Squatting With Cookie Monster: Part 1

5 Sep

wallpaper_de_cookie_monster_by_melyssa222-d533sp7

As many of you probably already know, my little 2007 Toshiba is finally giving up the ghost.

Last night when I got home from work (11pm), I sat down to write this post and it began to freeze up every time I tried to open a webpage. This computer freezes with pretty much everything other than word document.

So I was stuck writing a post on form, with no video to refer to like I said. Go figure.

Now, I am writing this after having watched the video on my phone, and I am hoping it is as accurate as possible (since watching it multiple times can really eat up the data). A part of me hopes that the laptop will finally just crash, so I have a justified reason for throwing it against the wall. The other part of me is scared that it will, because then…well…I wouldn’t be able to do much of anything.

Anyway.

The main purpose of this post is to go over some common form errors in the squat, and how to fix them. I thought the best way of demonstrating would be to use the video of someone who possesses some of these technical issues. A reader/subscriber named Chris (whom I met in Detroit) happily lent me the use of his videos. Thank you, Chris!

MeWithCookieMonster

At first I was going to diagnose Chris’s deadlift, but then had recently been getting more requests for something on squats, so I thought we’d start with that first.

Keep in mind, this is for educational and improvement purposes only. Chris was nice enough to allow me to use his videos as demonstration, so I ask that you view them in such as well. We can all learn something here.

Chris – I hope this post is helpful to you! Please feel free to leave a comment or shoot me an email if you have other questions!

THE VIDEO:

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THE SET-UP

One very important thing to keep in mind when you want to get tight and stay tight from the beginning of a squat, is to not rush the set-up.

When Chris gets under the bar, his shoulders aren’t locked back and down properly. His upper back is not tight enough, so when he un-racks the bar, he is already at a disadvantage. Remember that there is no hurry for performing your squat. I realize that some of you may not especially like getting under the bar, and just kind of want to get things over with. But don’t rush that part of the set-up.

Go slow to get under the bar. Don’t be a sloth. But make your set-up mechanical if you must. Set your hands. Draw your shoulder blades back and down. Lock everything into position. Without losing tightness in your back, bring yourself under the bar, and lift your chest up. Bury the bar into your traps, look up, take a deep breath, and stand straight up.

Always let the weight settle for a moment before walking out.

THE DESCENT/ASCENT

One thing that I do like, is that he stays in his heels the whole time, and begins the descent with his hips.

However, this is something I see in a lot of other squatters as well – you have to remember to arch your back, and use your glutes.

In this video, he only has 135 on the bar, so it’s a pretty easy weight for him. Had the bar been loaded more, his back would likely take a big hit from the way it is positioned.

(NOTE: Chris mentioned to me that he has tight IT bands and hips, which would definitely make sense given the way his back is positioned. Another indicator of very tight hips is the inability to arch during a bench press. I will give some mobility/warm-up ideas at the end of this article that can be used by anyone who is having a difficult time getting and keeping an arch in the back.)

The arch is important because it allows your back to be fully contracted during the movement. With no arch, the likeliness for becoming loose in the low back when the weight gets heavy is much higher.

Having an arch will also allow you to engage your glutes more, and really sit back into the squat.

If you cannot feel your glutes totally contracted on the lock-out, and if you cannot feel them moving on the ascent, that means they aren’t fired correctly, and chances are, you’re not using them much at all.

The glutes are the LARGEST muscles in your body. And the strongest. To not incorporate them in a squat wouldn’t make sense. But it goes to show that sometimes, staying in your heels does not always indicate that you are using your glutes and hamstrings. The squat in this video is still very much quad-dominant.

While the weight is in his heels, much of the lock-out power is coming from his quads/knees.

Which brings me to saying, DON’T LOCK OUT WITH THE KNEES!

You literally have to think of humping the air at the top, and squeezing your glutes as tight as you can. This is made easier once the glutes have been properly activated prior to squatting.

As a final pointer, always remember to keep the knees OUT. Force them to the sides. If you find that this is difficult, maybe try changing your stance up. Your knees may not be properly tracking with the feet. You can find out what foot width and toe point is best for you when you get into a bodyweight squat. If the knees track in line with the feet, you’re good to go.

ANOTHER BIG THING: Breathing

It’s important to breathe through the stomach when performing squats. The tendency is to take a deep breath through the chest (while thinking “chest up), but this limits the amount of oxygen, and also the length of time you have holding it. If you have to grind through a heavy squat, you want to make sure you don’t pass out from lack of oxygen (since you are holding your breath during this time).

Always remember to breathe deep at the beginning of each rep, contract your abs, and hold the breath throughout the movement. One exception is letting out a little air with a “tsss” sort of sound to release pressure on the way up, or when you get stuck (hope that makes sense). This way you are ensuring that you don’t pass out from the pressure build-up.

Don’t let out all your air at the top, because this can also pre-exhaust you. Breathe normally, and always take air before you descend. Otherwise you can get loose at the bottom, since you’re like a deflated balloon at that point.

STRETCHING, ACTIVATON AND MOBILITY WORK

Much of the issues with having a quad-dominant squat can be solved with frequent stretching, mobility, and activation work.

Before squatting, try to take your time warming up. The following exercises are fantastic for activating the glutes, and getting to know what it feels like to really squeeze the glutes throughout the movement:

  • Banded clamshells
  • Banded good-mornings
  • X-band walks
  • Single-leg glute bridges
  • Glute thrusts (between two benches)

For reference, Bret Contreras has some excellent videos and material on youtube if you want some ideas for different exercises. My general recommendation is 1-3 sets of 15-25 reps per exercise.

Yes, per exercise.

I take my glute warm-ups quite seriously these days.

As for mobility work, this is the video I refer to constantly when it comes to warming up my hips:

I’d say at least 5-10 minutes of hip mobility drills is necessary pre-squatting. I also recommend 10 minutes of mobility work first thing in the morning for you plywood folks.

“What about foam rolling?”

Foam rolling is okay. Most people can afford to skip it, and save it for after squats. Use it if you are quite sore or stiff. But don’t over-do it.

ALL static stretching should be left for after you are finished squatting.
If you have flexibility issues, make sure to stretch for a minimum of 10 minutes post-training.

As a final side-note with warm-ups, please…for the love of everything good in this world…STOP FOAM ROLLING YOUR IT BANDS!!

I know. Shocking.

I advocated it in the past. Lots of fitness gurus advocate it. But my RMT would chop my head off if he ever saw me doing it again.

The reason being, your IT bands are just that…bands. They are not muscles. When you do soft tissue work on a muscle, it breaks up scar tissue and helps loosen up the stiff muscles. However, when you try to do soft tissue work on your IT band with a foam roller, you are only compressing the band even further, causing more tightness and more pain in your hips. The IT band needs to be stretched, not compressed.

If you are suffering from very tight IT bands, please keep this in mind. As tempting as it is when they are sore, don’t massage them or roll them with a PVC/rumble roller. Stretch them out.

Thank you!!

(NOTE: Sorry I have to cut this is a little short. I’d love to go off on a tangent, but I have to get to work.

If anyone has further questions, I’d be more than happy to answer them in the comments section below. Give me your thoughts, and I’ll see what I can do with em!)

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13 Responses to “Squatting With Cookie Monster: Part 1”

  1. Michael September 5, 2013 at 5:07 pm #

    “You literally have to think of humping the air at the top, and squeezing your glutes as tight as you can.”

    Is that why you have that slight hip swing forward some times when starting? Squeezing the glutes?

    • thecookiemonster September 7, 2013 at 2:20 pm #

      This is what I used to do. HOWEVER, I have since changed my form, and I do not suggest that people do this because you will actually lose some tightness.

      I do however suggest that you squeeze the glutes and “hump the air” at the lock-out. Just be careful that your pelvis does not also tuck with this movement.

  2. Chris Lindsay September 5, 2013 at 5:51 pm #

    Great feedback, thanks! You mentioned three things that I’ve not been working on at all, that I’ll start incorporating into my squats.

    The breathing is interesting because I’ve been feeling like I’m repping out due to being out of breath, and it’s probably because I’m letting out all my air after each rep.

    And the part about locking out the shoulders is going to be huge, because my first rep is typically my least successful – and I’ve always chalked that up to not tightening up my back. I just didn’t know how to do it (or that you do it with your shoulders).

    And not locking out the knees is interesting. And I’m not sure what you mean by that? When I complete a rep, do I keep soft knees? What are the glutes supposed to be doing? (I have to admit, I don’t really feel the glutes doing much in my squats. A bit in my deadlifts, but not my squats – this should change now).

    I’ve been incorporating more mobility work pre-squat, although I don’t really do much on a daily basis. I should really start. I thought just doing glute/hip exercises would eventually get them to be more flexible, but I really need to commit to stretching.

    • thecookiemonster September 7, 2013 at 2:22 pm #

      Sometimes it’s hard to know what it feels like to have a very tight upper back, unless you think of pulling your shoulders back and down. Like you are standing up very tall…except squeezing your shoulder blades instead of just letting them relax with good posture.

      If you watch your lock-out, you will notice that your knees and quads are the first things to snap into place at the top. Your knees are not left soft, but your hips are. All the power is coming from the hips. Let the knees take care of themselves!

      Unfortunately, the exercises can only strengthen the areas, but they need lots of mobility work and stretching to become and remain mobile and flexible.

  3. creatingmuscles September 5, 2013 at 9:31 pm #

    What are some good stretches that you would recommend for the IT band?

  4. Andrej September 6, 2013 at 2:12 am #

    I’d like to hear more on why you say people shouldn’t foam roll their IT band. I have no scientific reason to believe any stance over the other, but am currently going with what the majority (including, say, de Franco in his previous Agile 8, and now Limber 11) recommend.

    • thecookiemonster September 7, 2013 at 2:58 pm #

      The majority of people recommend it because they also do not understand much about the band itself.

      One thing to keep in mind – the illiotibial band is connective tissue, not muscle. It cannot be “stretched out”, nor can it be “rolled out” like a muscle. Doing so will only cause quite a bit of stress on your band.

      Stretching is a better form of pain relief, IMO, because it does not compress the band in the same way that rolling does. There’s no doubt that rolling can provide some temporary pain relief, but I think it is more psychological than anything else. The long-term benefits of stretch therapy over soft tissue massage for the IT band is far more significant, I think.

      My RMT taught me this, and he has been putting athletes back together for over 30 years (including Olympic athletes, football players, marathon runners, etc.). He’s done successful ITB stretch therapy for a long time, and has resolved a lot of pain for lots of people. 🙂

      Here is a good post to read (we have some differing views on the stretching part, but it is good for an extra supportive opinion against foam rolling):

      http://www.thebodymechanic.ca/2012/03/17/stop-foam-rolling-your-it-band-it-can-not-lengthen-and-it-is-not-tight/

  5. Tara September 6, 2013 at 7:42 am #

    Now I can feel good about not foam rolling my IT band! I foam roll almost every day but never the IT band. No particular reason – I just didn’t feel much tightness and would rather spend my limited warm up time on dynamic movements, etc.

    I have a question. Because of my recent eye operation, I am not supposed to do anything which increases blood pressure in my eye (I know, strongman competition, say whaaaat). This includes holding my breath throughout a lift. Is there any real downside to breathing out at the bottom of a squat, and is there any way to counterbalance that?

    • thecookiemonster September 7, 2013 at 3:00 pm #

      That is good though!

      I would say that if you are trying not to increase blood pressure, squats might not be the BEST thing…but as I mentioned in the post, if you are hissing out some air at the bottom it is WORLDS better than breathing out totally, and will still help release some pressure so there is not a lot of build-up.

      The downside is that you lose tightness when you lose your air. You also lose power out of the bottom. If you think about pushing a car, you take a deep breath, hold it, and then push. If you breathed out before or while pushing, you would run out of steam. Same thing. 🙂

  6. Sam September 7, 2013 at 12:34 pm #

    Very awesome. Couple of comments. What do you think about wiggling your toes or curling them up as you prepare to lift the bar? I find it seems to help me activate my glutes.

    Also, how do you diagnose buttwink? It’s become an obsession of mine as I attempt to improve my squat form. I know it has to do with release of lower back tension, but I can’t always tell if I’m doing it or not.

    And finally, do you have thoughts on bar position when squatting, high vs. low, and how that pertains to various athletic or strength goals? Muscle groups that get hit harder in each position?

    Very awesome, informative article and has given me lots of good cues to use. Thanks for writing it.

    • thecookiemonster September 7, 2013 at 3:04 pm #

      I say go for it, so long as you feel stable and are keeping on your heels!! I used to curl my toes in when I was learning how to front squat and stay on my heels. Now I can squat without having to do that.

      Don’t get too over-obsessed with the butt wink. But I would definitely suggest taking some videos from the side, and then slowing them down on your computer so that you can look for any tension release (watch your knees at the same time and see if they also swing forward at that point; it will help indicate whether or not you have gotten loose with your hips)

      Both bar placements have their advantages and disadvantages. Typically speaking, low bar squatters can handle a bit more weight because they are using a lot of their back and also their PC, whereas high bar pretty much eliminates your back from the movement and utilizes mostly leg strength. I say just choose whatever works best for you. However, if you are experiencing butt wink issues, I would stay away from low bar squatting for the meantime until you can build more strength and flexibility in your hips and glutes.

      I will try to do a post on this this week, to clear up some questions. 🙂

      And no problem!! Thank you for reading!!

      • Sam September 8, 2013 at 11:08 am #

        Thanks, very useful. I do high bar squats for now, so it’s good to hear that’s the right decision. Especially because I have a bit of lordosis and don’t want to exaggerate my lower back arch with the low bar, either. Love how you reply with such thought and depth. Keep on blogging. 🙂

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