Thursday, June 4, 2015

Breathe Your Way to Bigger Lifts (Part 2)

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post on breathing properly for your lifts. This week, my friend Nate Henry, a competitive powerlifter, wrote a wonderful follow-up article. His strongest lifts include a 523.5 pound squat in competition, and a 535 pound squat in the gym, weighing 206 pounds. His best meet total is 1,372 pounds! He is also currently pursuing a bachelors degree in Kinesiology and an NSCA CPT. If you want to move big weights like this guy, follow his advice.

I mean...look at this guy.

Brief Squat Overview (Kinesiology)

Before I get into anything, let's review all of the primary muscles that are used within the squat because a lot of people overlook them.

When you’re lifting or doing anything and figuring out what muscles are being utilized, you have to analyze the dynamic (moving) joint to be able to identify the muscles worked. The muscles being worked are the ones that are fighting against the load.

As you squat there is movement in these joints:

  • Hip (femoral acetabular joint, femur connects in the acetabulum in the coxal bone) 
  • Knee (tibio-femoral joint, where the femur connects to the tibia)
  • Ankle (taleo-tibula joint, where the tibia meets the talus)
  • Spinal column (vertebral column)
  •  Sacroilliac (SI, or lumbo-sacral) joint which is where the column connects to the illiac.
Analyzing the movement against resistance, standing up when you squat, we can identify the action of the muscle taken. In this case:

  • Hip extension
  • Knee extension
  • Plantar flexion (ankle)
  • Spinal extension (and depending on the lifter, there can be a posterior or anterior pelvic tilt in the SI.)

Rather than listing out all of the muscles involved, here are some nifty graphs I made to show what muscles are responsible for what movement:

Keep in mind these are only the primary muscles and these do not include the statically loaded muscles or the secondary muscles involved in the movements.

Now what?

Now that we’ve identified all the muscles we can get into this cueing business, the muscles will come into play a little later. Outside of reminding everyone reading this that their set up is the most important part of the squat (don't rush it, set up every set the same, etc.). I’m going to assume you’ve squatted before in your life, and I'll get right to it.

One of the biggest things that helped me advance my own squat was learning to properly brace and learning to “breathe into my lower back.”

A lot of lifters rant about “getting tight” and “getting your breath,” but what the heck does that even mean? It’s one of those things that if you know it, you get it. If you don’t, it’s hard to explain fully.

The whole point of getting “tight” or bracing is to prepare your body to handle load. Usually in the form of the Valsava Maneuver (holding your breath). However, a lot of people can’t even breathe correctly without load, so getting your breath and bracing properly is hard to do if you’re just starting out.

Rather than explaining it further, Arianna has written an awesome article already!

That breath and bracing is the most important and overlooked aspect of the squat next to having a proper unrack/walkout.

The reason this is so important is because if you’re not bracing completely you’ll put a lot of pressure on different muscles. We talked about spinal extension as one of the movements in a squat right? Well, when you’re just bracing the frontal core (the rectus abdominis plays a huge role in stabilizing the muscles responsible for spinal extension), you’re leaving your back completely unprotected, even with a belt! When you’ve got something heavy on you, that weight will zero right in on your weakest part of the back and that’s how back injuries happen and why.

This cue is especially important for low bar squatters who tend to use more extension in the back to leverage heavier weight on the way up.

To add to that, a lot of lifters might get the back tight (flexing it rather than creating the tension through the diaphragmatic breathing) and then tip forward because there is no brace on the front. This can also create some havoc within the muscles being worked. The quads may try to take proportionally more load than needed and the hip extensors try to pick up the slack. Things can get weird.

The point is, you need to brace and create that pressure. This is how I learned to do that.

Why breathe into my lower back?

Your core musculature wraps all the way around. A lot of lifters just breathe into their stomachs, creating little pressure, and not getting 360 degrees of tightness throughout all the musculature, extrinsically, nor intrinsically. They lack the understanding of what full abdominal expansion feels like; that’s where this cue comes in handy.

Put your hand on your lower back. Breathe into your stomach with a proper breath (fill it like a balloon). Not much going on in the lower back right? Or the sides, really, correct?

Now, do the same thing but try to breathe into the back while still trying to fill in the balloon (if that’s not helping, try to breathe into the lower back lying on your back and try to focus on pushing against the ground). If you’re doing this correctly, you should feel your back, stomach, and sides fill with air. Put your hands on your sides as well, you’ll feel it.

This is what I mean by breathing into your lower back. Proper inhalation helps your muscles in the core/lower back get tight/brace. Think of your core musculature as your body's own belt.

Using this, let's go over a quick squat without getting too much into the whole process:

  1. Approach the bar, get your hand placement. 
  2. Without rushing, get under the bar and get your placement down (high/low/hybrid). Dig into the bar, get the hands set, get everything nice and stable. 
  3. Get your hips under you (both feet, not split stance this will prevent injuries in the back as well)
  4. Breathing into your lower back, and getting the full breath first, unrack the bar.
  5. Take your first step back, settle. 
  6. Bring your other leg back, settle. Adjust this foot if need. 
  7. If you’re squatting really heavy and the bar is whipping, let it settle. Good walks, make good lifts.
  8. If you let out some air during the walk, retake the breath but make sure you create pressure during the walkout phase because even though you’re not squatting, you’re still having to move around that weight. 
  9. Squat
  10. Stand up
  11. Retake the breath (don't descend without completing the breath!)
  12. Repeat

I like using Chad Wesley Smith as an example, since he’s the one who introduced me to this cue. Here he is squatting 825 for a double.

Notice the control, the time put into the set up, and how he breathes. Now, Chad is an Elite Squatter. He’s quick about it. Take your time.

The cool thing is this applies to all disciplines: CrossFit, Powerlifting, Strongman, Weightlifting, Bodybuilding.

Try these tips, and add serious weight onto your lifts.

Works Cited:
  1. Nuckols, Greg. "Squat Mechanics – The Red Pill." Strengtheory. N.p., 23 Feb. 2015. Web. 02 June 2015.
  2. Smith, Chad W. "10 Steps to Great Squatting Technique." JTS Strength. N.p., 20 Aug. 2014. Web. 02 June 2015.
  3. Smith, Chad W. "Squatting Specifics - What Technique Is Best for Your Sport?" JTS Strength. N.p., 22 Aug. 2014. Web. 02 June 2015.


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