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5 Reasons Why a Powerlifting Program Might Be Just What You Need

Written on July 17, 2014 at 7:10 pm, by Eric Cressey

Today's guest post comes from CSP Coach Greg Robins, who is my co-author on the new resource, The Specialization Success Guide: 12 Weeks to a Bigger Squat, Bench Press, and Deadlift.

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I realize that competing in powerlifting is a far cry from what most aspire to do. That being said, much can be learned from the approach, and much of what the general gym-goer is looking to accomplish can be reached with the help of a powerlifting program.

To be honest, when I began training alongside a few competitive lifters, competing was not even a thought in my mind. To this day, I don’t consider myself first and foremost a “competitive lifter.” I am a coach, and powerlifting simply has done the following positive things for me. I have seen it do the same for countless other people, and so I invite you take a gander, and ask yourself if you aspire for a similar outcome.

1. It teaches you the difference between “training” and “working out.”

Simply stated, if your visits to the gym don’t serve to attain a greater result in some physical endeavor, then you are simply “exercising.” Diving into a powerlifting program gives your visits to the gym a purpose. When you have a purpose for what you do, you are “training,” not “working out.“

When you make the switch, a few essential characteristics of the successful gym goer begin to emerge. For starters, you become more consistent. Knowing that each session builds off the last makes you more accountable to each training session. Consistency is the absolute must-have ingredient to accomplish any goal.

With that in mind, you ultimately become more accountable to yourself. Recovery measures like sleep and nutrition no longer become a tedious chore. Instead, you willingly make the decision to eat right, get adequate sleep, and minimalize activities that may take away from your training.

When those things organically start happening, you become more productive, see more results, and all the while never feel like they are anything but part of your way of lifes.

2. It teaches you about managing variables and gives you a consistent measurement for improvement.

The problem with most gym-goers is that they have no idea what is working, what isn’t working, or even what they are using to measure their success. Following a powerlifting program gives you three fundamental lifts from which you can measure progress. It’s cut and dry: are the numbers going up? If not, you can look back on your training and assess a few possibilities for why your strength isn’t improving. If yes, you can make note of what you are doing as a source of information to look back on should you run into a plateau down the road.
Over time, consistently working on the same end goal helps you to understand the training process as a whole. You will be able to take ownership for your plan, and optimize it for you.

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3. Getting stronger just so happens to do a lot of good things for your physique, health, and lifestyle.

I’m not clueless; I know why most folks exercise. You can feed me all the lines about health, but the fact is most people just want to look good. I was no different. If I could go back in time, I would have started training like a powerlifter at age 16. If I had, I would have acquired everything I sought out from an aesthetic standpoint a LOT SOONER. When I began powerlifting, I obviously began to get a lot stronger – but I also ate better, slept more, and kicked bad habits that didn’t help my performance to the curb.

Not surprisingly, getting stronger meant I put on more muscle, eating better meant I actually got leaner, and paying attention to how my lifestyle did or did not support my training meant I was actually healthier, more productive, and just generally feeling more awesome.

I realized that looking and feeling good were just a bi-product of training with a purpose. My outlook changed, and I wasn’t caught up in superficial crap, just in paying my dues in the gym and earning my progress.

4. The powerlifting community brings out the best in the industry.

When you begin to train for the “Big 3,” you begin to enlist the help of others who do the same. You read their articles, watch their videos, attend their seminars, and so on. Maybe I’m biased, but those who put the time under the iron – and instill that mindset in others – are the people I have come to admire the most.

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It’s really not surprising to me at all. Powerlifting taught me what was important. It taught me about movement, because I had to optimize my positions in each lift. It taught me about programming, because I had to be able to objectively look back on all my training variables. It taught me about delayed gratification, because strength takes time to develop. It taught me about work ethic, because nothing comes easy in the battle of forcing adaption. Again, it taught me about what is important, because I began to only concern myself with things that had positive influences on my development. It has done the same for others who share in the pursuit of strength and they are among the best people to learn from and be around.

When you take on this identity to your training, you become part of that community.

5. It instills a sense of confidence in you that is unparalleled.

Walk around and look at the state of this country. It can be appalling. Exercising, in general, may make you feel like you aren’t wasting away, but possessing a level of physical strength far higher than the normal person makes you feel like the specimen you are.

I’m all about using powerlifting as an outlet for my aggression, my need to push the levels of what I can do, to channel my inner animal, to overcome. To some, that notion is unappealing; it’s too “meatheadish”, or too primal. I beg to differ, completely.

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In fact, through purposeful training I am more confident to share how I feel, to learn about anything and everything, to explore different avenues of self-development.

A well-defined training goal gives you an opportunity to willingly make yourself uncomfortable. In doing so you learn that even in times of adversity, or pain, that you did not choose to encounter you can get through. I walk around with a sense of confidence, not because I can lift a certain number of pounds, but because I can welcome a challenge head on, and crush it.

Can other forms of physical activity do something similar? Sure they can, but if you are part of the herd of gym-goers that walks into the gym each day and doesn’t know exactly why you there, and what the focus is for that day, then I challenge you to give a powerlifting-geared approach a shot.

You can pick up several 12-week training programs in The Specialization Success Guide that Eric and I developed, or you can dive into any other number of programs out there. I don’t care what you choose to do, but I do challenge you to see it through for a prolonged period of time. I welcome you to this community of like-minded individuals, and for those of you who do choose to run our program I thank you and look forward to hearing about your success.

For more information on The Specialization Success Guide - which is on sale through this weekend at an introductory $30 off price - click HERE.

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My Top 5 Powerlifting Mistakes

Written on July 15, 2014 at 2:08 pm, by Eric Cressey

With this week's release of Greg Robins and my new resource, The Specialization Success Guide, I got to thinking about some of my biggest mistakes with respect to developing the Big 3 (squat, bench press, and deadlift). Here are the top five mistakes I made in my powerlifting career:

1. Going to powerlifting equipment too soon (or at all).

Let me preface this point by saying that I have a tremendous amount of respect for all powerlifters, including those who lift in powerlifting equipment like bench shirts and squat/deadlift suits. Honestly, they just weren't for me.

I first got into a bench shirt when I was 160 pounds, and my best raw bench press was about 240-250 pounds. I was deadlifting in the high 400s, and squatting in the mid 300s. In hindsight, it was much too soon; I simply needed to develop more raw strength. My squat and bench press went up thanks to the suit and shirt, respectively, but just about everything I unracked felt insanely heavy. I just don't think I had enough training experience under my belt without any supportive equipment to feel truly stable under big weights. It's funny, though; my heaviest deadlifts never felt like this, as it was the "rawest" of any of the big 3 lifts for me.

There's more, though. Suits and shirts were just an annoying distraction for me. I absolutely hated the time and nuisance of having to put them on in the middle of a lift; training sessions easily dragged on to be three hours, when efficiency was something I'd always loved about my training. Perhaps more significantly, getting proficient with equipment took a lot of time and practice, and the more I was in it, the less athletic I felt. I spent too much time box squatting and not enough free squatting, and felt like I never developed good bottom-end bench press strength because the shirt did so much of the work for me.

At the end of my equipped powerlifting career, I had squatted 540, bench pressed 402, deadlifted 650, and totaled 1532 in the 165-pound weight class. Good numbers - enough to put me in the Powerlifting USA Top 100 for a few years in a row - but not quite "Elite." I tentatively "retired" from competitive powerlifting in December of 2007 when Cressey Sports Performance grew rapidly, but kept training - this time to be athletic and have fun.

For the heck of it, in the fall of 2012, I decided to stage a "raw" mock meet one morning at the facility. At a body weight of 180, I squatted 455, bench pressed 350, and deadlifted 630 for a 1435 total. In other words, I totaled "Elite" by 39 pounds...and did the entire thing in 90 minutes.

Looking back, I think I could have been a much more accomplished competitive lifter - and saved money and enjoyed the process a lot more along the way - if I'd just stuck with raw lifting. Again, I don't fault others for using bench shirts and squat/deadlift suits, but they just weren't for me.  I would just say that if you do decide to go the equipped route, you should be prepared to spend a lot more time in your equipment than I did, as my dislike of it (and lack of time spent in it) was the reason that I never really got proficient enough to thrive with it in meets.

2. Not understanding that fatigue masks fitness.

Kelly Baggett was the first person I saw post the quote, "Fatigue masks fitness." I thought I understand what it meant, but it wasn't until my first powerlifting meet that I experienced what it meant.

Thanks to a powerlifting buddy's urging, I went out of my way to take the biggest deload in my training career prior to my first meet. The end result? I pulled 510 on my last deadlift attempt - after never having pulled more than 480 in the gym.

You're probably stronger than you realize you are. You've just never given your body enough of a rest to actually demonstrate that strength.

3. Not getting around strong people sooner.

I've been fortunate to lift as part of some great training crews, from the varsity weight room at UCONN during my grad degree, to Southside Gym in Connecticut for a year, to Cressey Sports Performance for the past seven years.

When I compare these training environments to the ones I had in my early days - or even what I experience when I have to get a lift in on the road at a commercial gym - I can't help but laugh. Training around the right people in the right atmosphere makes a huge difference.

To that end, beyond just finding the right program, I always encourage up-and-coming lifters to seek out strong people for training partners, even if it means traveling a bit further to a different gym. Success happens at the edge of your comfort zone, and sometimes that means a longer commute and being the weakest guy in a room.

4. Spending too much time in the "middle zone" of cardio.

A lot of powerlifters will tell you that "cardio sucks." I happen to think it's a bit more complex than that.

Doing some quality work at a very low intensity (for me, this is below 70% of max heart rate) a few times a week can offer some very favorable aerobic adaptations that optimize recovery. Sorry, but it's not going to interfere with your gains if you walk on the treadmill a few times a week.

Additionally, I think working in some sprint work with near-full recovery can be really advantageous for folks who are trying to get stronger, as it trains the absolute speed end of the continuum.

As I look back on the periods in my training career when I've made the best progress, they've always included regular low-intensity aerobic work - as well as the occasion (1x/week) sprint session. When did cardio do absolutely nothing except set me back? When I spent a lot of time in the middle zone of 70-90% of max heart rate; it's no man's land! The take-home lesson is that if you want to be strong and powerful, make your low-intensity work "lower" and your high-intensity work "higher."

As an aside, this is where I think most baseball conditioning programs fail miserably; running poles falls right in this middle zone.

5. Thinking speed work had to be "all or nothing."

"Speed work" is one of the more hotly debated topics in the powerlifting world. I, personally, have always really thrived when I included it in my program. If you want to understand what it is and the "why" behind it, you can check out this article I wrote: 5 Reasons to Use Speed Deadlifts in Your Strength Training Programs.

A lot of people say that it's a waste of time for lifters who don't have an "advanced" level of strength, and that beginners would be better off getting in more rep work. As a beginner, I listened to this advice, and did lots of sets of 5-8 and never really focused on bar speed with lower reps.  The end result? I was slower than death out of the hole on squats, off the chest on bench presses, and off the floor with deadlifts. And, it doesn't take much strength training knowledge to know that if you don't lift a weight fast, your chances of completing that lift aren't particularly good.

To the folks who "poo-poo" speed work, I'd just ask this: do you really think focusing on accelerating the bar is a bad thing?

Here's a wild idea, using bench presses as an example. If a lifter has a heavier bench press day and a more volume/repetition oriented day each week, what would happen if he did an extra 3-4 sets of three reps at 45-70% of 1-rep max load during his warm-up? Would that be a complete waste of time? Absolutely not! In fact, the casual observer would never even notice that it was happening.

The point is that speed work is easy to incorporate and really not that draining. You can still do it and get a ton of other quality work in, so there is really no reason to omit it. Having great bar speed will never hurt your cause, but not training it certainly can.

Looking to avoid these mistakes and many more - all while taking the guesswork out of your squat, bench press, and deadlift training? Check out The Specialization Success Guide, a new resource from Cressey Sports Performance Coach Greg Robins and me. This comprehensive product to bring up the "Big 3" is on sale at at $30 off introductory price this week only.  You can learn more HERE.

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Back Squat Technique: How to Find the Right Grip

Written on July 2, 2014 at 5:50 am, by Eric Cressey

A lot of lifters struggle to find the right hand position on the bar during back squats; in many cases, it's because there are physical limitations blocking them from getting where they want to be - and doing so pain-free. Check out today's video to learn more:

Looking for more technique coaching cues and insights like this? Check out Greg Robins' "Optimizing the Big Three" seminar at Cressey Performance on August 24.

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Upcoming Seminar: Optimizing the Big Three

Written on June 30, 2014 at 9:28 am, by Eric Cressey

We're excited to announce that Cressey Performance staff member and accomplished powerlifter Greg Robins will be delivering a one-day seminar on August 24, 2014 at our facility in Hudson, MA. This event is a great fit for lifters who have an interest in improving the squat, bench press, and deadlift - and may want to powerlift competitively.

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Overview:

"Optimizing the Big Three" is a one-day seminar geared towards those looking to improve the squat, bench press, and deadlift.

Split into both a lecture and hands on format, the event will provide attendees with practical coaching on the technique of the classic power lifts, as well as valuable information on how to specialize movement preparation, utilize supplementary movements, and organize their training around a central focus: improved strength in these "big three" movements.

Furthermore, Greg will touch upon the lessons learned in preparation for your first few meets, to help you navigate everything from equipment selection, to meet-day logistics.

The value in learning from Greg is a matter of perspective. He has a wealth of knowledge, and experience stemming from various experiences as a coach and lifter. Greg will effectively shed light on how he has applied human movement principles, athletic performance modalities, and anecdotal evidence from working with a plethora of different populations to one main goal; optimizing the technique, health, and improvements in strength of amateur lifters.

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Seminar Agenda:

8:30-9:00AM: Check-in/Registration

9:00-10:00AM: Mechanics, Technique, and Cueing Of the Squat, Bench Press, and Deadlift - In this lecture Greg will break down the biomechanics of each movement, how to optimize technique, and what to consider both as a coach and lifter in teaching / learning the movements.

10:00-11:00AM: Managing the Strength Athlete: Assessing and Meeting the Demands of the Lifter - Learn what demands a high amount of volume in the classic lifts puts on the body, how to assess for it in others and yourself, and what you can do to manage the stress associated with these demands.

11:00-11:15AM: Break

11:15AM-12:45PM: General Programming Considerations for Maximal Strength - Take a look inside Greg’s head at his approach to organizing the training of a lifter. Topics will include various periodization schemes, and utilizing supplementary and accessory movements within the program as a whole.

12:45-1:45PM: Lunch (on your own)

1:45-2:15PM: Preparing for Your First Meet - Based off his own experiences, and knowledge amassed from spending time around some of the best in the sport, Greg will share some poignant information on what to expect and how to prepare for your first meet.

2:15-3:30PM: Squat Workshop

3:30-4:45PM: Bench Press Workshop

4:45-6:00PM: Deadlift Workshop 

Date/Location:

August 24, 2014

Cressey Performance,
577 Main St.
Suite 310
Hudson, MA 01749

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Cost:

Early Bird (before July 24)  – $149.99
Regular (after July 24) - $199.99

Note: we'll be capping the number of participants to ensure that there is a lot of presenter/attendee interaction - particularly during the hands-on workshop portion - so be sure to register early, as this will fill up quickly.

Registration:

Sorry, this event is SOLD OUT! Please contact cspmass@gmail.com to get on the waiting list for the next time it's offered.

About the Presenter

Greg Robins is a strength and conditioning coach at Cressey Performance. His writing has been published everywhere from Men's Health, to Men's Fitness, to Juggernaut Training Systems, to EliteFTS, to T-Nation. As a raw competitive powerlifter, Greg has competition bests of 560 squat, 335 bench press, and 625 deadlift for a 1520 total.


Should You Wear Olympic Lifting Shoes?

Written on June 3, 2014 at 3:13 am, by Eric Cressey

I received the following question the other day, and thought it'd make for a good Q&A to post here. Enjoy!

Q: I was hoping to get your thoughts on whether or not I should incorporate Olympic lifting shoes with my training. I tried them out the other day, and they helped me to squat pretty deep, which is pretty significant, as I've always struggled to even make it to parallel without the "butt-wink" happening. Would you recommend I make them a part of my training so that I can get the benefits of squatting?

A: This is a great question; unfortunately, it's not a simple answer - so bear with me!

First and foremost, if you're an Olympic lifter, by all means, wear Olympic lifting shoes. It's how you compete and specificity is important. And, as we know, competing at the highest level of athletics always suggests an element of assuming a greater risk to achieve a greater reward - at least as compared to "simply" training.

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If, however, you're an athlete in a different sport - or just a general fitness enthusiast - I don't think they're necessary. And, they may even be problematic if long-term improvements to your movement quality and health are goals of yours.  I'll explain - but first, we need to understand the two primary reasons folks wear them.

First, there is the firmness factor. O-lifting shoes have a very solid heel without "give;" this makes them a better platform against which to produce force, as compared to normal sneakers. This firmness isn't exclusive to O-lifting shoes; you'll also find it in some minimalist shoes, Chuck Taylors, or no shoes at all. Most powerlifters know this, and it's why they generally lift in "firm" footwear that allows better heel contact with the floor.  This leads us to point #2...

There is a prominent heel-lift in these shoes. I've seen heel lifts ranging from everything from a 0.5 to 1.25 inches. In the sneaker world, however, everything is generally related in terms of heel-toe drop, or % grade.  For a long time, the standard running shoe was a 12mm heel-toe drop from 24mm (heel) to 12mm (toe), which creates a 8% grade. The tricky part about interpreting what this means in the context of Olympic lifting shoes is that I can't say that I've ever seen anyone list the height of the toe, so we don't really know the grade. The 0.5 inch lifts are surely pretty moderate, as 0.5 inches equates to 12.7mm, whereas the 1.25 inch ones would be 31.75mm, which is actually in excess of what you see with the much maligned Nike Shox (25mm).

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This obviously leads to the question, why isn't a firm shoe alone sufficient? What's the rationale for the massive heel lift? Effectively, it's a crutch that helps lifters with mobility or stability deficits reach squat depth easier.

To squat deep, you need to be proficient on a number of fronts, the foremost of which are:

1. You must have sufficient dorsiflexion range of motion (knee over toe ankle mobility).

2. You have to have sufficient hip internal rotation (can be limited by muscular, capsular, alignment, or bony issues).

3. You have to have sufficient hip flexion (can be limited by muscular, capsular, alignment, or bony issues; this typically isn't much of a problem).

4. You have to have adequate knee flexion (this is rarely an issue; you'd need to have brutally short quads to have an issue here).

5. You need to have adequate core control - specifically anterior core control - to be able to appropriately position the pelvis and lumbar spine. This is especially true if we're talking about an overhead squat, as it's harder to resist extension with the arms overhead.

If you lack ankle mobility, you either turn the feet out, go up on your toes, or rely on the crutch that a heel lift provides.  By elevating the heel, rather than going from neutral to dorsiflexion, you are going from plantarflexed to neutral.  Effectively, it brings you a few yards behind the starting line so that you don't false start, if that makes sense (if it doesn't, don't worry; I'll have more on this in the video below).

If you lack hip internal rotation, you turn the toes out so that you're internally rotating from an externally rotated position to neutral, as opposed to going from neutral to an internally rotated position.

I think that we all agree that these positional changes allow you to make up for a lack of mobility - but that doesn't mean they're necessary a good thing, as you're effectively loading an aberrant movement pattern. As Gray Cook has taught us, if you continue to pile fitness (strength) on top of dysfunction, bad things happen.

As you may have noticed, I've left out proficiency #5 from above: you have to have adequate anterior core control.  And, it's because I've saved the best for last; this is a HUGE issue.

I'm going to let the cat out of the bag and say that I think we've "over-diagnosed" ankle mobility restrictions. Most people automatically assume that if they have a poor squat pattern, it's because they have an ankle mobility problem. I'd estimate that in 90% of cases of people who think their ankle mobility stinks based on a bad squat pattern, they actually test pretty well when you look specifically at the joint, as opposed to relying solely on a gross movement pattern.  Why?  There is a tremendous interaction between mobility and stability. In this video, I elaborate:

As further proof of the fact that different athletes will demonstrate their patterns of insufficient control of extension differently, check out these four posture pictures of athletes who had poor squat patterns. In the first, you'll find a pretty "classic" extension posture that's distributed over multiple joints. Note the anterior pelvic tilt and lordosis, plus the relatively neutral knee and ankle positions.

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In the second, note the plantarflexed ankles; this athlete has shifted his "extension compensation" further down. Do you think he'll have much of a squat pattern with that resting presentation? He might have perfectly good ankle mobility, but he's completely unable to shut off his plantarflexors (calves); that's where he's "finding" his stability.

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In this third example, the athlete has dumped forward at the pelvis and lumbar spine to create what could be considered a swayback posture - even though his ankles actually look pretty neutral.

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Finally, we'll look more full-body for our fourth example. Obviously, this athlete is in a heavily extended pattern through the pelvis and lumbar spine, but note also the positioning of the arms; his lats are so "on" that he carries his elbow considerably behind his humeral head, and the scapula dives into anterior tilt. There's a forward head posture, and while you can't appreciate it well from this angle, this athlete also had a ton of "tone" in his scalenes, sternocleidomastoid, and subclavius. He found his stability further up the chain.

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Every single one of these out-of-whack presentations is a way for the athletes to shift their faulty movement patterns around to "get by." Athletes are tremendous compensators - but they all do it differently. I think we can all agree that these are issues that should be addressed, right? Well, they were - and the athletes felt a lot better from the training interventions.

How does this relate back to Olympic lifting shoes, though?  Well, every single one of these athletes could demonstrate a perfect squat pattern if I put them in a pair of shoes with this dramatic a heel lift. It's like giving the most uncoordinated kid in the neighborhood training wheels...for good. At some point, you've got to lose the training wheels and learn to ride the bike. And, at some point you need to stop covering up your poor movement patterns and work to address them - rather than just loading them - if you want to stay healthy.

To me, squatting with a pronounced heel lift is really no different than squatting through a "butt-wink;" they are both compensations to allow a lifter to maintain the position of the center of mass within the base of support in the face of a gross extension pattern. Both fundamentally alter the ideal squat pattern, though. Conversely, if you use goblet squat or TRX overhead squats to train the pattern with a subtle counterbalance, though, you're keeping the movement intact, but reducing the challenge to the lifter.

In folks who have really poor squat patterns, I'd much rather see them work to improve the squat pattern for a bit, as opposed to considerable loading of the classic back squat. While they're working on improving the pattern (through these exercises and other breathing and core stabilization drills), they can train the heck out of the lower body with deadlift variations, single-leg drills, barbell supine bridges/hip thrusts, sled pushing/dragging, and a host of other exercises.  Once their squat pattern has improved, progressing to a front squat is a great first step, with the back squat coming a bit later on.

With all that said, before I get any hate emails, let me be abundantly clear: if you move well (i.e., have a good squat pattern to below parallel in bare feet), then by all means, feel free to use Olympic lifting shoes for your squatting and Olympic lifting, if it tickles your fancy. After all, it's only 5-10% of your training volume, most likely. Just make sure to a) only wear them for these exercises, b) maintain the underlying "heel-less" squat pattern, and c) pick the shoes with the smaller heel lift (0.5" instead of 1.25"). You might also consider wearing more minimalist footwear for the rest of your training sessions to "cancel" the O-lifting shoes out. And, again, if you're a competitive Olympic lifter, please feel free to rock whatever you want - and crush big weights doing so.

If, however, you're an athlete in another sport who uses squatting and Olympic lifting as part of your training, I don't think it's a useful addition. And, it's certainly not an appropriate initiative if you are just someone who is looking for a way to work around your poor mobility. Ignoring a fundamental movement flaw - and certainly loading it - will always come back to bite you in the butt.

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Coaching Cues to Make Your Strength and Conditioning Programs More Effective – Installment 8

Written on February 18, 2014 at 8:14 am, by Eric Cressey

It's time for the eighth installment of my series on coaching cues.  Try putting these three cues to work for you.

1. Bear hug a tree.

I love anti-rotation chops as a way to train rotary core stability. Unfortunately, a lot of people butcher the technique so that they can really load up the weight on these. In short, the closer the arms are to the body, the easier the exercise.  So, if you really bend the elbows, you can use a lot more weight without getting as good of a training effect.  With that in mind, I tell folks to "bear hug a tree" as they're doing these exercises, as it ensures that the elbows are only slightly bent, but still well out in front of the body.

2. Be heavy on the pad.

Chest-supported rows (also known as T-bar rows) are an awesome exercise to strengthen the upper back, and the presence of the pad on the front of the torso is a great external focus point to keep the lifter's technique sound.  That is, of course, only if people use it!

One of the most common mistakes I see is that people will keep their hips on the lower pad, but then extend heavily through their lumbar spine (lower back) to lift the weight.  In reality, it should be a neutral spine posture from top-to-bottom; the ribs have to stay down. The cue I like to give athletes is to "be heavy on the pad." Keeping the chest firmly on the pad prevents the rib cage from flaring up when it should just be movement of the scapula and upper arms.

3. Pull the bar into your upper back.

This was a coaching cue that made a huge difference with my squat. One of the biggest mistakes you see lifters make when back squatting is that they don't take control of the bar. Rather than pulling it down into the upper back to create a good "shelf," they just let it sit there. The last thing you want to be under heavy weights is passive.  By pulling the bar into the upper back, you not only dictate the bar path (it can't roll), but also get the lats engaged as a core stabilizer.

While on the topic of squatting, if you're looking for a thorough squat technique resource, I'd encourage you to check out Jordan Syatt's new resource, Elite Performance Squatting. It's a great two-hour presentation.

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Quick and Easy Ways to Feel and Move Better: Installment 54

Written on February 8, 2014 at 7:58 am, by Eric Cressey

It's time for this week's random strength and conditioning and nutrition tips from Greg Robins:

1. Use a kettlebell to off-set load 1-arm TRX rows.

The TRX (and other suspension trainers) are a great tool for any kind of training. They offer closed-chain horizontal rowing options, which for a long time were only doable by using a barbell inside the power rack.

The only downside is that after some time people’s body weight becomes a bit to easy. We got past that with some of the options Eric mentioned in 10 Ways to Progress Inverted Rows.

With the 1-arm variation, body weight is enough of a challenge to the row portion. However, challenging the rotational stability aspect of the row, while still working at an angle that is doable for the working arm, may take some external loading. Check out this quick fix:

2. Use avocado oil for a change of pace in the kitchen.

Recently, one of our bootcamp clients was nice enough to give me a bottle of avocado oil as a gift for the holidays.

Funny story: it was wrapped tightly and kept its shape; in fact, I thought it was a bottle of scotch! Oh well, maybe next year…

I’ve been using it in the kitchen, and I love it! It’s definitely worth trying out as another option to complement mainstays like coconut and olive oil.  And, in addition to tasting great, it offers some other really great benefits.

For starters, it boasts a really high cooking temperature – over 500 degrees to be exact. It’s also got a solid fatty acid composition, which is great news for our cardiovascular system. Lastly, it not only boasts a ton of antioxidants itself, but actually helps absorption of nutrients in other foods as well. In fact, this study showed that adding avocado oil to a salad boosted carotenoid absorption up to 400%!

Avocado

3. Watch out for this mistake with reverse lunge technique.

At Cressey Performance, reverse lunge varietions are staples in our programming. Reverse lunges offer a great single leg exercise that is more hip dominant, and often time knee friendly, than the forward and walking lunge variations. A big reason for this is the fact that it’s less decelerative in nature – unless, of course, you make the mistake I outline below:

4. Consider this approach to integrating heart rate variability (HRV) data into your training.

A few months ago I began charting my HRV scores using the BioForce technology from Joel Jameison.

I know a lot of folks are talking about using the data to help them maximize their training. Here is what I did, and I think it’s a solid approach for others to try as well.

I decided to record my HRV scores, but not act on them for the first three months I used the application. I wanted to chart the data alongside my training, which for the most part stays organizationally the same year-round. I use block periodization to train for powerlifting meets. Over the course of about 20 weeks, I go through longer periods of loading at lower intensities, medium periods at higher intensities, and shorter periods at very high intensities.

As it stood, I would stay in the first block for four weeks, second for three, and third for two.

I noticed that my HRV scores were high enough to train at full intensity each of my three training days in the first block, all four weeks. However in the second block, I was not fully recovered going into my third week. Moreover, I was also not fully recovered moving into my second week of the last block.

I didn’t change my approach this go-round. Instead, I plan next cycle to load the first block all four weeks, split the second block into two 2-week loading phases, and the third block into two 1-week loading phases.

If you were about to begin using HRV I would recommend the same approach. If your training was productive already, as mine was, chart HRV scores alongside what you normally do, but don’t change the organization. Look for trends like this and adjust the next go around.

This will keep you from second-guessing yourself based on the data, and help you use trends to optimize your training next cycle.

5. Try setting your hands like this on back squats for optimal positioning.

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How to Set Up the Shoulders for Optimal Back Squat Technique

Written on November 22, 2013 at 7:36 am, by Eric Cressey

There are a lot of people out there who struggle to get the upper back, shoulders, and arms in the right position for the back squat – whether it's because their technique actually causes pain, or simply puts them in a bad technical position.  With that in mind, I thought I'd use today's video to touch on why it can be a problem for some folks, and some quick technique modifications you can make to clean things up.

These cues can work hand in hand with a lot of the shoulder mobility drills you've seen here at EricCressey.com and on my YouTube page.

If you're looking for a collection of mobility drills and strength and conditioning progressions – as well as detailed coaching videos like this – be sure to check out The High Performance Handbook, a versatile resource you can tailor to your individual needs and training goals.

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How to Front Squat: Everything You Need to Know

Written on December 4, 2012 at 7:09 am, by Eric Cressey

The squat is one of the most revered strength training exercises of all time, and the front squat is a popular variation on this compound lift.  However, like many lifts, it's often performed incorrectly, and in many cases used by folks for whom it isn't a good fit.  To that end, I thought I'd devote this article to outlining everything you need to know to be successful with the front squat.

What Makes the Front Squat Different?

A few primary factors differentiate a front squat from a traditional back squat.

First, the bar is positioned on the front of the shoulder girdle rather than on the upper back.  In the process, an athlete is given a counterbalance to allow for a better posterior weight shift, which improves squat depth.  If you need proof, check out your body weight squat, and then retest it while holding a ten-pound plate out at arm's length; most of you will improve substantially.

Second, because the arms are elevated (flexed humeri), the lats are lengthened.  This is in contrast to the back squat, where the lats can be used to aggressively pull the bar down into the upper back and help create core stability.  I firmly believe the lack of lat involvement is what accounts for the significant differences in loads one can handle in the front squat as compared to the back squat.  However, "quieting down" the lats on the front squat is likely why athletes with such dramatic lordotic posture can often squat much deeper/cleaner with the front squat.  Of course, if they have an excessive lordosis and anterior pelvic tilt, you may not want to squat them in the first place!

Third, the positioning of the bar in the front makes the front squat much more shoulder friendly than the back squat, assuming we aren't dealing with an acromioclavicular joint injury, which would be irritated by direct pressure of the bar.  In the back squat, the externally rotated "rack" position poses problems for athletes with poor upper body mobility, and it actually reproduces injury mechanisms at the shoulder and elbow in overhead athletes like baseball players, tennis players, volleyball players, and swimmers.

Fourth, the upright torso angle of the front squat reduces shear stress on the spine. More forward lean equates to more shear stress, as the resistance is moved further away from the axis of rotation; just think of a see-saw where your lower back is the middle point and you'll catch my drift. Moving the load further out also increases risk of going into excessive lumbar flexion under compressive load. The front squat – even under heavier loads – keeps a lifter more upright, or else he’ll simply dump the bar; it's somewhat of a self-limiting strength exercise.

Fifth, because the load is positioned further forward than in a back squat, there isn't as much of a pre-stretch for the posterior chain, so the front squat will be more quad dominant than the back squat, which will engage more glutes and hamstrings.  Of course, you can use front box squats to shuffle things up and get some variety, but we won't deviate from the point too much here.

Sixth, in the overwhelming majority of lifters, because of the upright torso angle and increased recruitment of quads relative to posterior chain, most lifters will use significantly less weight on the front squat than the back squat. All things considered, if you can achieve a comparable training effect with less external loading, you're dealing with what would generally be considered a safer exercise.

Contraindications

Some individuals simply aren't cut out for any kind of squatting, so before we even talk technique, it's important to start by separating these lifters out.  Some common contraindications for squatting include poor tolerance to compressive loading (e.g., symptomatic lumbar spine disc injuries) and femoroacetabular impingement (this bony block at the hips makes it virtually impossible to squat without developing issues acutely and chronically).

Specific to front squatting, poor hip mobility, ankle mobility, core stability can be problematic, but perhaps nothing is as big of a buzzkill for front squatting as a kyphotic posture.  As I demonstrate with my Quasimodo impression in this photo, it's impossible to get the elbows up when you're rounded over like a scared cat.

 

These are really just the tip of the iceberg in terms of potential contraindications, but they serve as examples of how we need to fit the exercise to the lifter and not vice versa. With that out of the way, let's talk…

Technique!

We'll start with the hand positioning, as it's the most hotly contested portion of the front squat technique debate.  Only a video will do it justice:

When it comes time to unrack the bar, I cue the athlete to push the elbows up high and take air into the belly as they stand up the weight.  This combination of "elbows up" (shoulder flexion) and "air in" prevents the bar from rolling – either because the arms are angled down or because the torso goes to mush as the rib cage comes down.

After the weight is walked out, the athlete should take a slightly outside hip width stance, with the toes angled slightly out.  One of the biggest mistakes I see is that athletes go too wide with their stance, and the end result is that the knees have nowhere to go but in:

To piggyback on the "feet in, knees out" cue, I encourage athletes to think of "squatting between the knees, not over them."  This seems to get folks to the right balance of "sit back" and "sit down," as an (Olympic) front squat will have more "sit down" than a back squat or box squat variation. Additionally, a regular back squat will be slightly wider in stance than a front squat for most folks, and a box squat will certainly be even wider.

"Elbows up" is a cue that resounds throughout the movement, and it's especially important in the bottom position, when the bar will want to roll the most.  Regardless of the hand position you select, make sure the elbows are at or above the level of the bar at all times.  One great drill for practicing is to simply unrack the bar hands-free and gradually build up loads.  If you can get comfortable with this set-up, you'll always remember to think "elbows" and not "hands."

As you come out of the hole and accelerate toward lockout, make sure you don't get lazy as you enter the easy portion of the strength curve.  This is where front squatting with chains can be very helpful; it educates you on how to accelerate right up to lockout, where the hips and knees extend fully simultaneously.  If you don't have chains, try loading the last ten pounds of weight as 2.5-pound weights (two on each side). Position the clamp about an inch further out than it would normally be so that they can "clank" a bit.  Your goal is to make the 2.5-pound plates rattle at the top of each rep.  Finish with the glutes as you stand tall, and reset your breath before descending for subsequent reps.

Speaking of reps, stay away from doing high-rep front squats.   Sets of six should be the maximum you do, as muscles involved in maintaining the "rack" position may fatigue early and compromise the safety of the exercise.

Equipment Considerations

There are three important equipment considers to take into account.

First, your shoes should have a subtle heel lift.  It doesn't have to be an Olympic lifting shoe, but something that is totally flat to the ground won't work for the majority of folks.  It'll take some tremendous ankle mobility to squat deep without a little lift – even if it's only a few millimeters.  Front squatting (assuming an upright, Olympic stance) barefoot is probably not a great idea; I can count on one hand the number of people I've seen do it in good technique in the past 4-5 years since the barefoot craze took off.  Minimalist shoes are fantastic, but not necessarily for deep, Olympic-style squatting. If you're rocking a Minimalist sneaker, you can always slide a five-pound plate under the heel.

NewBalance-20v3low

Second, be careful with shirts made of "wicking" fabric.  While they may be super comfortable, they do tend to allow the bar to slide a bit too much, especially if you're using a bar that doesn't have much knurling.  A quick solution to this is to spread some lifting chalk around the collar and chest to help the bar grab the shirt a bit more – or you could just wear a different shirt.

Third, many front squat newbies will really struggle with the discomfort of the bar position as they're learning to the bar-in-front technique.  While everyone ultimately adjusts to this discomfort (especially if they add some muscle mass to the area), one strategy to help athletes get by in the short-term is to just have them wear two shirts while they front squat.  This extra layer of padding is subtle and won't change the technique of the exercise, but will make it more tolerable during the learning phase.  You can taper an athlete off of it shortly thereafter.

Closing Thoughts

Squats aren't for everyone, but if you are going to squat, the front squat is one great option. Put these coaching cues and strategies into action, and you'll be front squatting safely and moving big weights in no time.

Looking for more detailed training tutorials like this, and a program in which front squatting is incorporated? Check out The High Performance Handbook, the most versatile strength and conditioning program on the market.

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