Bar Path: the most important squat cue

There are many cues being given out by personal trainers, online coaches and fitness enthusiasts when squatting, with most having a good reasoning behind them. But one thing that is often over-looked by the majority of novice and intermediate lifters is keeping the bar path straight. Before you continue reading this post, a word of warning: things are about to get physic(s)-al. If you would prefer not to read all that and cut to the chase (I do not blame you), feel free to scroll to the summary.

In physics, work is what we do when we apply a force to an object (e.g. when we lift things) and can be summed up using the following equation:

Work = F (cos x) D

If you look at the equation, you notice the symbol “D” which stands for the distance through which the force acts. Force (F) in this equation, is the push or pull exerted on an object, often resulting in a change in motion of that object and is given by the equation: F= M(A) – Newton’s Second Law – where M is the mass of an object and A is the acceleration (which is linked to velocity and speed).

This is where bar path comes into play. If you keep all the other variables constant and have two lifters squatting the same amount of weight but with person A having a straighter bar path than person B, it would be person B who would be doing more work and thus struggling more, as the bar path would be longer. And with respect to a straight bar path, the more vertical, the better.

Screen Shot 2015-05-24 at 21.52.01Now time for some more (fun) equations. If the lifter above had made use of bar path C as opposed to A, it is possible to draw up a triangle (with the base being the ground) and use Pythagoras’ theorem:

A*2 + B*2 = C*2

to find that despite both being straight bar paths, the distance travelled would be greater for path C than A, thus meaning more work would need to be done to lift the same amount of weight.

This is where one common squatting cue has one of its main flaws: always make sure your knees do not travel further forward than your toes. Although, this was based on interpretations of the findings of a study in the late 60s-70s that suggested that travelling forward with your knees whilst squatting may make you more prone to injury (which I shall talk about in another article), it may be impossible for some to maintain a straight, vertical bar path whilst doing so.

SUMMARY:

– Keeping a straight, vertical bar path when squatting is optimal in decreasing the workload and difficulty of lifting the weight (hence helping you to lift heavier – happy days!)

– Ensuring your bar path is vertical can be done via checking with a friend/personal trainer or recording yourself from a side angle.

– Do not fall for the “Never allow your knees to travel further forward than your toes” squat cue and sacrifice a vertical bar path in doing so.

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MAIN REFERENCES:

Physics in Biology and Medicine – Paul Davidovits

The Physics Classroom (http://www.physicsclassroom.com/)

The Physics Hypertextbook (http://physics.info/work/)

The truth about Occlusion Training

Every now and then a new “revolutionary” training programme, a new supplement that “works wonders” or a new diet that supposedly helps you shed pounds instantly pops up. More often than not, these tend to have no actual substance behind them and most are able to realise this. However, within the past year or so a new training style that goes by the name of “Occlusion training” has come to the fore.

Occlusion training, aka Blood Restriction Training, involves using wraps or belts to restrict/obstruct blood flow to the veins which in turn should lead to the buildup of blood flow into your target muscle, recruit fast-twitch fibres and lead to lactic acid buildup, all-in-all increasing the pump you get whilst working out. Now obviously it would be hard to completely wrap and restrict the blood flow to areas of your torso, so it is often used in your peripheral areas such as your arms and legs.

Now when I first saw this, I simply laughed it off and disregarded it but now a year later I still see people using this. What’s even worse is that many athletes with a large following have been advocating this, hence the reason for me writing this article. So let’s look at just a few things wrong with it:

1. No ADDED Benefits

When looking at the reasoning behind the madness, it is pretty much based on the idea that an individual is able to get just as much hypertrophy results as they would normally but lifting less than half the weight. Note how you get the SAME results. Not any more. Just the same.

2. Having to use lighter weight

But if I am able to lift less weight and get the same results, is that not an easy shortcut to muscle growth for me to exploit? Not necessarily. It is well speculated that lifting heavy weights increases your bone density, with many studies of powerlifters finding a link between the two. Even with the likes of osteoporosis; a condition where the bones are weakened and frail, strength training is often recommended.

Likewise, the same relationship can be seen with lifting heavy and building up your connective tissue; the heavier the weight, the more strain you put on the connective tissue and thus the bigger and stronger they get! And bear in mind this is what holds your bones together (ligaments), your muscles to your bones (tendons) and connect different muscles together (fascia).

So although using the occlusion training method to get as much muscle hypertrophy in your skeletal muscle with lighter weight, you are pretty much turning a blind eye to the aforementioned aspects which are arguably as equally important in both powerlifting and bodybuilding.

3. The increased risk involved

This is my, and should be your, biggest problem with the whole blood restriction training trend. So the whole point of wrapping your arm/leg is to stop blood from leaving that body part, which means that you basically want to be blocking off your veins. FLAW 1: But your arteries and veins follow a similar distribution pattern around your body, so by blocking blood flow out of the muscle part, you will also be blocking blood flow IN – which makes even less sense given that this blood flow is what is carrying the oxygen, nutrients etc. that your muscle needs!

FLAW 2: So let’s just say, for argument sake, that you were somehow able to isolate and restrict the blood flow OUT of the targeted body part without affecting blood flow INTO that same body part. This could potentially lead to hypovalaemia, where there is a decreased blood volume circulating round the rest of your body, leading to dizziness, nauseousness, thirst and can be fatal in extreme scenarios!

4. You look like an idiot

ID-100290698

Don’t think I need to add anything to that.

So there you have it, my understandably one-sided take on occlusion training. Whether or not you decide to follow it is entirely up to you, but for your sake, please do some research before jumping on the bandwagon regarding revolutionary training ideas force-fed to you by fitness “models”.

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Step up your shoe game

Since I started my cut about a year ago and dropping my body fat percentage to a definitely commendable level, I have been guilty of spending at least a couple hundred pounds on gym attire and other tight-fitting apparel for everyday use. Why not, right? Might as well show off all the hard work that I have put so far into this bodybuilding project! But until now, I had paid little attention to what could be considered one of the most important things you wear at the gym: your shoes. In this post, I shall hopefully help you identify what to look for when buying a gym shoe, why it’s important and give you a few recommendations of my own.

1. A hard sole

When trying to perform any of the big four lifts – squat, bench, overhead press and deadlift) – one of the big cues to follow is to drive with your legs. Think of your body as a tree and your legs as the roots; without a strong base, no matter how strong/big the rest of your body is, your weight-lifting performance will suffer.

IMG_0174

If you look at the descriptions for a number of running shoes, most of them pride themselves upon having a cushioned sole that provides shock absorption. Whilst this may be beneficial for running, it has a rather detrimental effect when weight-lifting. With a cushioned/padded shoe, like the pair of Nike Air’s above, the sole can be compressed, which disperses or “dampens” the force that you applied directly to the ground, thus decreasing your ability to drive upwards when squatting. Long story short, look for a pair of shoes with a relatively non-compressible sole.

2. Elevated heel

This is probably the most noticeable thing about weightlifting shoes and what makes it stand out when compared to their flat-soled counterparts. The point of an elevated heel is to improve your ankle mobility, which is particularly important when squatting. Now in the interest of maintaining your interest and not boring you with the particulars of dorsiflexion etc., poor ankle mobility makes you more prone to injury, changes the way in which you perform a squat (by limiting your range of motion) and ultimately reduces the amount you’re able to lift.

Poor ankle mobility is not all too uncommon, mostly due to tight calves from our calves working hard in a limited range of motion (walking around, for example).

With that being said, there are other (more cost-effective) alternative ways to help solve your ankle mobility issues such as foam rolling your calves (something I highly recommend), using bands to mobilise the joint and squatting with small (2.5kg) plates under the heel of your shoes. All this will help improve your technique and maintain an upright torso, which is key when performing the lift, for at least half the price!

3. A tight fit

Like with a lot of recent “fashion” trends lately, it confuses me seeing guys (and girls) at the gym working out with loose laces or shoes way too big for them. Forget all that. If you look at the comments of most weightlifting shoes, reviewers often recommend buying a size lower than normal. And for good reason too; having a tighter fit limits intra-shoe movement, thus creating a more stable base a preventing your ankles from collapsing when squatting.

My recommendations

For those of you serious about weight-lifting AND able afford it, olympic-lifting/weight-lifting shoes such as the Adidas Adipowers and Nike Romaleos are a great buy! However, for others looking for a cheaper alternative, Vans, Chuck Taylors and the relatively new Reebok Crossfits (do not worry they are great for people outside of crossfit), amongst many others, are adequate.

With all this being said, no matter how good your shoes are, your technique, stretching and foam rolling routines are at least 10x more important.

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Know what you want

Nearly every gym go-er starts off wanting to get as aesthetically pleasing as possible whilst being as strong as possible. But is it just the case of one or the other? Is it just the case of powerlifting OR bodybuilding? Am I forever going to be stuck benching weights as heavy as my overly large ego, whilst looking like I could get swept up at any moment from the slightest gust of wind? Or is there an actual middle ground to looking like a tank whilst being able to lift one? To answer this we really need to look at the fundamentals of each training type.

Disclaimer the following sentence has been pulled from the greatest information source of all time: Wikipedia. “Powerlifting is a strength sport that consists of three attempts at maximal weight on three lifts: squat, bench press and deadlift.” If that wasn’t simple enough; lift as heavy as you can. Period. This compares to Bodybuilding where the emphasis is put on how good your physique looks (like a beauty pageant with roided-up goats).

Now a few people will firmly be in one camp or the other, but for most they either want both or train dominantly in a style that suits one whilst wanting the other. So to help you out, I shall attempt to compare the two training styles and see if there actually is a middle ground.

Reps+Volume

Typically many would expect powerlifters to use a low volume, high intensity training programme to help test their one rep max out, whilst bodybuilders “should” be utilising a higher rep range and volume split to focus on the muscle hypertrophy. However, look at the likes of Dorian Yates and the great Arnold, bodybuilders who would either use powerlifting splits for growth and in the case of Arnie, actually compete in powerlifting shows!

The simple fact is the stronger you get, the more muscle you build. And the more muscle you build, the stronger you’ll grow!

Exercise Selection 

This is probably the only way in which the two properly differ from each other. With powerlifting, the emphasis is places heavily on “the big 3”, that is the squat, deadlift and bench. Because there is no need to attain a symmetrical physique to compete in strength competitions, you won’t see many (if any) hardcore powerlifters doing any accessory movements unless it proves beneficial to these compound lifts.

There’s also differences in the way some of these compound exercises are performed by powerlifters and bodybuilders, most notably with the barbell bench. As a powerlifter, you’re encouraged to keep your elbows tucked in and maintain an arch in your back to help lift as heavy as you can without putting too much strain on and injuring your shoulders, whereas for increasing muscle hypertrophy it is in fact more beneficial to have your elbows flared out without the arch to optimise chest stimulation.

The Middle Ground

Is there actually a middle ground? Definitely. The two training styles overlap heavily, and many powerlifting programmes actually utilise muscle hypertrophy splits for the first few weeks to build up a solid foundation. My first proper training programme that focused on increasing the stats of my big 3 last year had an initial 4 weeks of GVT followed by another 4 weeks of drop sets, both of which work within the “bodybuilding rep range” before stepping up the intensity and reducing the volume to test my one rep max. This has been adopted in other programmes too, with the phrase “powerbuilding” popping up as a new training style category.

A word of warning; whichever path you pick as our main goal, make sure you follow the core principles behind it. Last January when the focus was on powerlifting despite using the hybrid split, progress was being measured on whether the numbers were going up. However, switching my emphasis onto bodybuilding required me realise the need to drop the weight and focus on the contraction. This is where knowing what you want comes into play; as ego-boosting as gaining an extra 10kg on my bench would be, I’d be happier looking like I bench 10kg more, and so like many should be measuring my progress on my physique rather than my numbers.

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Pace yourself

The importance of taking your time with powerlifting and bodybuilding can not be stressed enough. We all have the ambition to achieve that 100kg Bench Press, those 18″ python arms, or to drop 10% body fat within weeks of starting to work out. But by setting your short-term goals too high you’re ultimately setting yourself up for failure. Many realise how little progress they’ve made in relation to their target and end up quitting. It’s like expecting sex on a first date; as desirable as it may be, nine times out of ten it’ll take more than just 30 minutes (when there’s no alcohol involved). Little progress is STILL progress.

Those who don’t quit end up looking for “fast track” ways of achieving their goals. I follow a former college peer on Instagram who started working out a year before I had. It was great to see his progress as he posted clips of any new PR’s on his major lifts and I often used him as friendly competition/motivation. It was saddening, however, to hear that he had started taking steroids. Even more so when he posted a clip of himself squatting a new PR of 140kg months after I had, using the hashtag “natty”. This isn’t a brag but merely a point I’m trying to prove; a lot of people go down the path of taking performance enhancing drugs in order to fulfil stupendous short-term goals, without properly educating themselves on the potential risks nor having a proper workout or diet regime beforehand. UK Social care charity CRI has reported a 645% rise in the number of steroid users between 2010 and 2013, with a growing majority of them being of the “younger breed”. Simply injecting yourself won’t get you that Schwarzenegger look nor will it get you that 200kg deadlift. That takes commitment, discipline, time and proper education. The great Michael Jordan once said; “Stay true to the game and the game will be true to you. If you try to shortcut the game, the game will try and shortcut you.”

Being impatient had cost me six months worth of bodybuilding. The pursuit to match and beat my friends’ personal records on lifts led me to “dirty” bulk for a 18 months. The goal was reached but my main target of achieving the physique that I desired was somewhat lost in the process. It was only after a reality check that I managed to get back on track with a gruelling six month cut, and I am almost certain that if I had paced myself and taken things slowly I still would have reached (or even beaten) the physique I have today and matched my friends’ PR’s without the additional mental and physical stress of having to diet for a while.

Set yourself realistic short-term and long-term goals. With a huge emphasis on the “and”. It is all too easy to set yourself an attainable short term objective, but once you achieve it, what then? I’m a firm believer of never being content with what I have and to always strive for more.  On the other hand, as was the case with me, if you set yourself long-term goals what happens when the motivation dips down occasionally and realise how much further you have to progress? The glass half-empty rather than half-full mindset. Having short-term targets that lead up your end game helps you to stay focused and appreciate all that you achieved thus far whilst on your journey.

This blog post doesn’t apply just to beginners. Just last week, midway through a gruelling back, chest and abs session, I was a victim of trying to jump the gun too. Tracking my progress and starting my lean bulk four weeks ago had made me strive to increase my weight on lifts every week, to ensure the weight gain I was experiencing was mostly due to increased muscle mass. But, I was so focused on this that I had unintentionally sacrificed my form doing cable rows just to accommodate the extra iron. As a bodybuilder, you learn that form goes a long way and not feeling the usual muscle contraction when performing the exercise was a clear indicator that I needed to calm my ego, drop the weight, focus on the contraction and try again the next week. As long as I continue to put the effort, I will get there eventually.

Be patient, have reasonable goals in mind and work your hardest to achieve those goals. Remember that tale about the hare and the tortoise? Who ended up winning? Big achievements come one small advantage at a time. One small step at a time. One day at a time. Good things come to those who wait, my friend.