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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.


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

 


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.


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!


Your Back is a Lever

When you perform a lower body lift (squats, deadlifts, etc.) your legs perform the work against a weight that is supported in some way by your shoulders – either by a bar resting on them or hanging from your arms. Since your back lies between the load and the force, the more efficiently it transfers the power from your legs to the load supported through your shoulders, the more effective and stronger your lift will be.

A comparison I like to make is a brick and a sponge.

  • If your back is rigid, solid like a brick, the power from your legs is transferred directly to the load, driving the load in the desired direction (up) with as much acceleration as your legs can generate.
  • If your back is soft and malleable like a sponge, power will be inefficiently transferred from your legs to the load. Before the bar moves, the slack in your back needs to be taken up as sponge compresses and your back flexes. Only then will the bar begin to move. In addition to inefficiently transferring power, a loose back also increases your injury risk and gives you less control over the load.

To tighten your back up, think of it in two segments

  • Upper/thoracic region: The upper back can be tightened by creating a strong upper back contraction to pull your shoulder blades downward, ‘tucking them into your back pockets’.
  • Lower/lumbar region: Strong bracing to create intra-abdominal pressure braces the lower back creating good stability. You do this by taking in a deep breath of air, allowing it to expand into your abdomen, then tightening your core and pushing down (hard) with your diaphragm like you’re trying to push out a turd.

Building a strong back, and learning to leverage it, can have a direct, significant impact on your lower body lifts.


Lift Setup – Be Methodical

Have you ever watched a lift video that wasn’t clipped and thought ‘get to the fucking lift already’. Take this video, for example. From the time I get my hands on the bar to the time I’ve walked out and am ready to squat 45 seconds have expired. In comp this much pissing around before lifting can result in timing out! You’ve got 1 minute from the bar loaded to get on the platform, walk it out, and get the squat command. I’ve literally gotten to the platform before with 10 seconds left on the one minute clock. It happens. You need to be able to get it done.

All that wasted time getting ready to lift does more than simply delay you. It distracts you from the lift, gives your mind time to talk you out of the lift, and drains energy if the bar is on your back.

On your next squat day, audit your lift – find your energy wasters and eliminate them:

– How long does it take to get to the bar, fixing your belt, wrapping your wrists, thinking about the lift. Stop stalling, when it’s time for your set, get up, wrap up, get under the bar.

– When you get to the bar, how much time do you spend shifting your hand and foot position? You’ve done it a thousand times. You know where your hands and feet go, practice put them there right the first time every time.

– When you get under the bar, how long do you take shifting the bar, shuffling before unracking?

– When you walk the bar out, how many steps do you take? How much do you shuffle before locking out and getting to work? Work on hitting your stance with no more than three steps and little or no shuffling.

Your setup should be by the numbers, mechanical, and consistent every time. Don’t give your demons time to whisper how fucking heavy the bar is, and suck up your precious energy!


Squat Technique – Box Squats

I have two go to’s I like to use when a lifter is struggling with squat technique.

If the lifter is brand new, does not have lifting experience or a strength foundation to draw on, and struggles with squats I’ve found goblet squats a very good tool to introduce them to proper squat technique.

For lifters who do have experience and have developed some level of strength, and the subject of this article, I find box squats quite useful. This includes relatively experienced lifters who may struggle because of body mechanics (long legs and short torso for example).

I’ve found that if you get the stance right for a lifter, and keep the bar path straight up and down over the center of the feet, the rest generally falls into place. Box squats are a great way to find those positions for people with differing body structures.

You’ll find a myriad of technique styles for the box squat – what I share here is primarily focused on hammering the squat lifting pattern. Additional power out of the hole is, of course, a useful by-product.

Key points of the ‘technique’ box squat:

  • Box should always be low enough to get below parallel when on the box (I can hear it now, ‘THAT box??? That box is WAY too low!!!’ No, no, it really is not).
  • Come to a complete stop on the box, it’s not a touch and go. Coming to a complete stop allows you to think about the descent and ascent separately, and perform each movement more accurately – While on the box, remain tight, don’t relax on the box.
  • Do not lean forward as you get to the box or forward as you start back up. Keep that bar right over the center of your feet at all times, even while on the box. The bar should move up and down as if it were on rails.
  • If necessary, adjust the width of your stance until you can squat to the box without having the bar shift forward in front of your center of gravity, or backwards as you get to the box. Once you have that bar moving straight up and down over your shoe laces throughout the full ROM you should be in a good stance

This version of the box squat isn’t just for beginners, or for technique corrections – I’ve found it can also be a great accessory lift to help internalize that squat pattern and make it feel natural. I useful to cycle this lift into your programming occasionally.  


Two Second Rule

Although ‘it doesn’t matter how heavy it feels’, there are times (particularly with deadlifts), a lift just feels impossibly heavy. When you review the lift’s instant replay, however, you find that it was in fact possibly heavy. All you had to do to finish it was to NOT GIVE UP…and now you want to kick your own ass for quitting.

Enter the Two Second Rule. I established this rule to curb the tendency to give up on a lift before breaking through the sticking point, and reaching the point where you’re sure to lock it out.

It’s quite simple: Even if a lift is obviously impossible, grind it out for (at least) 2 seconds before quitting on it.

I know what you are thinking – “are you fucking insane?!”.

Well yes, but that is beside the point. The Two Second Rule has a number of benefits:

  • Even if you eventually fail the lift, you’ve just turned a failed lift into an isometric hold, and gotten some benefit out of it
  • Even if you eventually fail the lift, you are teaching your mind and body to grind; this help you finish out the tough lifts in the future
  • You may actually finish the impossible lifts

In the long run, you’ll be teaching yourself to grind through the tough lifts, and build greater mental as well as physical strength