Developing a strong and powerful base
The muscle complexes of the lower back, hips and lower extremities act as the body’s base and ballast, providing balance and power in just about every physical activity. Some of the largest muscles in the body are housed in these areas, and they possess significant potential for growth, strength and power improvements.
The target areas that must be consistently addressed are the muscles of the pelvis (those of both the superficial and intrinsic hip), thigh (quadriceps, hamstrings, adductors and abductors), hip flexors and lower back structures.The muscles of the pelvis and thigh primarily create movement at the hip and knee. The gluteals (maximus, medius and minimus) act as powerful extensors, abductors and rotators.
A group of intrinsic muscles known as the “deep six” (piriformis, quadrates femoris, obturator internus, obturator externus, gemellus superior and gemellus inferior) lie beneath the gluteus maximus and are collectively responsible for lateral rotation of the hip.
Without question, the “squat movement” is one of the most productive multi-joint strength training exercises available to develop these areas. However, it must be clarified that the squat movement does not refer exclusively to the barbell back squat. Any movements that include flexion and extension at the knee and hip, and in most cases, the ankle, are qualifiers.
With those points in mind, let’s examine some of the options to address these areas.
The back squat
Before discussing some of our teaching cues for the back squat, let me first state that it may not be suited for everyone. You will be confronted with athletes who, for a variety of reasons, simply cannot master the back squat movement. These reasons can include poor leverage capabilities, various technique issues, injury-related structural defects and a host of inherited biomechanical anomalies.
If after an exhaustive lead-in and gradual progression in the teaching process the athlete simply cannot perform the back squat with correct postural techniques from start to finish, alternatives should be incorporated.
Lead-in activities include:
Body-weight squats. The arms are either crossed over the chest or extended straight-out in front of the body, the shoulders are pulled to the rear, the chest is expanded and the low back is relatively flat (either neutral or in the normal, slightly inwardly curved position).
There is an ever-so-slight anterior tilt of the pelvis (commonly referred to as “hip hinge”), which in effect “kicks the butt back.” The feet are slightly wider than shoulder width, which will vary depending upon leg length. The longer the athlete’s lower extremities, the wider their stance.
The toes are straight ahead or slightly pointed outward, and the heels are pressed flat through the entire movement. The knees should track directly over the toes without excessive genu valgum (inward or “knock-knees”) or genu varum (outward or “bowed legs”) deviations on either the decent or ascent. On the ascent, the head and shoulders should drive upward, and this drive phase should be initiated through the heels and mid-foot area.
Empty bar/dowel front squats. Place an empty bar or a wooden dowel across the top front portion of the shoulders and upper chest. Extend the arms in a horizontal position with a thumbs-up hand position, and execute the posture and techniques for the squat as described above.
When performed properly, the bar should remain in the starting position without rolling forward over the arms—especially during the ascent. If the athlete leans forward to the balls of the feet and the heels leave the ground, the bar usually rolls forward. This also happens if the athlete breaks at the waist and rounds the lower back, thus resulting in excessive forward trunk flexion.
The empty bar/dowel movement is an excellent procedure for detecting and correcting these postural discrepancies in the squat movement.
The conventional back squat continues to be the go-to multi-joint movement in most programs for the major muscles of the legs and hips. It is imperative that the teaching cues for this lift remain constant with extra emphasis placed upon the aforementioned posture, back position and pelvic tilt.
The bar position on the back varies due to personal comfort and preference, but for the most part we want the athletes to pull their shoulders back and their scapulae together in order to build a solid base to rest the bar. This base is constructed via the contraction of the posterior shoulder and trapezius muscles. The bar should not be pressing against the cervical spine region.
We teach a neutral head position, in what we call a “conversational plane,” with the head slightly pulled back to contract and stabilize the neck muscles.
There also should be a conscious, deliberate contraction of the abdominal wall at the onset of the descent. This is accomplished by inhaling gradually and deeply, and feeling it in the “gut” as you reach the mid-range position. From that point, exhale freely as you drive through the heels, maintaining high shoulders, a “big chest” and a firmly positioned upper torso.
The head and shoulders should lead the ascent, as opposed to folding at the waist into trunk flexion with a drop and rounding of the shoulders and lower back. Excessive trunk flexion, coupled with the axial loading of the bar on the back, places precarious torque on the lumbar spine. This is why those who cannot initiate and maintain the proper posture throughout the entirety of the movement should be instructed on alternative exercises.
The front squat
The front squat has long been an adjunct to the back squat, and it continues to be a viable alternative for trainees who are encumbered with any one or more of the aforementioned contraindications.
We use a specially designed “log bar” for this movement, which has neutral handles covered by a smoothly cornered box. The log bar fits nicely on top of the shoulders and allows the lifter to comfortably shoot the elbows forward for balance, securing the weight.
The fact that the weight is now front-loaded presents the challenge of paying extra attention to torso and hip position, as the athlete wants to avoid the excessive forward trunk flexion and break at the waist mentioned earlier. With that in mind, all of the basic techniques and teaching cues for the front squat run parallel to the back squat.
As an added benefit, the perpendicular handles on the log bar ensure a much better grip when performing a relative of the front squat, the front squat/press.
The barbell lunge
The barbell lunge offers not only a viable adjunct to either the back or front squat, but it also is a great movement in its own right. Basically, it is a single-leg squat, and one of its redeeming qualities is that it does not require an inordinate weight load to be effective.
The lifter places the bar on the same shoulder shelf described with the back squat and executes the following techniques with balance and precision:
- Step forward with the lead leg into hip flexion (i.e. step up and out with the thigh reaching at least a parallel position to the floor before placing the foot down). The lifter actually transfers his or her body weight and the bar weight from the rear leg to the front leg through this action.
- The resulting foot placement should be flat on the floor, the shin should be perpendicular to the floor and the thigh approximately parallel to the floor.
- The knee on the rear leg should almost touch the floor, which is a result of dropping the hips as the lead foot is planted.
- As depicted in the mid-range position, the head, shoulders, upper torso and low back all adhere to the postural and mechanical components of the squat techniques.
- After demonstrating momentary control and balance in the mid-range position, the lifter transfers the weight from the front leg to the rear leg with a push-off back into hip flexion to secure the starting position. After a slight pause to regain balance, the movement is repeated for the contralateral limb.
The belt squat
There will be a contingent of athletes who face legitimate biomechanical drawbacks with the traditional squat movements, and the belt squat might provide one of the needed remedies.
This particular unit is called “The Pit Shark.” It enables athletes to set and maintain the appropriate ankle, knee and hip angles that are conducive to proper squatting. Since the resistance originates at a low position with no direct loading to spine, axial forces on the thoracic and lumbar regions are abated.
The “balance handles” on the front of the unit can be used if needed, but only as a guide and not a crutch. They should not be firmly gripped or pulled upon unless it is absolutely necessary to do so.
For the most part, the same teaching cues are instituted for the belt squat as with the traditional squat. However, many athletes find that it is possible to maintain a firmer torso and shin position with the belt squat—advantages that help those with certain special needs. We use the belt squat with all of our athletes for its expressed benefits and variety purposes.
The unilateral leg press
Just as effective and productive as any movement discussed thus far is the unilateral leg press. Well-constructed leg press units offer unique features that, much like the belt squat, qualify them as meeting any one or more of the following requirements:
- The feature lower-body lift of the day.
- An adjunct to the noted barbell movements.
- A functional, required, alternative mode.
The added feature of unilateral training brings another important piece to the training environment. Not only in the inevitable cases of injury to one limb, but for focusing and targeting the training to one limb at a time.
We have several heavy-duty, well-designed, size-accommodating units that provide variable resistance throughout a full-range, smooth strength curve. They allow deep hip flexion with firm back support, which are always a plus, and are requirements in specific cases.
Playing “from the ground up” is a term that our outstanding head football coach, Mark Dantonio, inculcates as a mind-set with our players. It is a comprehensive process that takes into account skill training, position-specific drills, agility/mobility work and a huge contribution from the extensive, intense, strength/power training performed in our weight room.
Ken Mannie is the head strength/conditioning coach at Michigan State University. He can be reached at email@example.com.