Archive for March, 2012

Getting it done (when you aren’t fresh)

Monday, March 19th, 2012

The use of different periodization models are essential if training is to continue in a safe and progressive manner. Beyond the selection of an organisational model, there are ample scientific principles that can be applied to training in order to enjoy adaptation. That said, we are not machines (as much as I wish I was) therefore even the most cutting edge and individualised training programme can leave you a bit beaten up and less motivated to ‘get it done’. Of course, a deload week in every three – five weeks of loading will help, as will good nutrition, supplementation and sleep. How about those days where you’ve been so busy prepping for a work presentation that you had three straight days of bad sleep? And the days where the *insert niggling injury* is playing up again? Or worse, the days where you’re suppose; to clean the house, do the shopping, pick up the kids, walk the dog, make dinner for your partner…Then muster the energy for a max effort lift. Basically, life is going to get in the way. There is no way around it – no quick fix or easy option. Being prepared always helps; however, there will be days when even the most prepared are having an ‘off’ day.

One of many very valuable lessons that I learned from my time at Cressey Performance was that if (or when) injury occurs there is always something that can be trained. Of course, don’t train an injured muscle if it’s internally sore (beyond muscle fatigue sore) yet keep in mind that the goal you have set out to achieve doesn’t care about injuries or excuses. So figure it out. Persist and succeed.

To use myself as an example, after a subluxation of my left shoulder I couldn’t do many strength and conditioning moves. It was (and still is) very annoying; however, I got myself in the gym days later to do my rehab and discover what I could do. Again, I won’t suggest storming into the gym and banging out loads of overhead presses – at that time it would have been flat out stupid and sore. What could I do? Can’t back squat but front squat is ok. Can’t overhead press or bench press but DB floor press is ok. Ultimately, there are no excuses. Focus on the positive and progress it, all the while making slow and steady gains in the weaker areas (I’m almost ready for back squats again…and overhead work). The path of progression is not linear and there is going to be more than one bump in the road, I mean just  last week I was doing some light judo and walked away with my thumb looking like this: 

A week later is it fully healed? Of course not. Will it stop me? Of course not.  In the grand scheme of things, it’s not my spine – it’s my thumb.  I’ll just tape it up, apply a thumb-less grip for a month or two and I’ll progress forward. Persist and succeed.

As I’ve alluded to, training smart is essential for continued progression. When I launched FMT I was on a mission to communicate to people about training smart (the use of a programme, periodization, deload weeks, sensible exercise selection and form etc) to maximise potential.  Though that message is still just as important, if you don’t train hard then it’s all a waste of time. Training hard should be the given. No matter what your knowledge base is. Training smart is the responsibility of coaches (myself included) to communicate, plan and implement. Persist and succeed.

The importance of box squat variations & practical applications

Sunday, March 11th, 2012

The squat is one of the most popular movements in the world. Everybody squats. Everyday. Athletes perform the squat and its variations in an attempt to develop strength and power while bodybuilders use it for building lower body mass. Yoga practitioners use the squat to increase flexibility and even popular celebrity fitness dvd’s include it to help all the people dancing around in their living room sculpt glutes of steel. In fact, even people who don’t actively exercise squat at some point – everyone’s got to use the bathroom right?

Many different techniques exist due to the various populations that enjoy the benefits of regularly performing squats. Each population has ‘fine-tuned’ the movement to cater for their needs; for example, an Olympic weightlifter will generally have a narrower stance than a competitive power lifter. The topic of the squat and its variations may warrant a full article at FMT sometime in the future; however, the scope of this article is to uncover the benefits of box squats and when they can be used.

The Importance of the Stretch-Shortening Cycle
The stretch shortening cycle (SCC) is paramount in sport. This process refers to a stretching of an active muscle immediately followed by shortening action. In the squat this means stretching of the quadriceps and glutes followed by a contraction (or shortening) of the same muscles. Also known as the stretch reflex, it can be broken down into the myotatic stretch reflex and the inverse stretch reflex. The former essentially senses the speed of the stretch and is located in the muscle’s belly spindle cells, while the latter makes use of the golgi tendon organ whereby the muscle almost switches off to prevent tearing.  Plyometric training is a method associated with training the SSC in an attempt to improve explosive strength. Activities such as: med ball throws, clap press ups, bounding, jumping and lots of other exercises that involve a fast eccentric-concentric action can be used. That said, with the correct percentages, common movements that involve the SSC (squats and bench presses) can be programmed in a manner where the SSC is dominant.

So why box squat?
An important concept to understand is that the box squat involves a static-overcome-by-dynamic action meaning there is an element of overcoming inertia when performing the movement. Therefore, any athlete whose sport involves this process will benefit from the exercise. Consider a sprinter in the blocks, a rugby player at the edge of a scrum, an American football lineman, and a swimmer on the blocks. Keeping tight is important with box squats and a good way to visualise the process is to imagine a coiled spring. An athlete that has utilised box squats in their training will possess a strong start and explosive edge.The box squat can be performed by doing a squat to a box with a pause, or by using a ‘tap-and-go’ technique. In fact, fitness professionals like to distinguish between the variations because the technique used will impact on the loading selected and the SSC involvement. If further clarity is needed between the differences between box squats and squats to a box (interesting stuff) check out this video.

Why some coaches don’t use them
I’ve heard the argument that sitting on a box with load is unsafe due to the loading on the spine when overcoming the static position of the box squat. This case is not presented by physiotherapists or back specialists (I may reconsider my position on box squats if someone like Dr Stuart McGill ever publishes a paper that has uncovered the detrimental effects box squats have on spinal health), moreover, this argument is negated if a tight squatting posture is maintained. Further rational for the exclusion of box squats are based around the shin angle;  the traditional back squat creates a shin angle of ~45 degrees, which mimics the angle of the shins in most athletic endeavours, such as sprinting. In contrast, the box squat allows an athlete to ‘sit back’ and coaches encourage an almost vertical (60-90degree) shin angle in order to fully engage the hamstrings during the movement (1). To go against the status-quo: the shin angle isn’t a bad thing, it’s a good thing! Yes, training with a shin angle of ~45degrees is important; however, if athletes always experience this in their chosen sport and are restricted to it in the gym all-year-round then quad dominant will be taken to a whole new level while the hamstrings wither away into the untrained and weak abyss. I don’t want to reinvent the wheel here, so checkout this article to understand the importance of the posterior chain.

Beyond the hamstrings: other reasons to box squat
Drawing on personal experience, I have had many situations where I have utilised box squats for teaching technique -especially on overhead squats. Sometimes I’ll use it for one set for a beginner to ‘get it’, or maybe they’ll need a couple of sets or even sessions to practice the pelvic control (I had such a session with a new client 3 hours prior to posting this). In contrast, I utilise the box squat throughout whole mesocycles with regular gym goers, amateur and elite athletes. Case in point: Gintaras (FMT grappler client) performed the back squat ‘ass-to-grass’ low with near perfect form. After two months of regular back squatting he could squat 1.45 of his body weight; however, I knew that to fully unlock his potential and get him STRONG he would have to engage the hamstrings more (sit back more) and so guess what the next two months of his program included? Yip, you got it: box squats.

Box squats are also used in research to ensure a rigorous investigation. Researchers use the movement to provide consistency in squat depth (2) and because of the value it has to specific sports (3).

Practical Applications
In summary, there are many situations where the box squats plays a valid role in a strength and conditioning program. From elite athletes that will throw around twice their body weight to complete beginners that must be (re)taught how to move properly. The list below outlines some situations where individuals would benefit from regular box squatting:

An individual has no pelvic control (can’t maintain neutral or achieve anterior tilt on descend of squat).

An athlete scores poorly on the static vertical jump (or seated vertical jump).

Slow sprint time from 0-40m.

Can’t achieve full depth in overhead squats, back squats or front squats.

Variation in a squat program to continue progress and adaptation.

When an athlete is quad dominant and needs some solid hamstring development.

(1)A, Christos., Gill, N., Keogh. J., Hopkins. W., & Beaven, M. 2010. Effects of a short-term pre-season training programme on the body composition and anaerobic performance of professional rugby union players. Journal of Sports Sciences, 28(6) p679–686.

(2)Crewther, B., Gill, N., Weatherby, R & Lowe, T. 2009. A comparison of ratio and allometric scaling methods for normalizing power and strength in elite rugby union players. Journal of sport sciences, 27 (14), p1575

(3)L, Simmons. 2005. Benefits of Box squatting. [Online]
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Accessed on 14th Feb. 2012.