevents impingement of the femur against the anterior portion of the acetabulum (i.e. the leg bone from impinging on the hip socket). Avoiding this impingement facilitates squat depth as well as maintaining proper trunk positioning while achieving depth; squatting with knees forward will impinge the hip and posteriorily tilt the pelvis, which makes the person look like a pooping dog. Rippetoe’s “Active Hip” (it’s a pdf) article talks more about this.

When I see poor external rotation, I see a number of ways a squat can be improved, so it’s something I want to focus on. In her case, I’d narrow her stance to about shoulder width and emphasize the external hip rotation. Chances are I would not have to change much else with her, but it would be the first thing to make a habit before worrying about anything else. The first Chalk Talk episode briefly talks about cuing external rotation, but I’ll get into in a later post.

 

Low Bar vs High Bar Squat, Part 2

A couple of years ago I wrote “Low Bar vs High Bar Squat” and it is still one of the most visited, and argued, posts on this site. I re-read the post and felt the need to update some of the information.

In the first post, I compared the positioning, mechanics, and utility of the high bar and low bar squats. All bickering aside, my final recommendation on which squat to use was:

If you’re gonna be a powerlifter, then use the low bar. If you’re going to compete in Olympic weightlifting, then use the high bar. If you have deficiencies in one area, then the other squat can improve that deficiency. If you can do both reasonably well and aren’t training for one of the barbell sports, then use both.

I do want to reiterate one point, and that is how the low bar squat should not be used for competitive weightlifting. Since weightlifting elements are common in CrossFit competition, I would also not predominantly use the low bar squat in CrossFit programming unless it was in the off-season. This is not any kind of attack on Mark Rippetoe or anyone who promotes the use of the low bar; the low bar is just not efficient for those purposes. Low barring will teach a trainee an inappropriate motor pathway for weightlifting as well as incorrectly developing the hip and thigh musculature.

To my knowledge I’m the one of the few people, if not the only one, who has gone to a USAW National event by primarily low bar back squatting. It definitely made receiving positions in the clean and snatch unnecessarily difficult as well as created mechanical problems (i.e. pitching forward when trying to squat out of the receiving position). After high barring consistently and dropping about 15 pounds of body weight, I was hitting the same PR snatch and CJ numbers with a weaker squat, and it was partially due to bettering the motor pathway of my receiving position and developing the musculature in a way that supports that pathway (The other variable of my improved numbers was that I significantly improved my weightlifting technique).

From a mechanical analysis perspective, it doesn’t make sense to low bar for weightlifting and it has not proved to be effective in my training or anyone I have coached. But enough about me, for gods’ sakes, let’s get to the amendments I have about the original Low Bar vs. High Bar article.

Hamstring tension during the high bar squat

In the first article I made a blanket statement saying, “the (high bar squat) ascent begins with zero hamstring tension due to knee flexion”. To review, if there is too much knee flexion, then there is not tension in the hamstrings since they cross both the knee and the hip. Yet, saying that all high bar squats have zero hamstring tension at the bottom position is not correct in all situations.

This is an ATG squat

This is an ATG squat

There are different ways to high bar squat. One method used by weightlifters is essentially collapsing into the bottom and allowing the backs of the hamstrings to slam onto the calves in complete knee flexion. The knees usually jut forward and some people say the rebound occurs off of the ligaments of the knees, though it’s probably a combination of the soft tissue around the ankles, knees and hips. The rebound off the soft tissue and joints is used as a rebound to drive the weight up. It’s similar to catching a clean or snatch very quickly. This can be called “ass to grass” or ATG squats. Another method is similar, except instead of crashing into the bottom position, the weight is lowered under control until the same bottom position is met. These are also referred to as ATG squats, but the weight is lowered under tension.

This is a non-ATG high bar squat

This is a non-ATG high bar squat

Lastly, the bottom position of a high bar squat can be a couple of inches below parallel, much like the low bar squat. To quantify this, the crease of the hip would need to be at a lower level than the knee cap (i.e. the point in which the head of the femur articulates with the acetabulum would be lower than the top of the patella). The weight would be controlled to this bottom position, and then squatted up.

While there is more knee flexion than in a low bar squat, there is not complete knee flexion and therefore not complete slackening in the hamstring. The hamstring is obviously much more slack than a low bar squat, but it will have some tension, especially when the trainee is externally rotating the hips effectively. External hip rotation effectively stretches out both the adductors and at least the medial hamstrings, therefore it creates tension around the hip. This is how I coach the high bar squat, especially with beginners.

All of the text in this section serves to show that I no longer think there is zero tension at the bottom of a non-ATG high bar squat.

Net anterior/posterior knee forces during the high bar squat

This is a mega ATG squat that is rebounding off of all of the soft tissue

This is a mega ATG squat that is rebounding off of all of the soft tissue

And all of the above text is important to make this point right here. Since there is adductor and hamstring tension applied in a non ATG high bar squat, these muscles apply a posterior force on the tibia. Therefore, the net force is not entirely anterior and therefore not as abrasive to the knees as originally thought. ATG squats will yield significantly higher anterior stress (i.e. the front of the knees), but ATG and regular high bar squats can still recruit hamstring tension on the ascent. If there is tension at the bottom of a non-ATG squat, and there is hamstring tension on the ascent (due to the hamstrings maintaining the back angle by their attachment on the pelvis), then the high bar squat can be excused from “knee wrecking” accusations.

In order to provide this tension the trainee would need to properly externally rotate at the hip, therefore making the high bar squat more difficult to master than I made it out to be in the first article when I said, “To learn how to high bar squat, put a bar on your back and squat all the way down with your knees shoved out.” A quality high bar squat will require good external rotation (to be discussed in another post and video). 

The stretch reflex is still present in a high bar squat

Despite the pad, this is a pretty good high bar squat. And impressive if real

Despite the pad, this is a pretty good high bar squat. And impressive if real.

Because there is hamstring and adductor tension at the bottom of a non ATG high bar squat, there is tension to execute a stretch reflex. The stretch reflex is one of the most important qualities of a low bar squat. Once a trainee starts mastering the low bar mechanics, I teach them how to “bounce” out of the hole with hip drive. The same thing can happen in the high bar squat, yet the intent and cues are different. Whereas in the low bar the trainee is aiming to “push the butt up” (a specific cue I found to be better than “drive the butt/hip up”), the high bar squatter will “drive the heels” while maintaining the external rotation.

Overall, the point in this section is to state that there is not complete knee flexion in a high bar squat, there is adductor and hamstring tension, and therefore there is a stretch reflex off of these muscles when coming out of the hole.

There is a difference

One issue that pops up occasionally is the idea that there is not a difference between the high bar and low bar. I guess the point is that there is not a mechanical difference, an adaptation difference, or that it doesn’t matter which one you do.

Some people may not have a noticeable difference in seeing or executing the two types of squat if they are a) very immobile, b) very uncoordinated, or c) squat with a wide-geared-powerlifting stance. Having crappy mobility would make it hard to see a difference between the two squat variants. Crappy mobility in the hips, knees, and ankles, would prevent a proper bottom position in a high bar. Crappy shoulder mobility would prevent a good rack in a high or low bar position (I’ve seen both). Therefore, when they attempt one or the other squat version, it just turns into a bastardized version of whatever their mobility permits.

The uncoordinated trainee may have the mobility to rack the bar or get into a bottom position, but he doesn’t have the coordination (or coaching) to execute the squat version.

Lastly, wide stance squatters aim to have vertical shins, sit back very far, and lean over to achieve hip flexion. This style of squatting — which I am not a fan of — developed in order to take advantage of gear that resists hip flexion (i.e. it helps extend the hips AKA squat up). Wide stance squatting relies on gear instead of good external hip rotation to provide force. Wide stance squatting will also look nearly the same regardless if the bar is placed on the traps (high bar) or on the rear delts (low bar), therefore there won’t be much of a difference between the two squats because the mechanics are the same anyway.

Despite the fact that large weights have been squatted with these wide stance squats, it doesn’t use the non-geared anatomy efficiently, is therefore more injurious, and is not conducive to athletics, weightlifting, or general performance. But I digress.

In closing…

It's better to have squatted than to not have squatted at all

I ended up talking a lot about the high bar squat and neglected the low bar squat. I just needed to revise and explain the above statements about the high bar. The low bar is still what I would coach for raw powerlifting, but if someone were interested in competing in weightlifting or CrossFit, then I would have them high bar. It would just depend on the individual, as usual. One thing we can all agree on…it’s better to have squatted than to not have squatted at all.

Chalk Talk – #1 – Squat Knee Control

During the Q&A a week or so ago, some members were asking for a regularly updated “show” on YouTube (since they are the cool thing to do in the fitness-sphere).

In episode #1 I’m talking about knee control in the squat. A common problem with squatting is that trainees don’t have control of what their knees are doing because their external hip rotators — particularly the glutes — are not trained to maintain tension throughout the movement. In this video I show one of my wife’s front squat sets where you can see when she actively engages the external rotators and when she does not. Her case is specific: she had a long term hip injury and front squats focused on this glute activation have been the rehab. Don’t focus on my cues as I’m trying more so to talk to the camera than her, but also the cues she and I have for this issue are vague because she understands what she is supposed to do after we spent a lot of time teaching her what “correct” felt like.

In any case, this is the first episode of Chalk Talk. Discuss in the comments and feel free to request new topics.

Deadlift Progress

I met Philip Wilkerson III a few years ago when I first did a seminar at CrossFit Anandale. In the summer of 2011, his deadlift max was 375 while weighing a self proclaimed “210 pounds and in terrible shape”. Phil was working through a wrist injury a bit after and it slowed down his progress quite a bit. Long story short, after working with Jeremy Wolfe at CF Anandale and programming with Chris Riley, Phil has made some excellent progress, especially with deadlifting.

Phil weighed in at 179 for this meet and pulled the 578 above. You’ll notice he leaned back at the top of the rep — this is something he’s never done before because he was excited. Leaning back at the deadlift lockout typically unlocks the knees, and in USAPL they look at knee extension in order to white light a lift. Despite not being credited with the lift, the bar speed was awesome considering this was the heaviest weight he’s ever pulled. I was really impressed with this lift, especially because Phil has progressed so well with consistent strength training. Not to mention he has a lean, jacked 180 pounds instead of a “fat 210″. Nice work, Phil.

The Lean Back

Phil doesn’t have a habit of this, but I see it ALL of the time in CrossFit. Leaning back is a horrible, god forsaken thing to do. It looks like shit because it’s shitty. First, it hyper extends the spine and/or posteriorily rotates the pelvis under a load. I can’t think of a better way to have a disc injury than to do this. If you want your intervertebral discs squirting out the front of your body, then this is how you’d accomplish it. Second, since the movement usually pushes the hips forward slightly, the knees will unlock in order to keep a center of mass over the mid-foot, resulting in a lack of knee extension (which is the issue we see above). Third, it’s just wrong. You aren’t any more “locked out” for a deadlift by leaning back. By standing straight up with your hip straight, you are effectively fully extending the hip. Finally, you lose out on intra-abdominal and thoracic pressure by allowing laxity in your spine, and this isn’t good for the moment you’re lifting, and it’s not good for proper trunk development over time.

Instead, merely stand up with the weight and lift the chest slightly. Lifting the chest is actually a USAPL requirement as it will ensure thoracic extension; leaving the upper back rounded is not fully locking the lift out since it could result holding the bar several inches lower than had you actually extended the upper back.

If you’re confused about the position, then stand up, contract your lower abs, and completely contract your glutes with your chest up. Now put a bar in your hand and that’s all you need to do.

The “tut-tut-tut”

In Phil’s video, you see a bit of shakiness, or as I call it, the “tut-tut-tut” as he’s locking the lift out. His hamstrings are not accustomed to maintaining such tension while they extend the hips, so the result is a shaky lockout. This is both a strength and a neuromuscular efficiency issue, and we typically rectify it with rack pulls from right below the patella with vertical shins. I talk about them in the Texas Method books, but they are the first thing we do to address lockout issues in the deadlift. I also like RDL’s, but there is no substitute for forcing the hamstrings to maintain tension and contract to extend the hips.

I talk more about the “tut-tutting” in Rack Pull Tidbits and Q&A – 14.

Nice job, Phil. Keep training hard. I don’t think he’ll mess up another deadlift lockout for the rest of his powerlifting career. You can follow Phil on Instagram and Twitter.