Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Why Do You Back Squat?

Is it because that’s what huge guys do, your football coach said it would develop more strength; you read too many Muscular Development magazines that IFBB Pros say they do? I challenge any of you reading this to ask yourself if you can come up with any real explanation as to why back squatting is so great.

Unless you are a competitive powerlifter or bodybuilder, there is likely no legitimate reason why ‘leg day’ (assuming you’re not the general population of gym goers that actually works out something more than arms and chest) should revolve around the back squat. Now am I saying that you should eliminate the back squat from your repertoire of leg exercises, absolutely not! I want to examine other ways to work out the legs but also get more bang for your buck.

Let’s go back to the title of this article and answer; why do we back squat? If you are in fact a regular guy or gal you are likely working out to improve on lean muscle mass, fat burning and the ever so popular catch phrases, ‘functionalbility’ and ‘core strength.’ Back squatting does improve lean muscle mass which in turn does burn body fat. Assuming you are a very good squatter you can indeed improve core strength, albeit in one plane of motion, you are strengthening the core. From a functional movement standpoint, when in life do we ever load something on our back and squat down? On many occasions I have picked up an object such as a bag of groceries from a squatted position and lifted it up to a shelf or table though. I have also had to pick up flimsy sacks of mulch out of the back of a truck and place them on the ground, or help load and unload an old 85lb dog with bad hips in out of my old Jeep (miss my old Lab, Rocky and Jeep). Fact is, as active and busy people we constantly are putting load in front of our bodies, and never behind. If we can come to an agreement that we do indeed function like this daily, then I ask you all again, why do we back squat?

One could argue (and I will all day) that the front squat is a much more functional lift than the back squat and that in order to make everyday tasks easier (or my definition of functional training) more emphasis should be placed on front squats.  There is a lot of negativity that comes with the front squat and with that I can understand, until I began to explore innovative ways to incorporate that movement with other pieces of equipment besides a barbell. The number one complaint I have from ‘soccer mom’ is that her wrists hurt, or ‘I used to play college football at division 19 NERF football dad’ is that he cannot move, because his range of motion is shot from rotator cuff injuries. Sorry guys and gals but I am not going to let front loaded squats get in the way of making you become strong, functional and lean.

My favorite exercise to introduce front loading to, is the bear hug squat using my Ultimate Sandbag. Because I am able to apply load closely to the mid-line of my client I am coaching I am able to alleviate many excuses or pain quite often associated with front squats. Ailments such as lower back pain from excessive leaning forward are eliminated with proper loading of the mid-line or making the sandbag part of the body. Absolutely no wrist or shoulder pain because I am teaching proper thoracic muscle flexion. And no knee pain from your knees drifting over the feet too much, because of the sandbag’s weight shifting back so that proper hip flexion and hamstring/glute activation can take place by decelerating and accelerating through the heels. 

Using the Ultimate Sandbag, we can simulate the example earlier of lifting a dog in and out of the Jeep by performing a Zercher squat. Not only do we get to work or thoracic muscles and legs properly but you will notice a Zercher squat resembles a standing front plank giving you or your client a more efficient method of training multiple muscles at once. Once we have established our basic front loaded squatting methods we can then dig into advanced exercises for athletes or anyone looking to step up their fitness levels even more. By adding staggered bear hug and Zercher stance, you can put yourself or client into an unstable position, which will give us a more neurological effect meaning more muscle activation.  This movement is great if you have infants. If you are a mom or dad, how many times are you on the floor with you baby playing with them and have to pick them up from the floor, or evening leaning over inside a crib to pick up your toddler? I am sure a lot of times, so let’s be sure you can handle that range of motion and ‘live’ weight for the sake of not only the baby, but also your knees and lower back.

As you finish reading this and watching the video I have set up for you, I want you to again start thinking more and questioning what it is you are doing to improve yourselves daily and more importantly your clients and athletes that lack the great knowledge that you as coaches and trainers already possess.  I want you to keep back squatting, but I also want you to find other ways to get better. I will be the first to admit, I am a numbers guy, and I want the big squat. Take it from me, if you can incorporate these methodologies to your current regime, I promise only better results will follow, and yes that means a bigger back squat if that is what you really want.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

#1 Thing Missing From Your Workouts

As a strength and conditioning coach who dabbles in the corporate gym arena half the day and a simple sweat box the other half, I constantly hear the word ‘core’ thrown around a lot (yes in the corporate gym). When I see this ‘core’ training taught to clients/athletes, it mostly consists of very sedentary exercises such as sit-up variations, planks, and BOSU lunges/squats.

The issue we run into when this is the basis of all core training is that the coach/trainer who is putting the client through this is only experiencing the tip of the iceberg in terms of core strength and stability. What I mean by that, is that there are multiple movement patterns being left out the program design, that over time will not challenge the client/athlete and eventually lead to a key component in the kinetic chain that is underutilized and could result in injury or lack of reaching full potential.

To go into greater depth lets break this down into some simple science. We, as humans move in 3 planes of motion. The first is the Sagital Plane, which will incorporate a lot of your strength building exercises such as squatting, deadlifting and benching.  Frontal Plane is the next movement pattern. A few common exercises associated with the Frontal Plane would be side lunges and dumbbell lateral raises. The last and most neglected plane of motion is the Transverse Plane. These movements involve rotation, much like an athlete would do naturally to compete in anything from the swing of a gold club or baseball bat, the ability for a shortstop to bend over for a ground ball and make a quick release to first base, a basketball player receiving a pass in the post and pivoting around the defender for a layup or dunk.

Common Transverse Plane exercises often consist of Russian twists, cable chops or full contact twists. All good exercises, but how do they compare when we put our body in not only Transverse Planes but also the Sagital or Frontal Planes at the same time. Now, hopefully I got your brain turning and thinking of what the hell I am talking about. Let us take a look and breakdown cable chops. Either way you do them; down, across or up, there is only an emphasis on the acceleration aspect of the motion and very little concentration on the deceleration of the cable chop. Again good exercise, but how can we maximize this motion and make it better? How can we manipulate the load other than weight itself to make this more taxing not only on the stabilization of major movers and stabilizers but also giving it a greater neural response? How can we work flexibility while improving strength and stabilization at previously unexplored ranges of motion (ROM)?

All of those questions must be asked regularly if we want to get the most out of our clients, athletes or ourselves. Going back to the cable chop, what if we were able to change the load dynamically using an Ultimate Sandbag (USB)? Using a sandbag changes everything we know about the chop. We are going to have to not only accelerate the bag, but also absorb the shock coming back by pivoting and loading the hip through the hamstrings and glutes, and then pivoting the other way and re-accelerating the bag once again repeatedly. By implementing the USB, we have eliminated the cable which requires more stabilization by the lower body, upper body and CORE. Without a doubt this will cause a greater neural response from these new variables, resulting in a stronger and more functional body through multiple ROM. This is just one example of how we can use different tools to achieve better results and avoiding plateaus (See videos below on some of my favorite core exercises implementing multiple planes of movement).

Before some of you reading this get your panties in a bunch about what I am saying, let me be the first to say I too use a lot of exercises in my own training in the Sagital and Frontal Planes. However, I think it needs to be addressed to everyone, how much we are not implementing very important movement patterns in our program design and missing out on unlocking our full potential, not matter if our goals are quality of life or training for strength sports. Since working in exercises in the Transverse Plane I have seen great improvement in not only strength, but also my flexibility in my hips and shoulders, as well as a very noticeable difference in posture and thoracic muscle strength which has improved my posture. I have also went from needing chiropractic care 2 times a week to once a month because of strengthening all core muscles such as my back and hips, not just abdominals.

While sit-up variations, planks other popular ‘core’ exercises are good, it is our job as coaches and trainers to educate our athletes, clientele as well as ourselves on new and fun ways to progress to our fullest potential.  Below I will go over a few of the tools I use for my athletes and clients that will hopefully open doors to new and exciting program design.