10 Common Squat Mistakes and How to Fix Them. Part 2.
6. Missing Out On the Stretch Reflex In the lifting world, it is no secret that a tight, short muscle contracts harder than a looser, shorter muscle. The muscles tightened in the squat store elastic energy (as well as keep your back, hips, and knees in safe and correct positions). You may have noticed a “bouncing” sensation at the bottom of your squat, or seen this while watching elite lifters. This is caused by a phenomenon of the neuro-muscular system called the stretch reflex. The stretch reflex happens when a proprioceptive component within the belly of the muscle called the muscle spindle detects stretch (lengthening of the muscle). Muscle spindles detect both the amount of stretch and the rate of stretch in the muscle. When sufficient stretch has been reached to stimulate the muscle spindle, an impulse is created in a sensory neuron which travels through the spinal cord to alert the Central Nervous System (CNS) that the muscle is being stretched. In an effort to protect the muscle from being overstretched (and possibly injured), this spinal cord impulse causes a reflex contraction of the muscle. This reflex is referred to as the "stretch (or myotatic) reflex". So what does this mean for lifters? Thanks to this reflex, more efficient firing of more contractile units occurs after a stretch. Therefore the stretch reflex is a chief component of all explosive muscular contractions. During the squat, the external rotators of the hips position the femurs (or thighs) so that the adductors and external rotators can participate with the hamstrings in the bounce. Thus the wholehip musculature can contribute to squatting efficiently. This can only happen if the knees are pushed out and the glutes are engaged during the squat—another reason glute activation is such an integral part of the squat. Performed correctly, the “bounce” you feel out of the bottom of your squat is due to the stretch reflex, and is both safe and beneficial. Timing is everything here. When used properly, the bounce will be immediately followed by a powerful upward drive of the hips. If you’re not ready, the bounce will end up followed by a pause, from which you will have to try to restart your upward movement. This means that the bounce must be anticipated as the first part of the drive, and that squat descent speed must be correct. Think about the “up” drive during your descent to anticipate and be ready for the bounce. As discussed in Part 1, descending too quickly by relaxing muscles is less safe, and the “bounce” will be less effective. Only tight muscles store elastic energy. If you are loose enough to drop into the squat faster than you can come up, you need to tighten up more. This will also help to prevent injuries. More about tightness in number 7.
7. Core Troubles Core stabilization creates stronger and more efficient movements, and is vitally important for the health of the spine. Without optimal bracing (stabilization) of the spine, force transmitted to the primary engines of your hips is reduced, resulting in loss of stability, force, and power during movement (i.e. squats). Whenever a muscle contracts, it pulls towards its center, exerting a pulling force on each of its attachments. In order for one of the attachments to move powerfully and efficiently, the other attachment must stay fixed. Otherwise, the strength of the pulling force on the mobile attachment site will be diminished. Thus it is essential to stabilize our core so that the strength of muscle contractions goes towards moving the upper/lower extremities rather than being lost on unwanted core movement. In the context of squatting, stabilizing the core helps to produce stronger and more efficient contractions of the prime movers, as well as protecting the spine from being forced into dangerous positions under heavy loads.
Stabilization diminishes unwanted motions of the spine which can lead to overuse, misuse, and degeneration. All too often, we don’t realize the consequences of our actions until it’s too late. When we lose good spinal positioning during a lift, stabilization and force production from the hips and shoulders is potentially shut down, leaving way for knee and shoulder injuries. 3 Reasons People Default Into Mechanically Unstable Spinal Positions:
They have a task-completion, get-the-job-done mindset.
They’ve ingrained poor positions and movement patterns in their training and day-to-day life.
They don’t have a reproducible, all-encompassing bracing strategy that transfers to the majority of movements.
It is vital to implement a conscious plan for bracing your spine in a neutral position that will give you the same results every time. Whether you’re tired, scared, or under stress, your default pattern should be the same so that you will revert back to the same mechanically stable, neutrally braced spinal position. Try this 4 step bracing method: (Method adapted from Becoming A Supple Leopard)
Squeeze your glutes. This sets your pelvis in a neutral position
Pull your ribcage down. Pull your lower ribs in to balance your ribcage over your pelvis. If this is hard for you to imagine while standing, try this method my young gymnasts use: lay on your stomach on the floor and try to pull your ribs off the floor while keeping the chest, shoulders, and pelvis on the ground. You’ll probably find yourself squeezing your glutes to help you accomplish this.
Get your belly tight. Lock your pelvis and ribcage in place with your abdominals. You can’t perform a squat with your butt squeezed, so you need to lock the position in place by engaging your abs. Keep your glutes squeezed as you take in a big breath of air, and engage your abs to get your belly tight. Stiffen in place. This increases your intra-abdominal (intrathecal) pressure, creating a rigid lever for lifting and a safe environment for your spine. Adding a belt to this mix increases this pressure even more.
Set your head in a neutral position and screw your shoulders into a stable position. Center your head over your shoulders, and gaze forward. Ears should be aligned over your shoulders, hips, and ankles. Draw the shoulders back (think about tucking the shoulder blades into your back pocket), spreading the collarbones wide, and release your shoulders down.
Diaphragmatic Breathing. Diaphragmatic or belly breathing is another essential tool in your core stability tool box. If you tried out the warm up video in part 1, you’ve already tested out the belly breathing and dead bug exercise. You can learn to do this by lying on your back with your feet propped up on a wall or object (hips and knees both at 90°). Press your ribs in and spine to the floor, and focus on breathing deep breaths into your belly. Your chest should remain still while your belly rises and falls with each breath. Use your hands to feel this if necessary. When you can do this, the next step is to move away from the wall or object. Maintain your leg position by engaging the abdominals, and continue the breathing. When you have mastered this, you can attempt the dead bug exercise by taking a deep breath in, practicing your brace, and lowering one heel to touch the floor, then returning to start. Your back should remain flat and braced against the floor at all times, with the ribs pulled in. Work this into your warm up to prime the core for proper bracing during your session.
Want to learn more about these topics? Check out the sources below:
Becoming A Supple Leopard by Dr. Kelly Starrett and Glen Cordoza.
Kinesiology: The Skeletal System and Muscle Function by Joseph Muscolino
Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training (3rd Edition) by Mark Rippetoe
Stay tuned for Part 3! Out next week! Covering: 8. Getting A Little Too Fancy With Your Footwork 9. Checking Yourself Out In The Mirror 10. Letting Your Ego Get In The Way