I remember when I first started coaching Sean Noriega, one of the most common comments I got from people was “Are you going to fix his technique?”. And my response would simply be “Why?”. People thought just because it looked outside of the norm, there must be an issue with it. But for him, that was how he was able to best leverage his mechanics to be as strong as possible. So that leads us to a YouTube video I have had in the work for over 6 months now, titled “Defining What Is Good Technique”. Some people claim that there is no such thing as “good technique”, and some are on the polar opposite end of the spectrum stating their way is the highway and only if you do XYZ is your technique good. In my opinion, just like most things, we are more so somewhere in the middle. Good to bad technique is a spectrum, and my hope was to create a framework for how we can define good technique, and a system of approach that aligns the views of many different systems of mechanics and technique between lifters and coaches. So in my latest YouTube video, I took the risk of taking a shot at putting a definition to good technique, along with the help of @bradcoolyard. And to us, good technique could be defined with 3 main factors…..abiding by powerlifting competition standard, center of mass control, and lift efficiency. And in Brad’s guest part, he brings everything together by helping to define the range of what is good technique within the spectrum of good to bad. This is a video that honestly I am really excited about, and my hopes are that it helps to evolve the thought process of technique and coaching to where we view technique from a bottoms up viewpoint moving forward. Click the link above to view!
Lifter Case Study: Drew
So I wanted to do a little case study breakdown of Drew, because his programming is one of the biggest outliers in comparison to other athletes I coach. He is probably not the best person to copy in regards to program set up, but what I do hope to showcase here is the thought process behind following the data presented versus forcing preconceived bias. And possibly within that, you may find a couple things here or there that may be applicable to you, but more so see what “following the data” truly looks like. To start off in short, Drew came to me with years of chronic knee and back pain, which I have detailed in past posts. He saw multiple specialists to no avail, and to this day neither of us really have any idea what the issue was. But honestly that doesn’t really matter because it doesn’t change the fact that we needed to drop the preconceived bias of what we think we should do and instead follow what worked.
In the above slides (CLICK HERE) you will see some lifts from this week where he is repping out 595×4 on deadlift at what he rated a 5 RPE, 474×2 on Safety Bar squat at 6.5 RPE, and then 3 slides of his current squat and deadlift setup. Both the squat and deadlift are massive PRs, and at this point about 6 weeks out from his next meet, we are working at sub 7 RPEs, doing very little competition squat work, and doing only reps of 3 or higher on deadlift. None of that makes sense in the general landscape of most powerlifting programming, but it doesn’t matter. 595lbs is just 30lbs off his best single from last prep on deadlift, and 474lbs. on Safety Bar is 30lbs. off his best Competition squat from last prep, which both of those were at notably higher RPEs. And maybe the biggest PR currently is that it has been I believe 4-5 years since Drew has been able to do uni-lateral quad accessory work, and he’s currently hitting Bulgarian Split Squats with 70-90lb. dumbbells in each hand.
I could probably write an E-Book explaining all factors and decision making of how we arrived at this current setup, but for the sake of you all I’ll try to keep it to the 3 main things we found that led to this system.
1.) If it is not blatantly obvious, Drew cannot tolerate high volume squatting. We do 2 singles on Monday, and then 2 ascending sets up to a top set on both Wednesday and Saturday. His workload is extremely minimal and for most would be below their minimum effective volume. But for him it is spot on. We keep reps at all times 5 or below, and for the most part doing all top sets in the 2-4 rep range. Anytime I have tried to push that higher it hasn’t gone well, whether that be higher rep ranges or more total sets. At one point I had him doing 4-5 sets each day and that didn’t work. He responds to a very minimum dosage and very low RPEs.
2.) In combination with point number 1, we did not arrive at pain free squatting until we also brough the relative intensity down on deadlift. That was the final piece of the puzzle that really took me a while to figure out. And if you have read past posts, it was kind of on accident. In the first meet I worked with Drew, he had a pretty acute knee flare up on his 3rd squat and could barely walk for 2 weeks, so we really had to pull back. And he had done this before, this was nothing new. But each time as the weights crept up the pain increased as well. Since this is the first time I had worked with him through this slow load management phase though, something that became evident is that it was not squat intensity that was creating the increased pain, it was whenever deadlift intensity reached a certain threshold. And sure enough, once we pulled back deadlift intensity pain subsided and he was able to squat pain free. And double benefit, his deadlift progressed even better at these more submaximal relative and absolute intensities.
3.) And lastly, we had the back pain issue, which stemmed from low bar squatting. After his last meet, just to be able to get back to a pain free state, I programmed this current microcycle layout of just 2 competition squat singles on his Monday tertiary day, and then SSB for both the primary and secondary day. At first this was supposed to be just a setup to help him return to a pain free state, but we came to realize he was getting stronger than he ever had before, had no knee pain still, and now had no back pain. So I told him leading into this coming meet, why mess with that. Let’s just keep rolling with this setup because it’s the best you’ve ever felt and arguably the best progress he’s had in 5+ years. Does it defy conventional wisdom, yes, but why mess with what is working. I am pretty confident at this point we now have the micro and meso cycle setup that we are going to continue to use for the foreseeable future, and excited to see within this the progress Drew can continue to make!
The Role Of Plantar Flexion In The Squat
Contrary to the lack of calf raises that powerlifters do, the calf muscles actually do have an important role within the squat. The calf muscles at certain degrees of knee flexion actually aid in knee extension, but more importantly for the topic today, the calf muscles help to stabilize your control of your center of gravity through plantar flexion. Above are 2 videos (CLICK HERE) of Demetria that are exactly a week apart, with her squatting 253lbs. on the left and 264lbs. on the right. On the left she struggled with allowing her center of mass to shift forward at the bottom, and that resulted in a lot of the shifting back and forth you see during the concentric. Versus on the right, I simply cued her to start with some slight big toe pressure to create a more active foot position and active plantar flexion from the get go. If you scroll to the next video, you can see the difference in her foot position in slo mo and the fairly notable difference in her foot control and maintenance of her center of mass. And if you scroll just another slide further (slides 3 through 6), I really dive into what it means to control your center of mass through active plantar flexion and the role of the calf within the squat. Then from there, how do you apply this? For me I simply like the cue of some slight big toe pressure in your setup, and I cover this in great detail in my comprehensive guide to foot rooting video on YouTube (CLICK HERE). It does not need to be something that we overly cue, but more so just be conscious of how plantar flexion and the calf muscles can help in regards to stabilizing our position at the bottom of the squat. As I mentioned in one of my stories last week, if you had to choose to bias to the heel or to the toes, I’d likely prefer the toes. Because with the heel, we have nothing that can actively stabilize our position back to midfoot. But when we shift to our toes, we have the ability to stabilize through plantar flexion. Now does this mean you need to start doing 3 times a week frequency calf raises? Probably not (in my case maybe yes, they are twigs) but calf raises likely are a somewhat underutilized accessory movement for powerlifters considering the calf’s role. It’s something I haven’t really experimented with, but I’d be interested if someone has prioritized calf training and actually seen a difference in their squat. My guess is the impact would be minimal, in large part because the squat does strengthen the calf to a degree due to the active stabilization required.
In the low bar squat specifically, an issue that is common in powerlifting is an uneven bar. Whether that be one side sitting lower, the bar being off center, or twisting, it is common to see asymmetry in someone’s low bar rack position. As humans, we are asymmetrical, and likely in the squat, bench, and deadlift will never look perfectly even. So for some this may not be an issue at all, but for others, it may be limiting their strength potential or causing other downfalls. In my latest YouTube video, I cover the 3 fairly simple reasons why the bar might be uneven for someone, how to fix that, and what to look for in regards to identifying if this is a potential issue or not for you. What you will find is this issue isn’t really that complex, and typically stems from just an accumulation of bad habits over time. Hopefully for those who may be limiting their potential due to an uneven bar position can find the fix they’ve been looking for in this video, and feel free to ask any questions if needed! Click the link above to view!
Head Position In The Conventional Deadlift
Where the head leads, the body will follow, and a simple head position change can dictate a lot of what goes on with the deadlift in particular. I have written a lot about head position in the sumo deadlift. In general, most people are going to want to bias to a more straight forward head position to create rigidity in the upper back and more uprightness, as the leverages of sumo require a more upright torso in comparison to conventional. But just like any lift, there is a general bell curve where it is optimal for people might be looking more down and some even more up. Within the conventional deadlift though, a slight downward gaze usually is going to be the norm. I liken it to looking at a spot on the floor about 10 feet in front of you as the average head position for a conventional deadlifter. And here (CLICK HERE) is a good example of what trying to look too high up on the conventional deadlift can do.
Factoring in the gravitational forces of the deadlift, it is going to be much easier to bias into end ranges of low back flexion than it is extension. This is a bit hard to describe within a caption, so see the final 2 slides for a video of me demonstrating what I mean. With Nicolas though, you can see on the left how when he tries to look more straight forward, it pulls his torso too upright, which in return lowers the hips and drives the knees and shins into the bar. We had been working to fix this issue with some other cueing, but finally what clicked is I told him to just look a bit more down. And you can see it was an almost instantaneous fix. By just managing his head position, we were able to reduce his desire for excessive uprightness, which then created a chain reaction to the hip, knee, and shin position, creating a much more efficient pull. Now before everyone just starts looking more down in the conventional deadlift though, note that the opposite could be true too. Maybe a lifter is looking so straight down that they are actually starting with their hips too high, and cueing a slightly more forward head position could be the fix. But in the situation of a conventional puller struggling with being too upright and having their hips too low, there is a good chance the fix is as simple as a head position change.