Thursday, August 17, 2017

Try this Hack to Get Bigger


While I've previously explained that stretching seldom helps improve your flexibility in the long term, there are some benefits that come from stretching. This exciting study from 2015 done by Miranda et. al. tested stretching as a means for increasing training volume (the number of repetitions performed in a set or session) in the wide-grip seated row exercise. There were two groups of participants, both of whom performed three sets to failure with two minutes of rest in between sets. The only difference between the groups was that the experimental group performed 40 seconds of a passive pectoralis major stretch at the end of their allotted rest periods. The idea here was to stretch the antagonist (opposing) muscles.

What the experimenters found was fascinating: there was a statistically significant difference in the antagonist stretching group. Those participants performed more repetitions in all three sets. Additionally, the experimental group demonstrated greater contractions in the latissimus dorsi and the biceps brachii muscles.
 

While this particular study only tested one exercise, it is likely that we can utilize this concept with other movements to reap similar benefits. For instance, in doing a bench press, you could stretch the latissimus dorsi. Before your set of leg curls, stretch out your quadriceps. You get the idea. This hack can help you get more training volume, which will ultimately result in greater hypertrophy (muscle growth)!

The mechanisms behind these findings are still unclear. My guess would be that stretching the antagonist muscles would allow for greater range of motion throughout the exercise, and thus, a stronger contraction in the agonist muscles. For example, the pecs have to stretch during the top of the rowing exercise. A bigger stretch in the pecs could possibly allow for the lats to generate a stronger contraction.

Static stretching before a set may be disadvantageous for power production, and thus, I do not prescribe it before movements like the clean and jerk. However, in a bodybuilding routine, there may be some added bonuses to stretching during rest periods to accumulate more total training volume.
This concept has not yet been applied to strength-based movements, but it could be an interesting point for experimentation on your own before the big lifts. Give this trick a try and see how you like it!

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The 4 Exercises that Your Shoulders Hate



It is common for a lifter to seek boulder shoulder status. While having protruding, rounded shoulders certainly looks nice, the shoulders are very vulnerable to injury. The demands of a sedentary, desk-ridden society already makes our shoulders unhappy, and if you translate this dysfunction into the gym, you're gonna have a bad time.

I have dealt with my own shoulder issues in the past, and I know just how aggravating it can be to have to modify workouts or avoid certain movements. Ultimately, I had to learn the hard way what exercises provoked my shoulder pain. Many common-place shoulder exercises can be effective for deltoid and pectoralis hypertrophy, but they also promote instability and compensation. For both myself and my clients, there are four main exercises that I avoid for the sake of sparing their shoulders:
  1. Pec flies. Regardless of whether you're using cables, dumbbells, or even the pec-deck machine, you're most likely better off without them. With this movement, many lifters tend to go well beyond the necessary range of motion to isolate the pectoralis muscles in transverse shoulder flexion. You also run the risk of sufficiently irritating your biceps tendons. Instead, they end up stretching the hell out of their anterior deltoids and forcing their shoulders into a yucky internally rotated position that makes me cringe. For chest development, I prefer to have clients do reverse grip bench press, neutral grip dumbbell bench press (with a slow eccentric focus), and Spoon presses. If you're hell-bent on keeping pec flies in your workout routine, try to minimize the range of motion so that your arms only go slightly above parallel, and make sure you maintain a slight bend in your elbows.
  2. Behind-the-neck lat pull-downs. I've addressed my feelings about behind-the-neck exercises previously, so to save you from a redundant rant, I'll give you the abridged version: these movements (especially in lat pull-downs) encourage you into flexed cervical spine and often reinforce poor shoulder movement. Very few people possess adequate shoulder and thoracic mobility to perform these. If you really want wings, stay away from these. Instead, try rowing variations, pull-ups (you add weight or go chest-to-bar if you want a greater challenge), straight arm pull-downs, and maybe the occasional Red Bull. (I couldn't resist...)
    Yikes!
  3. Box dips. In a recent Instagram video, I mentioned that I stray away from programming dips on a bench or a box. Effectively, this variation places unnecessary stress on the anterior capsule and tendons of the shoulder. To perform these, a client must flare the elbows out excessively, while the shoulder again shifts into a precarious position. You will see this as well on bar dips, but to a lesser degree, because the athlete's shoulder and elbows are closer to his center of mass. The ideal way to do dips, in my opinion, though, is on the rings. The rings force the athlete to properly adduct his shoulder, and his arms are closest to his center of mass (thus resulting in a more mechanically advantageous position. If you're currently unable to do ring dips, stick to push-ups on the rings, and then slowly progress to a full ring dip.
  4. Upright rows. I'm sure you've heard trainers shun this exercise before. While I think it can be helpful for developing the shoulders for the right client, there are always other options. I've found that they cause more harm than good for most people, as usually the anterior deltoids are the strongest part of the shoulder. Instead, many people would benefit from training the posterior or rear deltoids with back flies to balance out the omnipresent imbalance from front to back.
In general, gym goers can benefit from fewer pushing exercises and more pulling exercises. I usually propose a 2:1 ratio for upper body pulling:pushing days. By this, I mean that you should only spend about one day per week doing bench press, push press, etc. (or at least with those movements as your primary focus), and two days with a pulling/rowing focus. The anterior deltoids and pectoralis tend to run the show (especially in men), and, thus, can cause a lot of pathologies and mobility restrictions. Your rhomboids, rear deltoids, lats, and lower trapezius can always benefit from some more love and attention.

There are plenty of safe and effective exercises that will still give you strong shoulders, such as those that I've listed in this article. You can be smart about your upper body training and avoid nagging injuries that will keep you sidelined for weeks at-a-time. Make these changes to your routine, and your shoulders will be happier in the long run!

Friday, April 28, 2017

Debunking the Myth of the Vastus Medialis




The quadriceps complex is comprised of four main muscles: the rectus femoris, the vastus intermedius, the vastus lateralis, and the vastus medialis (which seems to have become the most buzzworthy muscle of the four). The vastus medialis obliquus (commonly referred to as the VMO) is the middle “tear drop” shaped muscle of the quadriceps complex. Both personal trainers and physical therapists often blame generic knee pain on this guy being weak, but the literature just does not seem to substantiate that concept. If a doctor or physiotherapist has ever told you that you need to strengthen your vastus medialis, then he or she is spouting off outdated and false information.

I have seen many an article claiming that one can “isolate” the vastus medialis, or emphasize its activation, by raising the heels in a squat, by narrowing one’s squat stance, or by doing some wild exercises. These exercises are frequently prescribed to individuals with patellar tendinopathy, patellar tracking, or post-op ACL tear patients. While these concepts sound excellent in theory, the data has shown that those ideas are effectively no more than broscience. The vastus medialis and lateralis muscles contract together, and no amount of heel raise, hip external rotation, or close-stance squats will change that.

Do decline squats increase VMO activation?

The first exercise myth about the VMO is that raising the heels will increase its activation in the squat. While using Olympic lifting shoes or standing on a board will undoubtedly increase total quadriceps recruitment, as your torso will be more upright, the vastus medialis receives no preferential treatment. Rather, the vastus lateralis and medialis simultaneously work harder to squat when the heels are elevated. Similarly, the high bar squat is more quad-dominant than a powerlifting low-bar squat, and a front squat is the most quad-dominant of the three.

Does squat depth influence VMO activation?

When analyzing the angles at which the vastus medialis and lateralis are most active, Lee et. al. found that 90° or less of knee flexion was optimal. Essentially, deeper squats allow for greater vastus medialis and vastus lateralis contraction. Again, both muscles are being targeted in this instance, so the VMO is working harder, but so too is the vastus lateralis.

The other take home here is that if you want quads of the Gods, you can’t skimp on your depth. If you have to ask someone if you’re going low enough, you’re probably not! If mobility is an issue for you, then you should seek the advice of a qualified professional and dedicate time at the end of your sessions to improving your bottom position.

What about narrow-stance squats?

None of the research to date indicates that squatting with a narrow stance impacts the vastus medialis to a higher degree. In fact, it doesn’t appear that it changes the activation in any of the quadriceps muscles at all. I’m not quite sure where this myth arose, but it seems to be contradicted by the literature.

Squatting with your feet close together won't increase VMO activation,
but it may result in faulty mechanics and potential for hip impingement.
One study with Paoli et. al. looked at the EMG in 8 different thigh muscles, measuring activity in three different squatting widths and three different intensities (no load, 30% of 1 RM, and 70% of 1 RM). They tested both quadriceps and hamstrings muscles, and there was effectively no statistical difference in any of the muscles except for the gluteus maximus. No matter how close the lifters stances, their quadriceps muscles (vastus medialis included) were no more or less active at any intensity.

Surely foot position matters?

This is one that I have heard for years, and even believed myself for a while: trainers boast that externally rotating the feet will preferentially recruit the VMO, whereas a parallel foot position would lead to more evenly divided muscular recruitment. Unfortunately, no studies to date have confirmed this concept.

Murray et. al. tested twenty physically active adults in 4 different foot positions during a partial squat on the Power Tower machine. They found no real differences in EMG amplitude in differing levels of external/internal rotation. Similarly, Ninos and colleagues tested two varying foot positions (externally rotated and neutral) in the Olympic squat, and there was no noteworthy difference in vastus medialis activation.

The take home? If you have strong quads, you have a strong VMO.

Trainers have managed to come up with many creative circus-trick exercises for targeting the vastus medialis muscle, but while they might look exciting to try in videos, the basic foundational leg movements are all you need; squats, lunges, step-ups, and split squats will help you build strong quadriceps muscles, and, in turn, strong vastus medialis muscles. You can perform your leg extensions with your feet externally rotated all day, and you still won’t be able to isolate your medial quadriceps. Instead, just stick to those previously mentioned core movements and reap the benefits of your tree trunk legs!

Friday, March 10, 2017

4 Interesting Facts about Mind-Body Connection


The body and mind are intimately intertwined. We must always look at the bigger picture. Despite Western medicine’s attempt to further break the body up into distinct “parts,” everything is connected. Your stress at work and your shoulder pain are absolutely related. Your toxic relationship and your sinus infection is likely the result of your body’s symbiosis. Emotional stress manifests itself physically, and, conversely, physical pain impacts our emotions.

“Muscles” are just used for classification purposes, but that is not exactly how your brain works. You’re never just using one muscle at a time, and the same thing goes for your organs: nothing works in solitude, but rather, your body is a symphony.

Everything is originated in your brain. The brain is responsible for the function of all bodily functions (heart beat, digestion, respiration, etc.), and it also controls your perception. Thus, it would be foolish to consider pain without first understanding the cognitive processes behind it
  1. Research suggests that thinking about contracting a specific muscle is beneficial for improving muscular hypertrophy. A study of 18 resistance-trained men found that "individuals can increase triceps brachii or pectarilis major muscle activity during the bench press when focusing on using the specific muscle at intensities up to 60 % of 1RM." Essentially, thinking about activating a muscle can increase its activation at lower intensities.
  2. A history of injury to a certain area can perpetuate symptoms, even after your body has healed. Pain and trauma form pathways in your brain. There's an adage that says "neurons that fire together wire together." This means that if a pathway of pain becomes familiar to you, it can be difficult to dissociate the two things. Let's say you tore your UCL in your elbow throwing a baseball. You may still experience pain when throwing, even long after the tissue has healed, because your brain associates throwing with danger.
  3. You can improve on a skill using mental imagery. "Vandell et. al. reported that groups of subjects who mentally practiced basketball free throws or dart throwing demonstrated improved skills similar to those who physically practiced the task. The [mental practice] and [physical practice] groups improved 23% and 24%, respectively, as compared with no improvement in a control group that did not practice either task," mentioned Warner and McNeill. That means that the group who practiced a skill using mental imagery alone had nearly the same level of improvements as did the group using physical practice!
  4. Mental practice can improve balance. Fansler et. al. tested 36 elderly female subjects. Women were randomly assigned to one of three groups: non-sense+physical practice, relaxation+physical practice, or ideokinetic facilitation+physical practice. The final group "showed fewer subjects with negative change and more subjects with greater than 100% improvement." Effectively, the combination of mind-body awareness along with physical practice elicited significant improvements for the subjects. "This improvement in balance, which is a fundamental component of human movement, suggests that [ideokinetic facilitation] has promising usefulness in health care." Perhaps this study could be expanded into other areas, as well!
Wim Hof, a dutch man known as the "Ice Man" has been able to achieve incredible feats using meditative breathing. He regularly goes for dunks in freezing cold water, hikes frigid mountains in only his shorts, and has even demonstrated control over his autonomic nervous system. If you haven't heard of this guy, I recommend watching this video and reading more about him! He's a pretty incredible and inspiring man.

There's still much research to be done on the concept of mind-body connectivity. I believe that with a strong mind, we can build a strong body. We cannot achieve what the mind doesn't believe. Incorporating mental imagery into your routine might just be the change you need to break through your training plateaus!

Monday, February 20, 2017

Much Ado about Hip Mobility



Since I've made a post about shoulder restrictions, I've received a few requests about how to loosen up stubborn hips.

This is my dad, unintentionally showing off his
perfect bottom position and impressive ankle
dorsiflexion.
One thing I'd like to mention, which has been noted in previous posts, is that some people are just genetically and anatomically better suited for squats. Let's take my father, for example. My dad, who does not exercise, and has no notable sports background has a picture perfect squat. He has never mobilized a day in his life, and no one taught him proper squatting mechanics. In fact, I was stunned to watch him squat down to reset our Internet modem with absolute ease. Others will take weeks or months of mobility/motor control drills to execute a partial squat. If you're interested, Dr. Stuart McGill has an excellent video discussing this concept. Unfortunately, there's nothing we can do to change one's acetabulum or femurs.

Don't be discouraged! There's hope for you yet. What we can do, instead, is put someone who may be...inept at squatting into a position that optimizes his or her anatomy. We can play around with foot position, stance, and different squat styles to see what is best suited towards their anthropometry (limb length/proportions). I always recommend that those who are struggling with their squat mechanics work with a qualified coach/movement practitioner to improve. If that is not an option for you, then you should spend some time playing around on your own trying different set-ups.  Record yourself when possible. Remember that your squat will not necessarily look the same as mine.

Once you've settled on your ideal stance and foot position, now we must consider the role of motor control (yay for unintentional rhyming) in the squat. As you can imagine, there are many possible compensatory patterns that one might display throughout the movement. From knee valgus/varus, to shooting the hips back too far, to letting the chest drop, I've seen it all; this is when attention and mindfulness become especially important. Again, it will be invaluable to have a coach review your mechanics in these cases. With just a few simple cues, most errors are immediately fixable, and then you may continue to practice these on your own and engrain the proper sequencing in your head.

One exercise that I typically use with my clients who are learning to squat is the pole squat drill: this allows the person to understand how their weight should be distributed, and helps them achieve a lower bottom position almost immediately. I would also introduce them to the quadruped rock, which mirrors the sequencing in a squat and warms up the hips. These movements are best suited in the beginning of a session.

For clients who still have difficulty squatting after those drills, the goblet squat should become your friend. It is generally easier for individuals to assume a better position in a goblet squat. Holding weight in front of the body forces you to maintain a more vertical torso and achieve better depth. I always prescribe these (typically with a pause at the bottom) before moving clients on to barbell variations.

While many people spend an endless amount of time trying to stretch the hell out of their hip flexors, I find that those efforts are often wasted. Instead, implementing movements such as the goblet squat with a tempo (slow negative and 1-2 second pause) will allow you to kill two birds with one stone. Similarly, tempo single-legged exercises will do wonders for opening the hips. Bulgarian split squats necessitate a decent amount of hip flexibility, so it may be beneficial to start with a traditional lunge, again with a slow eccentric phase.

Finally, at the end of the session, the happy baby pose is ideal. Not only does this provide a nice stretch, but it's actually quite relaxing. You can also use this time to practice your diaphragmatic breathing. Focus on pushing your belly against your thighs as you inhale through your nose. Exhale through your mouth, and repeat. 1-2 minutes should be more than enough.

In the long run, an arsenal of hip flexor stretches isn't going to address the source of the problem. Teach yourself proper squat patterns, train your lower body with an eccentric emphasis, and show your hips some love. If you're diligent in your efforts, you'll be dropping it low on and off the dance floor in no time.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

The Benefits of Cheating & How to Bounce Back After a Binge

I'm really excited to have my friend Sara back as a guest contributor! She previously wrote a fantastic article on the importance of proper meal timing.

I had approached her about writing this article, because I feel as though binging is something that everyone has fallen victim to, and there is a tremendous amount of guilt surrounding it. This article should give you peace of mind that you can still stay on track towards achieving your goals despite bumps in the road.

The Benefits of Cheating & How to Bounce Back After a Binge


People binge and eat foods that are blatantly bad for them all of the time, whether they have an excuse to do so or not. Those who work hard and eat healthy tend to turn to "cheat" meals or days to grant them a time to indulge in their favourite treats and/or shove as much food in their faces as they possibly can.

Whether you enjoy the powerful taste of something unhealthy or you sometimes want to just stop counting the calories, going into your mouth for once… it’s okay. I’m not saying it’s okay or healthy to binge eat and consume hefty amounts of salt and sugar all day, every day, or even very often. What I am saying, is that once in awhile it’s completely okay, and maybe even necessary, for you to take a break from ‘healthy’ and just enjoy yourself.

One meal or even one day of binge eating or sugary snacks will not set you back or completely throw off your progress. It can if you let it, but as long as you stay aware and in control of what you’re doing, you don’t have to crush yourself with guilt every time it happens.

The Benefits of Cheat Days

Breaking a Plateau

When I say some cheating may be necessary, I’m talking about people who are very persistent in their quest to dramatically change their body in some way or another. Those people, who eventually reach a plateau in their weight loss or gain, need something to shock their system into cooperating again.

That "shock" is a nice dose of hormones released from the body, and can be triggered by various things. The hormones insulin and leptin are a few whose release is driven by what you eat and when you eat it. They aren’t just controlled by food consumption, but that’s one of the easiest ways we can purposefully prompt that release.

Leptin and insulin are companion hormones, and the rising and falling of one can trigger the same for the other. Insulin release is triggered by the consumption of glucose, which is found in carbohydrates. Glucose is more concentrated in simpler carbs and sugars, and the shorter chains are absorbed faster, thus they have a much faster impact on blood sugar.

As insulin is released into the blood to prompt the storage of glucose, leptin is slowly released as well. Leptin is, most simply put, our feeling of fullness and hunger. As more insulin is released and more fuel is stored, leptin levels rise to tell the brain that you are satiated. Eventually leptin levels lower again when we start taking from those fuel stores, which prompts hunger and food seeking behaviour.

Leptin does not exclusively rise with insulin though, and it is heavily affected by our routines. For instance, the body suppresses your appetite while you sleep or when you get stressed out by releasing leptin, which lowers your metabolism. That way the focus can be put on your rest and recovery or a fight or flight response, instead of your hunger.

Whatever you decide to put your body through in order to get the results you’re looking for, eventually your hormones will adjust and your body will get used to your routine. These hormones are one of the main reasons that we reach plateaus, and in order to move past them, that routine needs to change. The stricter your routine and the harder you are on your body, the stronger it will fight back to adjust, and the more often you will have to throw it off course.

Strict eating habits can stress you out mentally. Having a day where you allow yourself to not worry so much about what you’re eating can be a psychological break for some people. Unfortunately, it can have the opposite effect on others. Instead, simply including a treat into their scheduled macro intake may be a bit less stressful and more rewarding, rather than breaking their normal routine measurements.

Using cheat days and meals as a reward and a source of motivation can be thin and shallow, but if you are starting up a new habit, sometimes rewards are necessary to keep you going. Shallow motivations involving rewards and punishments can be fragile, but if it keeps you going long enough to solidify that habit and find stronger self-improvement goals to motivate you, it’s better than not making any improvement at all.

If having a cheat day at the end of your week after completing several days of successful workouts is working for you, there is no point feeling guilty about it. The point of a cheat is to reduce your stress, not stress you out even more. The more control you have over the cheat day or meal, the less you are likely to stress about it or go overboard. Plan what you are going to eat, solidify your reasonings for allowing yourself that indulgence and enjoy it.

But what if something happens and you end up eating too much when you and your friends spontaneously go out to eat? Or you break your normal routine because you spotted your favourite dessert and couldn’t resist?

Regardless of whether you orchestrated a cheat or the cheat jumped you in an alleyway, if you feel like you’ve failed yourself by cheating on your carefully constructed meal plan, don’t. Dwelling on something that’s already happened is pointless, and the most best thing you can do is to focus on what you can do to recover now, and put yourself in control for next time, building a better relationship with your cheat meals.

Cheating Without Cheating

Small indulgences can be a lot easier on the body and mind to begin with, and require a lot less recovery afterwards. However, it can be difficult to change the definition of a cheat from ‘binge eating’ to simply doing something you wouldn’t normally do.

Cheating doesn’t have to be three pizzas or the whole container of ice cream–it can simply be something outside of the normal rules you hold for yourself. Have a fancy coffee with a bit higher sugar content at the end of a stressful work day. Have a drink or two at a special dinner with friends. Schedule in a day where you skip one workout to have an important bonding day with a significant other or a friend.

You can even press the definition of a cheat even further by simply adjusting your macronutrient ratio a few times a week to keep things interesting, or try a new type of exercise like swimming or sports that may not guarantee you burning the same amount of calories or using the same muscles you’re used to working. The key is to not limit yourself to just sugary and salty foods. Get creative in the ways you treat yourself, and have fun!

Although gentler and non-food/activity related cheats may not work to shock the system for those who are intent on breaking a strong plateau, they can be used as an alternative on days where you shouldn’t be cheating, but you’re craving something different. As long as you are in control and aware of what you’re doing there should be a decrease in stress, not an increase!

Recovering

If your control breaks, or your cheating sessions get really intense, it’s important to focus on your physical and mental recovery afterwards. Physically, it can be rough on your body to heavily spike sugars and hormones and mentally it can be difficult to stop the overwhelming guilt when something happens that you feel you had no control over.

Drink Water

An eating binge can be just like a drinking binge, and drinking lots of water (both during, if possible, and after) can help clear and balance the salt content in your body and combat any sort of dehydration. The best thing to do for your organs is give them a ton of fluid to flush your body. If your pee is clear, you’re doing a good job. Thirst can feel like hunger, so don’t start shoving any food in your face until you’ve had your fill of water first.

Coffee can help in a couple ways, and it’s the better option if you’re feeling stressed out and leaning towards a laxative. Don’t take a laxative. Resorting to abuse of anything that could be used for medical reasons is a terrible idea. It doesn’t matter how ‘natural’ the ingredients are. Unless it’s caffeine from normal coffee or tea, don’t play with laxatives to solve your problems.

Eat Well, Don’t Stress

Some will feel the need to overeat, because the energy from any simple, quick fuel may be long gone. Others may have little to no appetite at all. Some will be craving healthy to find balance, others will want more sugar and salt to continue feeding their cravings.

If you’re feeling like salty and sweet, stave off or have lighter versions, lightly salted nuts, fruit for sweetness. If there’s no appetite, force yourself to eat something small, and if you are able to, you can eat a bit heavier in the evening to meet your macronutrient requirements or replenish your energy stores.

Don’t overcompensate for anything you did during your cheat meal or day. You body is built to adjust, and it will return to normal on it’s own. For those who are hungry, you can rely a bit more on fats and proteins for your energy needs, but don’t cut out carbs completely. Going from a blood sugar high to a blood sugar low isn’t balance, and your goal is to restore that balance.

If you try to balance the scale yourself, you’re just creating more problems for your body to sort out, so try your best to simply return to your normal routine. It’s important to do what you need to do to mentally stabilize yourself. The less stress you make for yourself after a binge, the easier it is for your body to focus less on dealing with that stress and more on recovering.

Exercise

Though some people may be able to jump into a heavy workout the next day, others may find that impossible. The same goes for exercise as it does for food: don’t overcompensate, and let your body focus on recovering. Even if you just put on your workout clothes and do 15 minutes of exercise a light workout can be very beneficial.

Getting your body moving and your blood flowing can wake up your system and start your engine up again. It can also ease some of the mental anxiety about overeating, but again, for those who feel overly guilty, it’s important not to go overboard and exhaust yourself at the gym. Starving yourself to “burn off what I ate yesterday” will only serve to add more stress to your body and will extend the time needed to recover and find balance again. If you intend to do a full workout, ensure you are fueling yourself properly both before and after. No excuses.

Physical and mental health are important. Failing is not the end of the world. Take care, take control and enjoy yourself!




Works Cited:

  1. Hall, John E., and Arthur C. Guyton. Textbook of medical physiology. Elsevier Inc., 2006.
  2. Margetic, S., et al. "Leptin: a review of its peripheral actions and interactions." International Journal of Obesity & Related Metabolic Disorders 26.11 (2002).
  3. Patterson, Christa M., and Martin G. Myers. "How Leptin Controls the Drive to Eat." The Korean Journal of Obesity 24.2 (2015): 69-77.
  4. Van Praag, H., Fleshner, M., Schwartz, M. W., & Mattson, M. P. (2014). Exercise, energy intake, glucose homeostasis, and the brain. The Journal of Neuroscience, 34(46), 15139-15149.

Friday, January 6, 2017

A Case Against Box Squats



The box squat is ubiquitous in both high level strength and conditioning facilities and Globo gyms. While a lot of coaches and trainers tout the box squat as being beneficial for "explosiveness" and overall strength, I am here to dispute its efficacy, and highlight some of their potential drawbacks.

I am guessing that some of you are already prepared to jump on me for questioning a movement that is so widely utilized, but before you do so, give this article a read. If you still vehemently disagree with my claims, then I'm always happy to hear other opinions.

One of the biggest underlying detriments to using the box squat, in my opinion, is the lack of "biomechanical transferability" to a traditional back squat (specifically high bar); by this, I mean that the movement is quite different in terms of joint angles. One cue you will often hear in the box squat is something to the effect of "push your butt back." Now, this may also be applicable to a powerlifting low bar squatting style, but it is contraindicated on a high bar, Olympic style squat. You'll notice that in this diagram, that the low bar back squatter (on the left) sits his hips back farther, and his shins are closer to vertical, whereas the high bar squatter on the right sits more upright, and the knees track in front of the toes.

The cue "sit back" leads to the athlete maintaining a shin that is almost completely vertical and ends up in a position that would not otherwise be sustainable. Try to do a high bar or low bar squat by pushing your hips back to an extreme degree like some coaches advocate on the box squat–you will likely fall over, because that is not the natural way to descend the hips. Take a look at this guy in the photo. Squatting this way sans box would be very difficult.



Aside from the altered mechanics of the box squat, this movement often decreases the standard range of motion. The only time I would ever prescribe box squats for a client is if he or she were having difficulty achieving or gaging depth on the movement. In this case, a box or a medicine ball can give the client a target or a standardization for depth. Over time, one should progress to a lower box, and eventually eliminate it altogether. If you're comfortable with the movement, then you should always aim to maximize your range of motion with great technique, rather than decrease it.

Similarly, a lot of people tend to get lazy on the box. By this, I mean that the lifter will fully relax and disengage in the middle of the movement. This is not only disadvantageous (as it would never happen in a normal back squat), but it is also dangerous. Now, the lifter has to recreate tension as they stand. There is a tremendous risk of back injury for this reason. If you do choose to use box squats in your training, you should simply tap the box and then quickly rebound, rather than sitting completely.

While some strength coaches praise the box squat for its ability to develop explosiveness out of the hole, I prefer two other squatting variants: paused squats and jumping barbell squats. Both of these movements are, in my experience, far superior. The paused back squat allows the lifter to achieve full depth and build concentric speed, and the jumping barbell squat teaches that rebounding, plyometric power that is desirable in most sports. I prefer to keep repetitions per set lower (<6-8) for both movements, because the lifter can focus on perfect technique. For the paused squats, it is ideal to use a weight that will be challenging, but will not slow down your ascent. For example, if you're grinding to stand up with the weight, you've gone too heavy. Speed trumps weight here. Weight should be between 20-30% of back squat 1 repetition maximum for the jumping barbell squats. Heavier weights won't allow for a quick rebound.

Overall, while some prefer to program the box squat, I think it is limited in its practical application for most people. Not only does it reinforce improper mechanics, but it also could result in injury. Try different squatting variations to stimulate the same effect.