When working with a new lifter, it is vital to their future success and strength to instill proper technique and sound fundamentals before trying to load the barbell.
Weight training needs to be approached in the same way you would break down and practice teaching a child how to throw a ball, swing a bat, or tackle an opponent. You wouldn't put them in the batter's box against a 90 mph fastball to learn how to hit, would you? The emphasis should always be on building a strong foundation of proper technique and mechanics in the full range of motion before scaling up the weight and intensity.
The focus of this article is one of the most important lifts in the weight room—the Squat. Let's start with how I teach the movement to my new lifters. For one, we always start with just body weight. Then I like to use three simple cues:
- 1: Chest Up
- 2: Butt Back
- 3 Knees Out
I have found that using simple, direct cues such as these gives the lifter the ability to modify their movements quickly and effectively but more importantly, the ability to understand what is actually being asked of them. Warning: Even with these simple cues, some athletes may still struggle with a bodyweight Squat. This can be due to a number of reasons. The two most common are either a lack of mobility or a lack of stability through the full range of motion.
To identify and improve these weaknesses, I implement the Eccentric/Isometric Squat. This is the technical way to say that I have the athletes perform the Squat very slowly and hold for a count at their bottom position. This variation can be performed as a Back Squat, Front Squat, Goblet Squat, or just about any other squat you can imagine. When dealing with beginners, we do it only with body weight and use it as a diagnostic tool.
Again, I have the athlete focus on the three cues of chest up, butt back and knees out. But what makes this variation different is the time under tension.
- The athlete will lower into their squat very slowly (performing an eccentric that lasts 3-5 seconds).
- Once they achieve their full depth, I then have them hold an isometric at the bottom position for 3-5 seconds.
- Finally, the athlete will slowly rise out of the squat with a 3-5 second concentric and return to the starting position.
That's one rep, and I often have my athletes perform four sets of five reps.
This variation is tremendous for building muscle and strength in the lower body, but more importantly, it can be used to identify weaknesses or imbalances the athlete might have without putting a heavy load on the athlete.
It doesn't sound so hard for an advanced athlete or someone who's been lifting for a considerable amount of time, but many of my younger lifters (mainly middle school-aged kids) struggle to perform a good Bodyweight Squat.
While the athlete is descending and ascending in their Squat, I am looking for breaks in the movement pattern. By having the athlete slowly lower, hold and raise, each for 3-5 seconds, I can do this much easier and more accurately. The Eccentric/Isometric Squat truly enables me to identify if the athlete has a weak link in their range of motion, and at which precise point that break occurs.
I tend to notice two common errors. One is that at a certain point during their descent, the athlete will lose control and plummet to the bottom position instead of being able to continue to lower slowly and under control. Second, they may reach a point where they stop descending significantly short of a parallel squat and start leaning forward at the torso.
In the first example where the athlete starts to plummet, the problem is a lack of stability. With the second example, the athlete can no longer lower their hips, so they begin to lean forward. This signals a lack of mobility through the full range of the motion. It's also easier to notice these mistakes when using this slower version of the Squat, but the million dollar question is how can these flaws be fixed?
You'll hear a lot of different answers to that one question, but for my money, isometric holds are one of the most effective methods for cleaning up a sloppy squat. Here's how it works:
Isometric holds are a game changer. With an isometric hold at the bottom of the movement, the athlete is able to increase stability and mobility at a high rate. When you contract a muscle isometrically for 3 seconds or longer, it not only strengthens that angle, but also the ranges both 15 degrees up and down from that angle (I learned this from John Quint at a Westside Barbell Presentation).
If an athlete can't perform a full Bodyweight Squat, have them freeze and hold an isometric contraction for 3-5 seconds at the lowest point they can hit before their mechanics start to break down. So now we're using that same Eccentric/Isometric Squat we used as a diagnostic tool to actually help the athlete improve the pattern.
We most commonly use this method with our middle school-aged athletes, and they tend to see improvements with this technique quite quickly. For most newbies who struggle to perform a Bodyweight Squat through a full range of motion, it usually only takes 1-2 weeks of integrating this method to start seeing significant gains in mobility and stability. We continue to hammer home those three important cues (chest up, butt back, knees out) as the athlete trains with the isometric holds. Only once they've demonstrated the ability to execute a Bodyweight Squat with good stability and range of motion do we start loading the movement.
Photo Credit: Dragonimages/iStock
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