Today I’m going to share a story of a trainee who was having trouble making progress in her squats and Olympic lifts. I couldn’t figure out why until a happy accident happened which ended up in her learning to jump.
Coaching is Half Science, Half Intuition and Half Luck
I think if more coaches were honest, they’d admit that most of what they’ve learned or figured out about training people came from one of two places:
- People smarter than them.
- Lucky accidents.
Rather than trying to appear as if they figured out the secrets of the universe (available for only 3 easy payments of $77.77) all by themselves.
As often as not, it seems like learning ‘amazing’ new things about training people is as much luck and being in the right place in the right time as anything else. It certainly has been the case for me and this article is about one of those times.
Today I want to present an odd case study of a trainee I couldn’t figure out who, by lucky accident, managed to teach me something really cool. It was something I hadn’t ever seen before and, frankly, couldn’t have actually conceived of being an issue in the first place (which is a big part of why it took so long for me to figure it out).
In the Beginning
When the trainee in question came to me, she had already done a pretty stunning job of teaching herself bad technique in most lifts. Like most, she simply mimicked what she saw others doing; unfortunately this usually means learning things wrong. She was a poor quarter squatter and her bench press line was all over the map, as often as not she pushed it towards her feet.
The only lift she learned to do properly was the RDL. Amusingly this is because no one else in her gym did them; she didn’t have anybody to mimic (who was doing it wrongly) and learned it from poking around on the web and figuring it out on her own.
She had some specific strength and size goals but getting to them meant, factually, fixing her technique and that takes time, especially when you’re having to unlearn old bad habits.
This was not facilitated by the fact that this trainee was a wreck. She had problems in both shoulders, sacroiliiac issues and, as I’d find out later, gluteal amnesia (which was probably either a cause or effect, or both, of the SI injuries).
I won’t detail everything that was done to fix all of the above (it included some strategic ART and me throwing every rehab trick I know at the problems until they finally went away), sufficed to say that it took long enough just getting the old injuries taken care of and putting her back together to where she could train effectively.
Most of her training was tedious rehab based stuff initially which is a necessary evil to make any long-term progress. It’s not fun but it works better.
The only real benefit was that this meant she couldn’t go heavy in the main lifts without hurting herself again (squats, bench press, deadlifts, etc.) which facilitated technique work. She’d do a ton of rehabby stuff and then some light technical work, with the proportions changing as I put her back together. Gradually the rehab stuff made up less of her workout and more ‘real’ training was done.
So eventually (I forget the exact time frame) the rehab stuff was done and the real training could finally begin. There were backslides from the previous injuries mind you but there always are. Her glutes would stop firing temporarily, or her SI problem would come back or her shoulder would act up but that never took very long to re-correct once we’d gotten it fixed in the first place.
Usually it happened because we’d drop out some important prehab movement and some muscle would go back offline and the problem would come back. Over time, even that didn’t matter. Proper warm ups and balanced training kept everything working just fine.
Her technique was improving bit by bit and getting more consistent and about this time, she decided she wanted to learn the Olympic lifts. So those entered her program as well.
The Problems Start
And about this time the problems started. While there was more going on than I’m going to talk about here, to say that the trainee’s progress was stop and go is an understatement. Some lifts would go up, others went up briefly and then stopped improving, some made literally no progress or were going backwards. It was all over the map. She’d have a good workout and then a week of bad ones, or a handful of good ones and then it would all go wrong for a couple of weeks.
I wondered if I was over-training her, under-training her or just doing something really fundamentally wrong with her training. Except that the fact that some lifts were improving (notably bench and overhead work) told me that wasn’t the case. I had found loading parameters that, at least acutely, got her making progress. But they didn’t seem to work across the board for her and no amount of experimentation got anything working.
It was more an issue of inconsistency than anything systemically wrong. That is, if everything had been going down, I would have scrapped her entire training and started over. But some stuff would improve and others wouldn’t.
What the Squat is Going On?
What I really couldn’t figure out was why her squat wouldn’t improve. Over that time frame, I had taken her from something like a 165 lb ugly quarter squat to about the same weight in a full high-bar Olympic squat. So make no mistake she had improved but we just couldn’t get her past about the 80kg mark.
And neither of us could figure out why she could front squat maybe 10 pounds less than she back squatted (admittedly she was a bit quad dominant when she got here).
The basic problem is that, in the squat (front or back), she would come out of the bottom strong and then just die in the middle. That suggests hamstrings as a problem but here’s the thing, she had done 100kgX3 in the RDL at this point (while her back squat was about 80kg for a hard single and front squat like 5kg under that). Her hamstrings were not weak and those numbers made no sense at all.
Something was wrong and it was killing me that I couldn’t figure out what it was.
Now some of it was that she had never really learned to push through a lift. She had a tendency to start strong and then just figure momentum would get it the rest of the way done and stop pushing at all. So the lift would only lockout if it was light enough for momentum to carry it. With anything heavy it would stall because she’d stop pushing. This was fixed with a combination of chain and band work which forced/taught her to push through all the way to the top.
Oh yeah, and a lot of yelling at her to knock off the whole ‘easing off in the middle’ thing. That may be the main lesson of this piece:
Coaches should never underestimate the value of a good yell at your trainee.
But it still didn’t fix her squatting problem, with chains or without, she’d come up strong and just stall completely in the middle.
Is This Her Limit?
She figured that maybe she’d just hit her limits (or simply wasn’t built for lifting, admittedly her mechanics are not ideal as she is tall with long femurs) but I felt that wasn’t the case. Other strength indicators told me that she had way more in her on the squats. Something was just wrong somewhere (and I couldn’t figure out what).
And she was at most an intermediate lifter at this point, her technique was just getting consistent and she was learning to push herself harder; in my opinion she still had room to improve. How much I couldn’t say but an 80kg back squat wasn’t her limit by any stretch.
In the Olympic lifts, she had the worst donkey kick (e.g. she’d finish by jumping her feet up behind her and then slamming them down) and I could never get her to finish her pull. On the jerk she’d get pinned to the floor, seeming to stub her front foot straight into the ground and it kept her from going under the bar.
I mainly attributed both of those problems to my inexperience teaching the lifts. While that was part of it, it wasn’t actually what was going on.
I’m not sure who was more frustrated at this point, her for not making progress or me for not being able to figure out what in the hell was wrong with her. She had done everything I’d asked of her so clearly the problem was me and how I was training her. It bugged the shit out of me and since I tend towards obsessiveness in the first place, I thought about it a lot.
The Lucky Accident
So as it turns out, another aspect of this lifter is that she’s very competitive and has a tendency to want to do whatever she sees other people doing in the gym. And while we normally trained early morning, we happened to be in the gym one night (lucky accident #1) and someone happened to be jumping rope (lucky accident #2). I thank god they were or I’d never have figured out the problem.
My trainee said she wanted to jump rope. We were done for the night so I said fine.
She started and this is essentially what I saw.
The above picture isn’t her but that’s basically what I saw, to leave the ground she’d kick her feet up behind her and then slam her feet back into the ground. She wasn’t actually jumping up at all, she was just kicking her feet up behind her to get off the ground.
I asked her “What in the hell are you doing?” and she said “Jumping rope”. And I said “That’s not how you jump.” She said “That’s how I jump.” And I said “I think we’ve figured out the problem with your squat.”
I want to back up and mention that this trainee had played rugby at university and I want to make sure and put the blame for the above where it belongs: her rugby coach. She was tall and apparently never could get off the ground when she jumped for the ball (I won’t offend people who know rugby by pretending to know the right terms). She just made up for it with her height.
For fairness, I should also blame the British elementary school system for letting little girls learn to jump rope like that.
But as soon as I saw the above, it all clicked for me, the squatting stall, the donkey kick on the OL’s, the foot stub on the jerk, it all made sense and it was all due to the same thing.
The Hamstrings Do Two Things
To understand I have to bore you with some functional anatomy of the hamstring. The hamstring group is actually comprised of three muscles the semi-membranosus, semi-tendinosus and the biceps femoris (which has a long and a short head). With the exception of the short-head of the biceps femoris (which only flexes the knee since it doesn’t cross the hip), the hamstring has two primary functions: the hamstrings flexes the knee and extend the hip.
In a squat or Olympic lift or jumping or about 99% of sporting activities, the hamstring should function as a hip extensor, not as a knee flexor. This is why most coaches don’t generally use a lot of leg curls, it trains the hamstrings in a distinctly different way than it is ever used in actual sport.
Fun fact: in speed skating you actually do use the hamstrings to flex the knee during the leg recovery.
When I saw her jump, I knew what the problem was: she was using (or at least trying to use) her hamstrings as a knee flexor when she should have been using it as a hip extensor.
So she’d hit the middle of a squat and her body would put the brakes on by trying to fire the hamstring to flex the knee. Not only did this mean she wasn’t doing hip extension, it also means that the hamstring was working as a direct antagonist of the quads (which were working as a knee extensor) That’s why she kept stalling out. Neurologically, her body was putting the brakes on in the middle of the lift.
When she’d hit the mid point of an Olympic lift, rather than finishing her pull with hip extension, she’d flex the knee and snap the foot up behind her body and donkey kick because this is what her body thought ‘jumping’ was.
In the jerk, she kept stubbing her foot into the floor because she’d flex it back behind her as she got close to full extension during the drive and then she’d plant it straight forward into the ground (instead of picking it up after the jerk drive).
Honestly it never occurred to me that someone could get through that many years involvement in sports and never have learned how to jump or use the hamstring as a hip extensor appropriately but there ya’ go.
That was my trainee’s problem. And having identified the problem (finally)…..
Learning to Jump
The solution, depressingly, was exceedingly easy. It simply involved re-teaching her how to use the hamstrings properly, reteaching her nervous system to do things the way they should be done. Towards that goal, I had her do a lot of different things.
She’d start every workout jumping rope. Not only was this an excellent warm up but it got her lots of reps focusing on extending at the knee and hip and ankle (the much vaunted triple extension) to start teaching her body to jump with hip extension; she also just wanted to be good at jumping rope so this was a good practice period. Every once in a while she’d revert to her old habits but regular cueing fixed that.
I had previous taught her kettlebell swings (both two and one handed) and these came back in as a continued part of her warm up, just to keep focusing on good full hip extension against load.
Med ball overhead throws were a huge key to fixing this. We’d go out in the parking lot and from a basic squat stance, I’d have her squat down and then explode back and up to release the ball up and back, again focusing on full triple extension (hip, knees, ankles).
I really like these because she was able to fully explode through without having to worry about deceleration at the top (since you can release the ball). So it served two purposes, training hip extension and teaching her to explode all the way through. Both things that she needed to learn how to do better.
This was followed by formal jumping. I had her do some from a half squat position with a bar on her back, basically weighted vertical jumps. She’d also do unweighted vertical jumps and tuck jumps where the focus was on finishing the hip extension up before flexing the hip and bringing the knees up.
Various chain squats (front and back) were done to start integrating the hip extension pattern into the movements of interest but I kept the load fairly light at this point so that she wouldn’t revert to old patterns
I even banded the horizontal leg press to keep training the same pattern; this also allowed me to overload the muscles involved in squatting while keeping her squats lighter for technical reasons.
Over a 4-6 week span, things started to improve and change. She stopped stalling her squats, she was getting more snap through to the top without the huge deccelleration in the middle. I’d give her feedback on this by leaving a slight space between plates and told her I wanted her to make the plates ring at the top of every rep. That told her right away if she had slowed down too much and/or eased off.
She learned to jump and freaked herself out once after I had her do an unweighted vertical jump after a couple of sets of squat jumps with the bar. She wasn’t ready for the height or hang time she got.
She had learned to jump.
That, along with some other changes to her training led her to a squat PR about 2-3 months later. Which was more than overdue.
As is always the case, the answer was obvious after I figured it out.
If only she’d jumped rope 6 months earlier….
So that’s my case study, an oddity I had never come across before that I didn’t discover except for a very lucky accident. I’m sure some of you reading this are going ‘Well, duh, isn’t it obvious what was wrong?’. Well, yeah it’s obvious when you already know what the answer is.
If this article has a point, and I’m not entirely sure that it does is that, coaches should keep an eye out for stuff they haven’t seen before. It’s easy to fall into a trap of assuming that everyone you’re working with is in the same boat and often you find weird exceptions.
And it’s often those weird exceptions that you learn the most from anyhow.