This is going to be Part II of a blog series on the CrossFit Ktown On Ramp program. If you missed Part I, please go back and read it in all its glory.
The first blog post in this series gave you all of the gritty details about the air squat. This is the first movement we teach new athletes. It is the foundational trunk of the fitness tree to use a metaphor from the previous post. If we try to add more nuance without laying that initial groundwork, the addition is oftentimes lost forever. So we make sure the athlete understands the conceptual nature of the air squat, how to generate torque at the hip to help weld the pelvis and lumbar spine together, and can demonstrate a proper squat.
Now what is a proper squat? Can everyone be lumped into one squat category? Of course we cannot expect every person to perform the air squat the exact same as everyone else. The ideal squat is a moving target. We have some people in our On Ramp that begin by sending their butts back until they touch a wall just a few inches away from their person. This athlete might progress to sitting down to a tall box. The athlete might even progress to sitting down to and standing up from a chair. Other athletes might have great flexibility, body control, and strength, which allow them to begin squatting to depth and with thoughtful nuance right away. We meet you where you are no matter where that happens to be!
After finishing the air squat instruction we head over to the squat rack. Going from the bodyweight movement of the air squat to the weighted movement of the back squat forces us to consider a few more principles of movement. Understand this, it is not glamorous to have people set up and create peak tension for an air squat or push-up even though they should. People just do not like doing it. However, now that we are discussing loading our backs with weight, we can create much more appreciation for an organized, neutral spine while moving. Before we even put the athlete under the barbell we discuss the proper load ordering: stance, then butt/pelvis, then ribcage, then abs, and then shoulders.
We go through the load ordering a few times without the barbell on our backs, and then we step under the barbell in a squat position and prepare to take it out of the rack. The appropriate stance is the one with which you use to squat, no wider, no narrower, and definitely not a split stance. If you are an athlete chasing performance and are still unracking the barbell in a split stance, you are leaving a lot of performance on the table. Next, we have the athletes squeeze their glutes. By squeezing the butt, the athlete sets the pelvis in a neutral position and begins the process of welding the pelvis to the lumbar spine. The next piece to the load-ordering puzzle is setting the ribcage and thoracic spine. This simply means the athlete’s pelvis and rib cage should line up; or, put another way, if the pelvis and ribcage were two separate cylinders, they should be parallel to each other. We then move to the abdominal wall and discuss how it acts as shrink-wrap to increase intra-abdominal pressure around your spine. This sets the spine up in the strongest, and safest position. The final step before unracking the barbell is to set the head and shoulders into neutral positions. The spine runs from tailbone to skull, so it is important to maintain neutrality for the entire length.
Now get ready, because we are about to unrack the unweighted barbell several times to get a feel for the bracing sequence and how to extend the hip with the glutes. So when the athlete is ready we give the cue to squeeze her butt as she extends her legs – this is commonly referred to as standing up. The problem is that a lot of people stand up incorrectly, and a lot more people unrack the barbell for squats poorly. If we are going to keep our braced position it is important to continue to squeeze the glutes and abs while standing up. This ensures that our safest, strongest position we assumed under the barbell is maintained as we take it out of the rack. This is a good thing to do because we are now loading the athlete with external load, and one day that external load may be of the really stinking heavy variety. We then continue to cue the tension as the athlete takes a couple of steps back. We again cue the same tension as the athlete begins to squat down and up. And this is where another layer of nuance is given.
Bending at the hips and knees simultaneously with a bar on your back (back squatting) requires a neutral spine. Everyone knows that by now. And everyone also knows that you should not round forward (flexion) while squatting. But what a lot of people do not realize is that bowing your back the other way (extension) is just as bad. Some athletes are taught to do this in order to “get tight.” And while extension of the spine is important for “getting tight,” it must be balanced by flexion forces and pelvis position. So if the athlete begins her descent by sticking her butt out and anteriorly rotating her pelvis, she is now in the dreaded over-extended position. This is a bad position to be in for many reasons. One, it is unsafe. Movement of the spine under compressive load is almost always bad. It might not cause catastrophic injury on rep 1 or even 1,000, but at some level damage is occurring. Two, it is not performance enhancing. If you want to squat heavier weight or perform the squat faster/powerfully, this position will inhibit your progress. So if safety is not glamorous, maybe you can be persuaded to change your faulty squatting patterns for the sake of performance.
So we not only cue the On Ramp athletes to contract their glutes while standing the barbell up out of the rack, but we also have them continue contracting the glute muscles during the flexion (negative) and extension (positive) portions of the squat. This keeps the pelvis and lumbar spine welded together in a neutral position which in turn keeps the athlete safe and improves performance both in the short and long term. But the contracting of the glutes do not just keep the pelvis in a good position, it also establishes an external rotation force of the femur that takes care of a lot of downstream issues covered in Part One of this series.
Depending on the athletes training history and performance thus far, we make a decision to remain at the empty barbell or add some weight as we progress through another few sets of five. It is important that the athlete is aware of the importance of removing the barbell from the rack properly. One day, when she has 300lbs on the bar, she will be unable to create proper setup tension before she squats if she removes the barbell poorly – like in a split stance (gasp!). It is also important that the athlete begins to understand the intricacies of hip hinging for the purposes of future squats and pulling like deadlifts, cleans, and snatches.
And so once again I have run to 1,200 words and wish to leave the push-up and ring row to the next installment. We have delved deeply into squatting with these first two blog posts, and I look forward to having a discussion about upper body movement very soon.