Category Archives: Barbell Training

In Defense of The Squat for Old People

 

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A loud minority of Internet Fitness Experts (IFEs) are busy proliferating the idea that the squat is of limited use and, in some cases, downright dangerous.  Some assert that the squat is an advanced movement, potentially requiring upwards of 60 corrective exercises for the fixing of movement deficiencies before actually learning it.  Others dismiss it completely since they’re not interested in being powerlifters, muscle-bound, or injured, while some just want to focus on aesthetics and more quad development, or any number of other reasons they can find to avoid squatting.

Nothing mobilizes the IFE more than the posting of the recommendation for older populations to strength train using barbells.  A photo or video of a 60+ year old lifter with a bar on their back or in their hands produces predictable outrage at the stupidity of such an endeavor, and a demonstration of a Starting Strength Coach expertly guiding a healthy 72-year-old guy through a modified squat teaching progression results in accusations of gross irresponsibility on the part of the coach.

While most of these things don’t require rebuttal or even comment, there are a few general themes pertaining to the squat that come up repeatedly in the context of the training of older populations.  Specifically, why they shouldn’t squat, or why a different, squat-like exercise, would be safer or better.

“Mobility”

This is the most common reason someone gives for either why he or she can’t squat, or why another person can’t squat.  In the elderly, IFEs argue that the lack of muscle extensibility around a joint has produced a situation in which the person couldn’t possibly squat safely.  The proof is in the fact that the elderly trainee looks shaky on the way down into the squat or off the box, and that they can’t reach full depth.

When people don’t go below parallel, it’s for one of two reasons.  They either have never been coached to do so, or they aren’t strong enough to achieve the range of motion.  It’s never due to mobility, in the absence of significant anatomical abnormalities.

The former can be fixed by proper coaching.  The latter is fixed by getting the trainee stronger with a leg press and takes a short time, although the timeline can be quite a bit longer depending on how deconditioned the trainee is.  For the worst cases, a high box will be used, then progressively shorter boxes until the squat is below parallel.  Then the squat is loaded with hand weights and then a barbell.  The point is that squatting correctly and getting stronger takes care of the mobility argument.  No amount of “mobility work” will get someone to squat correctly.  Coaching and getting stronger will.

Excessive Strain on the Back

To the IFE, tweaking your back when you’re old is the worst possible thing that could happen.  Surely, it’s safer to use a front squat or a goblet squat since old people are frail and their spines will snap at any moment.  It’s irresponsible to load an old person’s back with a bar and tell them to lean over so that they squat with their hips.  Just look at all the shear!

This silliness comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of the mechanics of a loaded barbell squat and of the stress, recovery, and adaptation cycle.  Yes, nearly the entire skeleton is under compressive and moment force in a squat.  I lack the knowledge of structural engineering to be able to explain this in sufficient detail, but I can tell you that a look at the structures of the vertebral bodies, the ligaments, tendons, and muscles surrounding them, and their arrangement, all strongly suggest that force transferred through the back segment held in normal anatomical extension is transferred in compression.  Moment force is a “shear force,” but “shearing” – sliding along a plane – does not occur in a normal spine.  For a normal spine to fail in shear, a significant force is required to overcome the overlapping nature of the pedicle/facet joints and the soft tissue surrounding them – something like those encountered in a car accident.  Open up your copy of Netter and take a look.

Yes, we do want the lifter to lean over.  We want them to use their hips and stress their backs because these are the structures that need the strength adaptation.  Compressive force on the bones is exactly what we’re looking for, especially in an older trainee.  Even though the rate of adaptation is significantly blunted in advanced age, adaptation still occurs and the benefits that come from loading the entire skeleton with the most weight possible, over the longest effective range of motion, and using the most muscle mass possible are critical to those who are fighting to maintain not only muscle mass, but also independence in their late years.

Safety

The last most common accusation in defense of suboptimal exercise prescription in lieu of squatting is the inherent danger and complexity of the squat – failing, of course, to take into account the fact that nobody gets under a bar and tries to squat 405 on their first day. Folks over 60 years old are typically risk averse and are the LEAST likely to attempt something they physically are incapable of doing, unlike 17-25 year olds.  The first day for an older trainee will be very similar to the first day for a person in their early 30s.  They will figure out what their starting loads will be and those loads will be appropriate for them.  The guy who is 30 may squat 175. The guy who is 70 may squat the bar. And the guy who is 85 may have to squat to a bench.  All of them will squat, though, and they’ll increase the stress a little bit every workout initially.  And they will all get stronger.  The difference is that the 30 year old will add hundreds of pounds to his squat during his training career, while the 85 year old will work hard to squat with a few plates on the bar.

Off the Comments Section and Into the Gym

Starting Strength Coaches have trained thousands of individuals, a very large percentage of which are older than 50.  The SSC understands that the body responds to stress by adapting, and understands a model of loaded human movement that allows for the efficient acquisition of strength.  Since they have such a deep understanding of the coaching model and of the programming model, they are undoubtedly in the best position, with the best tools, and with the most experience to be able to apply these principles via effective training, even if the methods require modification from time to time.  Discussion and critique is always welcome, but it’s time for the discussion to shift more toward the advancement of the universally useful strength, recovery, and adaptation principle and how to effectively put it into practice.

This article was first published on Starting Strength website: http://startingstrength.com/training/in_defense_of_the_squat_for_old_people

2016 Starting Strength Fall Classic – T-Shirt Pre-Sale Starts NOW!

It’s time again for the Fall Classic.  I’ll be running the meet at Wichita Falls Athletic Club on October 29th, 2016.  The contested lifts are the squat, the overhead press, and the deadlift.  Some of you may know this as a “CrossFit Total”.  This is a fantastic meet for both first time lifters and experienced competitors.

Sign up and rules info for the meet are here: 2016 Fall Classic Sign-Up

If you won’t be lifting in the meet, but want to support the Fall Classic by purchasing the Official Meet T-shirt, you can buy it prior to October 1st here: WFAC Fall Classic T-Shirt

 

I’m not flexible enough to squat | STARTING STRENGTH – COMMON MISCONCEPTIONS AND OUTRIGHT LIES

People will commonly tell me that they know strength training is great for them, but they’re just not flexible enough to squat or deadlift.  They’ve tried!  They can’t get below a quarter squat and this is obviously due to lack of flexibility in their hamstrings, hips, back, or some other thing.  If you think about this for more than a second, you’ll find that even in the low bar squat as explained and demonstrated in Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training by Mark Rippetoe (the most hamstring intensive of the squat variations), the hamstrings don’t actually change much in length from standing to the bottom of the squat.  The hamstrings cross both the hip and the knee and as the hip angle closes when you go down to the bottom of a squat, the knee angle is also closing.  The net affect is that the hamstrings stay about the same length the whole way down and are acting mostly isometrically.

So, what is going on when a relatively healthy person is unable to get into the bottom of even an unweighted squat? Barring any kind of anatomical issue (a rare thing), it’s a strength problem, not a flexibility problem.  These folks are literally not strong enough to get into this position, so they won’t allow themselves to.  If you don’t believe me, you can have them lightly hold onto the upright on the power rack, or some other stable object, and then have them go to a full squat.  They’ll do it with no problem.

The elderly, very sedentary, overweight, or weak people unable to squat the empty bar will need to do a little bit of work prior to being able to squat with a barbell.  There are a few ways to do this.  I’ve used a band in the power rack, squatting to a progressively lower box, and the leg press.  If you have access to a leg press, it’s probably the most efficient way to get this accomplished.  Keep in mind that folks who aren’t strong enough to squat will generally still be able to deadlift, so they will certainly do so, but you’ll replace the squat with the leg press for a few sessions or weeks until the trainee is able to squat with the empty bar.

Here’s an in-depth video on the leg press and it’s utility in a proper strength training gym.  Remember that it has a very specific purpose that doesn’t include loading it with every plate in the gym and “leg pressing” 900 lbs through 1/4 range of motion.

The Deadlift in 5 Steps

The Starting Strength Model assumes, as you should too, that gravity works in a direction that is perfectly vertical.  When you’re trying to pick up a heavy weight (probably the heaviest weight you are physically able to) in your hands and stand up with it, any effort that’s exerted in any direction other than directly opposite the force of gravity is wasted effort.

The deadlift is a simple lift.  You pick it up and you put it back down.  We should strive to create a consistent, easily reproducible setup that will allow us to maintain a vertical bar path. Thereby, ensuring that we pay due respect to the simple fact that heavy things want to move straight down.  You’re asking yourself, but what about my long femurs, long trunk, short arms……? Shouldn’t MY setup be different than some “ideal deadlifters”?   NO, the setup will be the same, but the resulting start position will look different for people with different anthropometries.  Individual lifters will have different hip heights, back angles, and knee angles, but the landmarks of a correct start position will remain consistent regardless of anthropometry.

The bar will start over the mid-foot, since that’s the balance point of the lifter-barbell system. The shoulders will be slightly in front of the bar creating about a 7 degree angle from the shoulder to the bar.  This will be true of all sufficiently heavy pulls, so we’re just going to start you there, since the goal is to get strong efficiently.

In 5 steps, here’s how to deadlift:

  1. Set your shins 1 inch from the bar.  Putting the bar at 1 inch from the bar puts it directly over the midfoot.
  2. Without bending your knees, reach down and grip the bar just outside your shins.  DO NOT MOVE THE BAR.
  3. Bend your knees and drop your shins until they touch the bar.  Where your butt is at this point is where it will remain throughout the rest of the setup and beginning of the pull.  Again: DO NOT MOVE THE BAR.
  4. Squeeze your chest up by pointing it at the wall in front of you.  This starts a wave of extension throughout the back that will result in a flat back.  If you find yourself on your toes at this point, rock back to shift your weight back to the midfoot.
  5. Drag the bar up your legs, keeping the bar in contact with your legs throughout the lift.

Watch here for visuals on how to do this:

Starting Strength – Common Misconceptions and Outright Lies | GOMAD

There’s a whole bunch of silliness on the internet when it comes to Starting Strength.  I don’t know what it is, but people come up with some really bizarre shit anytime someone brings up Mark Rippetoe or Starting Strength.  Most of it is perpetuated by people who haven’t read any of the material or are getting information from some third party and accepting it as truth.  This is the nature of things on the internet, but sometimes as a coach, you have to dispel some of this stuff when dealing with a client or interacting with folks online.  In this series of posts I’ll do my best to explain where the issue at hand came from and the truth behind it.

GOMAD – Gallon of Milk A Day

Also see: A Clarification – Rippetoe

GOMAD, or drinking a gallon of milk a day, has become almost synonymous with Starting Strength and with Rip.  “Should I drink a gallon of milk a day?” or more commonly: “I know Rip recommends drinking a gallon of milk a day, but……?” are probably the most recurring questions I get asked.  Not only that, but there are people who will outright dismiss a coach, the books, videos, forums, and all the other available information because of their inaccurate notion of when and why they’d recommend GOMAD. This is usually because they heard that their buddy’s buddy “did SS” last year and got fat or some other stupid crap.

Here’s the deal.  GOMAD is for a person who needs to gain a lot of weight. This person will be 17 to 25, male, underweight and will not have been able to keep weight on in the past.  And guess what, for that demographic, it works beautifully. Provided they’re actually doing the program, these folks get bigger and stronger.  The kind of bigger that they want to be. And when they’ve gained sufficient weight, or the weight gain starts going in the wrong direction, they cut out some or all of the milk. This process takes 3 to 4 months AND THEN THEY DON’T DRINK A GALLON OF MILK A DAY ANYMORE.

In my now 4 years as a Starting Strength Coach, coaching people regularly in that time, I’ve recommended GOMAD to 2 clients.  Largely because of the nature of the demographic that has the time and money to hire a regular strength coach, but nonetheless, we’re not going around telling everyone to drink a gallon of milk to get their gainzzz.

The recommendation won’t go away, because it’s very useful for the folks who need it. For people who won’t squat three days a week, are older, not underweight, women, or fat, it is simply inappropriate.  Yes, when these folks start a strength training program, they will probably have to eat more than they’re used to in order to recover, but these are relatively moderate increases compared to what the 5’9″, 145 lb, 23 year old who can’t squat 95 lbs would need.

The key here is that GOMAD is a powerful tool for the underweight novice in doing the program.  The guy who goes on GOMAD will only do it for a short time for a very specific purpose.  For the vast majority, though, “GOMAD is not for you”.

 

How to Squat – Gripping the bar

There’s nothing that works better for getting strong than basic barbell training.  Full range of motion lifts that load the entire skeleton are both efficient and effective in producing an adaptation that is beneficial for all aspects of human performance.   Whatever it is you do, whether it’s Krav Maga, sports, martial arts, or just life, you need to be stronger to be better at it.

There are always a lot of questions on the squat.  As a Starting Strength Coach, I teach the squat as described in Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training, by Mark Rippetoe.  The proper grip is a thumbless grip, with straight wrists.  The bar is placed under the traps, on top of the posterior deltoid, under the spine of the scapula.  Keeping the chest up and elbows back wedges the bar in place.  Don’t neglect setting up properly.  Issues with tightness at the bottom of the squat can sometimes be traced to a loose upper back and a crappy grip or bar position.

Here’s a video I put together for Starting Strength.  Comment below if you have any questions.