Written by: Kevin Cann
PPS is hitting a competition squat this week for max effort work and this has brought up a conversation that I tend to have a lot. The most common technical breakdown in the squat seems to be the chest falling forward out of the hole. The internet will tell you until they are blue in the face that this is a quad weakness, but I could not disagree more.
Full disclaimer, we do not squat in heels and we squat with the heels slightly outside of shoulder width, some actually squat a bit wider than that. I coach them to push their feet out and not to drive the knees forward.
Sheiko told me that the knees should not pass midfoot on the squat. We want the moment arm to be largest at the hips, but also because of the role of the hamstrings. The hamstrings extend the hip and flex the knee. This means that the hamstring length does not change in a squat. This is because the hamstrings, like all biarticulate muscles, primary role is to transfer force. We need the hamstrings to remain at their optimal length in order for them to do this. Pushing the knees forward changes their length and they lose this ability. The hamstrings must also be strong elastically to do this.
The quads are viewed as the weakness with this breakdown because the knees shoot back putting the load onto the posterior chain. This assumes that the body is the sum of 650 individual muscles added together. But in heavy lifts is the body 1 muscle or 650? If you say 1, then the thinking of the quads is incorrect.
Origin and insertion anatomy was founded and then taught by removing the fascia from the tissue. The fascia connects every muscle, bone, and organ to each other in the human body. It serves a purpose and cannot just be removed and thrown aside.
The fascia gives the body the use of tensegrity. There is a push/pull to it that gives the body its structure. Under heavy and fast movements there are co-contractions that occur around the joints. In the case of the knees, the hamstrings and quads both contract to provide stability. This happens in absence of the nervous system’s involvement due to the time it would take for the nervous system to react. This is why heavy loads or fast loads are necessary in training. They force co-contractions. Single leg exercises will also work these due to instability.
Under these heavy and fast parameters the hamstrings actually assist the quads with knee extension and the quads aid in hip extension. It is called dynamic coupling. This is where origin and insertion anatomy is so incomplete that it becomes false.
The chest fall out of the hole is an inability to transfer force appropriately. 40% of all muscle contraction force is actually delivered to neighboring muscles. We need the hamstrings to be string elastically as well as the abs and the low back where the largest and thickest fascial sheet is present, the thoracolumbar fascia. Box squats actually do a great job of this and they add in a collision between the glutes and hamstrings and the box. The collision creates a neurological reaction that has a “rebound” effect. This trains the elasticity of the hamstrings while the rest of the muscles coordinate the movement with the desired speed and loads while the quads and glutes also do their things. The abs and low back get stronger as they absorb the collision on the box and aid in stronger reversal strength.
The good morning is also a great exercise to build the bottom of the squat. The hamstrings must resist movement at the knee to aid in the movement at the hip. The position of the bar on the back places the abs and low back under greater stress to overcome the loads. The transference of force is very similar to the bottom of the squat.
This does not mean that we do not train our quads. They absolutely should be trained. We typically choose to train them with single leg variations as they include more abs and the co-contractions that we discussed earlier. Again, more specific to the task.
Bodybuilding accessories such as leg curls are still important as we need each individual muscle to be strong. The stronger a muscle is the greater the efficiency of the nervous system signals. A stronger muscle is more capable of being coordinated into the larger movements more efficiently.
Too often lifters use exercises like pause squats to build these positions. I am not a fan of using competition lift volume to fix anything as there is a very large recovery cost to it. I think coaches can be very short sighted when looking at recovery. There are long-term recovery costs associated with these movements, even if the short term seems to be fine.
Pauses also force the lifter to slow down, which decreases the elasticity as well as the force. Slowing down decreases the noise in the system too, which is why technique looks better when moving slow. This is not productive either. The noise is part of the system, and we want it in the movements. This allows the body to learn how to work when a lot of noise is present, which it is in max effort lifts on the platform. We want the noise in the system. This is why we move heavy (max effort) and fast (dynamic effort). Fatigue also brings noise to the system, but that requires more competition lift volume which I already discussed.