Alright boys and girls, as promised here is the second installment of our front squat article written by Patrick Kern. If you haven’t read Part 1 yet then you need to check it out before continuing. In this piece Patrick goes over the common issues you may come across when trying to perform a front squat and how to fix it so you can get back at it. Read up and then let’s go!
Common Flexibility Issues
Some of the main problem areas that we observe in front squats are in the ankles, the hips, the shoulders, and the wrists. Even when injury free, these muscle complexes can develop imbalances based on everyday activity (common culprit: too much sitting down at the computer). My methodology involves some sort of myofascial release, some sort of stretch for the just-treated muscle, and then activation for the desired agonist/antagonist. This is not a revolutionary concept by any means, but it’s a methodology I have found to be very effective based on what both classroom and real-life lessons have taught me.
Common Ankle problems: tightness in the gastrocnemius/soleus muscles, underactivation in the Tibialis Anterior and Peroneus Longus/brevis.
Step 1: Myofascial release. Use a foam roll or a recovery band to apply pressure to the Posterior musculature of the calf complex (gastrocnemius, soleus). You must apply the pressure to both the muscle as well as the tendon. Both can experience inflammation as well as tightness. However, more time should be spent on the Gastrocnemius itself rather than the Achilles Tendon.
Step 2: Stretch. A case where there are many ways to skin the same cat. The method that most can facilitate is to put your forefoot on the edge of a step, and allow your heel to go below your toes. If stretching before training, I would recommend stretching for 1-2 seconds, immediately relax, stretch a little further, and relax. Repeat as needed, but usually 4-5 times is fine. If stretching after training, hold for 30 seconds or more.
Step 3: Activate. This stems from a towel/band stretch for the calves. There are methods to do this involving your full depth squat, but if your ankle inflexibility is so bad that you can’t get down that far, we need to isolate the muscle first to reactivate it.
Take a towel or band and wrap it around your forefoot. Pull the towel or band towards you, which should elicit a stretch effect in your gastrocnemius and soleus muscles. Once this stretch is felt, try to pull your toes up even further than what the towel is pulling on it. Think of it as trying to will your toes to touch your shins. Once you feel your shin muscles (anterior tibialis) starting to activate or burn, relax the movement, and repeat two more times.
Common Hip Problems: Hamstrings and Hip flexors Overactive, Gluteal Complex Underactive.
The top picture shows the hip muscles from the front (anterior) while the bottom picture shows the hip muscles from the back (posterior).
Step 1: SMR (self myofascial release) To Hip Flexors, Adductors and Hamstrings. This is easily done with a foam roll as well, but other harder means can be used. Personally, I like to use my shot put from college. It’s a lot harder, but I know it’s getting the job done; just my preference.
Lay on massaging implement, albeit foam roll, shot put, or whatever else you sick masochists come up with, with the muscle intended for self-massage. When applying to hamstring, roll on the implement all the way from underneath the glute all the way down to just above the knee. For the hip flexors, lay on the top of the thigh to apply pressure to the rectus femoris (not shown, but one of the larger superficial muscles in the body).
The adductors also act as an indirect hip flexor. Overactive adductors cause additional hip flexion when there is excessive internal rotation of the knee. If you don’t believe me, go ahead and stand completely upright with your knees directly facing each other and your hips in full extension (most humans can’t do this).
To apply pressure to release the adductors, apply the implement directly on to the inside of the thighs and lay on top of it, then roll from the upper groin to just above the knee. The more you lay on it, the greater the pressure, so take care in that sense.
The same can be done for the Hamstrings. Lay the back of your thigh directly on to the implement in order to release the tension in the hamstrings. Roll from just above the knee to the gluteus complex. Repeat as needed.
Step 2: Stretch Hip Flexors, Adductors and Hamstrings. Hip flexors must be stretched in two different ways: both in the sagittal plane and in the frontal plane. My particular favorites for stretching out the main sagittal hip flexors (the Iliacus and Psoas) is the Bulgarian Squat Hold and the Hip Flexor Lunge.
Bulgarian Squat Hold: Place rear foot on top of bench, and step out away from your rear foot until you feel a stretch in your front hip. Maintain an upright torso as you do this. Push your rear knee down into the floor and hold there for anywhere between 30 seconds to 2 minutes, depending on severity of tightness.
Hip Flexor Lunge: Similar to the Bulgarian Squat Hold, but rear foot stays on the ground and uses the ball of the foot as part of the stance. Once the beginning stretch is achieved in this position, begin to push the knee down while again maintaining an upright torso.
To stretch your adductors, put yourself in a full depth squat. The upright torso is not required for this because we are trying to facilitate that exact thing during the stretch. Once you are squatting to full depth, put your elbows into the insides of your knees and push them out. As you do this, push your chest upwards and outwards. This should help to facilitate the positioning you need in order to achieve a sound squat, front or back.
Lastly, I’m sure you can find at least 10 different ideas for how to stretch your hamstrings. My particular favorite, for which I have no fancy name, is to reach down to grab your toes. Once you have a hold of your toes, raise your rear end towards the sky. You should feel that stretch pretty quickly. Try to push your knees back as far as you can go.
Step 3: Activate the gluteal complex. The simplest way that I can think of to start activating the glutes is to tell you to stand up, think of that sensation of when you figure out that you are about to explode with diarrhea, and pretend that you have to run to the bathroom with that. Is the mental imagery gross? Yes. But it also works when you realize that you have to respond to the call of nature and put the process on hold until you can facilitate it. (Aside: this also helps to pull your tailbone into proper place, a very cool thing to know if it ever twinges on you).
Progressions from this also include glute bridges, weighted hip thrusts, and properly executed Romanian Deadlifts, and in that order in my opinion. Get a solid glute bridge down, incorporate some weighted hip thrusts. Weighted hip thrusts become easy; load up on some heavy RDL’s.
Also, band monster walks (wide forward walk with bands around both legs in a squat position) and external rotations (push the knees out while wearing bands around the legs) will be very nice for activating the gluteus medius and gluteus minimus specifically.
Common Rotator Cuff and Latissimus Dorsi Problems: Elbows cannot come up
Most of the flexibility concerns in the upper body are either in the lats or in the wrist. Although the latissimus dorsi is not part of the rotator cuff musculature, the function of the lats does have an undeniable effect on the rotator cuff. When the lats are overactive and insist on keeping the elbows down in the front rack position (the main problem you see when the lats are overactive), it then calls upon the rotator cuff to drastically contract the top head of the humerus and the scapulae together, which over time rotates the humerus laterally within the shoulder joint if left to fester. This is what starts happening at its worst, so here’s hoping you catch it before it gets to this point.
Step 1) release the tension in the lats. My favorite way of doing this is to apply a dense foam roll to the mid back area, then apply pressure to just behind the armpit in order to get the insertion of the lats. While doing this, keep your hands behind your head and your elbows in your peripheral vision. Roll from the armpit to the low back with sort of a twisting motion, then return. Repeat as needed.
Step 2) Stretch it. There are several ways that you can use walls, benches, and partners to stretch the lats out and specifically facilitate the front rack position. My particular favorite is to take your hands behind your head, interlock your fingers, and try to pull your elbows up and forward while pulling your head back. Hold for 30 seconds or stretch, release, then stretch further.
Common Wrist Problem: Inability to maintain wrists in extended position
This is another common one that I see when teaching the front squat: people complaining about wrists hurting after front squatting. Usually, this can go away when we address the inflexibility of the latissimus dorsi (see previous section). But, in some cases, the wrists are also a culprit for being inflexible. In cases like this, we can also address the unnecessary tension in the forearm musculature along with different stretches.
Because I have a relatively sick and twisted sense of getting the job done, I use a 7.27 kg (16 lbs for you Americans) shot put for self-massage on my forearm muscles. However, this task can also be done with a lacrosse ball, baseball, or a softball. When using the aforementioned pieces of equipment (except the shot put), place the implement on a relatively sturdy and solid table or countertop, depending on what’s available to you. The ground can work as well if you do not mind being down there. Make your hand into a fist and apply your weight to the ball, rolling from the elbow to about 2/3 to 3/4 (after this point, you start getting into exclusively tendon moreso than muscle) of the way up towards your wrist. You might feel a spot becoming extra sensitive to the pressure you are putting on there; apply it harder there. That’s most likely where you are tightest and experiencing the most inflammation.
To stretch your wrist tendons, extend your arm out in front of you with an open hand. Take your fingers and try to pull them towards you. You should apply some considerable force while doing this, but don’t hyperextend the wrists either. Hold for 30+ seconds or stretch, release, then stretch again further.
To review everything that we have talked about here, I reiterate that the front squat is a great way to build overall positional strength and to prescreen potential movement problems before going into other exercises. In my personal experiences, getting stronger in my front squat has helped me in my back squat, deadlifts, clean and jerks, and snatches because of the additional positional strength I have gained throughout my body (Personally, I am currently working towards a 500lb front squat. Not breaking any records but it’s also not weak by any means). Athletes and those who want to be generally fit can all benefit from having a strong front squat.
You should now have everything you need to start accomplishing some amazing things in your training with front squatting and the symptomatic awesomeness that will follow from having a strong front squat. Should you have comments or concerns about the exercise and how it suits you, you can find a coach local to your area who you trust or you can contact me at [email protected]