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On The Use of Deep Squats and Intense Conditioning with Athletes

Lately, we have faced a number of questions regarding two subjects:

1)   Why don’t we make our athletes perform full, deep squats?
To be very clear on the subject, it all comes back to the understanding of how different movements and work outputs affect your training goal.

Technique manipulation can have a tremendous impact on training outcomes. When it comes to the training of athletes, training outcomes must ensure high level of competitive performance in their primary sport(s). The considerations one makes when training for pure strength and power will be completely different from the individual training for maximal muscular hypertrophy. When training for strength and power, you want to set yourself in a position for the greatest mechanical advantage. An individual’s greatest mechanical advantage will also be influenced by their anthropometry. This becomes the context of making coaching decisions that will dictate technique and variations used in movements such as squats, deadlifts, presses, and Olympic lifts.

In sport, one can argue that there is some level of sport-specificity in utilizing ½ and ¾ squats as they may provide a greater transfer of training into the dynamics of certain sporting movements. Keep in mind that auxiliary or supplemental work in the training program must ensure muscular/connective tissue health and balance.

This is not to say we don’t utilize a full, deep squats. Some of our athletes are more than capable of performing them. For others, there is a greater risk to reward ratio and greater sporting outcomes can be realized with squat variations that impose less structural risk.

It really comes down to selecting the best tools for the job and removing the variables that don’t have a place in an athlete’s long-term goals.

2)   Why don’t we use intense conditioning work with our athletes?
Understand that the adaptations an athlete undergoes from both a neuromuscular and energy system (aerobic and anaerobic) viewpoint will always be influenced by the structure of training load and volume in a given program.

“Explosive, not tired.”
At GP, that is a concept we communicate to all our athletes, but still this is a concept many of them have a hard time understanding. Many come to us with the goals of being bigger, stronger, and faster. They want it all and convincing how the process really works, through intelligent conversation, is a challenge.

Flash forward several weeks into the program and these same athletes are bigger, stronger, and faster through intelligent program design and execution. All aspects of the training program align with their goals and their bioenergetic (energy system) demands relative to their sport. There is conditioning work, but it is structured best to according to their needs. Conditioning work doesn’t have to push you face first into a pile of your own sweat and vomit.

Nowadays, young athletes assume conditioning and speed are the same and that by improving their conditioning, they will get faster. For many athletes, suicides and gassers come to mind. Intense practices run by coaches for no other reason that to make their players work hard also comes to mind. Players are instructed to sprint with minimal rest, pushed to exhaustion. Many trainers and "programs" utilize high-intensity conditioning methods. Sure you want your athletes to last an entire game and not get out worked, but this will not get them faster. Actually, it is counter-productive if speed is the objective since it is physiologically impossible to perform at your maximal effort without adequate rest.  And it doesn’t ensure that they will be in the best condition either.

There is such thing as training parameters and workload capability. These concepts demand consideration when training athletes. Sadly, if you asked the majority of trainers and coaches what those two terms mean, you learn pretty quickly that you are talking to yourself. True speed is only developed at near maximal effort. Maximal effort depletes energy systems and strains the nervous system. All these need adequate time to recover between sprints. This must be monitored closely to ensure that a speed training session does not become a conditioning workout. Conversely, conditioning work must follow guidelines designed to help athlete’s maximize their conditioning without disrupting other aspects of performance.  If conditioning training is performed at too high of an intensity, the training not only inefficiently conditions the athlete but can also interfere with speed performance and development. It will also interfere with strength and power development as well.

Are you getting the picture?

The very same athletes who want speed, strength, and size must understand that intense, non-directed conditioning only serves to inefficiently condition you and interfere with the goals and needs required for sport success. This is not our opinion; this is fundamental sport and exercise science.

Conditioning is a primary component in our training programs, for any athlete. However, conditioning takes on different looks due to the various energy system demands for the individual athlete. Conditioning is tailored to their needs. Just because a coach crushes them in practice with endless gassers, it doesn’t mean they are suddenly out of shape.

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Unlock Your Potential With This Powerful Tip

“Everyone has way more strength and power than they know how to use.“ 
          - Larry Mather, Canadian Weighlifting Coach

Let's be clear about something: Movement is a skill. This means that exercise form is a skill. Strength is a skill. Speed is a skill. For those that have participated or are currently participating in athletics, you can appreciate the importance of practice in developing skill. Who will progress more rapidly at their sport, the individual who practices 2 hours per week or the one who is practicing 10 hours per week? Assuming all things are equal, the individual with the greater training volume will progress and achieve mastery the quickest. Understand that training volume accounts for a number of factors including training frequency, duration, load, intensity, velocity of movement, etc.

Why am I bringing this up?

Frankly, there seems to be a lot of misinformation being perpetuated about building strength, speed, or mastery in regards to highly technical movements such as sprinting, squatting, and the Olympic lifts (snatch, clean and jerk). What cannot be forgotten is that these movements are a total body approach that requires every joint to contribute in order for quality work to be performed. They require a high degree of skill and neurological coordination in the execution of the movement. Regardless of whether you want to debate where stability or mobility is needed at specific regions of the body during specific joint actions, the concept of adequate neuromuscular integrity in all directions must be present.

From a motor learning perspective, strength and power development is neuroplasticity. Clients and athletes are basically undergoing computer programming during training. The greater training volume one experiences, the quicker neural pathways will adapt to become more efficient and coordinated. When you focus on the how (technique), the how much (load or amount of weight lifted) will take care of itself. A more skilled lifter is typically stronger. They can display greater strength potential due to skill in technique and skill in their ability to generate and apply more force.

If you’ve ever coached an athlete or client through technical movements, you will most certainly understand that technique is of utmost importance. Coaching  technique as it applies to sprinting, squatting, weightlifting requires that one understands biodynamics and physics. Meaning, doing it the right way is the easiest way. This also means that if the client or athlete is displaying poor technique, often times there is central motor coordination issue that must be addressed accordingly. This is what is know as, "Training the Brain." Yes, muscular imbalances and poor joint dynamics may exist, but it is very common that perceived lack of mobility is simply a result of faulty motor patterning. Rather than focusing on mobility drills and stretches to improve movement quality, appropriate cuing and biofeedback may be all that is necessary. Just watch an experienced coach in action and you’ll understand what I mean.

A coach that understands how to help their client or athlete "Train The Brain", will unlock strength and athletic potential they never knew they could achieve.

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Why Your Technique is Ruining your Performance

Technique is fundamental and should be the primary focus of instruction when it comes to any new exercise or sport skill. It's essential to the continual refinement of movement skills. Technique also has implications in the rehabilitation process as well.

However, there appears to be a huge gap in terms of what most people acknowledge as proper technique and the technique they actually demonstrate or coach.

1. Sure many coaches and trainers can "tell" you what proper technique is, but are they capable of identifying technique errors?
2. Are they skilled and knowledgeable enough to understand why they are seeing technique errors and how to systematically go about improving technique?
3. Do they understand the joint and muscular actions involved in the complex execution of specific movements?
4. Do they understand that technique can be dictated by your anatomical structure and that there is no such thing as a "one size fits all" approach when it comes to coaching proper technique?
Despite hearing time and time again from coaches, trainers, and clinicians preaching, "Technique, technique, technique", the reality is many in the fields of health and fitness do not understand technique as well as they should. Sure, they may claim to practice or teach 'perfect technique' to their clients or patients. They may agree that technique is important and that it should be accounted for.

But are they actually making sure your technique is what works best for you?

Take for example a high school athlete that was recently seen at GP. His primary complaint was low back tightness and pain following squatting and lower body training days. He had been seeing a local chiropractor for his back pain and training with a teammate at another local gym. He had been receiving care for almost 6 weeks with no change. Despite 2x/week adjustments and performing a routine of abdominal strengthening exercises and hamstring stretches, he continued to have 'severe' tightness and occasional pain in his low back for 3-5 days after squatting.

As I dug deeper into the nature of his low back tightness, the pattern of his symptoms made me increasingly suspicious that something was clearly wrong with his squat technique.

So I asked him, "How's your squat technique?" I wanted to get inside his head and hear his thoughts on his technique. His reply was, "I think it's pretty good. I learned from my training partner who has lifted more than I have and our football team's strength coach gave us tips."

I want to emphasize this point. He believed his technique was not an issue. He believed he had received good coaching when it came to his squat technique. Rather he kept expressing how he had been told he had weak abs and needed to stretch his hamstrings, and that this was the root of his problem. His mind wasn't focused on technique.
At GP, we have the luxury of using the gym to provide real time feedback during our evaluations. This kid looked pretty good doing a body weight squat, but I knew things would change once we got him loaded up. So we took our session to the gym floor. Needless to say, there were a number of technique issues with his squat that were ultimately at the heart of why he was routinely over-stressing his low back. Rather than addressing mobility or strength issues, we simply figured out the technique he must utilize based on his anatomical structure.

This young athlete had structural adaptations that had to be taken into consideration when figuring out the most appropriate squat technique that worked for him. These very same structural adaptations had been previously overlooked, yet they played a huge role in why he was symptomatic.

After cleaning up his technique issues, it was no surprise to me that his back was not a complaint. But it was a huge surprise to him. He had just spent weeks getting adjusted, strengthening his abs and stretching with no results. How could something so simple as technique modification resolve his issue?

Closing Thoughts
When someone is experiencing a weakness in their performance or is recovering from a musculoskeletal injury, determine if the main culprit is improper technique.

Far too often, most will think to only improve physical abilities (endurance, strength, balance, coordination, flexibility, etc.) when dealing with poor performance or injury rehabilitation. While addressing physical abilities is important, physical abilities have limited value without proper technique.

In the ideal situation, technique changes or modifications should be made simultaneously as strength or other physical abilities develop. For athletes, strength should be coupled with skill through what is known as special strength exercises. In other words, strength is developed in the same neuromuscular pathway as used in execution of their competitive skill(s).

Rehabilitation programs that primarily focus on isolated physical abilities without integrating those newly developed abilities into specific movement tasks or sport skill will fail to ensure that athletes are equipped to handle the demands of competition. When it comes to injury rehabilitation and injury prevention, failure to couple strength as it relates to technique will increase the chance of recurring injury.

Consider the relationship between hamstring injuries and sprinting. Several athletes frequently experience hamstring injuries, which can take weeks or months to rehabilitate. However, when efficient sprinting mechanics are coupled with development of the physical abilities specific to the actions involved in sprinting, the chances of hamstring injuries are essentially nonexistent.

This is why experts are convinced several common athletic injuries, not just hamstring injuries, are preventable. This also explains why having a coach and/or therapist who understands technique is invaluable to athletes.