Written by: Kevin Cann
Everyone is their own little unique snowflake. American culture, especially embraces the individual much more than the group. We see this play out in powerlifting quite frequently in the way that technique is taught, or better yet, ignored.
I have honestly struggled with this. In the past I was hardcore about technique, then I laid off a little, and now I am kind of swinging back to where we started. This time around I have a better idea of what I want out of the lifts from everyone, and what is more individualized.
I think I needed to give a little more technical freedom to learn these things for myself. The first example that comes to my mind is head position in the squat. There are 2 camps, head up, or head down.
I teach the squat with a head straight or chin slightly elevated position. This increases the tone of the back muscles and gives them greater leverage to hold and push back against the weight on the lifter’s back.
The back muscles are extremely important in the squat because the bar rests on them. If the back muscles are not strong enough to support and push back against that weight the lifter’s hips will rise faster than the torso out of the hole, decreasing and changing the muscles used in the lift.
Also, if the lifter’s back muscles are not strong enough to support the weight, the lifter will start the squat with a greater torso lean. This can lead to the lifter not getting the start command, and it also decreases the use of the legs within the squat. The barbell-athlete system may also be unbalanced in this position.
Many will argue that there are very strong lifters that squat with their head looking in the down position. This is not a false statement and perhaps that does allow them to lift more weight right now.
In the past, I would be the one arguing this as well. I would chalk it up to individual differences and allow them to do it. Now, I am not so sure that was the right move. I have changed my stance on this a bit.
If you are more comfortable with your head down, this tells me that there is an upper back weakness that we should not embrace and avoid, but that we should work on even harder. When the chin and eyes are down the back is round.
The lifter creates a shelf for the bar from leaning forward, instead of creating tightness. This often pushes the head further away from the bar as well. The body will follow the eyes, and the barbell-athlete system is pushed forward of the middle of the foot. This will be especially true under ever increasing loads.
A Russian study showed a 9% increase in power on the deadlift with the chin slightly elevated when compared to the chin in a down position. A deadlift is nothing more than a high squat with the bar in the lifter’s hands instead of on the lifter’s back. This shows the importance of the back muscles at those angles. This is also why we use that same head position on the deadlift.
Shin angle is another example that comes to mind here. Lots of lifters are stronger with a more pronounced shin angle. This is most likely due to most lifters having stronger quads than hips and hamstrings. Again, this may lead them to lifting more weight now, but is it the most efficient for long-term continuous progress?
I believe that the hips and hamstrings are very underrated in the squat. I know what the EMG studies show for the hamstrings in the squat. Not sure I really care what muscles untrained lifters use.
My theory is that the two joint muscles of the leg, the rectus femoris of the quads, and the hamstrings, allow force to transfer between the other quad muscles to the hips. We do this while supporting the barbell on the back. Any shifting horizontally of the barbell will result in a change of the muscles being used.
This would explain why loading the hamstrings on the way down in the squat is important for technique and preventing the chest collapsing forward out of the hole. Many will argue this is a quad weakness, but my eyes tell me something different.
I actually think that the quads are strong enough (they could leg press that weight no problem), but the hamstrings are not strong enough to stay stiff and transfer the force to the hips. This is if the back muscles stay taught and maintain the barbell over the middle of the foot. Hips and upper back tend to be common weaknesses, which may be why the chest collapsing forward in the squat is a common technical mishap.
I think so many lifters prefer heeled shoes and a closer stance because they can use their quads more and try to work around the weaker hips and hamstrings. They sacrifice stability from a flatter shoe for more use of the legs (I am actually kicking around the idea of all my lifters spending more time in flats).
In a conversation with Anthony Oliveira, he said something that I couldn’t agree more with. He said if you can’t squat in flats, you should be working on the things that allow you to, not just changing shoes and ignoring it. He is absolutely not wrong there. Your success in this sport is how hard you are willing to attack your weaknesses.
This does not mean that the heels are gone forever. At some point, technique is what it is, and it is time to go get on that platform and just worry about putting up the biggest total. However, those time periods are far smaller than the rest of the time we spend training.
Also, should lifters that have been lifting for less than 5 years be doing what “they feel is best?” I am not so sure that is the way it should be. They should be working on the technique that is going to allow them to have continued progress in the sport.
This is why I love a conjugate training style. I choose max effort exercises that punish those technical inefficiencies while allowing them to strain under heavy weights. Then we get rep and speed work thrown in. This is where attention to detail is used. We use variations here, but it is lighter with a lot of sets to practice what we need to work on.
I do not want the lifter focused too much on technique with the max effort. I want them to dial it in early on with warmups and then get after it. After the top set, we will talk and work on something with backdowns and on the other lighter squat day.
Rome was not built in a day. We do this and try to get a little better each rep, day, week, month, and year. Perfect technique does not exist, but we strive towards it forever to keep progress moving in the right direction.