Olympic Lifting for Average Bros, Part II

Mike Wittmer

In the second part of our Olympic Lifting series, we’re going to focus on hip mobility.  If you missed Part I, you can find it HERE.

As you can tell from the picture above, hip mobility is critical to perform the lifts effectively.  But even more importantly, you need the ability to go into deep hip flexion with a neutral lumbar spine!

If you lack basic hip mobility, I would start out by employing the hand grenade approach – throw everything at it that you possibly can!  For those with very stiff hips, we’ll often foam roll daily, while also going through a ton of different mobility drills (such as the ones you can find in Assess and Correct or Magnificent Mobility).

Once your general mobility has improved, it’s time to start addressing your mobility needs within the specific context of squatting.  After all, the goal isn’t to have a ridiciulous amount of non-specific mobility,  Instead, you actually need to have the mobility in the hips, combined with the stability/stiffness around the lumbar spine to squat deep in a safe and effective manner.

Here are a series of exercises you can use to get you started.

Kneeling Rockbacks

Kneeling rockbacks (also featured in A&C) aren’t a high-level, intense exericse.

Rather, the goal with these is to teach you how to move into hip flexion without losing your lumbar curve.  If I had to nitpick at anything in the above video (which comes to us compliments of Tony Gentilcore), I would say he’s over-exaggerating his lumbar arch to a degree. It’s very common, as many assume that if you’re trying to avoid losing your arch you should just arch harder, right?

Instead of thinking about arching, think about lengthening the spine from the head to your sacrum, which will reflexively turn on and engage your core muscles.

(And don’t worry, I’ll pick on myself here in a second.  You know I love ya Tony!)

Plate Squats

Once you’ve started to discern the difference between hip motion and lumbar motion, it’s time to build those back into our squatting pattern. The plate squat is a fantastic exercise to help us do this.

When looking to-rebuild your squat, I’ll often have clients squat to a box.  I don’t necessarily do this for the performance benefits; instead, my goal is to stop them at the point where they would lose the neutral position of their spine/sacrum.  If you start to see any tucking or rounding, you’re squatting too deep for your current levels of mobility/stability.

As you can see at the very bottom of the squat, I get a little bit of rotation at the sacrum.  We could argue forever about whether that subtle bit of motion is possibly injurious, but here’s my take – I want to minimize any changes in lumbar/sacral alignment when squatting.

Bottom line?  That’s probably a little deeper than I should be squatting.  I would be better served to cut the range of motion slightly and continue working on mobility/stability until squat depth improves.

Front Squats

Once you’ve mastered the plate squat, it’s time to start building something specific to Olympic lifting – the front squat!

The front squat is a fantastic exercise, not only because it’s a legitamite squatting exercise, but also because it really taxes your core/lumbar stability and thoracic spine mobility levels.

Like the plate squat, I’ll often have people squat to a box early on, or at least until they can squat to an appropriate level without losing their lumbar/sacral alignment.  In this video, I lose sacral alignment very subtly at the end range of motion.  However, this brings me to one more very important point.

How Stiffness Influences Your Squat

You’ve often heard me talk about stiffness in the past.  Stiffness is not a bad thing – in fact, stiffness helps make great athletes great!

The problem is when you have a stiffness imbalance – in this case, my hip stiffness exceeds that of my lumbar spine, which causes the motion.

However, we can’t forget about specificity! In the above squats, I’m only using 25 pounds for the plate squat, and 135 for the front squat – well off what I’m capable of using.  As my weights go up and my core/torso are forced to stabilize hard and increase stiffness, my lumbar spine and sacral position improves!

I could probably use a bit more mobility work for the hips and stabilizing work for the torso, but I don’t want to loosen up too much.  Taking away all my hip stiffness would decrease my ability to squat and deadlift heavy weights!

This is a key point:  You can’t assume that if someone fails to bodyweight squat correctly, that they have an issue. Rather, look at them with gradually increasing loads (including working sets) to determine if they have an issue or not.

Often, strong and/or heavy clients don’t have as many issues as you might think. Instead, your choice of assessment isn’t specific enough. I don’t care how an elite powerlifter or Olympic lifters bodyweight squat looks.  Rather, I want to know how their technique and performance looks under relatively heavy loading.  If you still see lumbar flexion or changes in sacral alignment even with heavy loads, then you have a problem.

Random Thoughts on Hip Mobility and Squatting

  • While I haven’t addressed it in-depth here, I have mentioned is numerous time – hip mobility is only part of the squatting equation!  You need to have great core/lumbar stability as well.  Think of developing your own natural weight belt, working the front, sides and back of your core using various exercises.
  • The anterior core (and especially the external obliques) work to prevent excessive anterior tilt.  Again, we want neutral spine/pelvis – NOT a ridiculous anterior pelvic tilt and lumbar lordosis!Not only does this excessive alignment increase wear and tear on the spine, but it also limits squat depth as well, as our hamstrings are in a position of constant stretch/facilitation.
  • Finally, please keep in mind I’m not an Olympic lifter! I don’t claim to have elite O-lifter mobility, and if I had Aaron around I’d use him for all my videos.  Instead, look at the things I do/don’t do well and use them to improve your own performance.

So that’s it for Part II.  Chances are you have some work to do, so get after it and we’ll see you next week for Part III!

Stay strong

MR

3 Comments

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  1. Mike,
    With kneeling rockbacks, is it a good idea to also start with the knees close together and then progressively moving them apart to see which width allows you to go deepest without spine compensation? Would this be a decent way to get an idea of how deep you can go without incurring an hip impingement issues?

  2. MR,
    Since you said squat form may actually improve for some under load, do you simply progressively increase the load within the lifters capability and notice if the trend reverses itself as the load increases? If so, is there a certain weight above which you shouldn't continue adding load to assess even if the lifter can handle it? e.g. If 315 didn;t feel like it would crush the lifter at all, and 135 for was a touch off in the bottom, is there a point between the 2 where added load should possibly start to clean things up?
    You also said "Not only does this excessive alignment increase wear and tear on the spine, but it also limits squat depth as well, as our hamstrings are in a position of constant stretch/facilitation."
    Does this facilitation actually make the hamstrings kick in sooner and potentially cause posterior tilt and lumbar rounding?

  3. Another thing too with the kneeling rockback is the angle of the torso does not replicate the angle the torso is in when squating.
    I would love to ask McGill about this. As he always uses this as an assessment of how deep someone can squat, but I think he may be getting a false measurement of someone's hip depth if he has the hands on the ground instead of the forearms, thus having a more upright torso.
    I think being on your forearms will put your torso in a more squat specific position. Just me thinking here.
    Any thoughts on this guys?

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