In this episode, I talk about how to ease into the squat, and what to do with your feet, your knees, and your butt. If this is your first time ever, it’s a good quick intro to squatting. Even if you’ve just been out of practice for a while, or if you’re a hardcore weight lifter, take a second to look at your squat technique.
It takes just a few things for you to maximize your output, strengthen your knees, and use your back correctly with the squat. My priority is to help you do this ultimate human movement the right way. Train with these few simple mental cues and build your squat to enhance your life.
I’m really excited to be putting out my first video on how to squat. I believe the squat is the ultimate human movement, and I want to show you how. I’m going to just go with my gut and bring you different aspects of the squat through each progressive episode. With that being said, please leave me a comment and let me know what you think. I would love to hear from you.
This episode of Build Your Squat is an intro to squatting. We look at the squat basics and cover concepts that can help a beginner as well as an intermediate powerlifter. I know there’s a lot in this one. If you have never done a squat before, I encourage you to just chew on the information in this video and visualize yourself doing a squat. Don’t worry about using weights, don’t worry about getting it perfect. It’s more important that you are thinking about the squat and that we’re starting this conversation.
Thank you so much for checking it out. Please share your insights with people who come to mind!
I’ve been forcefully hauling this iron ball, to and fro, between my legs. It’s fun. Here are my first thoughts on kettlebell training.
Two months ago I “picked up” the book, Kettlebell – Simple and Sinister. It is written by Pavel Tsatsouline, Russian trainer and founder of StrongFirst. He is the father of kettlebell training in the U.S. I am grateful to him for his straightforward instruction and commentary on starting kettlebell training. Get the audio version. It rocks.
The long drive to the only suitable powerlifting gym in town rendered it useless to me. After taking up the 16kg kettlebell, which is the basic Russian unit 1 pood, I never once stepped foot in a “gym” in the last two months. Home and the local park are now my gym. Swinging and getting up with this little cannonball, by its handle, has taught me so much about my nervous system, my shoulders, and the little cracks in my strength that powerlifting does not directly address.
Most of my strength training techniques for powerlifting translate directly to kettlebell training. Absolute emphasis on form and technique; mental cues to wire them into my system; rest and recovery; breathing and abdominal pressure; and progression.
I had to get used to the type of progression that kettlebell training presented. Unlike powerlifting progression, where weight can progress with every new session, kettlebell training weight remains the same for long periods of time. As a matter of fact, I’ve been using the same weight since I began two months ago!
It doesn’t trouble me, though. The weight is heavy to begin with, and there’s much to learn in properly handling it. This is where the development happens. Swinging a 35 lb. hunk of iron, as smoothly cast as it may be, is no walk in the park. Learning to do so while keeping the spine intact, holding the shoulders in place, and creating torque through the feet and body gets complicated from moment zero.
The progression unfolds in mastering the movements, and in increasing the force, power, and focus on the kettlebell as strength gets better. By learning to handle the weight, I am building the physical parts and the neurological programs of my body that are involved. It’s similar to powerlifting, but with more emphasis on the learning. Powerlifting requires learning, of course. But once you learn the technique and form, the emphasis is on the weight progression.
There is definitely a big difference between squatting 135 pounds and squatting 315 pounds. However, with kettlebell training the weight jumps to 16kg at the start, then to 24 kg, and then to 32 kg, and so forth. The “catch up” with each weight progression is much greater than in powerlifting. I would never have a trainee jump from a 135 lb. squat to 1.5x that, 205 lb., even if his technique and form were perfect. The weight jump is way too much to make any physiological sense in the frame of training.
With the kettlebell, though, the weight is smaller. So jumping from 16 kg to 24 kg is probably going to be difficult, but not ridiculously so. I am confident that I will be able to safely train to the next weight when the time comes. Which is soon!
Right now, the hardest part is resting. This always seems to be the sticking point for me. Simply getting good sleep is a task that tends to evade me when I need it most. I’ve been training nearly every day, with a rest day approximately once a week. When I don’t get that rest, I can feel it in the lack of power on my swing. It just seems so much harder to hip hinge forward and get that maximal explosion. Like I’m moving through molasses.
I’m sticking through it and am now able to get in 100 swings, alternating one armed, and ten getups within half an hour. It will soon be time to up the weight. Soon, but not until I can do the sets strong, as Pavel says. Not until I can own each and every swing and getup at one pood.
Read the book before you start training. Let me know if you do train with the kettlebell. What was it like toward the transition period to the next weight?
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I was back in the gym this month for the first time in four months.
Something was funky about my squats. I kept wondering why it felt so tricky to keep my back firmly aligned. Things felt a little wobbly once I had loaded weight on the bar.
I was using torque from my feet, spreading the floor. I was pulling out on my knees. I was keeping my butt engaged. And my shoulders were back and down, tight. But I felt like the torque from my legs was bleeding out somewhere, not making it all the way up to the bar.
What was going on?
Then I got a gut feeling. Literally. My gut. I had forgotten all about belly pressure.
Your belly is a powerful element for exertion. It provides structure for the most strenuous power outputs in life. Lifting a heavy load on your shoulders, hauling something off the ground, and pushing a dead car down the road all require you to keep your belly tight for maximal effort.
It’s because your belly is critical in transferring power from the feet to the point of push or pull. How, when it’s the softest part of the body?
The softness is actually the key. Because your abdomen is flexible, it can act like a balloon. Suck in a deep breath, down to the diaphragm, and you find that you can tighten your belly down around that air. Now feel it. Rock hard.
Ever had your head bonked against your dad’s belly and wondered why it felt like a bowling ball? Well, he was utilizing abdominal pressure.
This balloon of pressure is the pillar through which power can transfer most efficiently from your hips up to your shoulders. When you have it firm, your belly is the connecting structure that keeps your torso sturdy.
With a deflated belly, you put most of the power transfer back on your spine. Not as rigid, not as effective.
The Weight Belt
Now you might see the value in using a belt during your heaviest powerlifting reps. Wrap a normal belt around your midsection, just above the navel. Breathe in, down against your diaphragm, and push with your belly against the belt. Feel some power there?
I don’t think it’s advantageous to use the belt for lighter lifts. There is value in squatting and deadlifting without a belt. It helps you engage your core by itself, and you learn proper technique. Having a belt through all training, from the lightest weights, can make you depend on it and have a false sense of security.
On your heaviest lifts, though, it can be a powerful tool to scale your well-developed technique. It also helps you build your belly muscles by enabling a greater output from them.
Training Belly Pressure Without a Belt
Start without a belt, using the principle of abdominal pressure in training. Try it first without any weight on your shoulders. Do body weight squats, taking in a deep breath and pressing your belly against it, and hold it in until you squat and stand back up. Then release the breath.
Hold and release your breath for each rep. You may need to take a little breather in between. Don’t pass out. You need oxygen to stay conscious and to stay healthy.
By the way this is great training for low back issues as well. The stability from your belly pressure will help you maintain spinal alignment. Use the principle for daily activities, like lifting things off the floor, picking up grocery backs, and taking out the trash.
I’m doing something different today. Below is the audio version of this letter. Let me know if this helps! Enjoy.
Tight calves affect ankle mobility. That means that you will move with limited range in your ankles. When you walk, stand, or climb stairs, your ankles will not be able to fully flex the way they should. The design of your ankles enables forward and backward flexion of your shins above your foot. There’s also the lesser known ankle function, which is to let your shins rotate around in all directions on the horizontal plane.
To illustrate this, say you are standing on one foot. If a giant hand came down out of the sky and grab you by the shoulders, it should be able to move you around like a joystick without your foot moving at all. Your ankle should be able to let your shin rotate on it in this way. Feel free to stand and experiment with this concept.
When my ankles are restricted I walked funny. I land too heavily on my heels, and I feel like my steps are too short. This usually happens in the morning, after a long day of walking. My tissue gets tight if I don’t mobilize it at night before bed.
Tight ankles also give me trouble squatting. My feet tend to splay out, instead of staying in their initial forward position. This is because my ankles aren’t letting my shins rotate freely. Rather, my shins are causing my feet to pull out as I descend to the bottom of the squat.
In the ideal state, ankles are smoothly rotating joints between the shins and feet. They allow your foot to stay planted on the ground, while the rest of your leg bends. When you squat, your foot is in position the entire time. As you lower, and your knees pull out, your shins will tilt slightly outward. With mobile ankles, your feet will stay planted and you will build up torque for the upward push. This results in a powerful stand, jump, or lift.
When walking, your mobile ankles will also allow your feet to stay where you placed them. You will be able to touch down your heel, blade, ball, and toes in a forward position. As your body glides forward, your foot will be able to stay in place, and your leg will rotate inward as it ends up behind you.
Compare this to a stiff-ankled walk, where your foot can’t stay planted, and your stepping leg actually rotates outward as it ends up behind you. You’ll see the duck-footed walk with tight ankles, usually accompanied by tight upper quadriceps. It’s usually easier to walk with toes pointing outward when your legs are all stiff in this manner.
So what’s the problem with duck-footed walking? Long term, it leads to pronated feet, super inflexible ankles, agitated knees, tight quads, and tight hips. The moment you need to lift something heavy, leap to catch a falling object, or miss a step on the sidewalk, can result in a pulled muscle, ligament, or tendon. Happens all the time.
Short term, you have ineffective movement. Your body design gives you better propulsion and strength with straight feet, smooth ankles, correctly aligned knees, and supple quads and hips. This will pass on love to your spine and shoulders, which depend in large part on the lower portion of your body for proper mechanics. After all, when you walk, jump, bend, or lift, the ground is your source of push. And your feet, through your ankles, are your direct relationship to that ground.
Mobilize your ankles with calf stretches. Two minutes on each foot should be good, once a day. You can catch me on Snapchat doing some of this in the evenings. Please let me know if this helps!
Do this quick test: stand with feet pointing forward, at shoulder width or less, and get down in a full squat. All the way down, until your knees can’t bend anymore.
Have someone take a side angle photo of you or be next to a full length mirror. Is your back pretty straight? Or is it hunched over your knees? What about your head? Is it in line with your spine, or bent forward or backward?
Make sure your feet are planted from heel to blade to toes. Use your feet’s grip on the ground to support yourself, and try to straighten out your torso. You want your shoulders back and head in line with your spine. Possible? Or not even a bit?
Okay. If you had a lot of trouble lifting up your torso, you probably have stiff chest, shoulder, and bicep muscles. I get this after bench press sessions, lots of sitting, and lots of walking with a heavy pack when traveling. In all these scenarios, I’m straining forward or in a position that gets the front muscles short and tight.
The result is forward hunching. My favorite remedy is shoulder dislocations. Do three sets of ten of these, and feel the crazy tightness loosen up. It will open up your squat, but it will also help with long hours sitting at work and in traffic, standing taller, and easing upper back and neck aches.
When you think of squatting, the upper body doesn’t seem to be involved. But the mobility of your torso actually affects your ability to squat.
It’s not always necessary that you are in the full squat with a straight spine. Lifting something heavy is a different story, but when you’re just getting into a squat, you can have a rounded back without harm to yourself.
The extent to which your back is straight or curved is, though, an indicator of your mobility. If your back is very hunched, it could mean that the tissues of your abdomen, ribs, chest, and shoulders are tight.
If the front of your body is tight, it’s going to pull you forward and make it hard to straighten up. Work on your normal sitting and standing positions. If you’re slouching, get yourself upright. Open up the chest and shoulders, and stretch out your biceps. And squat every day to test yourself.
It’s a constant work in progress for me. The more I’m able to keep my torso aligned, the better time I have living each day free of aches, kinks, and pain.
How I yearn for that delicious, thick crust, the crumbling surface of sleep from which I emerge well rested. I feel like a soggy pie dough, not quite done, damp and tender. I want that oven, set to the right temperature, and to be snug in there until I am golden brown, toasty, and fully set.
I’m still feeling significant soreness everywhere. I completed a second training session two days ago. After five months away from the gym, my strength is not what it used to be. I’m starting the 5×5 powerlifting progression again. The weights I’m using are nearly at ground zero. No problem. I did the squat, bench press, and deadlift.
My mobility is better, though, as I’ve been practicing that regularly while traveling. With the weight low, I was able to maintain good form through all the lifts. I want to move grains of sand with finesse, not die trying to push a mountain.
I can hardly sit on my butt without wincing. The first couple of sessions after a training stall are usually followed by exaggerated soreness, but recovery is taking longer than I expected.
I looked up my old notes on recovery, and laughed. The recovery tool I listed as number one was sleep. It was funny because it’s so basic and so true.
It’s funny that I can have the best food, supplements, and ample mobility exercises, and still not feel close to a hundred percent without sleep. When I sleep, it’s like preparing for war. I take my dose of magnesium, vitamin C, and kelp. I make sure my grounding mat is plugged in and positioned at my feet. I make sure the blinds are closed away from me, so that the sun doesn’t leak through at an angle in the morning. I try my best to keep the room cool. After meditation and journaling, and reading, I finally plug my ears and cover my eyes.
Right now I don’t have the luxury of all that. I discovered that ear plugs cause a little allergic reaction and make me cough. The sun comes up early. Dogs bark. So I need to make do. Still figuring things out.
There is contradictory research out there about sleep and physical recovery. Animals were observed to sleep longer after exercise. People were found to have different hormone responses to exercise, which affected sleep quality and duration. Those who had steady adrenal function also had longer stage 3 (deepest non-REM) sleep. And the few that had changed adrenal function had the same or shorter stage 3 sleep. There seemed to be a compensation between sleep and adrenal function.
But another study showed that people who exercised in the morning did not sleep more or less, while people who exercised in the evening slept more. This led to a new hypothesis that recovery might also take place when a person is awake.
For me, it could be the perception of soreness and tiredness that lingers without ample sleep. Whether it’s psychological or physiological, it makes no difference to me. I need deep sleep, a lot of it, to recover from training.
The bake of life. Sleep. When the juices have time to flow, growth hormone, testosterone, vitamins, minerals, fluids reach each and every cell with nourishment and repair and improvement. The kneading, cutting, and garnishes of life come together in sleep.
Ah, sleep, I will find you!
Let’s do ourselves a favor. Sleep the deepest possible sleep you can tonight. See how it feels in the morning.
P.S., anyone know a good way to keep out noise other than foam ear plugs?
I was going to the gym today but almost canceled on myself.
I had made the wretched choice of eating a donut last night. When I do such things, I didn’t give enough credit to the consequences. Sure, I get some after effects, I told myself. Little achiness, brain fog. Funny how time befuddles memories.
It was an inflammation bomb. First came the wheat coma. I was reading and had to drag myself to bed, it was so bad. I fell into instant sleep for an hour, and woke feeling hungover and tender. My trap and shoulder blade area were tight in a knot, so I rolled it out on a lacrosse ball.
Did some deep breathing, drank my vitamin C and magnesium mix, and tried to sleep. No go.
My stomach was upset. I got up and had some kombucha. I thought of taking charcoal, but didn’t want to absorb the magnesium that I had already taken. Lesson learned next time.
It took me a few hours of reading to get to bed. When I woke this morning, I still felt hungover. Butter coffee and some eggs helped. I was determined to go to the gym today, and I gave myself a couple of hours to warm up.
Well, when I went outside to check my squat position, I was surprised to find myself so kinked up. Thus it was:
This was class one tightness, inflammation to the max. Everything felt rusty and I could barely get down into the squat and hold it.
Feet splayed, torso wrapped over my knees. And really, really tight in the hips. It was time for some major mobilization.
First the hips. I’m jamming down with my pelvis to get into the tight areas and loosen them up. I also extend my front leg to get in deeper on the tissue near the knees. Try and you’ll feel it:
Ankles flex through the calves. So I work on the calf and achilles tendon. Keeping my leg rigid at the knee and hip, I lean hard and hold for a minute or two. Sliding over to either side helps to mobilize in more directions.
I did a squat retest at this point, meaning I got down in the squat to see if there was any difference. The first photo shows me holding my hands up overhead. I’m doing this to test my shoulders, to see if they are mobile enough for me to hold this position. Pretty tight here, as you can see I’m not holding them in line with my torso:
My hips were feeling smoother, and I was able to get down with feet straighter forward. My torso was more upright, but there was still a bit of tightness holding my midback in a curve.
I addressed my shoulder mobility to open up the chest and torso. This can help with keeping the upper body straight during the squat. I’m doing an exercise called shoulder dislocations here:
Geez was I tight. At this point I was about to push my training session back one day. With bad mobility, heavy lifting is not advantageous. Better to wait until I’m able to get into good positions. Squat retest after shoulder dislocations.
Functional squat depth for weight lifting, side and front:
And a full squat:
I wanted to test my weightlifting position, in addition to the full squat. I don’t go all the way down when I’m loaded with weight.
You can see I’m able to get down with my feet pointed forward. My torso is not perfectly upright, but it’s much more mobile and no longer glued to my knees.
After much tweaking, I actually freed myself up enough to train.
Add me on Snapchat to hear about the training session. Yea, the picture’s silly.
I’m excited about tapping into my strength training again. I’m getting back into the gym this week. My priority is the squat.
It’s been over four months since I’ve trained at full capacity with the weighted squat. So I’m curious as to how I’m going to feel at this next session.
First thing I’m going to establish is whether or not I still have the mobility in my hips, knees, and ankles for proper squat position. This is my first step when returning to training after a long pause.
Feet forward, knees pulling out, and hips open enough for all of this is critical to healthy squatting. It protects the knee tendons and ligaments from opening into an exposed position and tearing.
I’m going to sit in a full squat and check out the angle of my feet. If they’re pointed too far out to the sides, I’m going to try a couple of different things to see where the tightness is. I should be able to sit in a squat with feet forward.
It could be the ankles, which can be fixed by ankle mobility. Or the hips, which can be remedied with hip mobility. After each mobility exercise, I’ll retest my squat and figure out how I’m going to get down in the squat with proper alignment.
With proper mechanics I’m going to be able to make a smoother transition into building strength. Recovery is going to be better without unnecessary twists and pulls from bad form. And the movement patterns that are established with good technique are going to carry through to higher levels of training in the near future.
Watch me go through squat testing and mobility on snapchat: brilliant_beast
I just wanted you to know, last Saturday I wrote my 100th newsletter to you. When I started these letters, I wanted it to be a way to teach powerlifting and strength training in a simple way. I wanted to share with you how I got strong and mobile. And I wanted to share secrets about nutrition that shouldn’t be hidden. But my newsletter turned into something else.
It became more, because to be honest with myself, I had to write about the other things I’ve been exploring. More than strength, I was looking into mind cultivation. I wanted to become more deeply in sync with myself. I wanted to control my negative emotions, and downward spiral thinking. I was stressed out at work, I worked harder, and I tried to make things better by fixing things.
But I realized I had to stop and dig down within myself. I needed to recover on a daily basis. I needed to heal my mind. This led to meditation and heart rate variability (HRV) practices. I learn from Pema Chodron and Tara Brach.
Much of my exploration into meditating happened at a park near my home. I loved being outside on the grass, with trees all around, and birds singing from those trees. The sun gave me a kind of energy I had forgotten about since childhood. I had already known about earthing, but spending time regularly outside, barefoot, etched the benefits in stone for me.
My goal is to make known some of the basic things about human well-being that, as a race, we’ve forgotten. I want to reconnect us to the earth and bring us into a real understanding of our relationship to this planet and the universe. In addition to spending time outside barefoot, I believe earthing mats are part of the answer.
We’ve let our bodies become twisted and gnarled in pain, immobility, and incapability through sitting. Sitting in classroom and office chairs, sitting in cars, sitting on couches. That’s not how our bodies are designed to exist. I see Kelly Starrett as one of the leaders of the physiological revolution.
Food was engineered and production amplified to feed the exponentially growing population of the world. And it worked. And now we need to get the quality of food back. We just are not getting nutrients that we need. We aren’t eating the right stuff. We need to look for the good stuff. We need tons more green leafy veggies and fat and meat from animals that are raised right. We need food that is free of herbicides, pesticides, and antibiotics. There are countless leaders bringing us solutions today. Look at Terry Wahls, William Davis, Mark Sisson, and Dr. Mercola.
Life is great, and keeps getting better in many ways. But these are some fundamental things that we’ve left behind in the search for higher answers.
The more we try and the more we explore, the more we’ll be what we were meant to be. I believe we’re inclined to be good when we’re well nourished, rested, and finely tuned in every way. We’ve restricted ourselves as a race to reach specific goals. Now that humans have reached those goals, it’s time to take care of ourselves again. There’s a lot to reverse. Just take a look at epigenetics to see that the lives of our ancestors are written into us.
What I find I share with you, and it gives me satisfaction to write to you. You’ve intentionally signed up for my newsletter. You search, dig, read, and act to make life good. If my letter resonates with someone else you know, please forward it. You never know how far they may go with it. There’s a lot to work on with ourselves, but you’ll find that the more you tell people about things, the better you understand them.
So connect with the ground, eat well, get strong and get mobile, and cultivate your mind. When you find what is good within you, let it thrive. Simply doing good is the easiest way to share it with the world.