The good old traditional barbell back squat is often referred to as the ‘king’ of lower-body exercise. Paul Edmondson explains how to increase squat performance and bulletproof your clients’ bodies in the process.
While the barbell back squat is part of a staple diet among clients’ programmes in the weights room, injury rates, strapped knees and low back supports are as commonplace as ever. So, if such a king of exercises has such a high body breakdown/injury rate, the question is, “Does it really deserve its title as the king of lower-body exercise?”
First of all, we have to step back and take a look at our programming before we jump on the exercise and slate it. What’s great for one person could be contraindicated for someone else, or they may not have the physical preparedness to execute what you are asking of them right now.
How many trainers out there can relate to this? You take your client through their warm-up and the first main session exercise is the barbell back squat – and, no matter how many demos you show or teaching points you give, it just doesn’t go well/look great. With good hearts and knowing what a great exercise it is, we persist because of the following benefits:
Increased anabolic hormone production – HGH, testosterone and IGF-1, which ladders up to muscular hypertrophy/tone and decrease in body composition (body fat)
- Improved intra- (in the muscle) and inter- (between groups of many muscles) muscular co-ordination
- Increased motor unit activation, which leads to more accessible muscle recruitment and strength adaptations
- Increased mobility/stability and strength in the hip, knee and foot/ankle joints – in the ranges that you train themWhile the exercise and its benefits are undoubtedly awesome, our clients and ourselves often lack the prerequisite of ‘functional mobility’ in the key areas of the body involved in the fancy exercises we are prescribing to our clients – in this case, the barbell back squat.
Building functional mobility to help your squat
The following areas to zone in on to build functional mobility are:
1. Good ankle dorsiflexion
2. A mobile hip capsule that allows for depth (vertical translation) of the squat
3. A thoracic spine that can bear load placed upon it and has great spinal extension integrity
Functional mobility is defined as the expression of motion permitted within a specific joint (freedom to explore all of its ‘space’) – the more space, the more freedom the joint has to move. Connected to the above (and always forgotten) is that once the ‘space’ has been acquired, you must now put ‘force’ through that space (progressively) to teach the nervous system to own and control movement for long-term success.
Note that we are primarily concerned with mobilising the ‘joints’ involved in the movements and NOT the muscles. The reason for this is that in any/all movements, the joints move first as you execute the task – here, the squat – and the muscles react to control/decelerate the movement. Muscles react, they do NOT act, to cause the movement.
When we seek to expand ranges within joints (ankle, hip and t-spine here), first of all we must offer the client outside support (stability) – think fixed hands, fixed feet. Four points of contact means you are very stable and, if you are stable, you can exhibit the maximal amount of motion that you can muster.
If you want more mobility, you must offer stability (the physiology behind this is that the brain’s perception of falling over/losing balance has been taken away so, as the ‘governor’ of the movement system, you allow for relaxation and permission for maximal available motion).
Once stability has been offered (here via wall and floor), the success is now down to the ability to drive a different body part because movement is subconscious (the task to squat is conscious, but how the body moves and responds thereafter is subconscious and we must use this same truth when reacquiring mobility in the body to be able to use it authentically).
Now mobility has been improved, this is and always should be an ongoing process. Think of it as part of your warm-up routine from now on, to keep the joint healthy and from degrading again (like brushing your teeth for your joints); we now must teach the body how to control these motions or exhibit strength in these ranges so that it can execute the task and be robust in the process.
It’s as simple as gradually taking the points of contact away – here, from four to one point of fixed contact, so now the whole body is moving upon the trained/assessed joint and, if it can absorb the body’s entire weight/force, you are theoretically now ‘cleared’ to safely begin ‘loading’ (always progressively and safely of course) your squat.
Train movement (mobility, stability, strength) at the body’s key joints before you jump into the exercise and watch as your client reaps the rewards every time
Want to learn more from Paul? Check out his blog on Functional hypertrophy – theory and practical application.
Paul Edmondson is a dedicated leader within the fitness industry, having worked with, and for some of the leading pioneers and biggest brands in the world both nationally and globally. Paul has presented in 24 countries, over 5 continents on behalf of Gray Institute, ViPR, TRX, Anatomy Trains, Trigger Point, SKLZ, institute of Motion and at the IDEA World conference. His thought-provoking sessions are designed to bridge the gap between the traditional and new sciences to better equip trainers to serve their unique and individual clients. Paul takes pride in delivering complex content in a simplified and application specific manner that is perfect for trainers wanting to learn more, and is determined to drive forward those he works with to help them become “better versions of themselves”