Squat Mechanics


So, here we see Kelly demonstrating some squat faults. The pic on the left is the obvious train wreck. When I look at any squat based movement, I go from ground up. Feet, knees, thighs, hips, back/torso, shoulders and head. There are faults in each of these areas in the first pic on the left.  Everyone who responded was able to point out the issues seen from their perspective and give reasons as to what was wrong and why. Nice work!

At the feet, the toes are pointing fairly straight ahead and due to the funky positioning Kelly is in, the toes are going to start bearing a lot of the weight. That, as you well know, is a recipe for disaster in a lot of ways. We want to always turn the toes out at about a 30 degree angle. The body is set up to be this way naturally. Jump up and down and see where your feet are pointing when you land. Or if you are in a relaxed standing posture, see where the feet are pointing. Unless you are anatomically weird, this is the way things should work. The toes being pointed out allows the hip and knees to move naturally per the proper biomechanics of the lower extremities. The knees don’t want to be locked into a forced forward position, so turn the toes out and let them track normally. If you force them into this unnatural position, you can expect knee problems as the tibia and the femur flex and twist against each other. This is stress on the joint and all of it’s connective tissues and at some point under load, something is going to give. Not good…

The toes out will allow the knees to track comfortably out over and along the same angle as the toes. Again, this keeps the joint happy by letting things move as they should. The adductors (inner thighs) are nicely activated in this knee out position so they can contribute to the control of the descent and upward movement out of the hole. The adductors will become stronger over time and will help the knees stay out on the drive up which will keep weight distributed nicely across the foot in an even manner.

The knees driving in, as in pic 1, is a common thing with people who are not yet strong squatters with proper form. The body knows more power can be harnessed by using the quads to be the primary and dominant movers out of the bottom. The quads become involved when the knees and thighs are brought in. This takes the overall contribution of the hammies and adductors out of the mix and lends to that nasty torque and shear on the knee joint. The athlete needs to consciously think about forcing the knees out and weight on the heels as they come up out of the squat.

Lastly about the knees, if they are out it allows the athlete to sink into the “ass to grass” position, so long as they can maintain optimal back positioning. This added depth is due to getting the muscles, bones and connective tissues of the hips out of the way. Try squatting with your knees forward and feel the hip flexors and the joint run out of room. Then put the knees out and notice all those hindrances are now moved out of the way and depth is increased.

The hips should be loaded and creating the drive out of the bottom. In every squat, the first bit of movement comes from the hips. If you are passive about it, the hips will lag and the movement will be initiated by quads. This causes instability in the lower back and does not lend itself to proper mechanics, strength and athleticism.

The lower back should be locked into extension and torso rigid. When we say “lower back extended” that means the lumbar spine is in that arched position. The torso should be leaned forward and locked into a position which places the shoulders or the barbell directly over the center of balance mid-foot. The thoracic spine is locked into place with the erector spinae muscles and the shoulders stay rigid to support the load. The shoulders should be pulled back slightly and locked into place. When weights get really heavy, it is not uncommon to see people get folded in half. This is dangerous and exhibits a lack of strength in the torso and muscles of the back. The torso needs to stay in it’s “Set” position during the drive up.

A good cue to help this process and avoid being tacoed, is to think about driving the shoulders up towards the ceiling. A lot of folks will tell you to drive the hips up, but often time the unsuspecting new squatter will find that is the thing that gets them folded in half. So, by driving the shoudlers up, the hips will naturally follow and the torso will stay upright, and lower back locked in nice angd tight. Exercises to strengthen the back to prevent the “squat taco” can deadlifts, rows, halting deadlifts, good mornings and variations thereof.

Head positioning is the last thing we look at. It has been common practice by many people to look up at the ceiling when coming up out of the hole. The thought being that it helps pull the athlete up and provides rigidity to the back. WRONG!

Whenever we are in a position to bear a heavy load, it is best done in a anatomically correct position with proper muscular tension distributed across the entire body to provide support. Test it – put a broomstick across your shoulders, squat down, do the “look at the ceiling” thing, stand up with your head this way. Then dump the broomstick and ask yourself, “is this really an anatomically correct position with my head cocked back like a Roman Fountain?” No, it’s not.

The head should be neutral. That means look straight ahead or even better, slightly down for the duration of the squat. Your head and neck should be in a natural extension of the spine. Think of holding a softball under your chin the whole way or having neck brace on. Once you set yourself into position under a heavy barbell, you lock the head in and correspondingly, the muscles of the back and around the spine lock in. This provides stability. By kinking the neck and staring at the ceiling, the musculature cannot maintain it’s maximal tension and you ask for the slightest bit of laxity and possible injury to happen. Don’t be that person…

In the first pic, Kelly is exhibiting all these issues. In the second pic, Kelly has them fixed and his squat is mature and strong. Be it an air squat or loaded barbell squat, the mechanics are exactly the same. It is absolutley imperative that your air squats are perfect in order to make a loaded squat strong and make you injury resistant and powerful.  Being that the squat is the primary basis of  human movement in one way or another, it would be wise to make sure your squats look like picture number 2 every time.

Deadlift Position

First of all, Annie Sakamoto is no slouch. She is one of the original hand trained CrossFit athletes by Greg Glassman in the Santa Cruz days and a phenomenal athlete and trainer. In this photo sequence, she demos a series of Deadlift positions to help ascertain what is good and not so good at an old CF Level 1 Cert.

Photo 1 – Actually a nice set up as far as I am concerned. The feet are directly under hips for maximal power transmission. The toes are turned out slightly to allow natural movement of the knee and subequently the hip. The bar is close to the shin, over midfoot, and is directly under the armpit. This places the bar directly under the scapula. For scientific reasons I’m not going into here, the bar will not come off the ground until the bar is directly under the scapula. From a sideview this will have the appearance of being under the armpit. From the athlete’s view, this will have the appearance of the arms being angled back slightly. The hips are up a bit adding some tension to the hamstrings and changing the impetus of the movement being too quad driven. The lower back is set nicely with the chest up and shoulders pulled back to maintain a strong thoracic spince which in turn transfers to maintaining the lumbar spine. The overall weight of the athlete is set at midfoot in the start position and upon starting the pull, will drive off the heel. The only thing I’d change here is to put the head in a neutral position. This will enhance the rigidity of the erector spinae muscles which in turn creates better power transfer up the kinetic chain and keeps the spine super stable. Some folks have referred to this as the “Texas Style DL”. It is a very good all around position to pull heavy weight from.

Photo 2- The bar is out in front of the shoulder and the torso is more upright. This position is similar to what many Oly lifters will use in their deadlift starting position, although the bar still wouldn’t be quite that far up the shin and out front  and there would be some other subtle positional changes to help the bar path move more efficiently into the second pull of an Olympic lift. Annie’s not in an Oly LIft DL set-up, she’s kinda caught in a funky limbo of two styles with points deducted for form, but it raises the topic.  Allow me to digress.

The more upright position of the Oly lift DL will place more empahsis on the quads and hips driving the pull and less on the hamstrings kicking it off. The toes will be out a bit more and so will the knees. Also, in the Oly DL, the head will be looking forward more. This actually won’t be a big deal if the torso is more upright to begin with since the head will actually be neutral and in line with the spine. Looking forward instead of down in this position also helps with balance and weight distribution throughout the Oly lift. This means the bar will usually “come up and over” better, whereas with a downward gaze you will find your bar and weight going out front more often than not.

Another thing to note in regards to difference between DL set up styles is the “bar under the scapula” thing. As Mark Rippetoe pointed out, the bar does not leave the ground until directly under the scapula. Now that means that in a upright Oly lift style DL, in all but the strongest lifters, the hips will rise up to a point similar to photo 1 which allows the body to get over the bar so it is directly under the scapula. So, in order to cut out wasted effort and energy, cut out the middle man and start with the ass up a bit. Get the hammies loaded up a bit sooner and contribute to the pull. Don’t forget, hip height will vary from person to person, dependent upon limb & torso length. So don’t put someone with long limbs in a position where the set up is “right”, but their lower back is compromised. But, I don’t want to start an argument here. Either way is fine, just be strong and strict with it and find a way that suits your athletic endeavors best. If you want to develop a strong high back Oly DL, start pulling from on top of a pulling platform. It’s a treat…

But going back to the picture, the way forward of center bar placement will pull the athlete forward onto the toes and may affect the bar path up. We want the bar to stay close to the body, as close to center line and the axis of rotation as possible, so it keeps lumbar torque low. With the knees out front and the bar tracing way out around them, force on the low back increases. Also, it appears the shoulders in the photo are “soft”, they are not set in a nice locked in position. This leads to a loose thoracic spine which will cause a loss of the lower lumbar arch under heavy loads.

Photo 3- This looks very typical of a heavy deadlift where the shoulder get “stapled” to the ground by the weight of the barbell. Just by looking at the photo, I would say the initial set up was probably okay. Then the athlete started their pull, the 400 Lb bar started to come up and lack of strength across the upper back, erectors, and lumbar spine caused the hips to rise up and the shoulders to get pulled down. Of course the hip set up could have been optimal, but lously flexibility in the hams and back could have caused the person to set up and start their pull looking like this. If they had a coach in the room, I would suggest hitting them in the head with a tack hammer for inability to see and fix the problem before their athelte blew a disc.  Either way, the end result would result in a seriously flexed lumbar spine under load. This is not good. The unequal pressure on the discs causes some bad stuff to happen and other soft tissue injuries are not far off either. This athlete will look like a cat in a sandbox and pull the weight up using the erectors and hammies now that the legs cannot contribute anymore since they are straightened out. The torque on the low back and spine will be gnarly and something will probably explode. The head’s in better position though!

Exercises like barbell rows, ring rows, pull up variations, stiff leg DL’s and halting deadlifts will help develop strength across the upper back, erectors and shoulder girdle so you don’t end up looking quite like this. Emphasis of “big chest”, locked in arch in the low back and retracted shoulders are the key to developing strength in these positions during the aforementioned exercises.

Photo 4- I don’t know how Annie got there, but let’s say she did. If it were the case, then the bar was started waaaay too far out front of the body and/or the athlete did not engage the lats to keep the bar in and close on the way up. The lats have a major role in the DL as they apply force against the bar to keep it close to the body. So many muscles are involved in the DL that you may not notice their contribution, but if they weren’t working you’d probably be in a wacky position like the photo as the bar drifted out and away. This bar in front position would absolutley kill your low back at any weight of note. Hell, you probably wouldn’t be getting up any weight of note since you’d be weak as hell in this position and no one in their right mind would let you in their gym to lift with this form.

There are probably other little things we could sit here and talk about all day. I geek out on this stuff, so don’t tempt me. But, suffice it to say, there are definitely a couple ways to set up a DL but both of them rely on solid back and spinal position, solid midline stability, and maximal power transfer from the lower body on up. The deadlift is highly systemic, meaning it taxes a lot of muscle groups. It takes a few days to recover from really heavy deadlifts, so don’t get stupid with them. Lift heavy and recover before doing it again, but always work on the previously mentioned form points to build a solid, strong body. How do you get good at deadlift? You do deadlifts…. And of course some ancillary movements to assist in the process.

The deadlift is like no other for bullding strong people. Like Mark Rippetoe says, “Strong people are harder to kill and more useful in general”.

Front Squat Positioning

So, in looking at the picture, everyone was able to cue in on the fact that the elbows are down instead of up. This leads to a host of problems throughout the movement.

If, be it for flexibility reasons or just bad form, the elbows are down the first thing that will happen is a forward placement of the bar in front of the midline of the base of support, in this case Maggie’s foot. This forward placement will cause the weight of the barbell to be out front of the body, thereby taxing the midline as it tries to stay upright and over the center of gravity. This stress on the midline, the inability to keep the chest up, elbows up and the back in an upright and extended position, deforms the squat and predisposes the athlete to improper ROM, faulty movement patterns and potential injury. The lower back is taken out of extension and begins to round as the shoulder girdle softens, thereby collapsing under load. In compensation, the neck extends forward at an odd angle to maintain neutrality and the weight is borne onto the toes. The wrists are supporting a large majority of the load, the front delts are working overtime and upon coming up out of the hole, the knees are experiencing shear forces acting upon them by the extra loading of the quads and forward placement of the weight.

Insofar as depth is concerned, the squat should be ass to ankles. Although, as Tom pointed out, the front squat is less reliant upon the hamstrings due to the change in torso/pelvic angle, the stress on the knees can be relieved to some degree by some involvement of the adductors and hammies with a full depth squat. The majority of the work is going to be from the quads and if the weight is placed nicely over center foot, the drive will come off the heel allowing the knees and surrounding musculature to work together in an efficient and safe manner. Stopping high not only reduces the reflexive properties of the muscles experienced at full ROM, but limits the amount of weight you can move. The Stretch Shortening Cycle of the muscles and the natural hamstring/calf contact bounce is safe and effective with squats.

The pic on the right has a nice set up in it, besides being a tad high in the squat. The bar is over midfoot, the elbows are up and that places the neck in a natural extension and the back in a proper extension. There is still a lot of midline work going on to keep that bar over the foot as she drives up, but not nearly as much as when the bar is out front. The coaching cue here being to “drive the elbows up toward the ceiling”. This keeps the torso upright and lumbar and thoracic spine in nice extension and strong as hell.

I can’t see precisely where the knees are, but from the angle in the pic it would seem they are in a bit too narrow. A little more outward flare of the toes and subsequently the knees, would allow more depth into the bottom of the squat by allowing the hips to open more at the bottom. This again helps recruit more muscle into moving the weight back up and would allow even a tad more of a vertical torso position and better weight displacement.

Warm up drills with PVC bar or thumbs in the collar bone “elbow up/chest up”  bottom of squat drills should induce a good stretch across the rear delts, triceps, and the mid back. It should almost feel as though the mid-back is about to cramp just below the shoulder blades. This is a good thing. Under load this tension will keep the spine happy and allow you to move heavy loads in the front squat.

In the case of poor flexibility, as in pic 1, all of the aforementioned problems are going to arise. So, if you have an athlete that is working on anterior chain development, you can have them work the front squat or transition them to a high bar “olympic style” back squat, keeping the torso as upright as possible. If front squats are your choice and the legs aren’t getting the work they should because the loading on the wrists and front delts prevent use of heavier weights then, and only then, can you do the stupid “cross your arms” front squat. Although I will ridicule you, you must still maintain the “elbows up/chest up” cues with this position to make the movement safe and effective.

So in order to get better at the front squat, you need to be flexible. Stretch not only the shoulders, but the lats and triceps, rhomboids and lower trapezius muscles in the back. Wrist felxibility helps to open the hand up and allow the elbows to come up since the hand is not “death gripping” the bar which puts tension in the forearm and reduces flexibility. Additionally, rolling out the back before and after workouts will help in developing the felxibility in the spine needed to maintain those upright and locked in positions.

There you have it, so go forth and conquer….or at least do some heavy front squats.

Status Check

CrossFit has changed the face of fitness through a myriad of ways. One of them being that it has turned fitness into a sport. We can pick a set of movements, define a set of rules, elicit a certain response, and quantify a work output to determine a fitter, faster person or team. Although many folks laugh at the notion of CrossFit being a sport, it’s really no different than Olympic weightlifting, powerlifting, or racquetball for that matter. They were all modes of fitness from which a spark of competition was derived.

Competition is a beautiful thing. As an athlete it is a proving ground and as as trainer it is also a means of validation. Since CrossFit has stepped into this realm and it’s trainers are now looked upon as coaches, it should be of no shock that any good CrossFit trainer should have the wherewithall to look at a competition and it’s results and objectively evaluate his/her athletes and their performances. A good coach pulls no punches. Yeah, it hurts but it makes you better now that you know the truth and you damn well won’t make the same mistake. The SacTown Throwdown offered me an opportunity to look at my athletes and myself, and make an honest assessment of where we are in relation to where we want to be. Keep in mind that I am super proud of all the CFC competitors who were at the event. But, I know as well as they do, that honest feedback is a necessary mechanism for improvement and without I am just cheating them into thinking all is well. So what did I see?

I saw great performances and PR’s. I saw people lifting weights they thought unattainable and pushing their metabolic limits as never before. I also saw chinks in the armor that can be fixed to improve those athletes, myself included, and take them to better athletic heights.

The men – Jon, Trent, Shaun and myself (Ian) – were for the most part strong. The strength work we have done was evident. However, so was the lack of attention to skill work. The men could move large loads but largely fell apart with Double Unders, a demanding skill that is often overlooked in training. The men did show good metabolic training and capacity in the second WOD and allof them posted very similar rep counts. Only a couple got called for shortened reps on pull ups, a situation that will be worked on to prevent further loss of effort and points. The second WOD showcased talent across cardio, weightlifting and gymnastic based movements and I was happy to see the performance was good from the CFC crew. The Clean & Jerk posed little problem for the men, however, the test of accuracy in touching a suspended tennis ball after jumping out of a burpee proved to be challenging. Nothing a little more focus work can’t fix.

My recommendation here is to pay more attention to the minute details that will make or break a competition. Skill work such as double unders, rope climbs, handstand push ups and the like will be of benefit later on. Some more heavy overhead work must be continued to increase ability overhead in many of the men.

Form and technique, full and proper ROM must be hammered home. Not only as some found with the pull ups, but I personally got called out, and rightfully so I might add, by Justin on my 215 Lb Thrusters. A winter of Olympic Weightlifting had taught my body the best way to get under a load was through triple extension and then jerking the weight overhead. Although it was subtle and I honestly had no idea I was doing it, it cost me the lift and an increased score. A second attempt proved futile as I was now re-configuring the movement in my head and couldn’t bring it together. This sure didn’t help my double unders, where my usual wasn’t any where nearby and I ended with a dismal 27 reps instead of the 60-70 I had hoped. Again, practice and attention to detail can remedy this.

The exception to the rule in the men’s team was Jon Rudnicki. I felt Jon’s ability was very well rounded and he showcased it very well. Jon blasted through the Thrusters and topped out easily at 215 Lbs for 3 reps. He then picked up a jump rope and blasted out 87 Double Unders.  Jon’s ability also was evident in the MetCon WOD where he moved continuously through the exercises with minimal issues. Jon’s been doing his homework and should stick with doing whatever it is he has been doing thus far. Nice work!

On the women’s side of things the lack of focused strength work appeared to be the primary shortcoming. Secondarily was the lack of skill work in the case of double unders. Those who could do them had an off day like myself. Again, more practice will lend itself to not having off days. The Thrusters were good, but insofar as athletic potential in Jennie, Kristy, Steph and Amy, they all can lift heavier, I know it. Getting on the bar and working heavy strict presses will help as will working handstand push ups on a regular basis. Continued emphasis on front and back squats and deadlifts will continue to pay dividends as many events tie pressing and squatting/deadlifting into each other.

The MetCon portion of the WOD was good, but lack of time working on Clean & Jerks was a limiter for the ladies. They all did them but with some more work can do even better at them. Metabolically their conditioning wasn’t far off the mark. They prove this time and time again with phenomenal effort in MetCon based WOD’s.  Continued high intensity effort and minimizing breaks in training will keep improving their abilities. Some more focus on gymnastic based work will help out tremendously.

It should be noted that all of the ladies kicked ass and PR’d on their lifts and efforts. That’s some great news.  Jennie, Kristy and Steph all PR’d on their strong points and made tremendous efforts at their weak points, often surprising themselves in the process. Amy had a bad back and still pushed it as best as possible. They are all very talented and driven individuals so it comes as no surprise. Now they have the means to take it up a notch!

In the end everyone did one helluva job, but I know as well as they do, they want to be better. In fact, they want to be the best. So, now we work on attaining that goal. It’s important that Allison, Andy, Scott and/or I tell the truth about flaws and weaknesses and work to improve them, yet still make sure we point out the positive.

I have tremendous faith and confidence in my CFC athletes as we prepare for the NorCal Qualifiers only 6 weeks away. They are open minded, motivated, dedicated and determined. They also know the right question to ask is not “what is it that they are doing better than us in their training?”, but rather “what is it that we can do better in our training?” Aim for excellence is the answer. Are you ready?