May 18, 2012
May 23, 2012

Just over half-way through the squat cycle, and things are starting to get heavy. With more weight comes more demand on the body – demand to get tight, to stay tight, and to drive the ever-loving hell outta the bar. But if we’re going to make those kind of demands on the body, then we have to help it and give it as much of a fighting chance as we can.

We’ve talked about the need to “Get Tight – Stay Tight” when performing heavy squats, including “drawing in as deep a breath as possible, holding the breath, and squeezing it in your belly,” and then “tensing up every muscle in your body at one time, locking down the essential parts to create as stable a base as possible from which to initiate your lift.” However, if you think you’re going to be able to draw a deep breath into your belly and really tighten up your shoulders, back, chest, and core with 85+% of your 1RM on your back, you’re sadly mistaken. These things must be done before you even unrack the bar. As Tom pointed out in his comment to the above-linked post, “It should be uncomfortable before you take the bar off the rack! Full body power requires full body tension. Heavy weights require maximum spinal support.”

But getting tight before you un-rack the bar isn’t enough. The time between when you un-rack the bar and when you start squatting is a critical window, and the smaller you keep that window, the better off you’ll be. Don’t rush, but don’t dilly-dally either; un-rack, take a few steps back, grind your feet into the floor, and then squat. A few steps back means limiting yourself to three steps or less after un-racking the bar. Three Steps or less. Not four, not five, and sure as sh!t not six or more. Remember, we’re not dancing with the bar; we’re squatting with it.

Why make such a big deal about this? The simple fact is that too many people are taking too long to start squatting after the bar is on their backs. 4 or 5 big steps, then maybe a small adjustment step or two, then wiggling the hips and shaking out the legs?!? At 60, 65, 70, and maybe – just maybe – at 75%, you can get away with this. At 80%, it probably didn’t help anyone perform the ensuing 3 sets of 6 reps, and it was definitely affecting people this past Sunday working at 85% for 3 sets of 5 reps. And guess what? it will only make things worse as we continue to progress higher in weight.

Learn to limit your step-out. Do all the wiggling, snorting, shaking, and lamaze breathing while the bar is still in the rack. Once all that’s out of the way – once you’ve pulled yourself into the bar and taken in a deep breath – un-rack the bar, take your two or three steps, grind your feet into the floor, and then get to work on the task at hand: squatting.

 Squat Cycle 2, Week 2: 
 Back Squat 3 x 5 @ 85%

Warm-up sets were programmed as 10 @ 35-40%, 8 at ~50%, 5 @ 65%, and then 3 @ 75% (with a further 3 @ 80% depending on how big of a jump 75 to 85% is – the larger the weights, the larger that jump, and the more beneficial it is to include an extra warm-up set). It’s great to see folks working stretching and mobility in between sets, as well as to see the intended effects of said stretching/mobility. Also, it’s nice to see so many people really pushing themselves to hit proper depth; however, remember that every rep of every set needs to be at depth, not every other rep, or worse, just the last two or three when you think someone might be watching. When you’re lifting, stay honest, and when you’re not, keep the lifters honest. That’s how we improve and get better as a group.

Once all the working sets were done, bars moved from the racks to the floor for some hamstring accessory work.

 3 x 3 Deadlift @ 65% of Max DL

Sunday’s deadlifts were based on max effort deadlifts, rather than back squats. Warm-up sets were done at 1 x 3 @ 35%, 1 x 3 @ 50%, and then the three working sets at 65%. Additionally, unlike last Sunday sumo-speed-pulls, these were done as conventional set-up deadlifts, and although not speed pulls, were styled as “touch-and-go,” so that the weight kissed the ground before reps 2 and 3 (“kissed,” as opposed to trying to bounce the weight off the floor).

With back-to-back heavy exercises, class skipped the conditioning work on Sunday and instead took the time to stretch out. Two sets of wall straddles, a set of wall-assisted baby-makers, some hip and glute work (again, wall assisted), followed by some hamstring stretching. Post workout stretching helps increase flexibility while your muscles are still warm, but it should also serve to indicate what parts of you need extra attention before the next workout. Take mental notes, and be sure to work on those areas before you get under the bar next time.

 Sunday was Max’ last class before he heads off to Beijing, China for the next year. We wish him the best of luck, and look forward to some cool photos and even cooler stories. Until next time, Max, good luck!

Nice work everyone. See you all on Tuesday.



  1. SBV says:

    Sweet photo, guys! I couldn’t believe it was me. Not because it looks like Eminem squatting, but because it looks like an actual flexible/mobile athlete squatting. That squat has come a long way.

    So, we’re only half-way done with the squat cycle? I suppose the tough part hasn’t even begun. Sunday’s 3 x 5 @ 85% was absolutely brutal for me. My fifth rep on each set was an absolute grinder. I had to give 100% effort to drive the weight past my sticking point. 5 x 3 @ 90% should be even more difficult, but I’m looking forward to the challenge.

    I had planned to bitch about the assistance work being so moderate. 3 x 3 @ 65% (touch-and-go) was easy, right. But then I woke up this morning with crazy tight hamstrings. So, maybe that was just what the doctor ordered. I guess Tom was right again.

    On to Week 9!

  2. Julia says:

    No-nonsense Sunday: put some weight on your back. Pick some weight off the ground. Stretch (so you can do it all over again next time).

    And I couldn’t believe that was me squatting in the photo, either. Why so serious? (Must have been contemplating maximum spinal support.)

    Safe travels and good luck Max!

  3. Steph says:

    Erica, just to be clear, the person in the first picture is Julia, and the second one me. 😉

    I hope Tom took that picture of me before/after I hit the bottom because that’s definitely not below parallel!

    I take 3 steps after I unrack, but I guess sometimes I take a little more time to make sure my feet are lined up and also pointing out at the same angle. Will try to shorten the time between unracking and the start of my squats.

    Sunday was a weird day for me. I felt rushed as we had 4 people and different weights, or maybe I was just spoiled by squatting alone after class with my 2-min rest between sets. My first set at my working weight was extremely difficult. 2nd and 3rd sets were so much better that Chris thought I’d gone down in weight. Not sure what the deal was, possibly because I was stressed out that it took us 5 minutes to figure out how much weight we had on the bar (bad morning for math).

    The stretching segment was great though. Thanks, Tom and Chris!

    Looking forward to be in class tomorrow!

  4. Steph says:

    Oh yeah, Max, we’ll miss you! Hopefully I’ll see you sometime in July or August! We can scout out locations for CF China! And when you come back briefly in September, stop by for a workout if time allows!

  5. Katie says:

    I was fortunate enough to learn the “don’t dance with the bar” lesson a couple weeks (months?) ago when I got some front squat coaching from Chris and was taking 6+ steps back. It was pretty funny when Chris pointed out what I was doing, so luckily that has stuck with me.

    I worked with Joanne, Monica, and Addie (Addy?) — thank you, ladies, for working me in and helping with all the plate changes. I did 60#, and it felt okay, though I don’t think I’m always getting the depth I need to. I also need to focus on staying tight; thinking about pushing up against the bar helps me a lot. Sara made a helpful observation that my right hip wasn’t as flexed as my left…good to be aware of, and I continue to work on my hip flexors.

    Monica and I were watching Mike Choi do squats after we finished ours, and wow — talk about staying tight!! His squat was so deep, but he was able to come up with excellent form. It was awesome to watch, and hopefully Mike didn’t mind us ogling too much.

    I did DLs at 85#…my hamstrings are a bit tight today.

  6. Katie says:

    Also, I almost forgot — the ring work at the 9 a.m. class was so much fun! I was frustrated I couldn’t get up on my own (thank you for the help, Chris), but it was cool that I could hold myself upside down with legs straight. My shoulders are so sore today, it’s great.

  7. Monica says:

    “We’re not dancing with the bar; we’re squatting with it” I like this…and I definitely dance. When I get nervous, tired, or weight gets heavy, I tend to “dance” with the barbell, which resembles a country line dance I’ve known my whole life–blaming Oklahoma for this one!

    With squats, I had a goldilocks moment. At first, Chris came over and corrected my form, telling me to go narrower and keep my feet turned in. Then Sara came over and told me to go wider (maybe I took Chris’ direction overliterally!!). Then the form was right. Both coaches, helped me to correct form and set myself up for better squats in the future. Yesterday, my big personal feat was not letting my ego get in the way. I knew after my form was corrected, that I needed to scale the weight down, to get a feel for the new and improved squat. In the past, I may not have liked that, but yesterday, I knew this was what was best to get better for the future. As always, thanks for the great coaching.

    Katie and I watched Mike Choi squat with perfection (this was after he said to me “no one’s squat is perfect”). I felt like a teenage girl watching a boy band perform–utterly impressed with the precision.

    Deadlifts, in any form are my heart. I love performing them and was happy to stretch them out. It was fun working with Joann on this.

    The stretching was awesome. There is a wall in my apartment that has already been designated for these stretches on a couple times a week basis.

    Thanks for a great class!

  8. Amelia says:

    The squats are getting heavy. Especially when you can’t add and do your first working set at 90%…well at least Dian, Erica and I know we are ok for next week. Working weight on the squats was 110.

    Did the deadlfts at 130.

    Definitely feeling it all today. The stretching was much needed.

    See everyone tomorrow

  9. Sara says:

    Squats are fun especially when we get to pair them with conventional deadlifts. My working weights for squats this week was 153lbs. The squats felt pretty good. Much better than last week but reps 4 & 5 were always tough. I am definitley looking forward to next week.

    I worked at 183lbs for the deadlifts and focused on maintaining a parallel grip for all the sets. I did one extra set because I was a little ahead of Chris & Tom and Tom noted I was unlocking my legs at the top of the deadlift. As a result, I decided to do an extra set to correct my those other reps.

  10. Tom Brose says:

    Sara whipped Chris and I on the squats, and even talked a little smack as she did. Good thing she was able to back it up.

    Next will be a different type of challenge. Get ready for the weights to feel heavy! 90% and up is where you start to second guess as soon as you get under the bar. Don’t panic though, everyone thats been putting in the effort so far is prepared for it (including some people trying it out by mistake).

    Cool pic of SBV. Position is spot on. Great to hear from many of you that the minor adjustments are helping out. It takes a lot of practice to squat well. Part of that is what Chris mentioned- make every set as mechanical and efficient as possible. Try to find a sequence that works and repeat it exactly each set and rep.

    Monica, please save the country line dancing for the warmups, not heavy squats.

    Steph, good depth, that was mid lift. Not quite as deep as the previous few weeks, but below parallel.

    Julia, thats probably the first time you’ve been able to hold a serious look for so long. please, no giggling under the bar. 3×5 @205 was awesome though.

    Katie, glad you had fun on the rings, we’ll work more of that in.

  11. Erica says:

    Steph, I’ve been MIA on the blog do to crazy weekend (ahh) that is officially behind us, but thanks for the clarification. you know how confused I get.

    Ditto to what Meels said. We messed up the weight but still did okay. Actually feel very good. Looking forward to next weekend!

  12. Andraea says:

    Squats at 85% was definitely rough and I can only imagine what 90% is going to feel like. Mackenzie and I did our squats yesterday, definitely helps having someone there cheering me on! Thanks Mackenzie!

    Looking forward to class tonight! Hopefully the soreness that I’m feeling now won’t get worse. I definitely need to do some stretches.

  13. edgy reggie says:

    I’d like to echo Sara’s comment about the squat/deadlift combination being fun.

    Given the fact that I competed the day before, I thought that I might be a little tired and a little sore when it came time to squat. But that wasn’t the case. I was feeling good with all of my warm-ups (especially at seventy-five percent where my “magic weight” of 225# came into play). Thus, I took my time (but not too much time) with all of my sets at eighty-five percent (255# for me). I try to not dance around too much with the weight because I feel that saps some of my energy for squatting.

    Thanks to Coach (still hearing “Deeper!” even when you are not around), Tom A., and Sebastian (aka “SBV,” aka “Ben,” aka “Sea-bass,” aka “Has-Ben”…) for the feedback on my squatting. I appreciate it all.

    By the way, where was “Easy E” (Ethan) and “Eminem II” (Mark)? I missed training with them; then again, it was good to not have to adjust the squat racks to their height…this time. 🙂

    I used 295# (top weight) for the deadlifts and worked with Ben (Brown). I tried to remember the cues that Coach gave me about my deadlifts from the last time we performed them (which was last week).

    I liked the stretching at the end of class (always do). I liked it so much that I did more in Winnie’s yoga class later that evening.

    I’ll not be in class tonight (22 May), Thursday (24 May), or Sunday (27 May). I’ll do my best to do the 5 x 3 @ 90% squat routine while I am in Chicago (May 24 – 28). (270# for me should be do-able.)

    I hope that everyone has a good, safe, and fun Memorial Day weekend. I’ll see everyone on May 29.

  14. edgy reggie says:

    Oops, I almost forgot: Max, it’s been fun training/working out with you. Best of luck to you in Beijing. Continue to represent CrossFit DC wherever you are.

  15. SBV says:

    Forgot to mention a funny Ben Brown story. So, on Sunday, during Ben’s first working set, he decided to rack the bar after his fourth rep. The fourth rep had been a bit of a grinder, and I think he was a little nervous (understandably so) about squatting back down for a fifth rep with 240# on his back. During his final two working sets, he handled all five reps of 240# without much of a problem. He didn’t say anything about it, but I could tell that missed rep was eating at him. Next thing you know it, he puts the bar on his back for another full set of five to make up for his one missed rep on the first set! Well done, Ben. Well done.

  16. Ben says:

    HA! It was REALLY bothering me that I didn’t get the last rep on the first set. Particularly with the “what the hell?” look I got from SBV and Chris when I racked the bar after 4 reps. Seriously, thanks to SBV and Chris for pushing me to get the last rep out on the next sets.

    Never though I would say it, but squats are becoming a lot of fun. I’m a big fan of the squat-cycle! The sqauts/deadlift format was awesome on Sunday! My legs are definitely fried.

    Obviously I worked with SBV and Adam on the squats at 240 lbs – which is getting heavy quickly. Worked with Reggie on the DLs at 295 lbs to polish everything off.

    Also – if you see Erica tonight, make sure and congratulate her on graduating from her doctoral program on Monday! I always wanted to marry a doctor.