At some point or another everyone hits a sticking point on their big lifts where any amount of practising the movement itself doesn’t bring about an improvement. For times such as these you need to take a step back, identify whereabouts in the lift you are struggling, and then utilise variations on the lifts, or supplemental exercises to bust through the sticking point.
Hopefully a staple in everyone’s training plan the squat is hugely important in your lower body development and core strength.
The two places that people will fail in a squats are either in ‘the hole’ where there is insufficient posterior chain drive to begin the ascent, or at any point along that ascent when the core and upper back lack the strength to prevent a folding forwards of the torso.
In this article I will address the first of these problems and a few of the options available for overcoming the problem.
One of my personal favourite exercises and one which has moved on my squat hugely over the past few months is the rear foot elevated split squat, or Bulgarian split squat.
When proper depth is achieved in this exercise the glutes and hamstrings of the standing leg must produce enough force to propel both your bodyweight, and any additional weight used, up. As the torso stays more upright than in a squat the contribution of the lower back is much lower, allowing the legs to be trained without the core limitation. This quality also makes it a safer option for those that experience lower back pain whilst squatting.
Often a deficit from one side to another can be identified, Gray Cook of Functional Movement Screen fame identifies this as the greatest predictor for injury when assessing movement patterns, and so the exercise has the added function of injury prevention.
Loading of the exercise can take the form of a barbell (either front or back loaded), dumbbells, or weighted vest/chains. Loading selection comes down to individual preference, and the amount of load being used (grip may eventually limit the dumbbell option).
Box squats are a great tool for teaching the squat pattern as the fear of falling backwards when sitting back with hips is removed. Additionally it is easy to identify those that favour the quads over the posterior chain as when attempting to drive off the box there will be a shift forwards of the knees and torso to allow the quadriceps to initiate the movement. When performed correctly the weight should remain on the heels and the torso relatively upright.
Once box squats have been mastered there is the option of adding accommodating resistance in the form of bands or chains which apply more weight at the strongest part of the movement (lock out).
The box squat teaches force production from the bottom of the squat as the box kills the momentum that is often used to ‘bounce’ out of the hole. As with deadlifts where you would start from a dead stop each time to allow the lower back and legs to exert force rather than bouncing the weight to ‘cheat’ the reps this exercise will add strength to the weakest part of the lift.
Torque at the hip (the rotational force) is the way that force is generated to drive the body and weight out of the bottom of the squat. This rotational force requires external rotation of the hip (something that manifests itself in a ‘knees out’ position). A lack of external rotation can be the result of weak or tight external rotators (Piriformis, Gemellus Superior, Obturator Internus, Gemellus Inferior, Obturator Externus, Quadratus Femoris) and tight external rotators, especially the illiacus, psoas major and psoas minor (collectively called the illiopsoas). Improving the external rotation of the hip can result in a greater amount of force being generated. Any stretch which takes the leg into flexion and external rotation will help to improve this position (think the pigeon pose from yoga), additionally stretches putting the leg into extension and internal rotation will help to free off the illiopsoas. For more information and ideas for increasing movement efficiency check out mobilitywod.com Some useful cues when thinking about this force production are to imagine screwing your feet into the ground (pushing the heels inwards, though they shouldn’t actually move) or to imagine trying to push the floor apart with your feet. The knees out cue also works wonders as the valgus collapse (knees caving in) is a sign of loss of power.
Written by Tim McCune