***Note – This is a repost from May 29th, 2013. Please enjoy!***
When telling a joke, setup is important. When constructing a wind and rain proof camp, setup is important. When writing a blog post on setup position, setup is important…
This post begins a series I will write on setup position for various lifts. I expect to have some videos for you, as well. My aim is to have you lifting more weight, moving it faster, and scoring higher – because I know you don’t care a whole lot about doing things right to prevent injury.
This first post will discuss the lift first and foremost in my heart: the squat. This lift is the foundation to every single other thing we do at Ktown. There is no greater developer of strength than a squat, and this point I am willing to defend to all those who disagree. The squat forces you to move your center of mass and quite often some type of external load through a large range of motion down and then back up. It requires a very strong core and hips. It will have you running faster, jumping higher, and throwing further than any other lift.
We squat a lot at Ktown. Because the hips are the prime engine of the body, and the squat is the prime worker of the hips, it only follows that we squat at least twice a week. And then there are all the other squats we do like the thrusters you performed today, air squats, lunges, step-ups, pistols, etc. So it is of the utmost importance that you not only squat correctly, but you squat well. It is easy to create some skeletal and/or muscular problems from loading incorrectly whether it be sequence or positioning. It is also easy to not realize your full potential because you simply set up incorrectly when performing the squat.
Most people understand creating tension before pulling a deadlift or clean, but a lot of you aren’t taking the same time and care setting up before taking that 300lb barbell out of the pins for a squat. That is ludicrous. I am going to convince you why and teach you how to brace your spine before squatting that heavy load.
Dr. Kelly Starrett, author of Becoming a Supple Leopard and total guru of all things fitness, gives three reasons for bracing your spine: 1) bracing your spine eliminates the possibility of a central nervous system injury – the kind of injury that will absolutely sideline you for a long time, 2) crappy spine positioning will rob you of positional flexibility in the prime movers which could further hurt your position, and 3) a disorganized spine will lead to mechanical compromises (bad) up and downstream in joints such as the shoulders, hips, and knees.
A lot of us don’t think in this fashion. Our knee hurts, so we address the knee. I like to think we have made Ktown more sophisticated than that and have you instead think up and downstream of the problem area. But are you thinking all the way up to the spine? If you have had the honor of going through our old Fundamentals or our new On Ramp, you know that we always talk about biasing in to a strong, safe position before performing any movement. And the beauty of the strongest position is that it is always the safest position as well – always!
So let me walk you through the four steps of the bracing sequence that you should be going through EVERYTIME before taking that bar out of the rack. I know some of you still wait until you have walked that bar out a couple steps before thinking about getting tight, but this is impossible. No one can reclaim a tight, braced position with 300lbs on their back; instead, you must get in to position first and then unrack the bar.
Stand up out of your (Paleo) chair and perform these steps with me:
Step 1) Set your pelvis. Place your feet underneath your hips and aim them straight ahead. Now squeeze your butt as hard as you can trying to screw those feet in to the ground. Go for peak tension here and hold it. Act like you’re trying to hold a dime between those cheeks. And now back it off to 50%. This will put your pelvis in a neutral position.
Step 2) Pull your ribcage down. It might be helpful to actually put your hands on the bottom front of your ribcage and physically pull them down. The idea here is that the ribcage will be neutral, just like your pelvis. Align both the pelvis and ribcage neutrally so that neither one is angled forward or back.
Step 3) Get your belly tight. Your glutes have set your pelvic position. Now you need to brace that position. So keep squeezing those glutes and then take a big diaphragmatic breath. Slowly exhale while engaging those abs. Think about shrink wrapping your whole torso around your spine. Do not suck your belly button in so much as just contract to peak tension.
Step 4) Head and shoulders. Now align your head over the rest of your body aiming for ears over hips over feet. Put your shoulder blades in your back pockets. This means that the shoulder blades are pulled back and DOWN. This will open the chest and collar bones. Now externally rotate those arms so that your thumbs point forward with your arms hanging down by your sides.
Congratulations! You are now in a braced spine position! This is the position you will need to be in to perform almost every movement at Ktown. This is also a normal human position. This is the position you should be in when waiting in line at Whole Foods. As Musashi says, “You’re fighting stance should be the same as your everyday stance.”
The trick with the squat is to maintain this position while getting under the bar, unracking, and walking it out. One helpful hint is to perform all four of these steps while already under the bar with it on your back, but not out of the rack. This way you are braced and ready to weight yourself by then taking it out of the rack. Simply maintain your position and tension as you stand it up. Continue squeezing your butt hard and keep your abs engaged as you take no more than one step with each foot back into position. Keep everything at peak tension as you descend and stand back up.
One mishap is to send the hips back by overextending the lumbar spine or anteriorly rotating the pelvis (tipping it forward). This is a good way to create some lower back pain. Erin Slocum forced me to become a better coach when she presented with this problem during squats at Ktown 1.0. The trick here is to keep those glutes and abs engaged so you cannot move the pelvis independently of the lumbar spine. Both of them should move together. The only hinges we want in a squat are all downstream of the lumbar-pelvic connection: hips, knees, and ankles. Nothing should happen above the pelvis.
Go forth and brace
Now you have a reproducible, all-encompassing strategy to set up for almost every movement we perform at Ktown. Just like working on posture throughout the day, working on setting up like this takes a lot of effort in the beginning. But if you want more strength, more power, more everything, this needs to be etched in your mind. Make this a habit as strong as brushing your teeth (and flossing, I hope). This will be even harder if you have ingrained poor movement patterns from previous training or everyday life. Put some mental and physical sweat in to making this your default position!