Set Yourself Up for Success

Technique is and always will be the most important component of exercise.  All too often people set themselves up for failure by not paying attention to minor details of their workout.  Progress is often lost in the gym by making small mistakes in and out of the gym that may not seem like a big deal at the time.  Over many repetitions these small things will add up and form a habit that will become hard to break. 

During my time as a trainer, I have seen many people who lack the attention to detail when working out.  Many clients would have negatively affected their workout had I not been there to correct their form.  When I say this I am referring to a simple concept such as, "make sure the bar is centered on your back" or "grab the bar evenly", not a complex biomechanical error such as foot pronation when squatting or shoulder internal rotation with pressing movements. 

These types of cues, in my opinion, are very different as one is skill related to the individuals patterning  while the other is simply carelessness over details that help optimal performance.  These simple, immediately correctable errors in judgement can determine the level of success or failure of any particular exercise.  In the example above, a potential back injury could occur from uneven bar placement.  This same error often occurs when pushing/pressing a barbell causing an uneven load on the arms and potential compensation.  No matter how much effort is used perform the exercise correctly (or look correctly), an individual could never fully achieve symmetry all because they failed to set up correctly.

Setting yourself up for success can also be applied to the design of your exercise program, aka choosing the appropriate exercises, reps, and rest based upon your goals and abilities. 

Example: Bench Press

If your goal is to increase your strength or weight lifted in the bench press, you should be placing your feet firmly on the ground wide apart or on your toes under hips and below the bench.  If your goal is to train the muscles in your chest, shoulders, and triceps (even though I think there are better alternatives than the traditional bench press), you should have your feet placed up on the end of the bench preventing yourself from using a good hip drive or the rest of your body for assistance.  Neither way is "wrong" but one technique is a much better option for you to reach your goals.  

Taking the time to evaluate what your goals are and determining which exercises and variations are better suited to meet those goals will determine how fast (or slow) you achieve them.  Taking the time to evaluate what your current capabilities are is extremely important for avoiding injuries.  For example, understanding your current mobility and stability should impact squat variations (front squat, back squat (high bar vs. low bar), overhead squat etc.) chosen for your program.  An unknown restriction could lead to potential pain, compensatory patterns, and eventually injury.

Next time you're in the gym be sure to take your time when setting up your exercises and hopefully you (or your trainer) have done your homework in determining which exercises/variations are appropriate for you and your current goals. 

Tommy Barzal

To Squat or Not to Squat

When looking for an exercise that increases strength, incorporates a long list of muscles, and causes a large metabolic response, look no further than the squat.  Now when I mention “squat” most of you are thinking:

  • My doctor told me not to.
  • I don't want to use that part of the gym.
  • I'm intimidated by free weights.
  • What happens if I can't get back up?

Squats have gotten a bad rep over the years.  I’ve now heard from a wide variety of people including practitioners (Orthos, PTs, Chiros, etc.) that “squats are bad for the knees and / or back”.  My response is, “They can be, but they don’t have to be.” 

We all squat… all day long.  Do you get in and out of a chair?  Do you pick things up from the floor?  Do you get on and off of the commode?  If so, you are squatting.  Squats are an essential part of human movement.  Having the ability to squat effectively and efficiently MAKES LIFE EASIER.  Why wouldn’t you want to make life easier?

I’d say 1-5% of the general public have contraindications that should keep them from squatting consistently.  For the other 95-99% of us, we shouldn’t be asking whether I should or shouldn’t but “HOW SHOULD I?” What determines whether your squat is helping or hurting you is not how many reps, or in what setting (barbell, goblet, front/back, single leg, DB, etc.), or how frequent, it is the technique used when squatting.  

Poor squats can cause: 

  • Bulging disks in lumbar spine
  • Patella-Femoral Syndrome
  • Hip labrum fraying/tears
  • Patellar tendonitis

Squats completed with proper technique can improve:

  • Bone mineral density in pelvis, spine, and lower extremities
  • Core stabilization
  • Efficiency of ADL’s (activities of daily living)
  • Vertical jump
  • Sprint speed
  • Running efficiency
  • Deceleration
  • Change of direction
  • Rotational sport efficiency and power (throwing a baseball, golf swing, lacrosse shot, etc.)

It should be pretty clear by now that squats are one of if not THE most important exercise in your regimen.  Now, let’s focus on the “how”.  For today’s post, I’ll be explaining how to get your lower extremities set up properly for a bilateral (double leg) squat.  I will focus on the back and upper extremity positioning for other variations in a future post.


Proper lower extremity alignment for most of the population can be achieve by keeping your patella (kneecap) and 3rd toe on the same line or plane of motion.  As you bend your ankle, knee, and hip joints during a squat, the three points mentioned should all stay in plane.  To determine this, find your pelvic crest on both sides of your hips.  Trace it forward until you feel a bony point in the front of your hips, slightly below your pant line.  This landmark, which we’ll abbreviate as ASIS makes up the beginning of the hip-knee-toe line.  Look in a mirror with your feet hip width and pointed straight forward to determine your standing position.  If you see your knees sitting inside the line between hip and toe, lift the arches of your feet up to bring knees outward (away from midline).  In the picture, you see hip-knee-second toe alignment with a hip width stance and toes straight forward.  This is optimal alignment but not necessarily the optimal squat stance.


Stance and Hip Angle

For optimal squat depth, we need to open our stance up from hip width to shoulder width.  This gives our hip sockets “room” to work until end range impingement occurs.  The optimal stance width is roughly shoulder width.  If you take your feet to shoulder width and keep them pointed forward, as you see in this pic, your hips wind up in internal rotation.  This position can damage the hip labrum and causes early impingement in your squat range. 

Based on the hip socket (acetabulum), “ball” of joint (femoral head) and femoral neck, the optimal squat depth can be achieved with your hip-knee-toe line externally rotated.  If you were standing on a clock with 12 o’clock in front of you, your feet should be pointed at 11 & 1 to 10 & 2.  Make sure that the knees stay out with the toe angle or you will fall into a position that causes joint problems and pain.  From top to bottom, the pictures to the right show:

  • Proper width but improper angle of foot placement
  • Proper width and angle of feet but knees adducting or turning inside optimal alignment
  • Proper width, angle of feet, and alignment


Try out your new squat stance next time you are in the gym or using the motion to sit down and get up from a chair.  You should feel your range of motion increase and pain decrease.


Happy Squatting!


Ryan Morrissey