Woe Be Unto Ye Who Contradicts the Glute Master Part I

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Note from TG: Not long ago, I posted an anonymous blog from a local trainer here in Boston (I purposly left out her name and studio) where she went on some diatribe about how any fitness professional who has his (or her) clients squat is, for all intents and purposes, “un-informed.” Furthermore, she also went on to say that squats make the inner thighs flabby and that zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Oh, sorry, I faded out there for a few seconds. Funny how my brain zonks out so that yours won’t have to.

Anyways my good buddy, Bret Contreras, responded to this particular trainer’s comments and wrote a really well thought out response backed by research and to a greater degree, common sense. To steal a quote from the movie 21: Winner, winner, chicken dinner.

Before I continue, let me just say that I really did go back and forth as to whether or not to post this follow up. At the end of the day, I could really care less what this woman does or doesn’t do with HER clients.

That being said, the more I thought about it, the more pissed I got. Here’s a woman with supposendly 27+ years of experience in the fitness industry contining to spew out archaic non-sense about how women shouldn’t lift weights (in this case, squat). What’s more, she backs up her claims with false information and erroneous logic (at best): Squatting is bad for your knees. Squatting is ALL hip flexors. Squatting gives you gonnorhea. Okay, maybe not that last part, but you get the idea.

Fittingly, she (as well as one of her employees and one of her clients) finally responded in the original comments section, only to make me question whether or not they even bothered to read what Bret (and myself) had to say in the first place. Predictably, they went on to regurgitate many of the (false) claims that were debunked by Bret and myself, and then made it seem like we were questioning the fact they were getting people results. Essentially, it was a classic case of people reading exactly what they wanted to read.

Neither of us EVER said anything about getting people results. I for one recognize that there’s more than one way to skin a cat, and I have no doubts that this particular person is able to help people attain their goals. Great. Awesome. Grand.

Moreover, like I said above, I could care less whether or not someone implements squats. If you don’t like them, fine. More power to you. What gets my goat is when someone “calls out” other fitness professionals for doing so and then uses really shitty logic to back their claims up.

What it really comes down to is this: If you’re going to make such asinine statements in a public forum, by default, you open yourself up for public criticism.

To that end, I really was torn as to whether or not to continue this charade. But the more i thought about it, the more I realized that it’s exactly this type of mentality that’s a cancer to women and fitness. Telling them that squats is bad does nothing but engrain this whole notion that strength training is bad.

I’ve reached my tipping point for stupidity So, if you’ve read this far – you might as well keep reading. Thanks to Bret Contreras for really (and I mean really) putting a lot of thought and effort into this blog post.

Several weeks ago I posted a blog about a certain trainer in Boston who bashed on the squat exercise. The following week my colleague Bret Contreras sent me a guest-blog which responded to the trainer’s comments. Last week, the trainer in question and a couple of her former clients responded in the comments-portions of these blogposts. Now Bret is back with another guest-blog in response to their comments. First he responds to the trainer in question, and then he responds to her former clients. They say that all publicity is good publicity so hopefully Helena will not take offense. Enjoy!

Dear Helena,

First I’d like to say that responding to your comment was my idea, not Tony’s. I read your comment and I even checked out your website so I could learn a little bit about you. I believe that you are biased and way-off-base in your opinion of squats. I’ll be the first guy to admit that no exercise is mandatory to see great results for any purpose…strength, hypertrophy, power, conditioning, etc. However, there’s no reason to crucify the squat exercise, and I’m here to defend it.

Furthermore, I watched some of your videos and can tell that although you’re articulate and seem pretty intelligent, you are not up to snuff on your knowledge of Biomechanics. To the average viewer, you probably sound quite knowledgeable. But to the few of us who are closely studying Biomechanics AND training clients everyday, we know better. Since you’re a popular trainer, you will undoubtedly equate popularity with “being right” and will therefore never attempt to discover the truth.

To be honest I could pick apart many of the statements you made in the five minute video shown above. And some of the stuff I read on your website pisses me off. You cater to the fears of women by saying things like, “long, lean, sexy muscles,” which implies that strength training yields short, fatty, hideous muscles. Do you even know if your training increases the length of muscles? Recent research implies that most stretching increases stretch tolerance, not extensibility, which pokes some serious holes into your philosophy. Strength training involves stretching under load, thereby adding stability to mobility – which makes it the most functional kind of flexibility work.

Since you’ve been training for quite some time you should be ashamed of yourself. It’s not easy for the majority of women to build appreciable amounts of muscle and probably 90% of women don’t need to ever worry about getting too muscular. No matter how hard they train, they’ll never get there. If you disagree with this comment, I could call upon my colleagues and get their opinion and we could make a bigger issue out of this.

The reason why this is important is because strength training elicits positive effects in women that go beyond hypertrophy. Strength training increases bone density, increases the metabolic rate, and instills confidence and a sense of pride and accomplishment. To prey on the fears of women for marketing purposes is a slap in the face to every hard working personal trainer and strength coach such as myself who are in the trenches every day battling these fears and trying to convince women that it’s okay to lift weights.

In all fairness if I lived in Boston I would not hesitate to send my clients over to you for your classes. At $15 a class, I believe that you offer a great deal. My mother, step-mother, and sister love taking classes like these, and enjoying fitness is huge. But I also have them lift weights for aforementioned reasons. You also seem like an inherently passionate, motivating, and encouraging trainer, which is extremely important and can’t really be taught. So although I approve of your classes and attitude, I do not approve of your marketing tactics and aversion to squatting.

Here are my specific responses to your comments:

Note from TG: for simplicity sake, I re-posted Helena’s comment to the original post for your viewing pleasure

“Here I am 🙂

I used to be part of the box squat crowd, 20 years ago, coupled with the back, knee pain and an inability to wear clothes off the rack. It is true, and fortunately countless other squat practitioners have made it in to my studio after being improperly trained with this exercise resulting in an overload in rectus femoris, as well as iliopsoas often coupled with serious back and knee injuries (many of them having had to undergo surgery). There is real reason that even the strong man competitions have switched to a sumo squat or plie. Better on the back and knees, not to mention that people, everywhere are currently squatting as they sit in their chairs and stand all day, (exercise is not only done in the gym, it is accomplished 24/7 against the force of gravity, which is why astronauts lose muscle mass and bone density) Traditional squat practitioners present in the studio with an additional imbalance between vastus medialis and vastus lateralis. I challenge your readers to attempt to sit with their knees together for more than a minute at a time, almost impossible for the traditional squatting crowd do as this imbalance also causes a real weakness in adductor as well. Having retrained countless athletes, trainers and lay people with all kinds of injuries I am here for any of your inquiries. To just say that I am not informed is well, uninformed. There is a reason that people are currently traveling to me from all over the state. I change their bodies, make them feel great and teach them how to work smart and not just hard.”

1. Clearly you never learned how to squat correctly, which is why you suffered from knee and back pain. Had you learned proper squat mechanics from the get-go you would not have suffered any nagging pain and your opinion of squats would be entirely different. If you’d ever like to learn how to squat correctly I would love to point you in the right direction. I know your clients would benefit from it.

2. Improper squatting will indeed lead to back pain. Doing any lift improperly will lead to pain. However, proper squatting requires that first you build the joint mobility (ex: ankle dorsiflexion, hip flexion, thoracic-spine extension) and joint stability necessary to engrain proper motor engrams prior to engaging in progressive overload. Once the client possesses the fundamental movement patterns necessary to squat properly, then you build up slowly, making sure that the client avoids rounding the spine, letting the hips rise faster than the shoulders, and leaning too far forward at the trunk.

Efficient cueing and coaching prevents the formation of bad habits which lead to back pain during squatting. Correct squatting is a beautiful thing that exemplifies the power of the human body to move a loaded barbell through a full range of motion while using a majority of the body’s motor units and properly distributing forces across the spinal column, hips, knees, and ankle joints. This should reduce the incidents of back injury and pain over the course of an individual’s lifetime, as they’ll possess good lifting mechanics, muscular strength, and stronger tissues.

3. Squats will indeed lead to knee pain if you don’t know how to squat properly. For example, allowing clients to excessively shift their weight anteriorly, letting their knees jut too far forward, or turning a blind-eye to knee caving are three such ways that will lead to knee pain. However, if your clients learn how to squat properly, their bodies will rely on hip strength to sit back and keep the knees out which will spare the knees and reduce the incidents of knee injury and pain throughout their lifetimes.

4. Squats will indeed prevent you from wearing clothes off of the rack if you superset each set of squats with a Dunkin Donut. Exercising causes people to burn more calories. Strength training increases the metabolic rate. If clients control their diet and keep their caloric intake in check, they will lose weight from strength training. If they fail to control their diet and increase their caloric intake, they will gain weight. It’s that simple. Many of my female clients will stay the same weight during their first two months of training but they lose an inch off of their thighs, hips, and waist. This occurs due to the fact that a pound of muscle takes up less space than a pound of fat. Clients are often forced to buy new clothes or get their clothing altered because their clothes start falling off of them!

I agree that the occasional female client is predisposed to having too large of quadriceps if you focus indefinitely on progressive overload in the squat. In fact, six months ago I wrote one of the most legendary blogposts titled “What Women Want” on this very topic. But these women represent an extreme minority and should not be used to make recommendations on how to train the entire female population. For women whose anterior thighs can get too bulky, I still have them squat and lunge but I limit the volume and intensiveness, and I focus more on exercises like hip thrusts, back extensions, and RDL’s.

5. Proper squatting does not overload the rectus femoris or iliopsoas. I doubt you read the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, but if you did you would know that a very recent study by Pereira et al. showed that rectus femoris activation did not exceed 50% of MVC for any variation of squat tested. You see, researchers do these things called “studies” so they can measure stuff which allows us to rely on science and mathematics for understanding rather than “intuition” or “guesses.” The eccentric and concentric portions of the squat exercise utilize mostly the vasti muscles and the hip extensors.

6. If the clients who come to your studio are “improperly trained” in the squat exercise, why don’t you take the time to “properly train” them in the exercise? Personally I wouldn’t feel comfortable allowing my clients to go through life with dysfunctional squat patterns.

7. Okay fine, I’ll concede that not every client is built to squat (although I’ve squatted every single client I’ve ever trained – and I’ve probably trained over 300 individuals). Sometimes I just have a client do bodyweight squats, and sometimes I load them up heavy…it all depends on the individual’s fitness and goals. But what exercises DO you advocate? Are lunges okay? What about step ups or Bulgarian split squats? These are still knee-dominant compound lower body movements that follow very similar EMG patterns as squats. So using your logic they would elicit the same effects as the squats – overdeveloped vastus lateralis, over-stressed rectus femoris and iliopsoas, weak adductors, knee pain, etc. Of course you could use the argument that they decrease stress on the spine but stress on the spine depends on multiple factors including the physical load used.

Do you do any form of hip extension work? If so, what exercises?

Do you believe in getting clients strong? If you do, then you can’t escape spinal loading as the load on the spine is calculated by factoring the physical load (placement of the load and body position), the ground-reaction forces, the ligamentous pre-stress, as well as the muscular contractions of the muscles that act on the spine. Do you advocate deadlifts or Romanian deadlifts? These movements place large loads on the spine as well and can hurt or injure backs if taught improperly. The fact of the matter is that every exercise places stress on the body; either eustress (good stress) or distress (bad stress). Proper mechanics and program design keep you in eustress.

If you don’t believe in getting clients strong then I pity your clients. Improving the shape and size of a female’s backside is not easy, especially if they are predispositioned to possessing a small butt. Their only hope is increased strength on big exercises like squats, deadlifts, hip thrusts, etc. Side lying clams won’t cut it.

Any trainer (or Body Architect as you call it) can get clients lean through diet and basic training. But sculpting muscles requires strength, not conditioning. I know this because I’m busy doing it day in, day out. And I’ve yet to see another trainer showcase more impressive before/after pictures in terms of glute improvement with his clients than me.

8. Do you actually watch strongman competitions? The competitors are allowed to squat however they choose; with a narrow stance or a wide stance. I think that when most trainers hear the term “plie squat” they envision a bodyweight or light dumbbell wide-stance squat performed mostly by women all over the world as well as Pilates, Yoga, and Ballet types. This type of movement is fine for certain purposes but if you’re seeking strength or hypertrophy adaptations you’re barking down the wrong tree.

* Pull that belly in nice and tight so you can decrease spinal stability and attempt to isolate the transverse abdominis for no apparent reason whatsoever!

9. The reason why some (but not all) strongmen squat with a wide stance is because they can do a bunch of things that increase the contribution of the posterior chain relative to the quadriceps…for example sitting back, keeping the knees out, spreading the floor with the feet, keeping the chest up, pushing through the heels, etc. This stance also decreases the barbell’s range of motion, increases the moment of the resistance arm for the hips while decreasing the moment of the resistance arm for the knee joint, and increases hip abductor and erector spinae activity. Below is a typical strongman squat. They often use a leverage system such as the type seen in the video. Personally I would not call this a plie squat.

Anyway the plie squat is easier on the low back because you don’t use much loading. For this reason it’s not going to cause much muscular adaptations which is what most clients seek. Hypertrophic adaptations require mechanical tension, muscular damage, and mechanical stress. If you want to shape the hips and thighs, you’ll need to progress past bodyweight or light-dumbbell plie squatting. If you load up the squat and you’re concerned with spinal loading, the safest bet would probably be the front squat variation. But even in the case of the front squat you’ll see large amounts of spinal loading due to muscular contractions from the muscles that attach to the spinal column as well as loading and ground-reaction forces. This is not a bad thing; spinal loading increases core stability if proper mechanics are utilized.

10. One of the greatest “gifts” that you can give to your clients is the gift of high-expectations. Let’s say that a typical client sits and stands from a seated position 30 times throughout the day. They will in essence have performed 30 bodyweight single repetition box squats (probably with crappy form). If this is where you set the bar, then shame on you. I expect my clients to be able to squat with great form and to eventually be able to use external loading. Many of my female clients are squatting between 95 and 185 lbs. My male clients usually squat with between 225 and 405 lbs. They are lucky that I am not content with bodyweight squatting.

Since most clients bend over a few times and pick stuff off the ground, do you avoid deadlifting? Since most people climb a few stairs, do you avoid step ups? Since most people stand up do you tell them to never jump? Since most people walk, do you tell them to never sprint?

11. You’re right about gravity, but the sad reality is that osteoporosis is real and the squat is one of the best exercises to counter it. Just “existing” on planet Earth doesn’t ensure proper bone density and soft-tissue strength. Most people consider “exercise” to mean an activity that maintains or enhances fitness. Just walking around, sitting, and standing doesn’t cut it. Please look into Wolff’s Law and Davis’s Law. You’ll realize that strength training with the best exercises like squats and deadlifts do wonders for bone-density adaptations, soft-tissue adaptations, core stability, muscular activation, and strength balances.

On your website you offer the following quote:

“That is all that exercise is, movement of your body against the force of gravity with or without extra weight.”

Axial loading is certainly king in the world of free-weight training, but what if the exerciser is sprinting? Force platforms register horizontal forces not just vertical forces. What if the exerciser is throwing or swinging something? Is that not rotary or torsional loading? What if the exerciser is doing cable or band chest presses or rows? Does that have anything to do with gravity? I think that you should read my blogpost on Load Vector Training to get a better grasp of the concept of directional vectors in strength training.

I’m not sure why you brought astronauts into the conversation but I’m glad you did. Can you tell one of them to get in touch with NASA headquarters and let them know that there’s a trainer in Scottsdale, Arizona by the name of Bret Contreras who has a bunch of clients who are squatting a lot of weight several times per week pain-free? Furthermore, nearly all of his clients state that any hints of back and knee pain that they had prior to training with him vanished as a result of his programming. And the greatest part – their thighs are not bulky. I don’t know how he’s done it but it’s a freakin’ miracle!

12. How do you know that your clients present an imbalance between vastus lateralis and vastus medialis strength? Did you utilize EMG to test this hypothesis? Or did the Easter bunny assess your clients and then vanish out of thin air? Didn’t you read the studies I presented in my last post? It’s not possible to isolate one over the other. If you’re basing this opinion off of knee-caving during quad dominant activities then I recommend looking at the glute medius, not the vastus medialis. Or are you basing this comment off of visual aesthetics? If so, fat storage can skew your perception as women tend to store fat in the upper thigh, which will give off the perception of increased VL mass in comparison to VM. Last, genetics factor in here too; some people just have larger vastus laterali in comparison to their vastus mediali. It’s not the squat’s fault; it’s the parents’. In this case, any knee dominant exercise might cause their VL to grow in greater proportion than their VM, and no exercise will cause noticeable VM growth without concomitant VL growth. So do you just avoid any exercise that involves any form of knee extension?

13. Did you know that the adductor magnus consists of an adductor part and a hamstring part? Did you know that the hamstrings part of the adductor magnus is an extremely powerful hip extensor? Did you know that the moment arm of the adductor magnus improves as you descend into hip flexion? Did you know that several of the adductors actually become hip extensors in deeper ranges of hip flexion? Did you know that many of us “deep squatters” get really sore adductors following a squat workout?

14. Okay fine, so squats don’t do the best job of strengthening hip adduction. Guess what? If you want your clients to have strong adductors you can isolate that motion with a separate exercise. You don’t have to ditch the squat. Squats don’t do a good job of strengthening the delts either but I do this thing called “prescribing more than one exercise” which allows me to strengthen the entire body in a given session.

WHEW!!!!!!!! Stay tuned for part II tomorrow……

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