Quick note from the latest exercise routine. Today was Fun Day which by default is ab work with a “challenge”. I’ve been absorbing information about squatting and trying to make myself a better squatter, so today I was calling for a special “squat-topia” training day for my challenge.
Short story on squatting and me is that I’m working on both my front and my back squats, with my main focus on depth and form. I like the olympic style form, where the focus is on more upright action, thoracic extension, and not having to deal with the more “sloppy” high weight powerlifting forms that have a lot of hip action and back movement.
My goal for squats is twofold, first purely to work my legs and I feel my form that I chose is best for that and my secondary goal is to lift a lot but to feel I’ve mastered a difficult form method to do so. Deciding how much “a lot” is can be difficult for someone starting, though. I’ve sort of come to the opinion that I’ll never be big enough to compete professionally so having that powerlifting form which in my opinion is an exercise that has a lot of weak elements but lets you press more weight, is just not appealing to me.
I’ve been spending a lot of time this week thinking about front squatting as you may have gleaned from my previous updates. After what I consider a squat disaster on my last leg day, I wanted to just have a day to think and reset a lot of my thinking about the whole squat action. Training the nervous system is an important part to successful squatting due to the complications of the movement so doing that means doing high volume at the best weight you can do at what you’d regard as “perfect” form. Which for me is not much at all, but I’m a newbie so that’s to be expected.
One thing I learned this week was that aside from the clean grip and the powerlifting grip, there is a third method of gripping the bar for front squats that can be used involving wrist straps.
Christian Thibaudeau demonstrates the three generally accepted means of gripping the bar for front squats
So the wrist strap one is not one I’ve tried due to simply not having wrist straps. I headed to the sporting goods store and found wrist straps are only $12, so snagged a pair and headed into the gym. Quiet day at the gym so I picked a good day to hog the equipment I think, as the gym has only one power squat rack (it has two open ended standard squat racks that today I wanted to stay away from). To warm up I did a squat I hadn’t tried before but heard a lot about as being a good squat to get you into the movement pattern for heavy squatting, the goblet squat. Incoming another Youtube video to show what I mean…
Scott Herman demonstrates the Goblet Squat
This was I felt a real great exercise to get me warmed up and ready to squat, as well as it emphasized thoracic extension as the weight is kept forward on the chest, which as I noted before is important for the type of squatting I tend to prefer. I went a little higher in weight for a few sets until I felt ready to get in the power squat rack.
After the cage was ready with the pins and bars in the proper place, I made sure the side bars were nice and low by doing a few trial squats with the bar barbell. Then I was eager to try the strap clean grip so I laced up the barbell and did a few rackings and unrackings with the straps. This felt pretty good and I did a set of those just to be sure I felt good about it. I started with very low weight throughout the entire exercise just because I’m learning and testing my limits right now, I wasn’t happy with all the realizations I made today but I’m happy to have made them, if that makes any sense. So I started with 95 total lbs (including bar) to start, that’s merely the bar and two 25lb plates.
After several sets of this, I felt pretty good that I was learning the wrist strap grip and went up in weight. I did a few reps only to find that even a minor increase in weight at this level (an extra 10 on each side for a total of 115lbs) was nearing my maximum. I feel like my body is strong enough to do more, but I’m still learning the neural path of this movement so it just is too much for my body to activate everything to make more happen. So I pushed it harder and then thinking maybe I’d be better with a clean grip, tried that after dropping 10 total pounds (105lb).
Things I learned about straps vs. clean grip… the strap grip definitely was easier and better on my elbows, and I noticed as I fatigued or had a few jerky movements displace the bar slightly as I pushed myself harder, all that is required to “fix” it with the strap grip is pulling up real tight until the bar re-nestles itself back on that groove the deltoids have. That said though the bar felt like it was a little more loose in this grip than the clean grip. I have decent shoulder and wrist flexion, so the clean grip with three fingers just feels very solid. However as I push myself, I have less shifting issues and more issues with having the pressure of the elbows and wrists dip down my thoracic extension of my chest (for those who don’t know what I mean by that, I mean basically puffing your chest out to keep your upper torso upright) and I’d dip forward a little which I’d have to fix by thrusting the arms upright again. That’s fine, but if I get to where I’m pushing much heavier weight, it’ll be undue stress.
So both grips had their advantage and honestly, as I continued I switched between them. Using the straps to warm myself up, then doing a few clean grips to continue. I liked this and once I did a few more sets of pressing to find the balance of where my strength was, I dropped the weight to 85lbs and did a couple more sets of high volume. This is where I’m hoping to reinforce the behavior.
Taking a little break from that I came back to work on back squats. As said before my goal is to have a more upright back squat than most, considered a “high bar” squat. However my form did break and slip into a “low bar” squat quite a bit. Both squats are acceptable but I prefer the high bar stance because worst case scenario you break from the high stance into the low stance, but if you’re already in a low bar stance and you break form further than that, your back basically caves in and you go down. Something I learned while thinking about it, and I tried to start every squat at this level with thoracic extension engaged again still.
I noticed right away that I was not able to back squat what I was before on the other squat racks with the higher resting pivots. I felt like if anything, it was the exact same weight level as the front squat. Of course this was a form issue, I was going for a more olympic style of back squat which involves more upright action which in many ways is similar to the front squatting I was doing. That said I settled on being able to press probably 10lb more this way. Not a ton, but enough to feel like I did good work. Again I focused on volume, doing a modest amount upfront in several sets (this time 105lb), then doing heavier sets (115lb), then dropping the weight to a low 85lb and doing two sets of higher volume.
So it was a learning experience that I enjoyed. Key things I noticed were issues. One as I pressed up my back would arch and I’d sometimes break down a little bit into pressing the back upright again, I found if I engaged in thoracic extension by puffing the chest out and resetting that I avoided it. Second was I felt like my upper back was weak, and I felt a tendency for the shoulders to round. I fought it almost the entire workout, but I realized by the end that I would’ve performed better if those muscles were stronger. The key muscles in question are the scapula adductors, the ones that pinch together the shoulder blades. So that will be a key muscle to work heavy on in my next back workout. To work on the thoracic extension, I decided to go to the open squat rack and do some clean grip isometric holds… that is grab the barbell with a lot more weight than I intended to try to squat, grab it with a clean grip, and just hold it. Held it for about a minute before I felt like I had to put it down. 4 sets of this and I feel like my ability to hold it was worked out nicely.
I also decided to set some goals for future improvement. My first goal is to front squat 200lbs with this form, and back squat 225. No timetable because the body will proceed at it’s own pace but it’d be nice if I could do this in a year… which is nice to have goals in this to go with my deadlifting goal of hitting 400lbs. We’ll see how it goes!
Feeling like I needed a good ab workout too, I found and snagged this recent Youtube post from Mike Chang and executed it. It’s a simple, 100 rep ab workout you can do easily in 5-10 minutes with no real gear. Just get on the floor and properly work each section of abs. Great ab workout.
Mike Chang shows off a simple 100 rep ab workout, try it!
Tried to have some cardio afterwards by executing an M100, but felt both wrist and shoulder strain as I started. I’d have pushed myself into doing it anyways, but it’s flu season and a lot of people around me are getting sick, so I’m not pushing myself too hard in exercises hope it keeps my immune system up to fight off the pathogens out there. I’ll get a good run in tomorrow to compensate for it I’m sure.