A Critical Reply to an Uncritical Coach

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Today’s post comes from the one and only Bret Contreras.  As he’ll note below, I received an email from a fan of my blog asking me for my opinion on some candid remarks she overheard one of the strength coaches at her university regurgitate to a few other students.

And by using the word regurgitate I’m being really nice.

To say I was shocked at this particular coach’s train of thought would be an understatement, and I had to pinch myself to make sure I didn’t somehow time travel back to 1986.

Which, actually, would be kinda sweet because tv back then was awesome, what with shows like Airwolf, The A-Team, and The Gummi Bears rocking the airwaves.

Nevertheless I was definitely taken for a loop when I read this coach’s comments, and I could think of no one else I’d rather see write an appropriate and thorough response than Bret.

Thankfully he came through with flying colors, and absolutely PWNED the guy.  Enjoy!

A Critical Reply to an Uncritical Coach – Bret Contreras

Last month, an avid reader of this blog wrote to Tony requesting expertise. Tony sent it over to me for a good laugh. But I’m always up for a good grilling, so I asked Tony if he’d let me respond. In the past I’ve been disrespectful to those I grill, so I will try my best to remain professional here. The gist is that there’s some strength coach out there (we won’t mention his name) who is simply making a bunch of stuff up. This guy needs to be corrected so his athletes can receive proper training. Below are his comments. In gray is what the reader wrote to Tony, and my responses are in red:

Today I was eavesdropping on a conversation between the head S&C coach and a couple of his practicum students. They were talking about how he teaches the squat to his athletes. The coach said that because so many athletes are stronger in their posterior chain compared to their quads, he strongly discourages his athletes from “sitting back” or having any type of hip hinge movement while squatting to minimize glute and hamstring involvement and target the quads. He said the box squat or squat to a box was a pointless exercise due to the hip hinge requirement and the nearly vertical tibia – he wants his athletes squatting by dropping straight down, staying relatively upright and getting the knees a fair ways beyond the toes. He emphasizes developing quad strength over posterior chain strength in all of his young athletes. Also, he said that prevention of ACL injuries would be enhanced if there was less emphasis on hip hinging and more emphasis on quad strengthening, especially in female athletes. 

I pretty much disagree with everything this coach said. I see this all the time, and it’s worth addressing.

Many coaches formulate their methods based on what they think happens and what seems rational in their minds. They don’t read research or utilize the scientific method, and prefer to rely on intuition. They may still achieve good results, as many avenues lead to success. For example, coaches who simply have their athletes full squat and sprint will see improvements in performance. But due to false assumptions and failure to take advantage of the thousands of available prior scientific studies conducted by hardworking sports scientists and strength coaches, their athletes will fail to achieve maximum results, which is unfortunate. At any rate, here is my retort

1. Athletes are supposed to be stronger in their posterior chains compared to their quads. Gluteus maximus plus hamstrings plus adductor magnus should slightly outperform the quadriceps in terms of total muscle force and extension-torque production. If this is the case with athletes (hip extensor dominance), you should be happy and should not try to change the ratio toward quad-dominance. Strong quads are indeed important in sports, but it’s ideal for the hips to stay stronger than the quads.

2. No squat variation is “pointless.” The box squat is a welcome variation as the vertical tibia increases the hip extension moment and decreases the knee extension moment. In other words, more torque is required out of the hips, and less torque is required out of the knees. This is highly beneficial for lifters ranging from newbies, to those prone to experiencing knee pain or injury, to powerlifters. The full squat with an upright stance is also a good variation, especially for Olympic lifters, but not everyone can handle the forces on the knee joint associated with this variation.

3. Actually, quad-dominance increases the risk of ACL injuries, in addition to increasing the risk of hamstring and low back injuries. And actually, youngsters, females, and beginners typically exhibit quad-dominance due to high daily-activation in the quadriceps with concomitant low daily-activation in the glutes. For this reason, hip extension strength, particularly gluteal strength, should be emphasized with these athletes, along with just about every other athlete too. 

But wait! There’s more. The reader later sent another email to Tony with more “gems”:

He pretty much had a hate-on for the hip hinge. He said that “vertical displacement” is the key in sprinting and jumping, not the horizontal displacement of the hips moving back and forth. Therefore, the hip hinge should not be emphasized and the quads should. He never tells his athletes to “sit back”. He said that if he had an athlete who was knee-dominant, he would not try to strengthen his/her hips “because then they’ll use their hips for everything.” 

Vertical displacement is indeed the key for jumping, but not for sprinting. You do not want to be bouncing up and down excessively when sprinting. The key to sprinting is to produce just enough vertical force to raise the center of mass just enough to cycle the legs back around so they can reproduce horizontal force. Anything greater in terms of vertical force production is wasted energy and will result in slower speeds.

But now I need to address something very alarming.

Nothing we do in the weightroom completely mimics on the field performance.

If resistance training had to exactly mimic sport actions in order to transfer to performance, we would not be able to add resistance, since adding load in any form (bands, vests, sleds, free weights, etc.) immediately changes mechanics.

Squats, RDLs, split squats, hip thrusts, and back extensions would all screw up sprinting and jumping performance. Hell, squats would screw up RDLs and vice-versa, sprints would screw up jumps and vice-versa, etc.

However, we have tons of research showing improved performance and transfer of training from resistance training to sporting actions, from plyometrics to resistance training, and so on and so forth. There is a synergistic effect with the various types of hip extension exercises, and an athlete should be strong in all leg and hip muscles through a full range of motion. This requires multiple exercises.  

Of course you don’t want athletes sitting back excessively when they jump, but they can differentiate RDL’s and box squats from jumping performance as they are separate motor qualities.

RDLs and box squats don’t automatically cause athletes to sit back too much when they jump, Oly squats and split squats don’t automatically cause athletes to stay too upright when they jump, and hip thrusts don’t automatically cause athletes to want to lie down on their backs in the middle of a game (note the heavy sarcasm).

As long as there exists a balance in programming, athletic form remains intact. In the weightroom, we strengthen muscles and movement patterns, and the athletes are able to blend the newfound neuromuscular improvements into their jumping and sprinting motor programs. 

Last, research shows that the knee extension torque does not increase nearly as much as hip extension torque when transitioning from running to maximal sprinting, submaximal jumping to maximal jumping, and submaximal squats, lunges, and deadlifts to maximal squats, lunges and deadlifts. This is very important as it suggests that continual improvements are reliant upon strengthening the hips!

He thinks “glute activation” is complete BS because there’s no way to “prove” that it works (even using EMG). He said that the simple, low-load, isolated movements that are used to activate the glutes have no transfer to multi-joint movements like the squat or to the performance of the actual sport. I don’t think he believes that the glutes need to be activated in the first place.

There are many ways to show that glute activation works. We can obtain clues by examining the EMG activation, but at the end of the day we need training studies showing significant results. Glute activation is in its infancy in terms of the literature. However, in just the past couple of years, several important studies have emerged: 

  1. One showing actual EMG profiles of strongmen performing various strongman exercises. The better performers clearly used their glutes more so than the poorer performers.
  2. One showing increased glute activation with simultaneous decreased hamstring activation during hip extension exercise
  3. One showing increased hip extension strength, decreased hamstring activation during the support phase in running, and cured hamstring cramping in a triathlete
  4. And one showing significantly improved power production during a vertical jump compared to controls and a whole-body vibration warm-up

Considering that many well-respected coaches and rehabilitation specialists such as Tony Gentilcore, Eric Cressey, Mark Verstegen, Michael Boyle, Pavel Tsatsouline, and Stuart McGill have seen good results with glute activation drills, it’s definitely worthy of incorporation until more research emerges. It’s worth mentioning that I am a huge fan of glute activation and believe that research will eventually show its value. 

He thinks bracing the core (or whatever you want to call it) is stupid. He said “when would you ever do that when you’re playing your sport? You don’t have time to consciously think about activating your core.” He said that the core had much, much greater activation during the performance of big compound lifts.

I agree with the coach in this situation, aside from when an athlete is about to collide or be struck in the midsection. Sports are markedly different from resistance exercises, both in terms of timing and muscle activation requirements. When you put a heavy bar on your back or in your hands, you place considerably more bending torque on the spine, which requires a much greater amount of spinal stiffening compared to ballistic bodyweight movements.

He doesn’t really like single-leg training, but especially hates the single-leg squat because it “produces too much compensation.” He thinks that training the single-leg squat will only make the athlete better at single-leg squats and won’t transfer to the sport. I have seen him use split squats with his athletes, though.

I’m not sure what he means by “compensation,” but I suspect he’s referring to the oft-seen lumbar flexion and posterior pelvic tilt exhibited in the bottom range of motion during a pistol squat.

It’s worth mentioning that single leg box squats provide a solution for this issue. But the notion that they don’t transfer to performance is absurd.

Take a novice lifter who struggles with a bodyweight squat. Over the course of 12 weeks, utilize progressive overload and get him able to perform five full range pistol squats. Guess what? His barbell squat and vertical jump will have improved along with his pistol squat.

Sure you can argue that the pistol squat isn’t the safest or best way to load the lower body, but it definitely transfers to sport. Everything challenging compound lower body movement does, and the transfer is more pronounced with less experienced lifters.

That’s all for today! Hopefully sports science spreads and coaches are forced to step up their game or be replaced by those who have an appreciation for the scientific method and the literature. 

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