What athletes don't know: how to squat

February 7, 2011 • Training

A funny thing happens when you walk into a weight room with an NCAA Division III athlete. It's kind of like witnessing a "Best of Bro-science" compilation, and by "best of" I really mean stuff so awful that you pray for short-term amnesia.

It isn't that what's happening is so aesthetically upsetting that you'd rather watch someone mop up a paint spill with facial tissue. Yes, a lot of it is hard to watch, but what really makes it uncomfortable is that many of them are 100% certain that they know what they're doing.

One of the freshmen said, "I think, by now, everyone pretty much knows how to lift." The irony gave me concussion-like symptoms.

The infamous ball squat.
At least I didn't have to slap anyone for doing this.

During my year coaching NCAA baseball players, I saw countless problems. Among them were some ugly rows, a shocking lack of pull-ups, the improper use of unstable surfaces, and a neglect of soft tissue work. The biggest problem, of course, was -- with the exception of a few athletes -- extremely poor barbell work.

For the most part, if anyone was doing barbell work, he wasn't doing anything but back squats, and calling them "half squats" would have been more accurate. Depth is easily the most prevalent problem with squats.

Poor depth results in quad dominance because of poor activation of the abductors, adductors, hamstrings, and glutes. Because no one wants to back off to a load that their weak posterior chains can handle, poor depth is the toughest problem to correct.

On top of that, poor depth is typically accompanied by excessive ankle dorsiflexion. Instead of bending at the hips, the athlete's knees track forward to allow for more knee flexion. This action moves the barbell closer to the ground, but does not improve the depth of a squat. In this position -- above parallel with ankle dorsiflexion -- the anterior part of the knee faces unnecessary sheer force which may cause pain and may eventually lead to injury.

Next to depth, the most common issue with squats is knee position. Apparently, someone is out there teaching young athletes to squat with a wide stance and feet facing forward. (I have a vague recollection of being taught that myself while in high school.) As the legs bend into the squat and approach 90° of knee flexion, this stance creates unnecessary valgus stress on the medial collateral ligament, which is really good if you're also into grinding your lateral menisci. Such a position suffers many of the same muscle activation problems as poor depth and causes a great deal more pain. (This is true for any flat-footed, standing position where the knees wind up medial to the feet.)

On top of these issues there are chunks of bro-science to deal with: counting that quarter-depth squat as a completed rep so you can tell people "I squatted 400 lbs", coaching cues like "look at the ceiling", and thinking that the Smith Machine is just as good as a barbell.

It takes about 10 minutes to teach someone the correct way to squat, but it takes quite a bit of practice to get it right. Anyone willing to do the work in the first place should be willing to do the work correctly. I'm not going to re-invent the wheel here by breaking the squat down piece by piece and telling you how to do it, but I'm also not going to leave you hanging.

Starting Strength, 2nd Edition, cover.

Mark Rippetoe and Lon Kilgore collaborated on one of the most popular strength training books of all time. It's called Starting Strength. You may have heard of it.

This book is the strength training bible for anyone that hasn't mastered the basic barbell lifts (squat, deadlift, press, clean). It tells you everything you need to know to do these exercises the right way.

If you're serious about strength training, you owe it to yourself to make sure you know what you're doing, and if you're a competitive athlete, there's no reason you shouldn't be serious about strength training.


Understanding extension

August 10, 2010 • Training

If you've ever spent any time around a pitching coach, you've probably heard the phrase "good extension" or "great extension." This is a reference to how a pitcher uses his arm. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people -- pitching coaches included -- who simply do not know good or great extension when they see it because they don't really know what it means.

The other day I saw a very good pitching coach complement his pitcher's extension on a particular pitch. The player kind of mimed extension by reaching toward home plate. The pitching coach stopped him and asked, "What does 'extension' mean?"

I'm sure that some of you are confused. You probably think of extension the same way this pitcher did -- drive off the rubber, extend toward the target. Unfortunately, that's not the type of extension that should be extolled.

In any athletic action, several extensions take place in several different places throughout the body. In the act of pitching, the term "extension" should refer to the position of the arm when the baseball leaves the pitcher's hand.

In pitching, "extension" is a generalized term that refers to elbow extension, but good extension isn't just about releasing the baseball with an extended elbow. Finding good extension is about releasing the baseball in a mechanically efficient position.

The most efficient release will occur when the hand reaches its maximum velocity in the direction of home plate.

The physics of rotational acceleration tells us that this happens when the forearm (the acting lever for the hand and ball) is perpendicular to the target because at this point, the hand is moving directly toward the target. 100% of the hand's -- and therefore the ball's -- velocity is directed toward home plate.

When this physics concept is applied to elbow extension in the throwing motion, "good extension" is seen in a full extension release point that is perpendicular to home plate rather than one that is reaching forward toward the plate.

Because the hand is connected to the elbow, the faster the elbow moves, the faster the hand will move. The elbow is connected to the shoulder, so the faster the shoulder moves, the faster the elbow will move.

Put together, these ideas build a concept of the release point in which the pitching shoulder, elbow, hand, and the baseball itself are moving straight toward home plate with near-peak velocity. The problem with that concept is that the human body is not made up of perfect levers like the ones that introductory physics classes love to pretend exist.

The result is that good extension can take many forms -- varying widely from pitcher to pitcher -- but true extension looks the same from pitcher to pitcher no matter how different their deliveries are. In most pitchers, good extension will occur slightly in front of perpendicular.

From L to R: Stephen Strasburg, Martin Perez, Adam Spinn.

Now that you have an idea what good extension looks like, how important is it? That's a question that's not easy to answer.

As with most pitching concepts, there are always exceptions to "rules" like this. UCLA's Trevor Bauer is very good at what he does, has been clocked in the mid- to upper-90s, and is a great example of someone who does not have "complete" extension.

UCLA RHP Trevor Bauer.

Inefficient extension -- such as short-arming the ball (a lack of extension) or "reaching through the target" (the wrong kind of extension) -- will likely result in lower velocities, but that doesn't mean that someone can't throw hard without efficient extension. On the other hand, overly aggressive extension can lead to cartilage irritation, joint swelling, and even olecranon fractures (Jay Powell, Joel Zumaya).

Proper understanding of concepts like this are essential for coaches that work with youth pitchers. Once improper techniques are assimilated, especially in kids with less natural athleticism, they can be extremely difficult to overcome.


A great series on the elbow

May 24, 2010 • Training

Eric Cressey, of Cressey Performance, published a series of posts on his personal blog over the past two weeks that takes a fairly comprehensive look at the elbow. His series progresses through anatomy, pathology, and injury before discussing how to go about protecting pitchers.

The first three parts are factual in nature, heavy on scientific facts but without beating you over the head with mumbo-jumbo.

Part 4 of Cressey's series builds on the information from the first three. He uses a 4-category approach to make general suggestions for keeping a pitcher healthy. The last three categories are spot-on, but I have a few issues with his ideas about injurious pitching mechanics.

To kick it off, Cressey shows a photo of a 5' 7" pitcher and a 6' 7" pitcher standing side-by-side and says, "Anyone who thinks these two are going to throw a baseball with velocity and safety via the same mechanics is out of his mind."

This is a very interesting statement to me, since Cressey seems to be suggesting that "safe" mechanics for a tall pitcher are different from "safe" mechanics for a short pitcher. I may be out of my mind, but that's just plain wrong.

Now, in real life, dealing with two different pitchers, yes, safe mechanics for one pitcher aren't necessarily safe for another pitcher, but height has as much to do with it as a pitcher's choice in footwear. The basics of functional anatomy do not vary with a person's height.

Things that will cause variations in "safe" mechanics are long-term training and congenital joint laxity. Long-term training is a very general term that I am using here to refer to how the body has adapted over time to throwing a baseball. This encompasses principles involving conformational changes in the skeleton (i.e. humeral retroversion), increased bone density, changes in muscle contractile force, and changes in tensile strength of ligaments. Congenital joint laxity can be thought of as natural flexibility, and it varies from person to person.

Cressey might as well have included a photo of any two pitchers standing side-by-side.

Kinetically speaking, shorter people have shorter levers, so an equal amount of force applied at a given joint results in less torque for a shorter person than for a taller person. This, however, is unavoidable.

The safest mechanics for an individual will be the same no matter how tall or short that person is. There is no height at which certain mechanics become safe and others become unsafe.

Cressey then discusses two biomechanical studies that correlate horizontal shoulder adduction and external rotation, respectively, to elbow valgus stress. Neither study supports his proposition, but the points are well taken, if somewhat incomplete.

My chief complaint about studies like these is that they focus mainly on peak torque values instead of the loading rates of those torques (i.e. How much time did the joint tissues have to adapt to the stress?). This is a topic for another day, though.

He follows this up with a discussion about balancing health-risk with performance as it pertains to deception and pitch movement. This is an excellent point, but it's one that I think far too many young pitchers fail to understand. This is also a topic for another day.

Cressey has two more posts in this series, and if you aren't already a reader of his, I highly suggest you become one. Click here to visit Eric Cressey's blog.


Dr. Mike Marshall Training: Javelins and Bucket Lids

May 18, 2009 • Training

I've been a bit busy lately with another project of mine, so I have been slacking a little when it comes to this blog. There isn't much substance to this post, but it's better than nothing.

This is another video that was filmed, edited, and produced by Dr. Marshall's students. It shows several of them performing some of Dr. Marshall's more unconventional training drills. In the video, they throw javelins and bucket lids.

The video quality isn't spectacular, and its producer added some background music (as well as a lengthy credits sequence at the end). I'd suggest muting the video, but then you wouldn't hear the commentary.

The pitchers perform the same exercises that they performed with the wrist weights and iron balls. The projectiles in this video are lighter, though not quite as light as a baseball.

These drills are more about neuromuscular fitness - joint action timing and sequencing or "muscle memory" - than they are about strength and durability. If I understand correctly, they are used to help learn and "perfect" Dr. Marshall's motion rather than to maintain it.

The bucket lid drill, designed to teach the appropriate axes of rotation for pitched balls, seems like it would also provide a decent "report card" for the release and spin of each pitch.


Dr. Mike Marshall Training: Iron Balls

May 4, 2009 • Training

Following last week's question regarding Dr. Marshall's wrist weights exercises, I exchanged several emails with Dr. Marshall and one of his students.

The student addressed the question, but claimed that the two arm actions are the same despite the obvious visual differences. He then took the opportunity to tell me that I don't understand how Dr. Marshall's pitchers throw a baseball. The student also claimed that the vertical elbow extension was the result of centripetal force. Apparently, this student wasn't paying much attention to Dr. Marshall when he explained forearm flyout.

Dr. Marshall had more useful things to say. He explained that his pitchers are taught to drive their upper arms in a position described to be "as vertical as possible." From this position, a pitcher clearly can only extend his elbow vertically. This matches exactly what I have seen from his pitchers when they throw baseballs.

When performing the weighted exercises, Dr. Marshall's pitchers appear to me to be powerfully extending their upper arms toward the target. This is because their upper arms seem to move from nearly vertical to nearly horizontal in the direction of the throw prior to release. As a result, their elbow joints extend their forearms toward the target instead of the sky.

Take another look at some of Dr. Marshall's students performing a weighted training exercise. This time, they are throwing iron balls which are obviously more similar to baseballs than the wrist weights are.

Again, his pitchers appear to be driving the heavy weights in a nearly straight 3-dimensional line. Some of them do this better than others. In this video, it appears that the pitchers who raise the ball higher are better able to keep the ball on a 3-dimensionally straight path through release.

Compared to the wrist weight exercises from last week's entry, the iron ball exercises appear to result in more skyward elbow extension. This could be an illusion caused by the arm's reaction to the release of a heavy object. Without high-speed video, it's virtually impossible to tell which happens first.

Because Dr. Marshall wants his pitchers to accelerate their upper arms in as vertical a position as possible, elbow extension is necessarily skyward. This is really the answer to last week's question. In Dr. Marshall's view, when performing his motion, skyward elbow extension is expected and unavoidable.

It seems that the difference in arm actions is the result of the weights being too heavy for Dr. Marshall's pitchers to duplicate the intended arm action.