Strive For Progress Not Perfection: Squat Edition

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My dream as a kid was to be He-Man play professional baseball. Growing up in Middle-of-Nowhere, NY1 made this dream a bit more of challenge because 1) I often had to resort to doing things alone and 2) I didn’t have a ton of access to watching baseball.

My parent’s house was outside of town lines, which meant we didn’t have access to cable television. I had five channels to choose from (<– borderline child abuse nowadays), and the only way I could watch a MLB game was to wait for the “Game of the Week” broadcast every Saturday afternoon on one of the major network channels.

Although, sometimes, if I used enough tin foil on my small black and white television in my bedroom, and angled my antenna juuuuust right, I could snake a regional broadcast out of Elmira, NY of the Yankee games.

I’d stand there in the middle of my bedroom with my bat and emulate the swings of Don Mattingly, Jesse Barfield, or Steve Sax pitch by pitch.

Anyways, I’d record the weekly broadcast on Saturdays on our VHS player and play back the game over and over and over again throughout the week.

The real treat was the annual All-Star Game. I’d record that game too, and play it back ALL year…oftentimes watching an inning or two and then heading outside to my backyard to pretend I was Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens, or Greg Maddux.

I’d tried so hard to perfect their mechanics and their way of doing things, that I’d get frustrated whenever things didn’t click or make sense. Things would get even more frustrating when I didn’t throw 95 MPH.

I mean, WTF!?!

Suffice it to say, in looking back (hindsight is always 20/20), it was the mentality I took in striving for PERFECTION and not focusing on PROGRESS that was the issue.

Not coincidentally it’s a mantra I feel holds a lot of weight in many facets of day-to-day lift…especially in the weight room.

Your Squats Aren’t Perfect (And That’s Okay)

I started working with a new female client a few months ago and knew within the first 15 minutes of coaching her squat that she was a perfectionist.

She’d get easily frustrated and discouraged whenever she performed a “bad” repetition and would seemingly respond like a reprimanded puppy whenever I coached her or offered some advice.

Mind you, I like it when people take a more proactive approach to their training and want to get better. What I don’t like is when people set the bar so high for themselves that it becomes more of a detriment than anything else.

I started repeating the above mantra to her…noting that small, incremental “wins” in technique (progress) trumps the perceived need for perfection, every day of the week.

Except for every other Saturday. Just because.

To put things into perspective: I’m pretty good at deadlifting (best pull of 570 lbs at a bodyweight of 190), and would consider myself an “advance lifter” in that realm.

I still tinker and tweak my technique, and understand (and accept) the notion that I’ll never be perfect.

What’s more I’m often dumbfounded by my client’s dumbfoundedness when they realize that I, too, their coach, am still trying to “figure things out” when it comes to lifting stuff.

I should know all there is to know by now, right?

And here they are giving themselves a hard time for not understanding a concept after reading one T-Nation article and/or training seriously for only six months.

Sheesh, relax.

But lets get back to the squats.

Look at a guy like Chad Wesley Smith, one of the best squatters in the world.

 

He’s pretty locked in with his technique, but you can peruse any number of his articles and videos and he’ll reiterate the same sentiment: He’s still tinkering.

I am no where near Chad’s level when it comes to performing – let alone coaching – the squat. However, I know a thing or two.

Sometimes.

And, having done some major finagling myself for the past year or so with my squat I wanted to share some of my own thoughts and experiences with how I’m striving for progress and not perfection.

1) There’s No ONE Right Way to Squat

This is by no means a new revelation on my end. I mean:

  • Meryl Streep is kind of a good actress.
  • Richard Dawkins is kind of smart.
  • Bacon is kind of delicious.

No new news there.

I’ve always taken the stance that everyone is going to be a little different when it comes to squatting. I never quite understand the steadfastness of some coaches who are adamant that everyone needs to squat “x” way, and if they don’t they might as well jump into a live volcano, cause they’re stupid and suck.

It’s a very standoffish, ornery – borderline childish – approach to take.

I mean, sure, we could make an argument for this way or that approach with regards to lifting as much weight as humanly possible but:

1. Not every cares about max strength.

2. Even with strong dudes (and women), if you watched 20 different videos of them squatting, you’d see 20 different approaches.

And that more or less feeds into the dilemma at hand.

Someone watches a video of Dan Green squatting:

 

Then tries to emulate his squat stance, his bar position, his hand width, his whatever (training program, volume, etc) and is left wondering why they end up hurt all the time or never make any progress.

[NOTE: I recall Chad Wesley Smith saying something to the effect of “you shouldn’t emulate what elite level lifters are doing NOW in their training. You should do what they did 10, 15, or 20 years ago to get to that level.”]

Some people will squat better with a narrow(er) stance (maybe even an asymmetrical stance), some with a high(er) bar position, and some with their feet pointing out more.

More to the point, as Dean Somerset notes in THIS excellent article, no two hips are the same and variances in things like anteversion, retroversion, degree of APT, and angle of inclination will dictate what type of squat (and depth) will be the best fit.

To put my word vomit into a short sentence: We need to respect everyone’s individual anatomy and anthropometry.

It’s hard to pound a square peg into a round hole. I feel that’s what many trainees end up doing when they fall into the trap of holding themselves accountable to copying a specific individual or book/article 100% of the time.

Speaking for myself I prefer a narrow stance when I squat with a high(er) bar position. It just feels better to me. I finally accepted this a few months ago and have seen much better progress overall.

Which serves as a nice segue to…..

2) “Feel” of a Set Matters

Too, since we’re on the topic of falling into traps, I feel many trainees think the only way to gauge progress is to lift more weight.

It’s actually an excellent way to gauge progress. I should shut up here and move on.

But it’s not the only way.

“Feel” of a set matters too. And this is something I’ve latched onto more and more with my own squatting.

Full disclosure: this is nothing impressive. It’s 280×1 (last build up set before going into the meat and potatoes of today’s training session). This video serves no other purpose other than to demonstrate that there’s more to “progressive overload” than sets/reps. Quality of reps, bar speed, and how a set feels matter too. 6 months ago this would have been slow and felt like garbage. But after taking a few steps back and taking the time to hone my set up, work on better torso position, and not excessively arch my lumbar spine…I’ve seen a marked improvement in my squats and how they feel. Also, I ain’t got time for scrubs!

A video posted by Tony Gentilcore (@tonygentilcore) on

3) Upper Back Tightness Is Crucial

This is a concept lost on some trainees. Nothing saddens me more than poor attention to detail during the set-up.

Well, that and a well done steak.

You want to see something that will have an instantaneous effect on someone’s squat? Have him or her actually take the time work on their upper back tightness.

Hand position will vary person to person, and mostly be a slave to one’s shoulder mobility. That being said, a closer grip will generally lead to better upper back stiffness compared to a wider grip.

Moreover it’s important to note that the elbows should not only point towards the floor but be INSIDE the hands. If the elbows are outside the hands and then you crank them forward it will lead to some, well, cranky elbows.

Additionally, two cues I like to use to get people to turn on their lats to improve upper back tightness other than saying “turn on your lats:”

“Place your shoulder blades in your back pocket.”

And

“Try to get your triceps to touch your lats.”

 

Progress over perfection can mean different things to different people. With squats it can mean something as simple as not holding yourself to some unrealistic expectation (that you HAVE to do it one way) or staying more cognizant of “feel” of a set.

But the mantra as whole can be applied to anything: whether you’re following a nutritional plan to lose fat, learning how to salsa dance, or playing a piano. It works. Life’s easier that way.

Did what you just read make your day? Ruin it? Either way, you should share it with your friends and/or comment below.

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  1. About 15 miles south of WhereTheFuckAreWe, NY

  • Erica Kristin

    Great post, Tony! Based on a person’s body type, height, and mobility levels, squats will be different for all. I have one question and perhaps you could explain better: how are squats performed differently given the four pelvic types? I find some of my soccer girls, even the most athletic with great hip/ankle mobility, still have trouble getting good depth. Does this have to do with pelvic anatomy?

    • TonyGentilcore

      Erica –

      If you haven’t already, I’d recommend you read the article I linked to written by Dean Somerset. Admittedly, you’re unlikely to “diagnose” pelvic type, but you can “screen” people to figure out how much hip flexion/extension they have (which will help ascertain what will be a “safe” squat depth for them). But yes, short answer, squat depth is at the mercy of pelvic type/anatomy. Not everyone is meant to squat deep.

      • Erica Kristin

        Awesome. I love Dean’s articles! Will give it a read. Thanks again.

        • TonyGentilcore

          Also, just an FYI: I see you’re located in Maryland. Artemis Scantalides and my wife, Lisa Lewis, will be near Baltimore in early April putting on their I Am Not Afraid To Lift workshop. It might be something you’d want to check out: https://clients.mindbodyonline.com/classic/home?studioid=39232

          • Erica Kristin

            Well, thanks for that. I just registered because I have always loved Artemis’ work and even better, I get to meet your wife! Also, my facility is 5 minutes away from the workshop location (in Severna Park). Woot! BTW, I took your advice about soccer and strength/conditioning after my D1 internship. Doing my own “thing” is going very well. This workshop will certainly be useful for what I am currently doing with youth and college girls. Thanks!

          • TonyGentilcore

            Awesome. I think you’ll really enjoy the workshop. And I am saying that from a totally un-biased standpoint….;o)

            But for real….you’ll love it.

  • linda

    Thanks Tony! I’m sitting at my desk practicing the “upper back tightness” and seems to work. I’ll give it a try. I do use your “put your shoulder blades in your back pocket” alot so I think the other cues will help me be more mindful.

    • TonyGentilcore

      Let me know how it goes when you have a barbell on your back! Would love to hear any thoughts you may have.

      • linda

        I thought it was a great cue! I had to slow down and reset each time, but that made me more mindful. Didn’t add weight, but I will next time. I’m impressed, thanks Tony!

        • TonyGentilcore

          You’re welcome. Glad it worked.

  • Great article, Tony! I fell victim to several things I “should be” doing when it comes to squatting – especially shoving the knees far out and feet straight forward. Turns out my hips had several anatomical limitations – FAI, labral tears, retroversion. I also have a unique athletic history – I was a catcher and a lineman. I spent so much time in a deep squat with my feet pointed out that trying to squat any other way was causing issues up and down the chain! My body adapted, (in some ways permanently) over the course of many years of stress applied. Squatting with my feet straight just isn’t right for me. Dean’s article was especially illuminating on the anatomical differences that people have.

    • TonyGentilcore

      I am happy to know it resonated with you Rob. I never quite understand some coach’s rationale that everyone has to squat ONE way or another. Everyone is different. How about, as a coach, you take the time to help set him or her up for the best success possible that fits THEIR anatomy and THEIR goals.

  • Rachel

    I definitely needed to read this today! We went for a 1rm in my gym earlier and even though I PR’ed, I was disappointed that I didn’t PR by that much. I get so in my head about where I “should” be, that I sometimes forget I *am* making progress. Thanks for the reminder.

    • TonyGentilcore

      Like the cliche goes: a PR is a PR. Own it and be proud of it! [And make it your bitch next time].

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