This installment of quick tips comes from Cressey Sports Performance coach, Tony Bonvechio. Enjoy! -EC
1. Avoid over-tucking your elbows when performing the bench press.
It’s widely accepted that to bench press more weight and protect your shoulders, you should tuck yours elbows tightly to yours sides and touch the bar low on the chest. This may reduce the range of motion you have to press, but unless you’re a 300-pound powerlifter with a huge belly, your elbows may still drift too far past the midline of the body if you tuck too much. This can add unwanted stress on the shoulders and make the front of the shoulder cranky over time.
It’s similar to tucking the elbows too tight to the body during rowing variations - it makes it easy to let shoulder slip into too much extension. That’s why we coach athletes to row with a bit more space between the armpit and the elbow. You limit anterior humeral (upper arm) glide while still getting full scapular (shoulder blade) retraction.
Instead, keep the elbows about 45 degrees away from the body and touch the bar somewhere around the nipple line. This also reduces the moment arm between the shoulders and the bar, limiting the horizontal distance the bar needs to travel and making it easier to keep your elbows under the bar for a smooth lockout.
2. Optimize your leg drive to make the bench press more shoulder-friendly.
On that note, using proper leg drive can spare the shoulders by accelerating the bar though the portion of the lift where the shoulders are under the most stress. The less time you spend grinding the bar through the first few inches off the chest, the better.
Optimal leg drive technique differs from lifter to lifter, but foot placement dictates leg drive technique. Lifters with shorter legs tend to thrive with the feet hooked tightly under the bench and the heels off the ground, while longer-legged lifters do better with the feet out wide and heels flat.
Either way, if you plan on competing in powerlifting, you have to abide by your federation’s rules, which may require you to keep your heels on the ground. Here are some tips for choosing the right foot position:
3. Try dark roast coffee to reduce caffeine jitters.
At first I didn’t believe it when Greg Robins told me this, but it’s actually true: dark roast coffee has less caffeine that light roast coffee. And while the difference in actual caffeine content by volume may be small, dark roast coffee is harder to drink in mass quantities than light roast, so a bolder cup may reduce overall caffeine consumption if it gets you to drink less coffee overall. If your morning joe gives you jitters, consider switching to a darker roast.
4. Slow down the concentric phase of isolation exercises.
As performance coaches, we constantly trying to help our athletes become more powerful. That means we’re often coaching them to perform the concentric portion of most exercises explosively to enhance rate of force development. But when it comes to small muscle groups that often get “overshadowed” when performing single-joint exercises, sometimes we have to slow down.
Specifically at CSP, getting athletes to “feel” their rotator cuff or lower traps during arm care exercises can be challenging, especially if they rush through the concentric phase. Slowing down the tempo of all phases of the exercise usually cleans things up by keeping athletes in a better position and reducing contribution of unwanted synergists. For example, taking 3-5 seconds to externally rotate the humerus during cuff work can prevent the deltoid or lat from taking over.
5. When setting up for the front squat, exhale first.
I stole this trick from Miguel Aragoncillo and it works wonders for athletes whose elbows drop during front squats. Take your grip on the bar and before you unrack it, give a good hard exhale to get your ribs down. Then, inhale into your belly and back, drive your elbows up and unrack the bar.
While “elbows up” is a great cue for front squats, it won’t work if the athlete doesn’t set his or her ribcage in a solid position during the setup. Exhaling first gives you a better zone of apposition, allowing for a fuller breath and creating greater intra-abdominal pressure to keep you upright. Like Miguel told me, “Front squats are just abs and legs, dude.”
Tony Bonvechio (@BonvecStrength) is a strength and conditioning coach at Cressey Sports Performance in Hudson, MA. A former college baseball player turned powerlifter, he earned his Master’s degree in Exercise Science from Adelphi University. You can read more from Tony at www.BonvecStrength.com.
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With 2012 winding down, I’ll be dedicating this week to the best content of the year, based on traffic volume at EricCressey.com. I’ll kick it off today with my most popular articles from the past year.
1. 5 Reasons You Have Tight Hamstrings - This article received about 24,000 more views than the next most popular post of the year. I guess a lot of people have tight hamstrings!
2.Are Pull-ups THAT Essential? - People love controversy, and when you call into question the risk/reward of one of the most sacred strength training exercises of all time, that's exactly what you get!
The squat is one of the most revered strength training exercises of all time, and the front squat is a popular variation on this compound lift. However, like many lifts, it's often performed incorrectly, and in many cases used by folks for whom it isn't a good fit. To that end, I thought I'd devote this article to outlining everything you need to know to be successful with the front squat.
What Makes the Front Squat Different?
A few primary factors differentiate a front squat from a traditional back squat.
First, the bar is positioned on the front of the shoulder girdle rather than on the upper back. In the process, an athlete is given a counterbalance to allow for a better posterior weight shift, which improves squat depth. If you need proof, check out your body weight squat, and then retest it while holding a ten-pound plate out at arm's length; most of you will improve substantially.
Second, because the arms are elevated (flexed humeri), the lats are lengthened. This is in contrast to the back squat, where the lats can be used to aggressively pull the bar down into the upper back and help create core stability. I firmly believe the lack of lat involvement is what accounts for the significant differences in loads one can handle in the front squat as compared to the back squat. However, "quieting down" the lats on the front squat is likely why athletes with such dramatic lordotic posture can often squat much deeper/cleaner with the front squat. Of course, if they have an excessive lordosis and anterior pelvic tilt, you may not want to squat them in the first place!
Third, the positioning of the bar in the front makes the front squat much more shoulder friendly than the back squat, assuming we aren't dealing with an acromioclavicular joint injury, which would be irritated by direct pressure of the bar. In the back squat, the externally rotated "rack" position poses problems for athletes with poor upper body mobility, and it actually reproduces injury mechanisms at the shoulder and elbow in overhead athletes like baseball players, tennis players, volleyball players, and swimmers.
Fourth, the upright torso angle of the front squat reduces shear stress on the spine. More forward lean equates to more shear stress, as the resistance is moved further away from the axis of rotation; just think of a see-saw where your lower back is the middle point and you'll catch my drift. Moving the load further out also increases risk of going into excessive lumbar flexion under compressive load. The front squat – even under heavier loads – keeps a lifter more upright, or else he’ll simply dump the bar; it's somewhat of a self-limiting strength exercise.
Fifth, because the load is positioned further forward than in a back squat, there isn't as much of a pre-stretch for the posterior chain, so the front squat will be more quad dominant than the back squat, which will engage more glutes and hamstrings. Of course, you can use front box squats to shuffle things up and get some variety, but we won't deviate from the point too much here.
Sixth, in the overwhelming majority of lifters, because of the upright torso angle and increased recruitment of quads relative to posterior chain, most lifters will use significantly less weight on the front squat than the back squat. All things considered, if you can achieve a comparable training effect with less external loading, you're dealing with what would generally be considered a safer exercise.
Some individuals simply aren't cut out for any kind of squatting, so before we even talk technique, it's important to start by separating these lifters out. Some common contraindications for squatting include poor tolerance to compressive loading (e.g., symptomatic lumbar spine disc injuries) and femoroacetabular impingement (this bony block at the hips makes it virtually impossible to squat without developing issues acutely and chronically).
Specific to front squatting, poor hip mobility, ankle mobility, core stability can be problematic, but perhaps nothing is as big of a buzzkill for front squatting as a kyphotic posture. As I demonstrate with my Quasimodo impression in this photo, it's impossible to get the elbows up when you're rounded over like a scared cat.
These are really just the tip of the iceberg in terms of potential contraindications, but they serve as examples of how we need to fit the exercise to the lifter and not vice versa. With that out of the way, let's talk...
We'll start with the hand positioning, as it's the most hotly contested portion of the front squat technique debate. Only a video will do it justice:
When it comes time to unrack the bar, I cue the athlete to push the elbows up high and take air into the belly as they stand up the weight. This combination of "elbows up" (shoulder flexion) and "air in" prevents the bar from rolling - either because the arms are angled down or because the torso goes to mush as the rib cage comes down.
After the weight is walked out, the athlete should take a slightly outside hip width stance, with the toes angled slightly out. One of the biggest mistakes I see is that athletes go too wide with their stance, and the end result is that the knees have nowhere to go but in:
To piggyback on the "feet in, knees out" cue, I encourage athletes to think of "squatting between the knees, not over them." This seems to get folks to the right balance of "sit back" and "sit down," as an (Olympic) front squat will have more "sit down" than a back squat or box squat variation. Additionally, a regular back squat will be slightly wider in stance than a front squat for most folks, and a box squat will certainly be even wider.
"Elbows up" is a cue that resounds throughout the movement, and it's especially important in the bottom position, when the bar will want to roll the most. Regardless of the hand position you select, make sure the elbows are at or above the level of the bar at all times. One great drill for practicing is to simply unrack the bar hands-free and gradually build up loads. If you can get comfortable with this set-up, you'll always remember to think "elbows" and not "hands."
As you come out of the hole and accelerate toward lockout, make sure you don't get lazy as you enter the easy portion of the strength curve. This is where front squatting with chains can be very helpful; it educates you on how to accelerate right up to lockout, where the hips and knees extend fully simultaneously. If you don't have chains, try loading the last ten pounds of weight as 2.5-pound weights (two on each side). Position the clamp about an inch further out than it would normally be so that they can "clank" a bit. Your goal is to make the 2.5-pound plates rattle at the top of each rep. Finish with the glutes as you stand tall, and reset your breath before descending for subsequent reps.
Speaking of reps, stay away from doing high-rep front squats. Sets of six should be the maximum you do, as muscles involved in maintaining the "rack" position may fatigue early and compromise the safety of the exercise.
There are three important equipment considers to take into account.
First, your shoes should have a subtle heel lift. It doesn't have to be an Olympic lifting shoe, but something that is totally flat to the ground won't work for the majority of folks. It'll take some tremendous ankle mobility to squat deep without a little lift - even if it's only a few millimeters. Front squatting (assuming an upright, Olympic stance) barefoot is probably not a great idea; I can count on one hand the number of people I've seen do it in good technique in the past 4-5 years since the barefoot craze took off. Minimalist shoes are fantastic, but not necessarily for deep, Olympic-style squatting. If you're rocking a Minimalist sneaker, you can always slide a five-pound plate under the heel.
Second, be careful with shirts made of "wicking" fabric. While they may be super comfortable, they do tend to allow the bar to slide a bit too much, especially if you're using a bar that doesn't have much knurling. A quick solution to this is to spread some lifting chalk around the collar and chest to help the bar grab the shirt a bit more - or you could just wear a different shirt.
Third, many front squat newbies will really struggle with the discomfort of the bar position as they're learning to the bar-in-front technique. While everyone ultimately adjusts to this discomfort (especially if they add some muscle mass to the area), one strategy to help athletes get by in the short-term is to just have them wear two shirts while they front squat. This extra layer of padding is subtle and won't change the technique of the exercise, but will make it more tolerable during the learning phase. You can taper an athlete off of it shortly thereafter.
Squats aren't for everyone, but if you are going to squat, the front squat is one great option. Put these coaching cues and strategies into action, and you'll be front squatting safely and moving big weights in no time.
Looking for more detailed training tutorials like this, and a program in which front squatting is incorporated? Check out The High Performance Handbook, the most versatile strength and conditioning program on the market.
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