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Strength for front squats means strength for other exercises

Over the past 16 weeks or so, I have been working very hard on front squats = front squatting two times per week. I have used various rep ranges during this time and am currently reaping the results. This is what I have been doing:

Phase 1 (weeks 1-10)

Day 1: 3×8 front squats

Day 4: 8×3 front squats

This phase was actually, looking back, a technique building phase. It is not usually recommended to do front squats for high reps because the back tends to tire before the legs do and you can thoracic flexion (upper back rounding). My problem with cleans has always been that my upper back collapses, causing me to fail to squat the weight up purely because I did not have the core strength to keep my torso very upright. For the first 5 weeks or so, 8 reps of front squats was incredibly difficult for this reason – my upper back tended to round on the last couple of reps. I can happily say however, that by week 6, I had noticed a great improvement in my form. I was able to maintain good posture for the entire 8 reps/3 sets. I put this down to: increased strength, increased frequency of doing the movement and, the high time under tension that the upper body muscles have to be in when front squatting for 8 repetitions.

The 3×8 session was complemented with the 8×3 session. I went as heavy as I could with good form for 3 reps, and repeated 8 times. It may interest you to understand that, for the first 5 weeks of doing this, the weight difference between that used for the 3×8 and that used for the 8×3 was not much – because I was limited by my upper back strength. My focus on the 8×3 day was technique, not pushing all out 3 RMs. I focused on keeping the whole body tight, keeping my knees out and elbows up, and breathing.

By the time I got to week 8 of training these two sessions, I had plateaued with the 3×8 but my form had improved greatly for both 3×8 and 8×3. I decided to keep in the 3×8 and just carry on with the weights I had been doing (going up as and when I felt I could) but now to focus on strength for the other session. I reduced reps from 8×3 to 8×2 and used the 8×2 session to really get in some heavy weight with good form. I was able to maintain good form for 2 reps, which would have been a bit harder to do with 3 reps. The 3×8 day was focusing on the maintenance of good upper body posture and the 8×2 was focusing on lifting bigger numbers. By week 8, the difference in weight used between the 3×8 day and the 8×2 day was significant.

After a couple more weeks, the 3×8 wasn’t really getting any easier and I wasn’t going up in weight. The plateau wasn’t good for my self esteem so I decided to change the programme and came up with the next phase…

Phase 2 (weeks 11-14)

Day 1: 5×5 front squats

Day 4: 8×1 front squats

As you can see, day 1 is now very different. I have actually never had any success with the 5×5 scheme in all the years I’ve been training but I thought I would give it another try… I started out using the same weight that I had been using for the 3×8 for the 5×5. Doing 3 less reps felt much easier but the 5 sets still felt like a lot of work to get through. Again, I was focusing on good form for a challenging amount of weight. I never deliberately use the same weight for all sets on the 5×5, I base the weight to use on how easy/manageable the previous set was and I always try to do more than I did the week before. I go up very slowly however. I might do 4 sets at X kg and then the last set at X+1 kg. The following week, I will probably do 3 sets at X kg and 2 sets at X+1 kg. This is typically how I like to train and I feel it works very well for me.

The 8×2 was getting hard before, so I dropped it down to 8×1 and focused on getting high quality one repetitions 8 times. I was able to get the weight up fast using the 8×1 method. It was a lot less daunting only having to focus on 1 rep at a time!

It did not take long for the 5×5 weight used to go up. I was going up in weight every week consistently, supported by lifting a much heavier weight once x8 on the other day. I started to think that the 8×1 was an ‘easy way out’ because it was such low volume at this point so I changed the programme once again to something which allowed me to do 1 rep sets but in a different way…

Phase 4 (weeks 15 onwards)

Day 1: 5×5 front squats

Day 4: 54321 front squats

Day 4 was a very interesting programme! If you have not heard of it, it basically means you do 5 sets and in set 1 you do 5 reps, in set 2 you do 4 reps, set 3 is 3 reps, set 4 is 2 reps and set 5 is 1 rep. In a way it is a pyramid style of training. You put the weight up for each set. I have only been doing this for the last 3 weeks so it’s new to me but so far it has been very fun to do! I like it particularly because, there are fewer reps as the sets go on and they seem manageable because I don’t put the weight increment up by very much each time so it almost seems like I am lifting the same weight fewer times, which is very easy psychologically! Since front squats are a very unnatural exercise for me due to my poor posture (hunch back), I always focus primarily on technique and upper back rigidity and uprightness, before anything else. So I choose the right weight to allow me to maintain this form.

I am finding that having two days of 5 set front squats is a lot of volume but I know my body and I work well with lots of volume.

 

The point of this article was to actually explain the carryover from all this front squatting I’ve been doing. Now I’ve read in lots of different places that front squats don’t tend to carryover to back squat strength. For me, I disagree. My back squat weight has gone up significantly after all this work on the front squats. I am back squatting once a week in addition to front squatting twice a week and I definitely feel stronger in the back squat (and the numbers show it!). Not only has my back squat got stronger, my clean and jerk, and my clean and jerk separately, have all got stronger too. I imagine that practising the upright posture of the front squat for lots of reps and lots of sets over a long period of time (several months now), has really carried over to the start position for the jerk, probably due to strong abdominal muscles and a very rigid torso. My rack position has obviously also been getting a lot of practice and I no longer have any issues with elbow position or elbows dropping. My elbows feel tight, up and strong.

I am extremely happy with all the work I’ve been doing and the results are really showing. At the moment, I have no issues with my front squat – I am getting stronger every week, form is excellent at the moment, and other exercises have improved as a consequence of all the front squatting. I think I finally understand and agree with what lots of sporting experts say when they say that the front squat is a great athletic exercise and can make you a good all round athlete.

The ultimate fix for knee valgus

It has taken me around 6 or 7 years of squatting multiple times per week to find this out. I have tried and tested lots of different things. I had given up hope that knee valgus was just my anatomy and it was something that could never be fixed. But I believe I have finally found the remedy. Spotters who watch me squat have noticed a massive improvement in the behaviour and movement of my knees.

Here is what has worked for me, better than any other method I have tried…

Increased squatting

I don’t believe there’s any such thing as too much squatting, if you know what you’re doing. In the last three months I have been squatting five times per week (a combination of back, front and overhead) and my body has adapted to this.

I have also changed my programming. Since I am a strength athlete, I have spent the last couple of years prioritising heavy squats such as in the 5×5 programme. I hadn’t gone over 5 reps until three months ago. I stopped 5 rep squatting and instead, I have changed things around and now I’m doing 4×8-10 twice a week. The weight is less but the overall volume is more (5×5 is 25 reps compared to 4×10 which is 40 or 4×8 which is 32) and the total  amount of weight lifted per session is about the same. Not only has this increased rep and set training improved my mental toughness and cardiovascular endurance, it has given me enough chances to really focus on my form and my knees.

Glute medius activation

I always knew my glute medius was responsible for the knee valgus, to some extent, however until three months ago I had not worked out the optimal way to activate it. I had tried a lot of things – clam shells, monster mini band walks, side raises, etc. You want to know what has finally made a difference? Weighted side leg raises. Before squatting, I always lie on the floor, hold a heavy weight plate on my outside thigh, and lift my leg up slowly and then down until I feel my glute medius burning. I repeat on the other leg. I vary how I do them – some days I’ll do 2 or 3 sets of say 20 lifts per leg (just before they fatigue) and other days I’ll just go all out max until I can’t do any more. Sometimes I’ll hold at the top for 10 seconds as well. 

image from http://www.pinterest.com/pin/280138039296841010/

image from http://www.pinterest.com/pin/280138039296841010/

The image above illustrates how to do this exercise but, if you want to do what I do, hold a weight plate just above your knee to stress the glute medius even more.

These two things have helped me more than anything else ever has in reducing my knee valgus. I’ve also done some other things but I can’t tell you whether they’ve done much, these two listed here are the only two I’ve carried on doing consistently.

Other things I have done:

  • Squat with ‘duck feet’, i.e. point toes out very wide. Some people disagree with this but if your hips are internally rotated too much then you need to compensate with toes out extremely wide. This position makes it much harder for the knees to move in. You can try it yourself – squat with normal feet vs toes very wide and make your knees cave each time. Do you notice a difference?
  • Squat with knees together. You can do some warm up sets like this. If you squat with your thighs together then your knees have nowhere to collapse to since they are already touching. It’ll feel weird at first but this is a good exercise that hit the inner quads.

I really hope these tips help you. I would love to know. The key is however, consistency. You have to maintain these exercises over a period of time (ideally, months). I am still doing them and I plan to continue doing them until the time comes (if it ever does!!!) when I can trust my knees to behave themselves on their own!

Zercher squats for Olympic lifting?

For a good clean, you need a strong core (read about core muscles here). In the clean, once the barbell has been pulled from the floor (first pull) to shoulders (second pull) and is caught in the deep squat position (third pull), you will not be able to ascend unless your core can handle it.

The primary “core” muscles I am talking about for this blog post are abdominals, erector spinae and the latissimus dorsi, although of course all of them come into play.

If you’ve been following this blog, you will know that I have a tendency to round my upper back when coming up out of the deep front squat position. It feels like my abdominals are folding and my back caves with it. In a failed clean, I will lose the bar because of this. I just won’t have the strength to come up from the squat or, the bar will just fall forward off my shoulders.

What are Zercher squats?

Coach and me decided to incorporate Zercher squats (link to video demonstration) into my programme to help with this core strength. More specifically, the core strength required dynamically when coming up out of the deep squat position. There are lots of exercises you can do to improve your core strength, but the Zercher seems perfect because a) it is a squat and b) the weight is held in front of your body just like in a clean and c) it’s less taxing on the legs due to the weight being lighter. The Zercher basically allows us to train explosiveness with our legs because the weight is lighter so we can focus on our speed and glute power (Zerchers also allow us to squat deep with more ease) and allows us to train our core muscles with a weight heavy enough to really tax them.

How do the benefits transfer across to the clean in Olympic weightlifting?

Because the weight is held at your stomach, your centre of gravity is lower, so Zercher squats force you to keep a very, very stable core. Your upper back, mid back and abs must be braced throughout the movement. They also encourage you to better manage, or optimise, your breathing. For example, the only way I can complete a good rep for a Zercher squat is by inhaling at the start of the movement and not exhaling until I am back up again. By holding your breath* you are keeping a solid, stable structure to lift the weight efficiently.

*Although some people advise against holding your breath whilst lifting, I enforce it.

A strong, stable core is imperative to help you get out of that bottom squat position in the clean. I’ve also read that Zerchers are one of the best ways of improving your deadlift, which, in my mind, will also transfer across to the first pull in the clean.

Try it and let me know how you get on. One thing I will say is to use a heavy duty barbell pad (!!) to wrap around the bar because when the weight gets heavy, Zercher squats can really hurt your biceps! 

york heavy duty barbell pad

A mini band below the knees stops the knees caving during squats!

I have tried ALL the different methods to fix valgus collapse (knee valgus/knees caving inward). After a good nine months of squatting with a mini band BELOW my knees, I feel I can now confidently say that this has been the number one method to correct this issue.

Enough talking, what is this miraculous fix then?

Put a mini band BELOW your knees

mini band below the kneesThis input forces you to keep your knees out during the squat by getting the lateral hip muscles firing. It also helps to think about pushing your knees out on the descent in the squat as well as on the ascent. And always push with your heels too. If the band starts to draw your knees in, that is your cue to press them back out with your hips and glutes – do not let the band pull them in!

bweightsquatknesspress-b-male[1]Over time, you will learn how correct knee tracking movement should feel and one day you’ll be able to squat without the band at all.

I have tried a mini band above the knees, on the thighs as well as almost on the kneecaps. Neither of these methods have been as amazingly successful as having the band BELOW the knees.

One way of looking at the 5×5 – same weight for each set or not?

5×5 same weight for all sets?

I was recently reading about one of the most common sets/reps scheme, which is the 5×5 strength routine. 5 reps is generally used for building strength rather than hypertrophy.

Alternatively, lifters might prefer to use the 3×8-10 sets/reps scheme, generally used for hypertrophy. Reps of 8-10 is normally around 70-80% of your 1RM.

Okay, so I wanted to compare two versions of the 5×5 method. They are:

1. Cumulative fatigue – using the same weight for each set (typically all 5 sets will be at 85% of your 1RM)

2. Pyramid – increasing the weight for each set so you might aim to totally max out on the final set, or even only achieve 4 reps on the final set (so here set 1 might be at 70%, set 2 75%, set 3 80%, set 4 85% and set 5 90% of your 1RM).

What does this mean?

Let me use an example of a woman who has a deadlift 1RM of 100kg.

What would the two methods look like?

Method 1 – Cumulative fatigue

Set 1 = 5 reps at 85kg

Set 2 = 5 reps at 85kg

Set 3 = 5 reps at 85kg

Set 4 = 5 reps at 85kg

Set 5 = 5 reps at 85kg

How would this workout feel? I’d imagine it would feel extremely difficult if 85% is representative of a 1 set 5 rep max then imagine having to do this for 5 sets? I’d make a guess that the woman would have to rest for 4-5 minutes between sets to make the recovery. She might also fail to make 5 reps on the fourth and/or final set.

Method 2 – Pyramid

Set 1 = 5 reps at 70kg

Set 2 = 5 reps at 75kg

Set 3 = 5 reps at 80kg

Set 4 = 5 reps at 85kg

Set 5 = 5 reps at 90kg

According to this, sets 1, 2 and 3 fall inside the hypertrophy percentage range (70-80%) however, hypertrophy is best obtained when the muscles are under tension for 45-60 seconds. 5 reps will probably not take this amount of time. It probably takes more like 25-45 seconds.

How would this workout feel? I imagine it’d feel a lot easier than method 1. Sets 1, 2 and 3 should feel easy. Set 4 is likely to feel manageable too because she has only just reached her 5RM. Sets 1, 2 and 3 might well have felt like warm up sets to her. I don’t think our lifter would have trouble hitting all 5 reps here on set 4. She might need less rest time between sets, maybe 3-5 minutes instead of 4-5 as in method 1.

Now what about set 5? 5 reps at 90kg? This is 90% of her 1RM, which according to charts, tells me a 90% 1RM corresponds to a 3RM. So our lifter might make 3 reps on set 5. No doubt this set would be challenging.

 

Conclusion

I think method 1 is going to be a lot more tiring. The appropriate weight is being used for the correct rep range, i.e. she is lifting a weight that she can ONLY lift 5 times, 5 times. Therefore her muscles are being worked in a way that will make them stronger.

Method 2 is interesting. I almost feel that sets 1, 2 and 3 are “wasted” being used as working sets because she is lifting a weight than she can clearly lift MORE than 5 times and surely that defeats the object of doing a 5 rep set? Theoretically, our lifter would be able to deadlift 70kg and 80kg more than 5 times (70% and 80% respectively and in the 8-10 hypertrophy scheme). Put in another way, she might be using an 8RM as opposed to a 5RM but being “forced” to stop at 5 reps.

I think set 5 is useful though. Our lifter will be able to try out more than she might’ve otherwise, and will be less tired than in method 1 (because the weights used in workout 2 are less). Set 5 will be testing and excellent for strength gains.

Which workout method will be better overall for strength or for hypertrophy? I’d be inclined to say that method 1 is better for both strength and hypertrophy. Why?

a) The appropriate weight is being used for each set, i.e. a 5RM for each of the 5 sets. This is the optimal weight for strength. The volume is high (25 reps) and each rep is as hard.

b) If we look at method 2, it is using a hypertrophy weight (70-80%) but not a hypertrophy rep range (it’s using 5 reps not 8-10). So sets 1, 2 and 3 are not going to be very hard. They will certainly be manageable. Sets 1, 2 and 3 are also not optimal for strength gains because although they are 5 reps, they are not heavy enough weights to get the full benefit. Our lifter is lifting a weight that she COULD lift 8 or 10 times, but she is making herself stop at 5 because the workout says so. I’d almost go as far to call this pointless, if it weren’t for reaping the rewards on sets 4 and 5. Method 2 gives the lifter the opportunity to “test the waters” at above her 5RM. This will be helpful in breaking plateaus and building new strength.

However, overall, due to the lower amount of work required in method 2, I’d say that method 1 was superior for both strength and hypertrophy in this theoretical case.

Of course, weightlifting doesn’t work this way. I just thought it was interesting to talk about, since I’d been thinking about it. There are many more factors involved in how strength and hypertrophy are gained. This was just one way of looking at it. Both methods have their place – the key is progressive overload, which means progressing every session; adding a little bit more weight, less rest time, etc.

The correct way to do Push Jerks

Today I was coached on push jerks. What is a good reason to incorporate the push jerk into your training programme? Well, push jerks require less depth than the split jerk so they train excellent hip drive, a very vertical stance, and confidence in holding a heavy weight overhead in only a very shallow lower body position. It is good to train the body in unfamiliar ways.

The push jerk is a good alternative to the split jerk and a good addition to any overhead training. The push jerk is a very useful assistance exercise when training the Olympic lifts because it allows a very heavy weight (less than only in the split jerk) to be lifted overhead. You should be able to push jerk more than you can push press and push press more than you can strict press.

Amount of weight used in the presses

Strict press < Push press< Push jerk < Split jerk In fact, the weight used in the push jerk should actually be extremely close to that used in the split jerk (it can be as close as just 5kg less).

woman jerking in competition

The traditional split jerk.

The correct way to do push jerks

This is how I execute push jerks:

  1. Position the bar on your shoulders, as if you were about to perform a split jerk
  2. Dip vertically
  3. Now perform a vertical jump straight up in the air at the same time as pressing the bar straight up over head. The pelvis should be tucked under and torso very vertical
  4. When you land, your feet should be in almost the exact same position as how they were at the start
  5. When you land, you should have bent knees but you should not be anywhere close to being in a squat position. The legs will be in a similar stance to that in the end of a power clean

Push jerks can lead to squat jerks

Kendrick Farris Squat jerk

Kendrick Farris finishing his famous squat jerk. Image from: www.workhardworkharder.com

Once you get confident at push jerking heavy loads, you can consider progressing on to the squat jerk. This is essentially a push jerk except that you ride the weight down into the full squat position. It is identical to the split jerk except for the finishing stance, i.e. you finish in a squat stance rather than a lunge/split.

Most athletes use the split jerk in competition. Why?

  1. The bar does not have to go so high overhead. In the squat jerk, you have to drive the bar much higher.
  2. It is easier to achieve balance in the centre of the body, due to the splitting of the front and back legs. There is also a small amount of room to “fix” an unstable bar by shifting your feet around. In a squat jerk, there is little to zero room for error because you are essentially stuck in the position you land in.

Why would some people squat jerk instead?

  1. They have an extremely strong mobile casino rock bottom squat position and superior leg strength.
  2. You an achieve more of an upright torso in the squat jerk.

As with any lift, you get better only by practising. I have asked my coach why some people squat jerk instead and he explained that some people just seem to “naturally” find it better than the split position. But we both agree that everybody is an individual and the goal is to get the heaviest weight over your head – whichever way you choose to do it. I imagine that if you train one particular lift over and over, you will get good at that particular lift. So, train the squat jerk and you will get good at the squat jerk. Train the split jerk and you will get good at the split jerk!

There are some impressive Olympic lifters who squat jerk instead of split jerk. Three good examples are Pyrros Dimas, Kendrick Farris and Lu Xiaojun.

Pyrros Dimas video:

He lands in a quarter squat position and rises very quickly.

Kendrick Farris video:

If you have not already seen or heard about Kendrick Farris, I recommend browsing some videos showing his clean and jerks. His jerks are extremely dramatic and intense!

Lu Xiaojun video:

Love this. Looks strong, comfortable and natural for him.

 

My coach has suggested that I trial out squat jerks. Because I am so comfortable in that rock bottom squat position, he thinks I might like them. I am very good at overhead squats and I have the shoulder flexibility to perform them in the clean/squat jerk grip. I”m going to try them out and see what happens!

Do you split jerk or squat jerk? Why or why not?

The ‘bounce’ in the squat clean

The full (or “squat”) clean consists roughly of 1) a first pull 2) a second pull 3) a front squat. The ideal scenario would be that you have the strength to simply front squat up out of that rock bottom position. You don’t have to think much about your technique, you simply squat the weight up. In some scenarios however, the lifter does not have adequate leg strength to simply ‘squat’ the weight up out of the hole. This is often the case for those who have front squats that are very close in weight to the weight they can clean. At present I am one of these lifters, but I am working on changing that… Continue reading

Elbows up and front squats

Recently I’ve been having problems with staying upright during front squats. “Elbows up” has been the most successful cue for me to keep as vertical as possible.

The benefits of front squatting

It’s an obvious one, but (for myself at least) the biggest benefit of front squatting, is how helpful it is in its carryover to the Clean. If you are primarily training the Olympic lifts, front squats should be an essential, core part of your training programme. A sensible Olympic lifter will always make sure his or her front squat is better than their clean. In my mind, the basic sequence of the Clean & Jerk lift is 5 movements, which are: 1) Pull 2) Receive 3) Front Squat 4) Recovery 5) Jerk

Notice that the front squat is number 3 out of a total of 5. You do not want to be failing the front squat part of the Clean & Jerk. You have already expended energy on numbers 1 and 2, but you still need lots of energy for numbers 4 and 5.

So that being said, if your front squat is a good weight more your clean, you will have a greater chance of having a successful Clean & Jerk. Most Olympic lifters can clean about 90% of their front squat. At the moment, I am only able to clean 85% of my front squat. And it shows. I am often unable to front squat up out of the clean during training. Hence I am working on improving my front squat. Ideally, I would feel most comfortable with my max front squat being about 10kg more than my max clean. Continue reading

How am I stronger at overhead squats than front squats?

I’ve noticed that I can overhead squat the same weight as I can front squat with good form. Initially this surprised me… because overhead squatting is arguably a lot harder than front squatting. Overhead squatting requires excellent shoulder strength and excellent balance and core stability. When I mentioned this to my coach, he explained that yes I would be surprised that some people are better at overhead squatting than front squatting, typically because good overhead squatters have phenomenal shoulder strength. In particular, some of the Chinese Oly lifters can clean/jerk-grip overhead squat more than they front squat. Continue reading