Strength Matters: Why Starting Strength Is Not (Just) A Powerlifting Program

I wrote this article for members and coaches at my gym, CrossFit Solace, to help understand why my Solace Strong program that I run there can be beneficial for many different groups.  I realized this was necessary after being referred to as “the powerlifting coach” or something similar, numerous times.

I’ve altered the title for my own webpage from Solace Strong to Starting Strength, because the same misunderstandings often need to be clarified for a broader audience, who see SS as a powerlifting program and either a) don’t see it as a general strength program that is also very useful for many CrossFitters, olympic lifters, and other sport participants  or b) entirely don’t understand the utility of a general strength program for those things.

With that small change, I present the article.  Click here for link to the original on the Solace website.

In the year since we’ve opened at Crossfit Solace, I have been introduced many times to prospective or new members as follows:  “This is Wolf, he runs the powerlifting program.”  In fact, just this evening (8/24/15), a new member approached me.  He saw my class low bar squatting and initiated a conversation by saying, “I used to do powerlifting too! It took me two years to get my high bar squat up to where my low bar used to be.”  And then he showed me a very wide stance, vertical shin, above parallel “powerlifting” style squat.  I wanted to just shake my head and walk away, since that kind of squat doesn’t at all resemble what we do in Solace Strong.  But if I am – if we are – to educate people to better understand the role of strength in both powerlifting and CrossFit, we need to engage and not walk away.   As long as people see a low bar squat and automatically think “powerlifting” – regardless of whether the low bar squat is performed like ours, with a moderate stance, a good amount of knee bend, and definitively below parallel depth; or whether its done with an ultra wide stance, hardly any knee bend, and to questionable depth (or worse) – then we still have work to do.

So, while it’s true that I compete in raw powerlifting and have coached/handled lifters at meets, our Solace Strong program is not really a powerlifting program, per se.  However, it is a very understandable mistake to make.  In this article, I will explain why our program is a strength program and not specifically a powerlifting program, although it can be used for powerlifting, and why this distinction is important for CrossFitters.

To discuss this issue, we need to examine both our Solace Strong cycle and the sport of powerlifting.  A full historical examination of the latter is beyond the scope of this piece, but a brief description and discussion of the sport will lead to a better understanding of what Solace Strong is, and is not.

Solace Strong

First, our program.  Solace Strong is an 8 week dedicated cycle that meets for three weekly 90-minute sessions, during which participants focus on first learning correct technique, then increasing strength in five fundamental barbell lifts: (Low Bar) Squat, Press, Deadlift, Bench Press, and Power Clean.  Chin-ups or pull-ups are included for some participants, depending upon their needs.   Outside of a few rare circumstances, those are the only lifts we perform.  Yet, despite its simplicity, the cycle is brutally effective at getting people stronger.

The programming is simple: Each workout includes a squat, a press, and a pull.  The low bar squat is performed every session.  The press and the bench press are alternated, as are the power clean and deadlift.  Participants who have a lot of trouble with the power clean, as well as slightly more advanced participants, also perform chin-ups or pull-ups.

Both technique and programming are based on the models elucidated in full detail in Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training.   Everyone starts with a linear progression, which means that once proper technique is learned, you add weight to the bar every subsequent time a movement is done, until you can’t anymore.  The amount of weight added can, and does, vary.  Participants often add more weight to the squat and deadlift in their first few sessions, 10-20 pounds, simply between one workout and the next.  On the other hand, by the end of the cycle, many participants struggle to add 2.5lbs to their press work sets.   Once linear progression is completed, more slowly-progressing programming strategies are implemented to continue progress, but most participants can complete one entire cycle on some form of linear progression, even if slightly modified over the 8 weeks.  Typically only those who are taking back-to-back strength cycles need more advanced programming than a small tweak of their linear progression.

All that explained, what does Solace Strong really do?  Well, it gets you a lot stronger than you were before, using the basic barbell lifts.  And this is where it’s easy to confuse it with a powerlifting cycle.  So let’s talk about powerlifting for a minute.

Powerlifting

Powerlifting is the sport wherein, under strict weight class limits and with referee evaluation of your lift, you have three attempts to establish a 1-rep max in the squat, bench press, and deadlift.  Your heaviest “good lift” in each of the three lifts are added together to produce your “total,” and the lifter with the highest total in each weight class is the winner.

For simplicity’s sake, we will only briefly mention the trend, dominant in powerlifting until very recently, of using powerlifting “gear” – squat suits, knee wraps, and bench shirts that can combine to help add hundreds of pounds to a lift and total beyond what is possible without the gear.   While most geared lifters are indeed very strong, and while it’s certainly not so simple a matter of putting on the gear and suddenly – poof! – lift more weight, the fact remains that the gear, once properly utilized, can add literally hundreds of pounds each to the squat and bench press.

Raw Powerlifting is the version of the sport in which only belts, knee sleeves, and wrist wraps are allowed as supportive equipment – which should sound familiar, as it is very much the same way CrossFitters and general trainees lift.  The supportive equipment does not add weight to the lift by storing elastic energy across a joint, so the weight lifted accurately represents the lifter’s actual strength in that lift.

What’s the Difference?  A Discussion on Strength

At first, it appears that Solace Strong is indeed a powerlifting program.  After all, we squat, bench press, and deadlift very regularly.  However a deeper examination explains why Solace Strong is not a powerlifting program per se, even though it is an excellent initial program for a Novice aspiring powerlifter and can be used to prepare for a powerlifting meet.

I’ve used the words “strong” and “strength” several times in this article, so let’s talk about what they mean. What is strength, actually?  It’s a bit harder to define than it seems.  Is your 1RM squat, your “strength?”  What about your best clean and jerk?  Your ability to do lots and lots of reps with 135lbs?  All of those are related to the expression of strength, but we must be more precise in our definition.

Strength is the ability to produce force against an external resistance.  Force is, again, hard to define without being self-referential.  For our purposes “that quantity which causes movement,” is a good enough layman’s definition.  And we have to specify external resistance because it is impractical to measure the muscular force being produced within the actual muscle. For example, when you deadlift, we can objectively measure the force by the weight on the bar. It would be much harder to directly measure force within the muscle bellies, i.e., how much force your spinal erectors are producing to keep your back flat (unless, like Solace mascot Nick Pon, you can’t figure out how to get your low back into extension).

Strength’s Carry-Over to CrossFit

Producing force against external resistance is quite literally the way in which we interact with our physical surroundings.  This is important because it follows that strength is the basis for almost all of the necessary athletic attributes in life.  Power, accuracy, balance, muscular endurance, speed, and almost all of the 10 physical attributes in Jim Cawley’s list, whichCrossFit listed on the mainpage way back in 2003, depend on strength.   And, here’s the kicker: being good at CrossFit therefore depends very greatly on…drumroll…strength.   (For those interested, I wrote an article several years ago elaborating on how each of these 10 characteristics depend on, or are improved by, strength.)

Now, only a fool would suggest that developing strength alone makes for a great CrossFitter.  Technique, skill, movement efficiency, metabolic conditioning, and other needs play very important roles in the well-roundedness required to thrive in CrossFit.  However, strength is still the basis.  For someone who is not already strong, getting stronger will have a profoundly positive effect on that person’s ability to succeed at CrossFit.

We now have to ask an important question: How much strength is required, and how much leads to diminishing returns (which means time and recovery capacity might be better spent on other things)? The answers is different for CrossFiters, powerlifters,Olympic lifters, discus throwers, marathoners, and sprinters. A look at where the best male CrossFit Games athletes have developed over the past five years suggests that a squat around 450-500 is sufficient to be great at CrossFit.  A 600 squat might help, but only a little; the marginal difference in carryover between a 500 and 600 pound squat, to the broad range of activities that a CrossFitter must excel at appears to be small.  And therefore, the time and recovery effort it takes to get from a 500 to 600 squat would probably be better spent doing other things.

Now that you know that I know this, I’ll tell you what I’ve observed: many, many regular working people who come to the gym and do CrossFit 3-4 times per week hit a plateau somewhere between 6-15 months that is directly related to a lack of strength.  You can have great mobility and a massive motor, but if your best deadlift has been stalled at 265 for six months, you’re not going to be able to do 21-15-9 with 225.   And scaling to 175, which you can complete, won’t yield enough of a strength adaptation to help you get from 265 to 365…especially if there are an equal number of toes to bar in between.  And if your best deadlift is 265, its very unlikely you’re going to be able to do a WOD with a lot of power cleans at 185, either.

What many people need is a way to get a lot stronger, FAST, so they can then go back and apply this strength to their CrossFit.  Enter: SOLACE STRONG.  There’s nothing specifically magic about an 8 week cycle, but it provides a good balance in that it’s long enough to allow for a significant strength increase (especially in a Novice), but short enough that CrossFit skills and conditioning do not erode too much and the transition back to CrossFit afterwards, utilizing newly acquired strength, doesn’t take too long.

Most of the athletes placing well in Regionals or making it all the way to the Games already have sufficient strength.  Whether due to focusing on it during training or being naturally well adapted, or both,  these athletes are training many hours per day and maximizing their recovery via fine-tuned nutritional, mobility, myofascial, and sleep strategies among others.  They are not the population for whom Solace Strong was designed.

The vast majority of our members are regular, working people who have discovered CrossFit is better at improving their physical fitness than the myriad other things they’ve tried.  Some lucky ones may have been brought in by a friend or family member before they even tried less effective things.  But they’re people with busy work and family lives who don’t have 15-20 hours per week to train.  3-5 hours per week is more realistic.   A short period focusing on strength, for those who find it a limiting factor in their CrossFit, can do pretty amazing things for this population.

Examples from Our Gym

Consider just three examples that we’ve seen in our gym thus far.  First, our fearless leader, Head Coach Dr. Hayden Courtland. Beginning his two cycles at 6’3”, 180, Hayden finished his two cycles at 200, and main lifts in the cycle went as follows:

*Squat: 280 to 325
*Press: 120 to 140
*Deadlift: 340 to 410
*Crossfit Total: 730 to 865
*Power Clean: 170 to 205

Now, we would expect the lifts he actually focused on to get better.  The question is, does my earlier assertion that strength profoundly affects all other physical attributes hold true?  If it does, we would expect to see increases in other lifts and possibly even WOD times (keeping in mind that with no conditioning or met-cons performed for 8 weeks, a brief re-conditioning period would make sense as necessary).

The answer: a resounding YES!  Here are some other lifts and met-con results and their circumstances, done immediately or soon after the strength cycle:

*Front Squat: 235 to 250 (despite not being done at all for 8 weeks – only low bar squats)
*Clean & Jerk: 185 to 195 (also not done once for 8 weeks, and this 195 PR was done not under Olympic WL conditions of rest, but as the C&J at the end of 15.1 – after several rounds of deadlifts and toes to bar!)
*Fran – Before the cycle he could not complete even the round of 15 before the twenty minute cap, but after the cycle he Rx’d it in 7:50.
*Helen: 13:23 to 12:27 Rx.
*Hayden’s newfound strength enabled him to perform ring muscle-ups without the need for a false grip.
*Hayden’s full Snatch and Clean also went up 5 lbs each the first time he did them, despite not being performed or practiced for 8 weeks.

Our second example is Greg Schatz.  Greg is also tall and naturally thin, beginning the first cycle at 6’3” 190, and weighing in at 206 after two cycles and his lifts went as follows (also over two cycles):

*Squat: 195 to 325
*Press: 115 to 160
*Deadlift: 245 to 355
*Power Clean: 185 to 225 (this was not a 1RM power clean, just normal work performed during the cycle)
*Bench Press: 175 to 225 (same as power clean)

Now for the lifts he didn’t train:

*Snatch: 125 to 165.
*Clean & Jerk: 190 to 225
– Again, both lifts completely untrained for about 5 months.

And CrossFit:
*Grace: From could not complete as Rx’d, to 3:46.
*Karen: 11:34 to 9:27 (performed very soon after strength cycle before conditioning had been reestablished).

Our third example is Asta Fivgas.  Asta had been training on and off for several years prior to joining our cycle, so her gains are in some ways more impressive as they are not just newbie/Novice gains but layered on top of strength already somewhat developed.  Asta has taken the strength cycle continuously since its inception, so we don’t have Crossfit benchmarks to compare.  But we do have before/afters for the lifts, as Asta has done some Olympic lifting in the week or two between cycles:

*Squat: 175 (stuck here for years) to 225
*Press: 65 to 85.5
*Deadlift: 195 to 250
*Bench Press: 95 (which resulted in a long term shoulder injury) to 112.5 with no pain.

Now some other lifts, completely untrained during the cycle, just done in one-off workouts between cycles:

*Thruster: 83 to 93
*Jerk: 103 to 113
*Snatch: 68 to 85.5
*Front Squat: 133×1 to 143×3

Asta has also increased her kipping pull-ups from rounds of 4,3,2 to consistent rounds of 6, and has been able to do a downward dog in yoga with her heels on the ground for the first time in her life.

These examples are not aberrations.  They’re relatively typical results of a brief but intense focus on strength, for regular people who were not yet strong.

Putting it All Together: The Role of Solace Strong

And this brings us back to Solace Strong being a strength program, not a powerlifting program.  As mentioned earlier, Solace Strong is designed to make people stronger – to increase their ability to produce force against an external resistance.  Doing so will increase their CrossFit Total, their Powerlifting Total, and as we have seen – for people who are not already strong – their Weightlifting Total as well, in addition to lowering times or increasing rounds on WODs.   The purpose of Solace Strong as a strength program is to increase the general adaptation of strength – production of force against an external resistance, which then carries over positively into any target activity that you will perform.  Obviously the greater the target activity’s dependence on strength, the more useful strength will be.  As discussed earlier, a marathon runner doesn’t need to squat 405.  For a serious CrossFitter, on the other hand, 405 is barely even “table stakes” to get into the game at the Regional level.  We now return again to the idea that for someone who is not already strong, getting stronger will help tremendously with CrossFit.

How Would Solace Strong be Different if it Were a Powerlifting-Specific Program?

While a general strength program may be the basis for a powerlifting program, the two are not the same thing.   What would a powerlifting-specific program include that Solace Strong does not?  Some important examples in a non-exhaustive list:

1.     Sumo deadlifts – some lifters have anthropometry that makes the sumo deadlift a superior choice, within the rules of powerlifting, to lift the most weight from the floor to lockout.   However, it cuts off range of motion and reduces the use of the musculature of the low back and hamstrings in exchange for a small amount of weight on the bar.

Good for increasing a powerlifting total within the context of the rules?  Yes.

Good for increasing general strength with carry over to all other activities? Not as good as the conventional deadlift.

This is not to say that there is never any place in a general strength program for sumo deadlifts.  That is a much longer discussion.  However in an 8 week cycle designed to get the fastest gains in general strength, the conventional deadlift is generally the superior choice.

2.     Squat style – we use a moderate width stance of about shoulder width, and toe turn out of about 30 degrees, and enforce below parallel depth extremely strictly.  Stance width and toe turn-out do vary a bit from person to person, but this general set-up yields a squat that is very different than the type of squat a lot of people think of when they hear “powerlifting” – a super wide stance, vertical shin squat with almost no knee bend and hips shoved way back first, often done to questionable depth.

A compilation of some geared powerlifting squats. This style of squatting, while very common, has limitations and does not match the overall movement patterns used and required by general trainees and CrossFitters.

Our squat is not designed to cut corners on range of motion or to allow significant valgus knees to yield a heavier weight lifted – both things that a competitive powerlifter might do on purpose (if within the rules and judging of a meet) to gain a competitive advantage to win the meet.  Our goal is to get as many muscles as possible involved in the movement, and take it through a full ROM, so our participants can get stronger.

Wolf with an example of the Low-bar Back Squat used in our Solace Strong cycles. Note the differences in stance and greater range of motion as compared the common powerlifting style shown above.

3.     Bench Press – technique and frequency

The most noticeable difference here from traditional powerlifting is that we use a moderate width grip with vertical forearms at the bottom of the lift.  No wide grip benches with the bar sinking into the lifter’s belly.

First, me demonstrating a moderate grip bench press with vertical forearms at the bottom:

For contrast, a video displaying the wider grip geared bench press in a bench shirt common in powerlifting:

 

The press is not contested at all during powerlifting, and as the weight used in the press is significantly lighter than the bench press, there is a limited amount of carry-over from the press to the bench (there IS carry-over, but especially past the Novice stage, it’s limited). A 3 day per week powerlifting program might include 2 days of benching and 1 day of pressing.  Some might even argue for a 3/0 split, or pressing only as assistance work after the bench. Our 1/1 ratio of benching and pressing, and going on to favor pressing slightly for the last 2 weeks of each cycle, is not designed for powerlifting but for general strength purposes.

4.     No knee wraps or gear, at all, ever – if this were a powerlifting cycle, we might have people training for both raw and geared powerlifting events (wraps, multi-ply, single-ply).  And that’s perfectly fine.  But this is a STRENGTH cycle, where the focus is on general strength.  As such, we lift only using equipment that does not store elastic energy across joints or directly contribute to that joint extending to complete the lift.

This is not an exhaustive list, but highlights some of the primary differences between Solace Strong – a strength cycle – and what a powerlifting program might look like.

Conclusions

Since increasing the production of force against an external resistance will increase your powerlifting total, this is a program that can be used for powerlifting preparation – especially for a Novice or early Intermediate lifter – but is not specifically tailored for powerlifting.

It is designed with the general trainee in mind.  Either someone who just loves training and wants to focus on getting stronger, or the CrossFitter who has plateaued due to a lack of strength that isn’t improving on its own by doing 3-4 classes per week.   And for that population, as Greg, Hayden, Asta and dozens of others have experienced, it’s an excellent way to get stronger as well as increase aptitude at CrossFit.

So if you’ve been having any doubts about whether to join us over by the racks for some #GAINZ – now you know. If strength is your limiting factor, come over to the dark side for a couple months and reap the benefits.

 

NYC Squat Camp: December 13th

I’m very excited to be holding, along with fellow SSC Brent Carter, a squat camp here in NYC at my new gym, Crossfit Solace, on Saturday, December 13th from 2:30-7:00pm.

SS Squat Camp

The training camp is a one-day event focusing on The Squat, and is concentrated on improving performance of the lift.  The camp will run approximately as follows

  • Brief discussion of theory of the lift (~45-60 min)
  • Practical session for the lift (~2-2.5 hr)
  • Discussion of common technical problems and how to correct them (~15-30 min)
  • Programming discussion (~15-30 min)
  • Q&A (until you run out of questions or we get too exhausted to continue)

Space is limited, so be sure to sign up before it’s full!  Link with more info and to sign up: Starting Strength NYC Squat Camp.

Brent Coach

Wolf Strength and Conditioning Has a New Home!

Solace Cages

Behold, a quick peek at Wolf Strength and Conditioning’s new home: Crossfit Solace.   Solace is a world class facility, and probably the only place in Manhattan where crossfit, olympic weightlifting, powerlifting, yoga, and general strength and conditioning can all be trained for under one roof while under the tutelage of experienced coaches in each area.

I’m both proud and extremely happy to call Crossfit Solace my new home.  The services I’ll be offering there are as follows:

1. Solace Strong: A recurring 8 week barbell-based dedicated strength cycle, utilizing the Starting Strength model of lifting.  Culminates at the end of every ~8 week cycle in a Strengthlifting/CrossFit Total event where all members of the cycle can test their 1RMs in a fun, informal meet-like setting.

2. Semi-Private Personal Training: personalized programming and coaching in small groups of 2-4 trainees at a time.  Available for anywhere between 2-4 recurring sessions per week.

3. Private Lessons/Personal Training: One-on-one, fully focused on you.  This option is great for someone brand new to the lifts, or who wants a very focused session with the opportunity to ask programming or mechanics/form questions between sets, or someone for whom athletics and physical activity have always been a challenge.

4. Semi-Private Starting Strength/Barbell Training Events: Held approximately monthly on a weekend day, this is also a small group of 2-4, but in a non-recurring format.  Spend 3 hours receiving coaching on the barbell lifts.  Similar to the SS Training Camps below, but focused on multiple lifts, and in a smaller group format so each trainee can receive more individualized attention and focus.

5. Starting Strength Training Camps: Training camps are one-day events where the focus is on improving your performance under the bar.  Camps focus on the squat, presses (press and/or bench press) or pulls (deadlift and power clean/power snatch). Each camp begins with a lecture focused on the basics of the movement, followed by a platform session where participants receive coaching through their warm up and work sets. Through the entire process, attendees learn the hallmarks of properly executed movements and how they should look and feel when they are performed correctly.  Camps finish with question and answer sessions, programming discussion, and how to identify and correct common technical problems.  Whether you are just starting out with strength training, struggling with the basics of the lifts, or looking to polish your technique and understanding of these movements, you will come away with valuable insights and experience to benefit your training.

To sign up for the Solace Strong cycle, please visit the Crossfit Solace website.  For all other programs, email me at WolfStrengthInfo@gmail.com for more info.

Next WolfStrength Semi-Private Training Event: Sunday, 9/21

Our next Semi-Private training event is scheduled for Sunday, 9/21 from 12-3pm at Titan Fitness Studios.   The event is limited to 4 participants, so that all participants receive ample coaching to really learn the lifts.  There are currently two spots still available.   Email WolfStrengthInfo@gmail.com to reserve your spot before it’s all booked up!

DSC01532

 

More on Low Bar Squatting and Olympic Lifting

In my piece from last October, Musings on the High Bar vs Low Bar Squat Debate, I distilled some of the main arguments (as I understand them) for and against the use of the low bar squat for olympic weightlifters.  Coming from the angle of Starting Strength, it’s no surprise that, contrary to the overwhelming majority of olympic lifting coaches in the United States and abroad, I feel that the low bar squat has not been given a fair shake when it comes to basic strength development for olympic lifters, and that piece from last October explains why.  

One of the biggest issues we have, however, is getting any serious olympic lifters or OL coaches to even give it a try.  The preference for the high bar squat is so ingrained and deeply held, that usually the best we can hope for is to be dismissed out of hand.  Often, derision and mockery ensue – this has been not only my own experience in attempting to discuss it with some in the OL community, but also that of others I know.

Presumably the easiest way to combat this attitude and open doors to more OLers giving the LBBS a try, would be to produce a large and successful group of lifters who use it as their primary squat variant.  While I think this will eventually happen, and my more recent post, quoting OL Coach Tim DiStasio, was a nice illustration of both this phenomenon at work, and the conventional widsom’s reaction to our ideas, it’s a slow process.  Probably primarily because, for a number of logical reasons, most people utilizing the Starting Strength model and method of lifting focus more on the basic strength lifts: Squat, Press, Deadlift, Bench Press; than they do on the olympic lifts of the Snatch and the Clean & Jerk. But, there are some O-Lifters in our ranks as well.  If my buddy and fellow Starting Strength Coach Nick D’Agostino can manage to avoid injury for a full year, he could make some waves at the national level.  I had the pleasure of coaching Nick at the American Open this past December, and he pulled 173kg (381 lbs) high enough to power clean it.

Nick D’Agostino pulling 173kg high enough to power clean it, at the American Open in Dallas: December, 2013

With more time to develop his strength, and work on his technique, Nick could make some noise.  So, the process is happening, but slowly.

Be that as it may, in the nearly 10 months since I wrote the High Bar vs Low Bar piece, I’ve come to realize there’s another argument here against one of the more oft-cited contentions against the Low Bar Squat.

Referring again to the original article linked above, I pointed out that the snatch recovery looks a lot like a LBBS: hip drive gets the lifter up out of the hole from the overhead squat position of a snatch.

Here’s a few examples from an international level, olympic medalist lifter:

Dmitry Klokov: 192 in competition, 206 in training, 202 in training, slo-mo.   That 202 slo-mo is really great here, because you can so easily see the hips lead up out of the hole and the change in back angle from more vertical to more horizontal that this produces.  It really does look an awful lot like the mechanics of the SS Model of the low bar squat, except with the bar held rigidly locked out overhead, instead of on the back.

Here’s some more examples of well known lifters displaying hip drive and back angle change to get up out of the bottom of their snatch:

Kendrick Farris, Tatiana Kashirina, 4x Crossfit Games champion Rich Froning, Matthias Steiner, Julia Rohde, Marcin DolegaLu Xiaojun, etc etc etc…

Speaking of Lu Xiaojun, it was his WR snatch (and 616 squat video) that prompted my original article on the subject last October.  So let’s look at his snatch specifically.  Here is a freeze-frame shot of him getting up out of the snatch, taken from the video linked above, at the point where he’s just below parallel, i.e. the correct depth for the bottom of a low bar squat:

This still-shot is taken from Lu Xiaojun’s 176kg world record snatch, the one that prompted my original article on this subject. His diagnostic back, hip, and knee angles here are right in line what we’d expect to see from someone with his anthropometry in the low bar back squat

As I point out in the caption, look at his diagnostic angles – they’re just what you’d expect to see in a low bar squat at this position, for someone with a long torso and short legs.  Basically, he’s replicating low bar squat mechanics in the overhead squat portion of his snatch.  Compare, for example, to his diagnostic angles of back, hip, and knee to where he first caught the snatch:

What’s happened in between?  His hips have risen, his back angle has changed to be significantly more horizontal, and the bar has stayed basically over mid-foot thanks to his shoulder mobility.

Here’s the same thing, with Marcin Dolega’s 202.5 kg snatch in training.  Catch position freeze-frame:

vs just below parallel position freeze-frame:

Watch the two videos again, as well as the other vids I linked above.  This happens time after time in heavy snatches.  It’s only reasonable to conclude that this hip driven, more horizontal back angled squat is how heavy snatches are generally recovered from.

Then, according to the logic of the conventional wisdom, squat snatching would actually ruin your ability to recover from a clean.  After all, it uses very similar mechanics to the dreaded Low Bar Back Squat.  So why don’t we see the “Low Bar is a waste of time” coaches require their lifters to power snatch or split snatch?  True, it would limit the weight used in the snatch, but heaven forbid they should have to lean over and drive their hips up out of the hole, right?!?  Especially given that the C&J is by far the heavier of the two lifts, and thus a larger driver of the lifter’s “Total,” you’d think we’d see this pointed out and implemented.  But I’ve never seen nor heard this argument.

They aren’t worried about the snatch ruining their lifter’s ability to get up from a heavy clean via a chest-leading front squat, because they’re two completely different movements, whose unique motor patterns any internationally competitive athlete can successfully separate.  Why should the low bar back squat be any different?

I can only assume that either they haven’t closely observed how most lifters get up from the bottom of a snatch, or have a special bias against the LBBS which causes them to dismiss it out of hand.  Yet I think I’ve shown, with multiple examples and for multiple reasons, that the LBBS for olympic lifters should not be dismissed out of hand.

If you’re not worried about the snatch ruining your lifter’s clean, why do you maintain this concern regarding the LBBS?

Or, we could get our lifters stronger, via the squat variant that best combines the elements of a) most muscle mass utilized  b) over the longest effective ROM  c) that allows the most weight to be lifted….and thus d) get stronger.  And then harness that strength to greater success in the power-displaying, strength dependent lifts known as the Snatch and the Clean & Jerk.  And maybe even win some medals or something.  Because ‘Murica!

EDIT, 8/27/14: After seeing a facebook discussion in which some people predictably  took issue with this position with ad hominem arguments and mischaracterizations of our nuanced position, I want to clarify what I wrote in the last sentence.  I wrote “And maybe even win some medals or something. Because ‘Murica!”   Followed by the Chuck Norris pic.

Though I thought it obvious, this line was not meant to suggest that if we only switched all our lifters to the LBBS, this would solve all our olympic lifting problems.  I’ve seen the same thought process applied to two of our other unconventional views: a) that US olympic lifters need to be stronger  and  b) that a pull off the floor more closely approximating vertical, as opposed to sweeping in from further away, is more optimal.

In all cases, no one is suggesting that this is the ONE SINGLE factor needed to medal.  Or even all three.  If our US lifters did all the things we suggest, we’re not saying that will automatically lead to a place on the podium.  That would be a stupid thing to say, however that is often how our position is characterized by those who want to knock it down, probably because a straw man is easier to knock down than dealing with a nuanced position.

To quote Mike Tuchscherer:

The real question in any training discussion is not “what works.” Rather, you should ask, “What is optimal?”

We’re trying to find what’s optimal.  Not what people in the past have done that has worked.  There’s absolutely no doubt 100% that high bar squats have worked to get people stronger.  There’s absolutely no doubt that a very strong, explosive person can lift a lot of weight using a non vertical bar path.   There’s absolutely no doubt that humans got from Point A to Point B before the domestication of the horse.  And again before the invention of the locomotive.  And again before the invention of the personal automobile.  And again before the development of commercial jets.  The analogy isn’t perfect, but the idea is that those things helped us get further, faster, and it would have been stupid to say “You can’t get there faster with a car, because no one’s ever done it before!”  I’m not saying the LBBS is like a commercial jet compared to the HBBS being like riding a horse.  What I’m saying is that if it provides an advantage, even a marginal one, that makes it more optimal.  And if pulling in as straight a line as possible provides an advantage, even a marginal one, it is more optimal.  And if you do several things that provide marginal advantages, they might just all add up to make a difference.

Or they might not.  Our talent pool of athletes for olympic lifting is depleted by football and other more popular, lucrative sports.  Our drug testing policies are stricter.  Etc etc etc all the many, multi-factorial reasons we’re working with.  But we can’t do anything about those, at least not immediately.   It makes sense to try to optimize the things we can control, such as technique and strength.

Because not enough people have actually tried these things, due to the immediate, visceral dismissal of them by the weightlifting establishment, we don’t know for sure that they’re optimal.  What we’re saying is that analysis suggests they are, and they’re worth exploring.  The small number of people who have tried them (in an intelligent context – for example, doing an uncoached low bar squat or a geared lifter style squat for a few weeks while not snatching at all, and then coming back to snatch a few weeks later and lifting less than before is a good example of an UNintelligent context) have had good success.  These ideas deserve a fair shake, and they do not get one, not even close, because of appeal to authority, phenomenology, and closed-mindedness.  Not because an alternative, better analysis against their possible superiority has been developed.

Re: Low Bar Squats for Olympic Lifters

One of my olympic lifters has been low bar squatting since March of this year (she had been high bar squatting prior to this). Right before she switched to LBBS back in March, her best set of 5 high bar squat was 100kg x 5. She recently tore her Longissimus Thoracis at the USA Weightlifting National Championships. The spot of the tear is near where the bar sits when she low bars, so she is high bar squatting for the time being.
Before the National Championships, her best low bar back squat was 120kg x 4 (missed the last rep on a 5RM set). We did no high bar squatting in any of her training, only low bar and front squats. Today (after taking two weeks off), 4 months after she did 100kg for a set of 5, she did 100kg high bar squat for a pretty easy set of 10.

Also interesting is the fact that from the time she started low bar squatting she upped her snatch 6kg (81kg to 87kg), and her C&J 8kg (97kg to 105kg) at the same bodyweight. She also took bronze at Nationals this year. My other female lifter (who also low bar squats) took silver in another weight class. I believe 363 lifters competed at this years nationals. All of the coaches that I talked to at nationals this year, all of them, said low bar back squatting is “stupid” or not applicable to Olympic weightlifting.

– Tom DiStasio, Olympic Weightlifting Coach and Assistant Strength & Conditioning Coach at Sacramento State University.  And also, obviously, Starting Strength Coach.

The analysis seems solid.  With the increased popularity of the method and brand, some people who compete in OL are actually trying to do things this way.  And are successful.  Obviously a huge range of attributes is required for success in Olympic Lifting, but it would seem that even a few successes would indicate that what  many in the American WL community have said about low bar squatting and vertical bar path pulling is just not as clear cut as they want it to be.

I suspect that when/if things reach a critical mass, the goalposts will move and there will be a response similar to “successful in spite of their technique/programming, not because of it.”  Which sounds, hmmmm, an awful lot like exactly what we’ve been saying for years, about techniques that don’t have solid analysis, but only historical observation, to support their performance.  If that happens, I guess it means they can borrow our stuff when it’s convenient, but toss it out when it doesn’t conform to their preconceived notions of How It Is.

But that hasn’t happened just yet, so I guess we’ll see.

This will piss certain people off, if they see it.  Oh well.

Starting Strength Camps Return to NYC!

For the first time since early 2013, there will be an official Starting Strength Training Camp in NYC on Sunday, July 20th!

Wolf Strength and Conditioning’s small-group training session for the month of July will be this squat camp.  The description of the event is as follows:

Spend the day learning the theory and practice of the low bar back squat with Starting Strength Coach Michael Wolf. The session will begin with a lecture focused on the basics of the movement and will include a discussion of the anatomy and forces at work in the lift. We will move into a practical session with plenty of time under the bar for all the lifters. Participants will have an opportunity to put into practice the concepts addressed in the lecture while receiving coaching through their warm up and work sets. Through the entire process, attendees will learn the hallmarks of a properly executed squat and how it should look and feel when it is performed correctly. After the practical session, we will return for a discussion of programming and how to identify and correct common technical problems. The camp will wrap up with a question and answer session. Whether you are just starting out with strength training, struggling with the basics of the lift, or looking to polish your technique and understanding of these movements, you will come away with valuable insights and experience to benefit your training. Attendance will be capped at eight to allow for individualized instruction.

If there is interest enough for more than 8 participants, we will add a second coach and open up 4 more slots, for a total of 12 slots.

You can reserve your spot by purchasing at the Aasgaard Company website: http://aasgaardco.com/store/store.php?crn=223&rn=532&action=show_detail

Musings on the High Bar vs Low Bar Squat Debate

Though, in fairness, to call it a debate is perhaps inaccurate.  It’s a small camp on one side, that I believe has analysis in its favor, and almost everyone else on the other side, appealing to history and authority.

This came to my mind today since I was discussing Lu Xiaojun’s record breaking snatch and total at yesterday’s Weightlifting World Championships with a friend this morning.

image

(This is Lu snatching, but not his new 176 kg world record from yesterday)

The friend commented that afterwards, he made a comment on facebook deriding Rippetoe’s preference for the low bar back squat (LBBS) for olympic lifters, because Xiaojun high bar back squats (HBBS) 616 lbs / 280 kg (according to my friend), and obviously is the best weightlifter in the world at 77kg.  Basically to sum up Josh’s thoughts: This guy is The Best In The World and he didn’t need no stinkin’ LBBS to get there!  (Edit: This was NOT Josh Wells.  Don’t be silly.  I have another friend named Josh who is a weightlifter and weightlifting coach.  Yes, we are friends even though we disagree on some fundamental training stuff.)

This incident reminded me how many people, especially in the weightlifting world, don’t know what Rip actually says/thinks about how olympic lifters should train.  So I figured it’s time to write a rather long, boring, pedantic piece to clarify these matters.  I believe I understand Rip’s position pretty well, but any errors in interpretation or communication of his thoughts are mine and not his.

The first thing is understanding what he actually says.  If you’re going to be “against” something, it’s reasonably important to actually know what you take issue with.  Otherwise, you might actually agree.  Or disagree less.  Or you might disagree fully, but with something other than what you think you’re diagreeing with.  The point is, you need to know the other side’s position.

The most general thrust of Rip’s position on this issue is the U.S. Olympic Weightlifters are not strong enough to be competitive on the international level.  And that this is a major contributing factor to why we finish 28th or 35th or whatever in the world rankings every year.

The primary ramification of this position is that, to be competitive, we need to get stronger.  Not celebrate the strength PRs that will occasionally happen with consistent exposure to barbell training, but actually plan and program regularly occurring PRs in the slow lifts: Squat, Press, and Deadlift, and to a lesser extent, Bench Press.

We often hear people (mostly on the internet) complain about our country’s rigorous drug testing policy, compared with the countries that are medaling.  This is true, but there’s nothing we can do about that.  What do steroids and other PEDs primarily do, however?  THEY MAKE YOU STRONGER.  They don’t improve technique; there are no “technique steroids.”  Through various mechanisms, they make you stronger.   Since we can’t change our country’s drug policies, what can we do?  Perhaps get as strong as possible via our training by programming for regular PRs in the slow, strength limited lifts, thus lessening the gap that exists because of our drug policy.

When Cal Strength or MDUSA or whoever else posts a video showing one or several of their lifters hitting a squat PR, this is often used as a counter argument to show “Hey look, you powerlifting cretin!  We CARE about strength!  See this here PR right here!  STRENGTH!”   This misses the entire point.  We’re real glad you PR’d, but these lifters should be PRing those lifts on a very regular basis, depending upon their level of training advancement and competitive schedule.  Every 2 weeks would be a reasonable expectation for some, though this could vary quite a bit depending on the aforementioned factors plus things that come up unexpectedly such as injuries and necessary deloads.  But the PRs should be regular, programmed, and not too terribly far apart.  In the strength lifts.

From this position, naturally follows the preference for the LBBS.   Why do Olympic Lifters back squat at all?   Before you tell me they don’t, I know a small sub-set don’t, I know the Bulgarians didn’t; but most do, and most coaches insist on squatting as a primary preparation tool for their lifters.  But why?  It’s not a contested lift, so why do they squat?

They squat to get stronger.  A stronger squat leads to a stronger snatch and clean and jerk, and it’s that simple.   It’s not a perfectly linear relationship where we can say X more pounds on your squat leads to Y more pounds on your snatch or clean, but the general principle that getting your squat up will help get your lifts up is something just about everyone agrees on, or else they wouldn’t squat at all, right?  Remember, it’s not a contested lift, so it’s only purpose must be to improve the contested lifts via some other manner.  So why does building up your squat help your WL total since the squat is not specific?  The bar is held on the back, where it’s never held during either of the two lifts.  It’s taken out of a rack.  Why does it work?  Because strength is a general adaptation, which applies/carries over specifically when you perform the target task.

The hip, knee, and back angles, along with the bar carrying position, in the HBBS, – the style preferred by 99.9% of olympic lifters and their coaches, the style simply assumed to have more and better carry over to the olympic lifts – are different than any position a lifter will assume when actually doing the lifts.  I am aware that if you dig around, you will probably find some examples of people who can HBBS with such an upright torso that it essentially looks like a front squat.  But this is more the exception than the rule.  And even in those cases, it’s not at all clear that’s an optimal torso position for the lift, since the bar would likely be over the rear, rather than the middle, of the foot.  The clear takeaway is that the HBBS is not specific.  What IS specific?  The front squat!  Olympic lifters simply MUST front squat as part of the preparation for their sport, because it’s how you recover from a clean.

So we return to the question: why back squat at all, if it’s not specific?  And again we return to the answer: to get stronger.  So if you’re doing a non-specific movement to acquire GENERAL strength, doesn’t it make more sense to use the non-specific movement that allows you to lift significantly more weight and train the hamstrings thoroughly, rather than the non-specific movement that forces you to use much less weight and doesn’t work the hamstrings nearly as well?

Of course it does.  But don’t try telling this to a classically trained olympic lifter or OL coach, because it’s heresy to even suggest it.  But humor me: instead of assuming heresy, refute the analysis.

One thing that sometimes gets brought up as a counter argument is that the LBBS creates a bad habit of leaning over and using a horizontal back angle, which would ruin a clean.   It’s true that you can’t clean heavy this way.  But there are several compelling responses to this imagined issue:

1. YouTube through several dozen videos of heavy snatches of high level lifters good enough to actually snatch heavy.  Notice how they’re recovered from.  Yup, looks almost exactly like a LBBS.  So LBBS are quite good at training for the positions necessary to recover from a heavy snatch.

2. We humbly submit that if someone is regularly performing the snatch and the clean and jerk, as any olympic lifter must, and is also front squatting regularly, again as any olympic lifter must, than anyone with the natural genetic talent to compete at the international level isn’t going to get confused when doing a clean and suddenly think “oh shit, I better lean over now!”

This assertion is actually ludicrous, if you think about it.  Consider other sports like downhill skiiing, basketball, soccer, where correct technical execution must take place within an extremely fast paced and ever changing environment where there are multiple factors that must be reacted to instantaneously and extemporaneously.

Compare this to Olympic Weightlifting.  It’s true, the snatch and the clean and jerk are not easy lifts.  They’re more technically demanding than the slow lifts, but they’re still only two movements and there are no external, constantly changing factors to take into account.  They’re always the same exact two movements that need to be performed, the exact same way (theoretically) every single time.  There might be some slight variation between reps inherent in human imperfection, but a technically proficient lifter’s lifts will be almost the same every time.  Relatively speaking, they’re a cinch compared to many other sports.

Yet somehow we think that if a lifter – one who has the athletic talent to compete internationally – does his non-lift-specific strength training just a tiny bit less specifically, he’ll suddenly forget how to do a clean when the time comes?   I don’t even know what to say to such a silly argument, other than it would seem that people are only making such an argument because they really, really, really don’t want the other side to be right.   Do we worry that a football lineman who plays both passing and running downs suddenly forgets if he’s supposed to pass protect or run block?   And this is for an activity significantly more complex, as illustrated above, than the snatch and clean and jerk.   Why would a lifter who cleans all the time, front squats all the time, and has done so for years, suddenly forget he’s supposed to be doing a clean and lean over?

Finally, as far as specificity, the LBBS is more specific in one way – it’s more specific to the pull.  It trains the hamstrings and assumes a position similar to a pull off the floor.   Not that this is WHY we say it’s better even for Olympic Lifters, but it is nice to point out.

This takes us back to the conversation with my friend.   What’s the upshot of all this?   We feel that the US lifters aren’t strong enough, and the best way for them to get stronger would be to program regular PRs in the slow lifts, with the LBBS being the squat variant of choice for strength training (along with front squats for specificity).

However, that doesn’t mean that if you don’t LBBS, you can’t be strong.  Lu Xiaojun is so genetically talented and superior, that he’s significantly stronger than any of our guys DESPITE never doing a LBBS.  If you can squat 616 weighing 169, it doesn’t matter how you got there.  You’re already strong enough.  You can train using Bulgarian Split Squats and Lunges if you want, it doesn’t matter because you’re already strong enough!

This is point that I think is most lost on people.  If our guys could HBBS that much, they’d be strong enough to be competitive.  Yes, we think they’d be better off if they were using the LBBS (and probably squatting 675 in that case), but that’s details.   And yes, they might still not win, even if they could squat 616, if their inherent capacity for explosion were inferior.  The point is, our guys aren’t nearly strong enough in the first place, and Lu Xiaojun is.  It doesn’t matter if he got there by praying to his gods, by squatting, by steroids, by hook or by crook, the point is he’s strong enough.

Strength isn’t the only factor, and we never contend it is.  Genetic ability to be explosive is a huge factor (which explains why just because you can deadlift 800 doesn’t mean you can be a successful international level olympic lifter).  Technique is also important.   But inasmuch as a person’s ability to be explosive is probably about 80% genetic, the stronger he gets, the more that ability can be expressed through power which is, when broken down into it’s simplest terms, strength displayed quickly.  Or strength: RIGHT NOW!

There are other differences of opinion that we have with the way olympic lifting is conventionally presented in America.  We teach a thorough analysis on why a vertical bar path is preferable to the S-curve and the traditionalists don’t like that.  We believe heavy pulling is essential to getting stronger for the lifts, and many take issue with that as well.

But the main point I wanted to make here is to clarify what our position on the low bar squat actually is, and why the fact that many, many olympic lifters are lifting tremendous weights using other training styles doesn’t really speak at all to our position.  I suspect many people won’t have even read this far, and many who have and are in the OL community will still dismiss it out of hand.

However, I have yet to see someone thoughtfully engage in a debate about the analysis of this position and refute it.  Not an appeal to “so and so did it successfully this or that way so that’s clearly better” or something of that nature.  But actually dealing with the analysis and refuting it.

This doesn’t mean it’s definitely right, but it certainly means it’s worth considering and trying to implement.  We certainly could hardly be doing worse, internationally.  What do we have to lose?

Wolf Takes on the Impossible Guitar Podcast

My friend and world renowned classical guitarist Dominic Frasca interviewed me last week for his pod-cast.  We discuss all sorts of topics about strength training, including my own history, and how what we do – barbell training – differs from bodybuilding and what most people think of as lifting weights or going to the gym.  Check it out here.

Anyone who’s a fan of music at all should check out Dominic’s “Impossible Guitar” youtube video, with over 40 million hits, as well as his website.