You may have noticed a theme with our recent articles. They are all multiple part series with each article spanning 800-2000 words.
In the age of quick information, we all just want the one thing to do today, the one change that will make everything perfect. We tend to skim read articles and scroll to the bottom to pick up the “next action”
Obviously, this isn’t the best way to digest information. There is usually a reason for a piece of content spanning 1-2000 words for example.
However, if we’re going to put together a resource of information, we want it to be usable.
For that reason, it simply makes no sense to write a 6,000 word article on squat mechanics and how to improve.
Even I wouldn’t read that! And I’m obsessed with this stuff!
So, I’ll be splitting this into 5 articles over the coming weeks, covering one aspect at a time. This affords the opportunity to go into some more detail for each point without creating absolute information overload.
Principally, we’ve divided the information into manageable chunks. With one being published per week, there is plenty of time to assimilate the information, make changes to your training as required one at a time.
Part 1: Warm up
Part 2: Rituals and set up
Part 3: Bar placement and stance
Part 4: Bar path
Part 5: Generating and arriving on tension
It will also hopefully make the information a little more usable for you.
Without, further ado, here is part one:
Squats. The king of exercises.
Squatting is possibly the best example of a love hate relationship that I can think of. At least for me.
Some exercises are just pure fun – Bench Press, for example, I could do all day. I never dread a bench session, I never cringe when I see the sets and reps that I need to do and I never feel like the session may very well present a risk to my life.
Don’t get me wrong, I like them, most of the time.
(Choosing the sport of powerlifting with a complete hatred of squats wouldn’t exactly be a sensible decision)
They’re just…well, hard…aren’t they?
Placing a large weight on your back, sitting as low as you can and trying to stand back up again, on the face of things, seems like utter madness. When I see things like “6 sets of 8” written in my upcoming plan for the week I can sometimes experience a visceral, nervous response.
An experience that I don’t get with any other exercise. In fact, there are few experiences in life that create the same feeling of anticipation and nerves on a weekly basis.
This said, hitting a squat PB or cracking out a smooth set of 5 is an immensely rewarding experience and, like a bad golfer who hits the off cracking tee shot, keeps me coming back for more.
For those who’ve followed us for a while, you may know that my anatomy hasn’t exactly given me the smoothest run of things when it comes to sitting down and standing back up with meaningful weights on my back.
I have, as Bryce Lewis puts it, “One very long set of femurs”
In English – my legs are pretty damn long.
So I like to think that in order to shift 500lbs plus to IPF standard, I’ve had to try and test a number of different strategies – I had to fail a lot too.
Over the course of my training career, I’ve had quad, adductor, hamstring and calf tears, I’ve had debilitating knee pain and red hot hip tightness. All in the name of squatting more weight than the week before.
Why am I telling you this?
Well, my first criteria for listening to someone on…well…anything, is to check that they have actually had to test what they’re talking about.
I couldn’t give a damn what someone has to say about squatting if the first time they tried it, they grooved 400lbs like nothing and hit their first sticking point on a World stage.
In this series, I’ve collated 5 of my “ah-ha” moments in each of the fundamental areas that have allowed me to set regional squat records and muster a place at European and World championships while having (according to most) the WORST limb to torso ratios possible to squat a decent amount of weight.
Some of this advice (this article for example), you’ll be able to action straight away. Some of the later articles in the series will need a little extra time to digest and I suggest you consider taking some time away from strength work to re-learn a movement.
Tip 1: Always, always warm up
(Note – for the sake of argument, I refer to “Depth” as the IPF definition – the hip crease dropping below the knee)
Most of you will skip this bit. It’s boring. You want to hear about the one change you can make to the bar position or where to put your feet. I implore you – do NOT skip your warm up.
I’ve had 3 fairly serious injuries to date, all of which occurred in training sessions where I neglected to warm up properly and was rushed during the session.
This isn’t to say that warming up makes you bulletproof. If your technique or training approach is incorrect, you’ll get injured regardless of how well you warm up.
The goal of the first 10-20 minutes of your time in the gym should be to prepare you for moving heavy things. If you work for a living or you’re still at school (I’ll be bold and assume it’s one of the two) you likely spend a good bit of time in a chair or sedentary.
To expect your body to just “go” after 8-9 hours glued to a chair is frankly quiet naïve.
Why do we want to warm up?
There are many reasons why a warm up is beneficial. Psychological and physiological reasons aplenty.
But that’s not WHY you or I care about it.
Usually, unless we’re talking about pro athletes, we’re in the gym for a short, constrained amount of time. We don’t want to be doing something in that time unless is has a specific purpose.
The real reason you want to warm up prior to squatting – get you ready to squat to the best of your ability, minimising the occurrence of injury.
When you focus on this goal, it becomes apparent that spending 40 minutes activating the glutes or loosening your hip capsule is a waste of precious time.
When we arrive at the gym there are three eventualities:
1) No noticeable tightness or restriction that would prevent you from hitting appropriate squat depth or squat mechanics. The amount of work required to get you ready to squat may be minimal, no need to spend 20 minutes rolling on the floor just because the internet told you to.
2) Some mild tightness accumulated from daily activities. You maybe feel a little still from sitting all day but there is no underlying severe pain. All sensations are below a 2-3/10 on the pain scale. This can be addressed with warm up and movement drills.
3) There is distinct tightness or pain that you feel will prevent or impede performance in the session. You may have bad knee pain, your hip might hurt and these sensations are beyond just the results of a normal day. This is something that you should not be trying to fix with a warm up. When you see people spending 30-40 minutes preparing for a session, this is a total waste of time. If there is pain in a joint, muscle or range of motion, see a physio and have an assessment, put a plan in place to manage the pain and set aside separate days of the week or hours of the day to address the pain so that you can arrive at the gym and spend only the time required to prepare for the session.
How to do it?
Here, I will assume you fall into either camp (1) or (2). If (1), I suggest that you still spend 2-5 minutes performing light cardio, then do the above diagnostic squat test to ensure that the way you feel matches reality then perform the barbell complex below and move into actual squatting.
If you are (2) i.e most of the normal population, I suggest the following:
1) Low Intensity cardio
A nice way to ease yourself into a training session is to spend 2-3 minutes on a piece of cardio equipment. Elevate the heart rate, raise core temperature and mentally prepate yourself for the session ahead.
TIME: 2-3 minutes
2) Squat Drill
If the session begins with a squat, I always advise starting with the movement In the above video. It’s specific and general at the same time. In other words, testing your comfort in the bottom of a squat is highly specific to squatting, we’re not doing a general warm up drill here, it’s a quick and dirty diagnostic that lets us see what is tight and restrictive.
Time: 1-2 minutes
3) Work on tight spots / specific soft tissue work
Once you’ve identify what feels tight or restrictive, you can use this information to guide how you spend the 3-5 minutes, using a lacrosse ball or foam roller to address tightness. There’s no need to spend ages on this section, pass over tight spots 10-20 times, letting the roller/ball sink into tender spots. Again, this should be 1-2 areas at most, usually glutes and IT band are the right areas for sedentary office workers.
Time: 2-3 minutes
4) Dynamic movement
Once you’ve addressed specific areas, I suggest you spend the next 5-10 minutes running through some dynamic warm up drills. I have given an example of my full warm up routine below. There are plenty of suggestions in the below resources to pick from.
Time: 5-7 minutes
How long should you spend warming up?
You can see the above warm up would take between 10-20 minutes depending on how long you spend at each stage.
Of course, 20 minutes is as long as I’d ever expect someone to be warming up prior to training. Any more than this on a consistent basis and either, you need to be improving your efficiency with the movements or you need to devote some time away from your training to work on tightness etc.
What do I do?
On a typical day here’s how I will warm up:
– Stationary bike – 2-3 minutes, low intenstity
– Squat Drill
– Foam roller on Quads/IT band
– Lacrosse ball for TFL and Piriformis
– Leg swings: 10-15/leg (Bryce video)
– Roll over into V-sit (Defranco video)
– Kossack squats – 5 per side (Defranco video)
– Glute activation drills
It can be very, very easy to get caught up in the details and try to optimise your warm up. For some reason, it lends itself to being overly complicated. As with most things, the key to success lies in distilling the noise down to a simple method that works.
Take the above information and use it to plan and guide your warm up for the next 3-4 weeks. Try, assess and re-assess.