- Its a blood flow and neural thing
- Weight training in larger ranges is the best way to get a neural adaption
- Blood flow is improved by more movement, in more patterns. Being still is the enemy.
Wake up stiff, finish work stiff
If you are a normal adult, with a normal job and you train a lot, you have days where you feel stiff, and getting into a squat position feels terrible.
This article is going to teach you how to get into a proper position from set one and feel better overall.
Why does this matter?
Perfect practice makes perfect execution. If your first three sets of squats are high, heels flying in the air, hands unable to get into position and you are in the good morning position, you create an uphill battle to do squats well that day.
This is the same for getting hips down in deads or mid-thoracic up in bench.
When we had oly guys in the gym, it was super interesting that they don’t do not add any weight to the bar until the can squat it perfect. Most of us will realise, it's actually harder to squat just the bar than a plate a side.
If at all possible, there is a very valid argument to never add weight to a bar until you are squatting if perfectly. Ray Williams got to 900 pounds this very way, you can find old interviews and articles where he talked about mastering every rep and every set before he’d move up, even if it meant some days he would go home squatting nowhere near his planned max.
What do you mean by all these terms?
For the purposes of this article – we’ll use the below definitions:
Stiff: Can get into the position eventually, just takes time
Tight: Actual percieved muscular tightness, no amount of warm-up gets you there
Unstable: You can get into position, but it feels like you can’t hold any weight there
Use that in a sentence. OK.
Lou got to the gym. He was stiff, but once he warmed up, he could repeatedly squat to parallel. Even once warm, he could not hit full depth without his ankles rising, he was too tight in the ankles. He threw on some heels, and could hit full depth. His opening exercise was front squats. He was very sore in the shoulders and upper back, and could get into position, but was unstable when adding load.
Make sense? Ok, lets move on.
Oly - the stretchiest strength athlete
Help, I’m stiff
Stiff is the easiest – it’s the feeling after sitting in one place for a long time, like a long car ride. The cause of this is easy to understand, called ‘ischaemia’. Which is simply a lack of blood flow. Your parents were wrong, you actually should wriggle around in your chair, and you should not sit still. Much like fixing these issues on a car ride – you just need to move around. Nerd physios will often say ‘your best posture is your next posture’.
Blood flow is the corrective exercise for this. It actually makes far more sense to do ten minutes on a rower, treadmill or exercise bike, than to start doing your first exercise stiff. Being stiff effects your mental state (you feel like it's going to be a weak day) and makes your form suck.
Everyone’s favourite meathead Mark Bell would train biceps at the start of a workout, and do some band work, as he did not like cardio. Also a valid approach.
Help, I’m stiff every day (chronic stiffness)
This is most people in real life that work in an office. Your hip flexors, hamstrings and achilles tendon get minimal blood flood, for 5 days a week, 48 weeks a year.
A very useful practice may be a standing desk, but its honestly pretty annoying. One of the easiest ways to guarantee more blood flow during the day is to drink a lot of water, 5 litres a day. It sounds like a joke, but getting up to go to the bathroom constantly will greatly assist.
This is all very good for prehab but if you already are chronically stiff, you need to fix it.
What is chronic stiffness and what is tightness (its going to start getting nerdy)
First of all, stiffness is a perception. Its based in sensation and ‘feeling’ stiff does not equate to short muscles. Basically, if you can get into position eventually, you just need a better system to get there.
Tightness is a perceived shortening of a muscle that is likely to be a neural ‘block’. Its the feeling no matter how relaxed or warm you are, your body won't let you get there.
Random fact? When people are knocked out for hip surgery, most have the flexibility to do the full splits. My brother had his hip replaced, and the doctor telling me that broke my brain. Same goes for shoulders, when people are knocked out, full 360' mobility.
So why can we not do the splits constantly? Most of us can do the below test, and get somewhat close, WAY closer than a Van Damme style doing the actual splits on the floor. So what is happening?
Basically, your nervous system controls muscle tension. Your muscles are innervated by nerves. If you want to prove this point, you can do 2 tests
- Sit and reach. Do 15 deep relaxed breaths, and retest. You will go further
- Sit and reach, focus on slowing the heart best, big breaths, and you will continue to stretch further
To deepen a stretch you must convince your nervous system that it's safe to do so. Basically, within your neural system, your Golgi Tendon Organs and Muscle Spindles are saying 'you don't have this, this is not safe'.
Yoga, stretching and breath work is a way of telling your body 'this is safe'. Being in control of your breath, feeling safe literally change positions, but most important is strengthening the muscles that stablise and control the stretch.
Stretching and Soft Tissue work – the world of kindas
Given that you don't have a short muscle or adhesions, stretching and soft tissue work doesn't change the physical stoppage, but makes you more in control, relaxed and able to change your perception of 'safe range'. They kinda work, but not in the way most PTs and coaches think.
Some people do not like this, as you can get passive before a big workout, some people are not affected. If you feel like you open up stretching or rolling, go crazy, but the reality is, chilling in a full squat and scrolling through insta is going to do the same thing, just breath and relax.
My squat is still gross, this article has done nothing
Given you are now aware of lack of limitations, why do you squats look bad? Largely, learned motor patterns.
Relearning squat patterns is hard. Relearning unloaded in the quadruped position is much easier. Take the position above, and work till you hit your working depth, then drop to your elbows and do the same thing. If you can't hit depth like this, warm up till you can.
Your body will compensate
Butt wink is a classic body 'adaption'. In oly, the rib cage rising rather than being neutral in overhead work is super common.
Your body does not care about your form, so you need to be diligent in doing perfect reps. The classic of this is people who have weak backs, and round like a camel during deads, because the never fixed the core issue.
You NEED to work your active flexibility, not just your passive (no load). This is the reason that exercises the produce a full range of motion should be added to your workouts WITH active load.
For example, lots of good coaches put forward band resisted overhead press in before squatting. It's making all those muscles stable in the lower position, so your body doesn't freak out when load is added. This actually fixed my low bar squat, I had the flexibility, but when under bigger load, my elbows would flare up bad. Stable and flexible is what you need.
When you understand the source issues as neural, blood and stability, it becomes clear doing exercises with appropriate weights in larger ROM is great for you overall 'not feeling bad' all the time balance.
This would include
- Romanians / stiff legs off blocks
- Overhead squats for full depth
- Flyes to full range
- Chins / lat pulldowns allowing the shoulder to stretch
- Calf raises to full stretch*
*Ever notice how every powerlifter complains about tight calves, and bodybuilders that train calves don't have this issue?
Our Sport of Limited ROM
The biggest squat dips below parallel and gets out. All your low bar should be the same. Same depth, same shoulder width, same feet width.
Below you can see Ricchi just before practiced depth at Pro-Raw. It may create huge instability under parallel if you never train it. For this reason, full depth high bar or front squat are great accessories.
Pro-Raw photos by Zoe Raymond
The Wrap Up
You tightness is largely in your head. Understanding this often is a fix. If you are sore, tight or have any muscle that never relaxes, train it more in full range of motion. It is shown to have an analgesic effect (reduces pain). The classic tight calf and ankle is helped by full range exercises, which long term lowers sensitivity from inflammation.
You need to actively load desired planes of movement. Yoga is exactly that, you are putting your bodyweight on a muscle/tendon for the same response.
Stability is a huge contributor to this. Convincing your body its safe lets you hit a better range, easier.
- This is why sleeves make you squat deeper faster (borrow some and try it).
- This is why a strong shoe with a good platform makes depth easier.
- This is why a belt bracing your core makes you more confident with depths when weights get heavier.
Any questions, let us know in the comments!