Friday, 13 April 2012

Front Squat vs Back Squat

Front Squat VS Back Squat -Which Camp are you in?

By Sabina Skala

After my last blog on strength training I have been asked why I favoured Front Squat over Back Squat (Front Squat was mentioned by me as one of the fundamental exercises I use to develop strength, I didn’t include Back Squat in those). The answer is - I do favour using Front Squat with my athletes and clients for several reasons, however I do not think that Front Squat is better than Back Squat and vice versa. Am I contradicting myself here? ... Not really and here is why...

Imagine you walk into a commercial gym. How many people do you actually see squatting? I am guessing - none or few. The few you see squatting are usually doing Back Squats either using a Smiths machine or if they are using free weights their Back Squat looks more like a very poor version of Good Morning. But hey... they will stack more weight on the bar and smash those squats and work on slipping a few discs in their back as well - why not kill 2 birds with one stone. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard from new coming clients that they do not want to squat as they have hurt their back or knees squatting, squat is evil!. My answer always was, is and will be - it is not the squat that is bad - it was your technique!

Both Front and Back squat are complex movements that require flexibility and great core control. Flexibility is not something people would work on much, especially back flexibility seems to be a forgotten area. We would love to jump onto heavy lifting straight away.
We need to remember though - even a building build out of the best materials will fall if the foundations are poor. Your body structure has to be solid before you attempt a heavy load.
Back squat is a great lift and hits your hamstrings and glutes more than Front Squat (which is quad dominant), also the latter is always going to be lower than your max back squat. So why on earth do I teach front squats and overhead squats before even starting talking about back squat.

The key word is in the previous paragraph - and it is STRUCTURE. All my clients so far (and I mean ALL - no exceptions) had some sort of tightness/mobility issues with their back when I started training them. It can be easily assesed with wall squats (wall squat pictures can be found by the end of this article - click HERE

Wall squat is a great back mobility exercise, which I include in most of my warm ups and it is a fantastic tool to find out where the tightness in the back is. It also teaches the correct position that should be adapted whilst squatting.

From a coaching perspective, I find teaching the Front Squat first is easier than the Back Squat. I can get someone to squat deep, with an upright spine, much faster than I can get them to do this with a Back Squat. In my experience - cheating the Front Squat is nearly impossible. If you start leaning too far forward, you will drop the bar. People are more likely to learn how to "feel" the correct position when they front squat. Once their Front Squat is sound then I can assure you 100% - you will have no problem of them leaning too far forward when they start working on the Back Squat. The body awareness they build when learning and working on Front Squats transferrs to correct Back Squat techinque and your clients engaging their core and upper back muscles more. I do not even talk about, yet teach Back Squats until my people have an excellent Front Squat Technique. Period.

Another advantage of Front Squat is that it is easier for the people to get into the deep bottom position than with a Back Squat. Glutes and hamstrings get worked most in the deepest portion of the squat, when the top of the tighs is below parallel. I see so many "Back Squat depth cutters" in the gym on daily basis. Not only they are not getting any stronger, but they fool themselves that they can go heavy. Their squat depth gets progressively worse as the load on the bar increases. I wish they dropped the weight, give Front Squat a go and work more on their body structure as they squat. I can assure you they would get a few inches lower!

If you look at all the goodness Front Squat offers, you may think why did I say at the beginning of the article that I didnt think Front Squat is better than Back Squat. Here is why....

Both of the above lifts are great for athletic development providing they are performed with excellent techinque (I hope that the above paragraphs explain why I initially tend to focus on Front Squat when working with clients). Back Squat is often called The King of the Lifts - to me both Back And Front Squats deserve this name. They both hit the quads, the glutes, the hamstrings, the spinal erectors, the lower back, and even the upper back, lats, shoulders, and arms if you squeeze them hard enough and put in enough work.
True is - they both hit the muscles slightly differently.

Back squat is still considered better hamstring and glutes builder than front squat (which is superior quad builder comparing to the Back squat). However I came accross this study: study “A Biomechanical Comparison of Back and Front Squats in Healthy Trained Individuals” by Gullett, et al. that states: “The front squat was shown to be just as effective as the back squat in terms of overall muscle recruitment, with signi´Čücantly less compressive forces on the knee". Agree or is something to think about.

The Back Squat is also highly “loadable”, which is a great advantage. You can add a lot of weight to it rather easily providing the correct form is maintained. Your back squat 1RM will always be higher than your Front Squat 1 RM which is important in terms of strength gains etc, again - providing the technique is perfect.

Summarizing - both back squat and front squat are great, compound exercises, both are fantastic tools you can use in strength development. However when you select which tool is better for your athlete, always make sure that you find the right balance between the exercises that are general enough to hit the body as a unit and allow the appropriate loading, with exercises that attack a specific athletes weaknesses in a way that solves the problem and allows the athlete to progress. Front Squat will ruthlessly show if there are any mobility/technique problems, that prevent your athlete from getting stronger. Therefore unless you train power lifters, or your athletes show great back mobility - use Front Squats first and complement them with Romanian Deadlifts (to supplement hamstrings and glutes work) and / or hip thursts. Once Front Squat technique is perfect, back squats can be included in the training program.


Thursday, 5 April 2012

Strength development - this can change your training

By Sabina Skala

Can you get stronger without getting bigger?

You can find thousands of articles on neuromuscular adaptations to strength training. The adaptations are called NEUROMUSCULAR for a reason. A lot of people associate strength with size. It may but does not necessarily be true. The size matters if you want to be the strongest man on earth, Strong Man competitors are big for a reason. However if you remember my fellow country man Mariusz Pudzianowski, 5x World Strongest Man winner – you will know that he was probably one of the smallest guys out there and yet he won 5 Strong Man titles - more than any other athlete in the history of the sport).

The body adapts to training and gets stronger/bigger/faster/smaller etc because of the neural, muscular, hormonal, skeletal etc changes that are the result of chosen training stimulus.
Is it possible then to get stronger without getting bigger? Yes it is… it all depends how strong one wants to be. If we talk about maximum strength - the size is important, however if we talk about relative strength (absolute strength to body weight ratio/ or maximum force exerted in relation to body weight) - it is a different story.

I came across an article on the internet a while ago. The author described strength as a “skilled act”. I really liked this description, as you can TEACH your body to be STRONG.
Lets focus on sports that require great amounts of relative strength and /or power and at the same time there are weight limitations involved. Sounds familiar? Some examples are - combat sports (i.e boxing, mma, bjj, etc), gymnastics, ballet (yes – I do consider ballet dancers athletes), ice skating, climbing. Sports like box or MMA – have their weight groups, ice –skating, climbing, dance and gymnastics – the lighter and stronger you are the better.

Training all of the above, or training women (“I don’t want to get bulky” is probably what PTs hear first from a female client) should focus mostly on the neural adaptations to strength training. Let me make it clear – research shows that it is not possible to induce ONLY neural or ONLY muscular changes. Both always take place, however there are certain protocols that allow increase in strength without or with minimum increase in the muscle cross section.

What exercises are best for strength development. My 6 “fundamental” exercises are:

Front Squat
Overhead Squat
Bench Press
Pull Up (weighted or not)
Shoulder Press/or & Push Up (weighted or not)

Once and athlete’s form is proficient in all of the above - then we can start playing with variations. Note that all the above are multi-joint, compound exercises.

The chart below ** will explain the repetitions range you should be aiming for depending on what your goal is.

** Mel Siff “Supertrainng”
1RM – 1 Rep Max – maximum weight you can lift/push / pull etc 1x only

Even more detailed guidelines as per “The Kinesiology of Exercise” by Michael Yessis’:

1-4 reps per set @ 2-4RM increase pure strength but do not increase muscle mass
4-9 reps per set @ 5-9RM increase strength together with muscle mass
10-15 reps per set increase muscular strength, muscular endurance and muscle mass
16-30 reps per set increase muscular endurance with little to no increase in muscle mass
31-50 reps per set or circuit increase muscular endurance with no effect on muscle mass
50-100 reps per set or circuit increase muscular endurance, cardio-respiratory endurance, and there will be a possible loss of muscle mass (or fat) but absolutely no increase in strength

With all the guidelines above – just stick to the numbers and be consistent and honest with your training. Be honest with yourself – of poor technique or mobility hinders you from lifting heavier – don’t stack more weight on the bar, work on technique and mobility as this is the problem. Changes will happen, as long as you are smart about your training.

Why are the numbers of sets and reps and RM% so important?

The answer is - that certain ranges of reps result in greater neural adaptation. When an athlete is a novice to strength training we can be certain that the initial strength gains will come mostly from neuromuscluar adaptations rather than hypertrophy. If you notice your muscles “pump up” during or shortly after the session, don’t panic or don’t be too happy (depending of what your goal is). This is a short term increase in size caused by fluid retention. It should fade away within 1hr – 90 mins after the training.

Lets look at the main mechanisms of neural adaptation:

1. Increased Motor Unit recruitment - neural adaptation to training that rapidly increases the strength of a novice who hasn’t yet experienced hypertrophy. What is a motor unit - motor unit is made up of a single motor neuron as well as all of the muscle fibers that neuron activates. This refers to our skeletal muscles, which are made of hundreds of thousands of fibers. These muscle fibers are activated by motor neurons when they receive signals from the brain to contract the muscle. A single motor neuron can control several hundred muscle fibers at a time, depending on the size and function of the muscle. Why is it good to recruit more motor units and how it relates to strength gains? Even when you engage in very low intensity activities like lifting glass to your mouth, your brain recruits motor units that have a smaller number of muscle fibers to allow you to lift the glass. However when you are lifting something extremely heavy or applying a lot of force your body will contract more available motor units to allow you to perform the activity. It is a very clever mechanism, imagine what would happen if your brain told your muscles to contract fully when lifting a glass up, you’d be knocking yourself in the face every time you want to have a drink. Motor unit recruitment is a TRAINED and LEARNED ability. The more motor units you can recruit the more muscle fibres you can activate – the more muscle fibres you can activate – the more force you can apply. Training not only increases the frequency of motor unit firing, it also increases the total number of motor units that effect a muscular contraction. In other words, more motor units work together, and they all fire more rapidly. Trained individuals can recruit more motor units than novices.

2. Coordination of Motor unit recruitment – as mentioned above – as the athlete training progresses, their ability to utilise MULTIPLE motor units increases. Please note that each muscle fiber in a motor unit is functionally identical (which means it is either slow twitch or fast twitch, never both in the single motor unit).

3. Following on the previous point another adaptation is enhanced Motor unit activation. The frequency of motor unit firing increases with the training, as well as the total number of motor units that affect a muscular contraction. More motor units work together and they fire more rapidly (faster).

4. Improved technique and skill acquisition – out of the two similarly sized men the one whose technique is competent will be able to generate more force than the novice. Also will do it in a safe manner.

5. Cross education - and increased involvement of the neural pathways contribute to strength gains too. For example, an untrained arm will gain significant strength in concert with a trained arm, because of interaction between the nerves of either arm at the spinal column. This cross-education is one of the clearest demonstrations of neural adaptation.

Understanding how your body works and adapts to training is the key to a successful program design. Before trying to make your training look fancy etc, stick to the basics and follow basic principles. Classics is never overrated - once the sound fundamentals are in place, you can play with your training more.