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Get Under the Bar to Unrack

So Stick Man has been working with me on the BFS Book of Techniques

We were talking about unracking the bar…

I’ve found that the sweet spot to unrack powerfully is with the knees in front of the bar and the hips behind the bar in relative balance. If your knees are under or behind the bar it pushes your hips back, eliminates any help from the quads, and turns the unrack into a heavy good morning.

With your hips too far forward, directly under the bar you have less stability.

By tightening your upper back, and breathing and bracing you turn your entire back into a rigid lever which effectively transfers power from your quads and glutes directly to the bar.

A common mistake to avoid is flexing the lumbar to push your hips forward. The entire back should rotate like a lever.

For a full review of squat technique, check out my squat article in the BFS Book of Techniques.


Wide Stance Hip Thrusters

Knee valgus is a common squat issue, particularly with new lifters. The knees tend to cave in as the lifter ascends. I’ve talked about this a lot, and the catastrophic effect it has on your squat form. I’ve been working with lifters on technique and strengthening approaches to help correct the issue.

When it comes to hip extension, the glutes and hamstrings are the monster movers. We don’t think about the adductors (muscles that adduct the hips – pulls knees in). The adductors’ primary purpose is hip adduction, but they are also extensors, and get involved in driving your hips forward as you rise from the ashes known as your squat. When you think about it this way, it makes sense that when the adductors are engaged in the squat that they have a tendency to pull the knees in.

How do you address this issue? 

Balance. Balance the engagement of the adductors with engagement of the gluteus medius. The gluteus medius is also a hip extensor. Additionally it helps externally rotate and abduct the hips (knees out).

I’ve been working with a lot of abduction in mobility and warmups for squats, but being a powerlifter, I thought ‘why not find a way to put a heavy load on the abduction movement?’ 

Cue the hip thruster (and my lifters’ middle fingers). The hip thruster is like a leg press for the ass. You can load it up with weight and still have relatively low impact on the rest of the body. Now shift to a wider stance. This shifts the emphasis from the gluteus maximus to the gluteus medius – the target muscle group to correct knee valgus.

My rules for hip thrusters:

  • Proper execution of a set ends with you rolling into the fetal position with baseball sized cramps in your glutes; with the wide stance the baseballs should be in your gluteus medius.
  • Hip thrusters are a high volume, high weight lift; I’ve found sets of 10-15 reps with weights similar to your deadlift working weights to be very effective.
  • Make sure you’re getting full hip extension.
  • Instead setting the bar in the crease of your hips grinding on your hip bones, set your hands on the bar and push it down slightly to rest on the meat of your quad…it’s much less painful.

Smith Press Split Squats

I’ve touched lately on the benefits the Bulgarian Split Squat (BSS) can bring to your training. One big drawback of the BSS can be balance – some people just have an exceptionally difficult time maintaining their balance well enough to get good, full ROM reps with the BSS through an entire set. 

I happened to catch a guy doing split squats on the Smith Press, and a solution clicked right away. Not only is this an actual productive use for the Smith Press, but it can help lifters who shy away from BSS because they cannot maintain their balance. No more excuses!

  • Set the bench a full step back behind the press, so you can get a full rep and a deep stretch in the hips and quads at the bottom.
  • Drop into the squat until your rear knee points straight downward or lightly touches the floor.
  • Even with the smith press’ stability, keep your core tight for stability.

Your long term goal should still be to move to unassisted split squats, but even the most novice lifter should be able to do Smith Press Split Squats.


Warm-up Protocols and Back Pain

I was chatting with a fellow lifter this week about common pain lifters encounter. Back pain is one most lifters (and every couch potato) experiences at some point. Barring an actual injury, there are a couple go-tos I use to alleviate lower back pain:

  • Foam rolling the glutes, paying particular attention to the gluteus medius: Tight glutes have a tendency to yank on the hip creating tension that causes lower back pain; loosening them up can give a bit of temporary relief.
  • Chiropractic treatment: It’s not uncommon for the hips to shift out of alignment giving the abuse we subject our bodies to under the bar. This forces the musculature to tighten up as it tries to stabilize hips resulting in lower back pain.

I mentioned to my buddy that I typically just use these measures as needed, when the pain flares up, but that I hadn’t really used them since…I changed my warmup protocols. 

Wait…what?

Proper warmups and prehab measures can, prevent pain?

Go figure.

Two protocols in particular have made a significant impact on pain and preparedness for me:

  • Banded Side Walks: I’ve added this to the warmup protocol for any lower body training session. Strengthening the gluteus medius has made a tremendous impact in my stability and has improved hip/knee/foot alignment while squatting.

  • Bulgarian Split Squats: I do a handful of short sets, usually 3×5, bodyweight split squats. At the bottom of the squat I pause and stretch, pushing the rear leg as deep into the movement as possible, feeling a stretch in the quad around the knee and in the glutes. This movement helps build hip mobility and it also stretches the quads which drastically reduces knee pain.

The increases in mobility and stability created by adding these two lifts to my warmups have profoundly decreased lower back and hip pain, and increased lifting readiness.


Low Bar Squats

The low bar squat has been synonymous with the powerlifting squat for decades. Why? Because (for most individuals) it allows you to move more weight. Why?

  • It creates a shorter lever out of the back
  • It brings the hips closer to the line of force
  • It shifts some of the workload from the quads to the glutes and hamstrings

All of these things translate to a more efficient and powerful squat. 

Now that you know the ‘whys’, let’s talk about the hows:

  • Bar Position: Generally speaking, a high bar squat places the bar on top of the traps, a low bar squat places the bar on the rear delts. There are lifters who elect to go as low on the back as they can support the weight. My preference is to lock the bar into the groove between the base of the upper traps and the top of the rear delts. This position helps you keep the bar in place limiting its ability to slide down your back.
  • Bar Path: As with any squat, the bar path should follow a straight line up and down over your center of gravity (keep it over your shoe laces). With the bar lower on the back, you will have a flatter back angle, so pay attention to make sure you are still hitting depth.
  • Keeping the bar in place: The bar may have a tendency to slide, even when nestled between the delts and traps. To help keep it in place: try to pick a straight bar with good knurling in the center (which will scrape the skin off your back), chalk up your t-shirt where the bar will rest, and wear a snug cotton t-shirt that will stay put on your back and give the bar something to grip.

The low bar position can have a tendency to torque on your wrists and elbows. You may need to adjust your grip out a bit wider to alleviate some of the tension, but make sure you still keep your upper back taught. 

You can find a more detailed walk through of the low bar squat in my Brute Force Strength Book of Techniques: BFS BoT – Low Bar Squats

 


BFS Squat Shirt Transformation

They say a BFS Squat Shirt will add 10% to your squat 1RM…

Well…I say it mostly.

It could be a bit of an exaggeration…


The Powerlifting 3-Step

Squat Walkouts

I’d like to pick apart my squats and talk about some key points in a good squat. A good walkout sets you up for a solid squat. When I get new lifters in, I probably annoy them early on with my ‘rerack!’ commands, making them redo the walkouts over and over to get it right.

I was spotting in a recent meet, and wanted to make many of those lifters rerack. Some of them took haphazard steps out of the rack, then shifted their feet for four minutes trying to get them ‘perfect’ (ok, to be fair, since you only have one minute to get the ‘squat command’ I’m sure it was something less than four minutes…)

A good walkout goes something like this:

 

  • Start with your feet directly under your hips. This is a very stable and strong position, and you don’t have to shift the weight much to take a step.
  • Bring your first foot straight back. It doesn’t have to be a big step, just enough to clear the rack – heel to toe.
  • Bring your second foot back and out to the side into your squat stance.
  • Shift your first foot straight out to the side into your squat stance.

You should be able to get into your stance with 3 short steps, and adjust your toes if needed. Even in this video, I counted 4 shuffles to adjust my feet…that is at least 2 too many.

A solid setup makes the bar feel much lighter, builds confidence, and preps you for a strong lift.


Deadlift Cues – Pull Yourself In

An important aspect to deadlifting (and any serious lift, really) is FULL BODY TIGHTNESS. There are a couple of things I look for when assessing a deadlift to tell whether a lifter is really tight as she starts the pull:

– Do the shoulders move: When she starts upward, do the shoulders move downward initially as the body rises, until she engages the weight?

– Is there an audible ‘clink’ as the bar engages with the weight before it breaks the floor?

Both of these things indicate the lifter’s body is not tight, and that the lifter is not tight against the bar.

Cue the cues.

My main cue used to be ‘hips down chest up’ as the lifter rocked back into the starting position. The problem with this cue is that there is no instruction to get tight. It leads a lifter to squat to the bar, which in the deadlift creates no tightness whatsoever in the body, nor tension against the bar.

Contrast that with ‘pull yourself in!’

Now you’re not thinking about squatting down to the bar, you’re thinking about gripping the bar and pulling yourself to it. It creates the mental image of tightness, and guides to a tight and powerful setup:

– Grab the bar and squeeze your shoulder blades downward, tightening your entire upper back

– Pull up on the bar, creating upward tension

– Maintain this upward tension and pull yourself in to the bar; if you do it right, you feel tension grow in your quads and your glutes, loading them like a spring.

Now you are tight and ready to explode off the floor!


Squats – Rear Hip Shift

One of the most common squat technique issues I see is an initial backward shift of the hips as the lifter starts up out of the hole. This hip shift creates several problems:

  • It is an energy leak: Instead of using the squat’s rebound and knee extension to drive the bar upward, you lose that energy, allowing the hips shift backward. At that point instead of using good squat technique to come up out of the hole, you end up muscling the bar up, using largely posterior chain.
  • You drop your chest: As your hips push back, your chest drops, flattening out your hip/back angle, and likely let the bar to drift forward ahead of your center of gravity. This puts you at a mechanical disadvantage – it makes the bar heavier.

To get to the root cause, there are a couple of issues to look for:

  • Knee Valgus: If your knees collapse inward as you start back up, it often forces your hips backwards, causing your chest to drop.
  • Early Knee Extension: If you extend/straighten your knees without driving the bar up, it will push your hips back without doing any of the lift’s work.

How do you address this technique issue? I usually attack it from a number of directions:

  • Strengthen your Glutes: If your gluteus medius (abducts the hips) is less powerful than your adductor magnus (adducts and extends the hips), you will not be able to keep your knees tracking in the direction of your toes under load. One of my favorite tools to strengthen the gluteus medius is warming up all lower body sessions with banded side-walks.
  • Strengthen your Quads: If your quads are underpowered, they will not be able to drive the load upwards as you extend your knees. To build quad strength I like to use heavy, high volume leg presses.
  • Hip Thrusts: Thrust your hips forward hard as you come out of the hole. Use the thrust to maintain the hip/back angle out of the hole, then drive them forward hard as you pass parallel. I’ve added ‘hip thrust squats’ as the warmup sequence for squat working sets to build this pattern.

Taking the time to address this little technique issue can have a significant impact on your squat’s power!


Bench Press – The Big Man Arch

A lot of novices and uneducated social media lifters bemoan the bench press arch. There are times a flat back arch is appropriate, that is for a separate discussion. I submit that you should use some level of arch whenever you bench…unless it is one of those times. This discussion also is not about the ‘high arch’ you see in competition. That, again, is a separate discussion.

A strong arch creates a number of benefits to your overall bench press strength:

  • It reduces the range of motion (ROM) of the lift allowing you to move more weight, but that is not the primary purpose of this approach.
  • It creates tremendous full body tightness. With a good arch and leg drive, you should see very little body movement during the bench. As a coach, I watch for body movement as a sign of poor leg drive.

Note: Sudden leg drive, and heaving to create momentum is a technique for a separate discussion

  • Strong leg drive helps you keep your chest up throughout the lift’s ROM which:
    • Gives you a very stable and strong platform to push from
    • Expands the surface area your pecs stretch across, giving you a stronger initial contraction (note: my personal theory).

 

How do you create a good Big Man Arch (aka leg drive arch)? I like to start at the bar and work my way down:

  • Once you grip the bar, squeeze your shoulder blades tightly together and pull them downward, tucking them into your back pockets. Keep them firmly planted this way throughout the full ROM.
  • Pull your feet back up under your hips. Drive through the balls of your feet and push your hips toward your shoulder blades.
    • Your actual foot position will vary based on your body mechanics and hip mobility. Start with a position on the edge of discomfort and adjust from there.
    • Loosen your core as you push your hips then retighten it once you’ve positioned them; this helps you get to a more stable, tight position.
  • Finally, take a deep breath of air, filling your lungs completely and hold it as you lower the bar to your chest. Don’t begin exhaling until the bar has upward momentum, then snake the air out through your teeth through lockout.

You can find a full discussion on the bench press in my bench press technique article