Fitness
Mar 23rd, 2013

Knees in Front of the Toes on the Squat

Reminder: I will be holding a Starting Strength Camp on the low bar back squat tomorrow, Sunday, March 23rd, from 1 PM till 5 PM. I still have a few spots open. Sign ups and additional info can be found at the Aasgaard Company Store.
 

Jo Ann Clean

Jo Ann receiving a clean in a full depth front squat. Note that her knees are in front of her toes and that her shins are inclined. This segment arrangement keeps her from falling backwards and maintains an upright torso, both of which are necessary for a recovery from a clean.

People often suggest that squatting is bad for the knees. I am not, however, going to address that assertion in much detail this evening. Suffice to say that I disagree and I would sincerely enjoy hearing an explanation for how a properly executed, full depth squat is dangerous to knee health. Said explanation should involve a thorough treatment of knee anatomy and a look at the forces encountered by the knee during a squat. Enough about that.

Instead, we’ll take a brief look at where the knee should end up during the squat, particularly with respect to the toes. When I talk about knee position, think about a plumb bob (I like that word) tied to a string hanging off the front of the knee. The position of that plumb bob above the ground is that in which we are interested.

Let’s address a commonly voiced concern – the knees should not be allowed to travel in front of the toes while squatting. Due to varying segment lengths among trainees, the position of the knee will not be the same for everyone. However, for a large majority of lifters, the knee can and probably should travel in front of the toes by the time they are about half way down in the squat. The biggest reason for this is balance. Try this for yourself – squat with as vertical a shin angle as you can. Not very easy is it? You have to lean pretty far forward to counteract the vertical shin, if you can even maintain such a configuration. Allowing the knees to come forward in front of the toes allows a trainee to keep their center of mass, which closely approximates the barbell at heavy weights, over the middle of the foot, which is also the point of balance for human beings.

How far forward the knees travel will be a function of segment lengths and the type of squat being performed.  Low bar back squats have less forward travel than high bar back squats which have less travel than the front squat. Some are concerned that when the knees travel in front of the toes, the patellar ligament will undergo undue strain. Provided that the hamstrings are properly engaged in a strong isometric contraction (ahem… as happens during a low bar squat), the forces along the anterior and posterior aspects of the femur are very nicely balanced. Remember that the patellar ligament inserts on the tibia and the tendons of the hamstrings also insert on the tibia and fibula. Things work out nicely that way.

Allowing the knee enough forward travel in the squat allows a trainee to stay in balance and also provides the quadriceps additional opportunity to aid with standing back up. The eventual position of the knee with respect to the toe will vary from trainee to trainee. A vertical shin is not necessary in a squat and is not possible for most trainees without a very wide stance, or the use of a box to contact at the bottom of the movement.

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Mar 16th, 2013

Upcoming Starting Strength Training Camps

Squat.jpg

Connie at one of the first camps I held at the Doyle Street location. Photo courtesy of the lovely and talented Kelly Powers.

I will be holding three Starting Strength Training Camps in the coming five weeks at the CFO Emeryville location. The first one on the low bar back squat occurs next Sunday. For those of you who’d like a longer introduction to the basic strength lifts, these camps are an excellent way to do it. We generally spend about five hours at each camp discussing and then practicing the various lifts in a controlled and unrushed environment. If you are interested, you can sign up through the Aasgaard Company website. The camps are below with links to sign ups and more information for each one:

Low Bar Back Squat – Sunday, March 24 – $135
Deadlift and Power Clean – Sunday, March 31 – $160
Press and Bench Press – Sunday, April 21 – $160

Each of the events start at 1 PM and are limited to eight participants to make sure that attendees get plenty of attention. The squat camp normally wraps up by 5:00 or 5:30 and the camps with two lifts will often go until 6:00 or 6:30 in the evening. I hope to see you there.

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Feb 23rd, 2013

More About Belts

Belt

Back in the fall of 2010, I wrote an article on the use of weightlifting belts. I would encourage those interested in the topic to read it when you get a chance. I won’t repeat the entire article today, but will remind readers of a few points.

The belt is an external aid to lifting weights that increases the rigidity of the torso. It does this by providing the abdominals an external resistance against which they can contract. When combined with a strongly held breath using the Valsalva maneuver, your torso can more efficiently communicate the force generated by the lower body to the bar. The second sentence in this paragraph is important and bears repeating. The primary purpose of the belt is to provide your abdominals something against which they can brace. A belt is not designed to support the back, at least not directly. If a trainee cannot keep their spine from overextending, flexing, or otherwise wiggling around, a belt will not save them. A trainee must be able to lift properly before introducing a belt into the proceedings.

When a trainee first begins lifting, most of their energies are spent on learning the gross motor patterns of the movement. There is plenty to keep track of and any additional variables, such as a belt, serve as a distraction instead of an aid. As training progresses and technique begins to solidify, the musculature is forced to adapt to handle heavier loads. During this time a belt is still probably best left out so that a trainee can learn to effectively engage the trunk musculature and hold the spine in proper extension throughout the movements. If a trainee is just learning the movements, or has not started to handle heavier weights, it is best lift without a belt.

What are heavier weights? That varies based on age and bodyweight, but some generalities can be made. Realize that these numbers are not set in stone. If you are a woman and your work sets on the squat are around 150 pounds, or if you are a man and your work sets are somewhere near 300 pounds, then a belt would not be out of place. These numbers get revised downward the older a trainee is, the lighter they are, or if they have a back injury.

Above I wrote that a belt is not designed to directly support the back, yet I suggested that those who suffered a back injury may want to lift with a belt. A belt doesn’t prop anyone up and it will not substitute for proper form. However, if a trainee can use their abdominals properly in a squat, the belt will amplify their ability to utilize the trunk musculature to keep the spine from moving under a load. The spinal erectors in conjunction with the abdominals keep the train on the tracks. The belt provides an extra layer of support to hold everything in place. If you hurt your back, this is a good thing.

Belts are wonderful. They are a popular and essential piece of gear in the strength training arsenal. They should not be used in the early phases of a trainee’s career because they will primarily get in the way. After getting some experience and strength and once proper form has been established, then a belt can be considered.

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Feb 19th, 2013

Mune Competes in the USAPL

115 kg squat

Mune performing a textbook low bar back squat with 115 kg (253.5 lbs)

Mune and I traveled to sunny Southern California this weekend to compete in the 2013 USA Powerlifting (USAPL) California State Championships. Mune went down there to lift and I was there as her coach. The USAPL is one of the largest powerlifting organizations in the country and it is affiliated with the International Powerlifting Federation (IPF), one of the largest powerlifting organizations in the world. There are plenty of powerlifting events available locally, but successfully competing in this meet meant that Mune would be eligible to compete in the 2013 USAPL Raw Nationals which will take place in Florida in July. "Successfully competing" in this case meant that Mune needed at least one successful attempt at a squat, bench press, and deadlift.

Before we continue, I should provide a little context. Powerlifting meets are judged events where participants attempt to lift the maximum amount of weight in the squat, bench press, and deadlift. Competitors are given three tries at each lift. The sum of the highest successful attempt for each lift is calculated to produce a total. That total is often further manipulated via various equations to allow for lifters of different bodyweights to be more directly compared. In a meet, you can never call for less weight to be put on the bar. That is, you must declare an opening weight for the lift. If you miss that lift, you have two options – stay at the same weight, or add weight to the bar. If you cannot make at least one of your three attempts for the contested lifts, you are disqualified from the meet. Therefore, some strategy is involved in picking appropriate weights. You want to successfully complete your opening lifts because it won’t get any easier going forward.

The evening before the meet, Mune and I came up with a plan for each of her three attempts on the lifts. She masterfully executed that plan and made eight of her nine attempts. Her best lifts were as follows:

Squat:  115 kg (253.5 lb)
Bench:  52.5 kg (115.7 lb)
Dead:  115 kg (253.5 lb)
Total:  282.5 kg (622.8 lb) 

Mune weighed in at 109 lbs and competed in the 52 kg (114 lb) weight class. She bench pressed 6 pounds over her bodyweight and squatted and deadlifted 2.32 times her bodyweight. Her opening attempt on her squat exceeded the third attempts of everyone in her flight up through the 60 kg (132 lb) weight class, or the two weight classes above her. That’s pretty damn cool. Mune won her weight class and came very close to taking the best lifter award. The results from the meet have yet to be published, but I suspect she came in second or third overall. It was an impressive performance.

Having successfully totaled in this meet, Mune can now go on to compete in Orlando, FL at the Raw Nationals. Jennifer Thompson, who I wrote about earlier, has been a participant in that contest in years past. Best of luck to Mune as she prepares for that meet.

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Jan 26th, 2013

Jennifer Thompson Redux

How the bench press is done

I wrote about Jennifer Thompson a little over a year ago and decided it is time to talk about her again. She’s an accomplished strength athlete who holds all of the Raw American records for her weight class (60kg/132lb) in the USA Powerlifting (USAPL) federation. She squatted 316 pounds, bench pressed 301 pounds, and deadlifted 430 pounds.  All of that was done in 2012 by this 39-year old mother of two who makes her living as a middle school math teacher and claims to be drug free for her entire career. Did I mention that she trains in her basement gym and that she almost never misses training days? Thompson is impressive.

The video above comes from the 2010 USAPL Raw National Championships and is an example of extraordinary lifting. Firstly, she bench presses 292 pounds quickly and confidently with a pause at the bottom. That is better than 2.2 times her bodyweight. Think about that for a moment.

Of special interest is how Thompson approaches the lift. She doesn’t carry on, do lots of screaming, stomp around, or otherwise turn into an uncontrolled, self-absorbed performance artist. Instead, she sits down on the bench, briefly composes herself, and then dominates the bar in no uncertain terms. Further, after completing what is an impressive physical feat, she neglects to engage in self-aggrandizement, or remind the audience that she is number one. Instead, she smiles and then thanks each of her spotters before quickly stepping off the platform.

In most powerlifting meets, the bench press is done with a pause at the bottom. You can hear the head judge issue the "start, press, and rack" commands. This is to eliminate any chance of a bounce off the ribcage at the bottom. Much like lifting your butt off the bench is a reason for disqualifying the lift, so is bouncing the bar off the chest. While not the safest of practices, using the ribcage as a trampoline is also a good way to avoid getting strong through the initial portion of the bench press.

Not only are the numbers Thompson moves on the bench press incredible, she gets style points, too. She doesn’t make a scene, she just gets the work done. There is no indulgent carrying on. She plants her feet flat on the ground and performs a lift that everyone would recognize as solid bench press without the aid of bench press shirts or other assistive gear. After the lift is done, she stands up and goes on her way. There’s an awful lot of awesome packed into the forty five seconds of that video. It is full of ideas that can be applied to training and how we approach the lifts. I’m a fan.

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Dec 29th, 2012

Things to Read Before 2013

Michael Squat

Michael performing the exercise of the year to the proper depth.

As January approaches, journalists often pen "Best of the Year" articles involving the number 10. While I know that you would truly appreciate reading my "Ten Best Firming and Toning Exercises" post, I have instead decided to recycle previous articles I have written because I am very lazy. I will, however, share with you the best exercise of 2012.

It is… wait for it… The Squat.

Yes, the squat is the single best exercise of 2012, just as it has been, since, well, hominids became bipedal. Depending upon who you listen to, that started somewhere around four to six million years ago. If we really wanted to be safe, we could say that we were full time bipeds by a little less than two million years ago when Homo erectus took their first steps in the world.

Air squats are fine, but squatting with a weight on your back is what truly develops strength. Barbells came into usage somewhere around the mid 19th century. Plate loaded barbells followed sometime in the late 19th to early 20th century. For over 100 years we, as a species, have had access to these wonderful tools and it is my pleasure to report that the barbell squat is still the king of exercises. You can now sleep easier. I sure will.

Now for the promised recycling of previous postings. Since some will have traveled or been unable to get to a gym for a period, I would direct you to an almost two-year old article entitled Coming Back from a Layoff in Training.

On the first workout back, go very easy. Scale weights and repetitions to the point that your pride is insulted. That will be the correct starting point. Some soreness will still result and that is fine. The object is to avoid crippling soreness that serves to discourage another return to the gym.

Next up is an article from earlier this year.  After returning to the gym, it is time to build momentum and make gains. Showing Up is a worthwhile read in this regard.

I mentioned in various postings on this site that strength is built slowly. It also tends to erode more slowly when a layoff occurs than something like cardiovascular fitness. However, when you stop training, you start to get weaker. Getting weaker is the opposite of progress and we want to avoid it whenever possible.  Thus we return to the point. If you want to improve, you must first show up. Again and again. Whether you feel like it, or not.

Lastly, I will close my last article of 2012 with a reposting of Dr. Jonathan Sullivan’s excellent article on the importance of weight training. Read Barbell Training is Big Medicine. If you already read it, read it again. Then send it to a friend. Here is a sample from the article.

This is an increasingly prevalent phenotype of aging in America and other industrialized nations: a living hell of progressive weakness, obesity, inactivity, shrinking horizons, sexual impotence, decreased expectations, mounting despair, a growing list of expensive drugs, learned helplessness, sickness, and pain. It’s being "All Done At Sixty"…or Fifty. It’s a life of waiting to die from a skin infection or a broken hip or a blot clot, of needing a stupid little fucking go-cart to get from here to there, of not being able to reach your own ass to wipe it, of narcotizing yourself with alcohol, cigarettes, American Idol and Doritos so you don’t have to face your own grim existence as a slowly rotting Jabba The Hut. I see it every day. We call it "old-itis." A joke, I guess, but an obscene one. This gruesome avatar of aging offends the eye, the mind, and the spirit, and it cries out for both compassion and correction. Strength training is a macroscopic growth factor, countersignalling all of this evil shit.

This is not my wishful extrapolation of cellular phenomena to the human sphere. It’s a medical observation, supported by study after study. Research with elderly subjects indicates that resistance training improves overall function and strength, enhances bone density and balance adaptations, and improves the metabolic profiles and glycemic control of patients with type 2 diabetes. A landmark 2008 study of nearly 9000 men followed for an average of nearly nearly 20 years showed that muscular strength is inversely associated with death from all causes, even when adjusting for fitness and cardiovascular health.

I wish you a safe and productive New Year that is rich in strength, happiness, and quality of life.

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Dec 22nd, 2012

Socks Make Better Deadlifters

Deadlift

Kelly modeling proper deadlifting attire.

We are going to explore how a single article of clothing can aid the deadlift and in the process make us better people. Since Polonius suggested, "Brevity is the soul of wit," I, too, will get to the point. You should wear long socks that come up to right below the knee every time you deadlift. This will allow you to use better form, lift more weight, avoid abrasion, and protect your fellow trainees in the gym.

As always, performance is of greatest interest. When a trainee pulls a heavy bar off the floor, it needs to be as close to the point of balance of the lifter-barbell system as it can. This allows for an efficient pull and for the most weight to be lifted. In this case, that point of balance is the middle of the foot. The middle of the foot is actually right around where the navicular meets the cuneiform bones, which is to say, quite close to the lower leg. Upon approaching a barbell, a trainee will have the bar over the midfoot when it is approximately one inch from the shin. This is from where the deadlift should start and the bar should not be moved forward from this point.

Now that the stance is established, the trainee grips the bar and drops the hips until the shins come in contact with the bar. Since the trainee knows that the midfoot is the balance point of the lift, they wisely avoid pushing the bar forward with the shins during this process.

Here is where the socks come in handy. An efficient pull is one that moves in a straight line and uses the musculature in such a way that every muscle that can contribute to the lift is called into contraction. When the bar comes off the floor, it needs to be in contact with the legs the whole way up. When this occurs, the quadriceps can be fully utilized to help with the lift while maintaining the highly coveted vertical bar path over the balance point. If the shins are not protected during the lift, a trainee is highly likely to break the skin covering the bony ridge of the tibia and, if they are particularly lucky, they will begin to bleed. This will often happen even if they narrow their stance to avoid the abrasive knurling on the bar.

A nice, long pair of socks prevents this unfortunate situation. Abrading the shins and bleeding on the bar does not make anyone feel any better during what is already a very uncomfortable lift. Continuing to drag the bar up unprotected legs over the course of multiple training sessions can repeatedly reopen the wound, courting infection and scarring. Further, bleeding on the bar makes a mess and subjects other trainees to the risk of infection from whatever blood-borne illnesses the lifter may be carrying around. Wearing long socks during deadlifts, or really any pull, is an act of kindness and respect towards your fellow trainees.

Keeping the bar in contact with the legs on the deadlift allows for proper positioning during the lift and the optimal usage of the musculature. Wearing long socks makes this easier to achieve through the prevention of abrasion and bleeding. The socks protect the lifter from the bar and other trainees from the lifter. If you don’t own long socks, buy a few pairs and keep them with you when you come to the gym. You will lift better and do everyone else a favor by just wearing one article of clothing. Merry Christmas and Happy Deadlifting.

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Dec 11th, 2012

Starting Strength Squat Camp – December 23

Squat Camp

A picture from the first squat camp I held back at the CFO location on Doyle Street. Photo credit: Kelly Powers.

I will be holding a Starting Strength Training Camp on the low bar back squat on Sunday December 23rd. The proceedings will begin at 1:00 PM and continue until around 5:00 PM, or until people get tired of asking questions. We will begin with a discussion of the mechanics and anatomy at work during the squat and then move on to warm ups and a full squat workout. The class is limited to eight participants and we go around the room one by one while I coach the work sets. Once the squatting is done, we cool down, stretch, and return to a discussion about strength programming and injury prevention. The afternoon ends with a question and answer session.

If you are struggling with squat technique and want to improve your strength, this is a good opportunity to spend some time on this exercise in an unhurried environment. The cost for the camp is $125. Sign ups and additional details can be found at the Aasgaard Company Store.

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Nov 24th, 2012

Dr. Jonathan Sullivan on the Importance of Strength Training

Starting Strength Series : Jonathon Sullivan from Stef Bradford on Vimeo.

Back in October, I was lucky enough to see Dr. Jonathan Sullivan give a talk on the importance of strength training at the Starting Strength Coaches Association Meeting. Sullivan is Attending Physician at Detroit Receiving Hospital Emergency Department, and Associate Director of the Cerebral Resuscitation Laboratory at Wayne State University. He has also become a big advocate for barbell training. The talk he gave that weekend is now available to the world at large. The video is just under an hour long and is well worth the time spent watching it. It is a substantial and occasionally profane discussion of how training for strength might be the best thing you can do for yourself. Here is a little snippet from around the 20-minute mark:

The default mode of a metazoan cell, of the cells that we all have, is not to live, but to die. Without growth factors, they will. Conversely, if you take a cell and you insult it with radiation, or a toxin, or a free radical, or something that will cause it to kill itself, you can rescue it. You can talk it off the ledge by administering growth factors. I, along with a lot of other people have now published a lot of material in the literature saying that the administration of high dose growth factors after a stroke or cardiac arrest, at least in certain models, will rescue brain cells.

What’s happening here is you are getting older. You are in a state of physiologic, senescent growth factor withdrawal. You just don’t make as much as much growth hormone and IGF-1 as you used to. Aging is characterized by atrophy. When we squat and our bodies squirt a bunch of IGF-1 and human growth hormone into our system, we are counter-signaling that. That to me is a profound effect. That’s what got my attention. It’s a way for me to self-administer growth factors and to tell all the cells in my body, “Hey, we’re still in this game.” It’s a way for me to send survival factors to all the tissues of my body. It’s just hugely profound.

The video was originally published over at Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength Website and discussion of it, along with responses from Sullivan can be found here and here. Sullivan’s other articles at the Starting Strength site, Barbell Training is Big Medicine and Stopping the Spread of Misinflammation are also not to be missed. Enjoy the video and remember to do your squats.

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Nov 6th, 2012

Rippetoe Invitational Meet Results

WichitaFalls.jpg

Rippetoe Invitational Competitors

This weekend, a group of five CrossFit Oaklanders climbed on a plane to fly to Dallas and then drove to a town near the Texas/Oklahoma border to lift some weights. Kelly, Dan, Greg, Michael, and I signed up to compete in the Rippetoe Invitational Meet that was held on November 3rd in Wichita Falls, TX at the Wichita Falls Athletic Club (WFAC). WFAC is owned by strength coach and author of Staring Strength, Mark Rippetoe. Back when Rippetoe was associated with CrossFit, he developed the now-widely-used CrossFit Total to measure the strength of trainees. A CrossFit Total is roughly the equivalent of a powerlifting meet with the exception that the bench press has been replaced by the shoulder press, referred to only as "the press" for the rest of this article. Rippetoe adapted his original Total and expanded it into a set of rules for the meet. All of the lifters were allowed three attempts to establish a one-repetition maximum in the squat, press, and deadlift, in that order. Once everyone completed all of their squat attempts, we moved on to the press, and so forth. Eighteen lifters participated, of which just under 30% came from our gym. Northern California was well represented at the meet.

In many powerlifing meets, lifters are arranged into groups called flights that roughly correlate to weight classes. A flight will often have between 10 and 15 people in it so that you have reasonable rest times between each attempt. Everyone performs their first attempts and then the same order is repeated twice more. This meet was run more like an Olympic weightlifting meet where the bar never got lighter. This meant that the lifting order was set solely by attempt selection. Instead of having 10 or 15 minutes between each attempt, you might be following yourself if the next lifter was lifting more than you. Getting two minutes of rest between attempts changes how you approach the meet and how you call for attempts.

All of the competitors from our gym are long-time participants in my Strength Saturday classes. Kelly came up with the idea to compete in the Rippetoe meet and the others liked it and signed on. It is hard to believe that so many people were willing to go to Texas to lift. I consider myself fortunate to coach such a dedicated group.  Everyone lifted very well and several PRs were hit along the way. Of special note was Kelly’s performance. She overcame a potentially career-ending back injury last year and returned not only to lifting, but to competing as well. Without further ado, here is what everyone lifted in order of squat, press, and deadlift with all weights in pounds.

Dan: 410, 209.4, 470
Greg: 270, 110.2, 375
Michael: 255, 130, 345
Kelly: 225, 88.2, 260
Tom: 385, 169.8, 480

Greg earned second place in his weight class, Michael got third, Kelly got second, and I got first. There were no subcategories for age. The meet was a unique and rewarding experience and the trip was fun from beginning to end. Competition is a wonderful thing, as is spending time with your friends.

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