I have been in the lifting game for a long time. I have helped a lot of people improve their squat mechanics and become more efficient and get them out of pain and help them set PRs. I have seen a lot. Sometimes you get caught off guard when you are working with a group of athletes. There is a person you have never seen in the group and one of the coaches pulls you aside and says, “Could you please take a look at this?” Not a good way to start a conversation when dealing with young athletes.
This happened to me about a month ago. I do consulting and coaching work with the high school in town. There was a young girl who was new to the weight room and she couldn’t squat. I don’t mean it the way you probably are thinking about it. You probably have visions of a squat that kind of looks like a squat but needs to be more efficient or needs some “mobility work” or maybe some extra dorsiflexion or whatever. Not to minimize these things as they can be a necessary part of helping someone get to where you want them to go but this was different. I mean she literally could not squat. Let me show you a picture I took after I asked her to squat as deep as possible. I give you exhibit A:
What do you do? If you are a novice coach or clinician, you may not understand what is going on here. You may break her out into all sorts of assessments and correctives and not really gather the information you want or change how she squats in any meaningful way. What is even going on here? Where do you start?
The first thing to realize, when you see something like this, is the issue is very much neurologically driven. There are too many errors being made in by the system to even think about something she may need to stretch or mobilize. This is a pattern issue. Her brain does not understand how to squat efficiently. Something is not allowing her to put all the moving parts together. She is not very old, so we know not too long ago she likely squatted all the way down to do thing. Something has made the pathways fuzzy for her and her body freezes when she tries to sit down at all. There is a great analogy my friend Chris Duffin (www.kabuki.ms) likes to use. The central nervous system is like the traction control on your car. If the central nervous system does not sense total stability in the system, it will shut down power production and put on the brakes to keep you from moving into positions it does not feel you have control over.
To get the ball rolling, I had to get her into positions she felt comfortable in and could control that resembled squatting. This point will be so obvious, many of you will miss it. I have seen this before when I have been out working with other coaches and athletes. People jump to all sorts of corrective exercises and other activities before they actually try to work on coaching the person in the squat. Maybe they just have not been set up for a successful completion of the movement before. Maybe no one has explained what to do to them in a way that made sense to them (if you want to learn how to do this efficiently and effectively in person, come to one of my workshops listed under the seminar tab). You can find a lot of what I did with her in my book Unf*ck Your Squat so click that link and take a look.
First thing I did was sit her down on a box that was slightly above parallel. I taught her to let her torso lean and feel her weight shift into her hips. We did some butt slides and floor touches (kind of like seated good mornings). It is not that I want her to exaggerate leading with her hips when we squat, I just needed her to feel what it was like to load those muscles and start to understand how to create even foot pressure. I needed her to find her balance when she would create weight shifts.
I explained to her how I wanted her feet to be active and where she should think about keeping her ankles, knees, and hips as she moved. I wanted to make my instructions as clear and as simple as possible. As she gets older and her technique becomes more refined with practice, I can layer on more instruction. You cannot overwhelm a person who is frustrated. She had already been frustrated with her inability to solve this problem. My job is to put her in situations where she feels successful and we can continue to build from there.
Then we started to stand up. Nothing fancy here. I had her do several reps of just standing with power and control. Then I had her sit to the box with a slow eccentric and try not to plop. This was very difficult for her. I was starting to notice she was having trouble because she couldn’t figure out how to create the right amount of tension to make it work. This is why in the pictures you will see her holding a ten pound plate. By putting the plate in her hands, even though it is light, it gives her body not only something to balance with, but it also allows her to grip it tight and create full body tension so her central nervous system feels like their is more stability downstream. We went back and forth between lower and higher boxes and free squatting. We did all of this with the ten pound plate. I had her shoes off so she could feel the ground and understand what her feet were doing and the importance of keeping them engaged to help unlock her squat. We did this for about 15-20 minutes and this is where we ended up:
Sure we can maybe attack some things with her self reported stiff feet and ankles and her perceived hamstring tightness down the road, but none of that stuff matters until you can start to see what her limiting factors might be. You can’t make that kind of assessment if they are so far from a complete squat that it doesn’t even start to resemble a squat. I left her and the main coach in the weight room with simple instructions one how to keep moving in the right direction. Due to some scheduling conflicts, I wasn’t able to get back to the weight room for about a month. I knew this girl would work hard to figure this out because it really bothered her that she could not squat and she was almost starting to cry when she was able to start squatting with the ten pound plate. Here is a picture from just a couple days ago. She was so excited to show me how far she has come. They have even started doing some heavier goblet squats with kettlebells:
What is the lesson from this? I want you to understand that you can never underestimate the value in learning to coach a person. You have to have enough reps under your belt with people to know when to start with what. You have to help someone clear all the brush from the path before you can even start to see the path. I have worked with a lot of coaches and athletes and clinicians and time and again I see people jump to correlate activities and corrective work before they have exhausted all avenues related to just coaching the movement and using variations of the movement and blocked practice to get the person to understand what you want and put the pieces of the puzzle together a little quicker. This is why I think it is important as a clinician to have at least a little background in strength and conditioning and some experience coaching the major lifts. One thing I tell people is when you come across a person that is making a ton of errors, it is rarely a mobility issue. I have had a lot of success over the years working with tens of thousands of people by starting from a seated position that is close to the bottom shape I want them in and work from there. Again, I cover this in Unf*ck Your Squat. I’m sure someone out there can give me an evidence-based reason for why this works but I am not really concerned with that. I have worked with enough people to know.
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