Monthly Archives: January 2015

Review of Low Bar Back Squat Technique

For months now, my low-bar squat had stalled at a 255 lbs. five-rep max. I can always grind out that last rep at 255, but if I try to go heavier, my form falls apart, and the barbell buries me. I recently found a technique to resolve this issue, and my progress can begin again.

I want to share the articles that helped me improve my form, and start squatting heavier weights, in case there are others who are stuck in a similar spot.

First, I learned how to low-bar squat using Powerlifting to Win’s article on the subject. This is a great introduction to low-bar squatting, if you’ve only squatted with a high-bar technique. However, it doesn’t cover all the details of low-bar squatting. To be fair, I’m not sure any single article could comprehensively teach a low-bar squat: that’s what a coach is for! If you’re self-coaching, like me, then this is a great place to start, but you’ll need more information as you squat heavier and new weaknesses in your form hobble your progress.

When my form started failing at heavier weights, I had to use stronger Google-Fu to uncover deeper secrets of the low-bar squat. This is when I found that my upper back wasn’t as tight as it could be. Enter, the elbows. The low-bar squat requires you to pinch your shoulders back and rest the barbell on your rear deltoid muscles. You can flex your rear delts by trying to pointing your elbows behind you, and this is how I was creating that “deltoid shelf” to hold the barbell. This is only part of the story to getting your back tight for the low-bar squat.

The problem with only pointing your elbows back is that it only tightens your shoulder muscles, and a few of your upper back muscles. The rest of your upper body isn’t tight. To get the rest of your upper body as tight as possible, you must “crank” your elbows down until they’re in line with your torso. The movement is illustrated well, along with some other good cues, in Johnny Candito’s video here.

I’m certain I’ll find new flaws with my squat form as I continue lifting, but the elbows were a big piece of the puzzle that I was missing. Hopefully, you’re not in the same boat as I was. If you are, I hope this trick can bail you out and help you get on your way!


Diet & Exercise & Budget

Two key parts of the Good Life, however you choose to live it, are what you eat and what you do. Enter: Diet & Exercise. I know folks who spend many dollars on well-raised and well-produced foods, as well as expensive diet supplements. I bet you know similar folks too. I wonder whether these folks are spending money well, or could they achieve similar diet goals with less cost?

I’m a casual rock climber. Lately, I’ve taken up weight lifting to improve my climbing and generally get stronger. This added exercise made me adjust my diet: after I started lifting barbells a few days a week, I wanted to eat everything in the house, all the time — it was a big change to my well-tuned diet that had worked for years, but I needed more food.

I eat mostly ovo-lacto vegetarian, so building a three thousand calorie diet becomes a bit of a task. I only eat meat if I’m at a social function where there is only meat for dinner. This happens one to four times per month. I eat what I want when I can control my diet, and when others are making the menu, I eat what they’re serving.*

The most-asked question of vegetarians is, “How do you get your protein?” This becomes even more frequent if you’re lifting weights on a veg diet. I’ll agree with all the carnivores and omnivores out there, that gram for gram, there’s more protein in shrimp, beef, chicken, and all those other animals that taste so good. However, it’s incredibly easy to pile on the protein in a tasty way with nuts, beans, and other plants — add in milk, cheese, and eggs, and it’s no trouble at all.

Most importantly for my diet and budget, I don’t stress about what I’m eating. I eat the most whole foods that I can find and afford, and I eat enough of them to feel satisfied. On about $160 per month, I can cook and eat all sorts of tasty meals that help me climb 5.12, and develop my deadlift over 400 lbs., while maintaining my weight at 165 lbs. There is too much worry and concern over precisely designing an optimal diet, when your body is perfectly capable of turning most anything into the stuff it needs to develop. The more you focus on providing a good variety of quality building blocks for your body, by simply eating a mix of quality foods, the better your body will auto-regulate its growth and development.


* There’s a fascinating story about Buddhist monks eating meat in Reborn in the West. A monk gets invited to a barbeque in America, and they’re serving hot dogs. It’s a great vignette that makes you think about ethics, food, religion, nutrition, and all manner of interesting intersections between concepts surrounding food.

Review of beginner weight lifting programs

After completing seven consecutive months of weight training, it’s been fascinating to watch my body change and grow. It’s been about 15 years since I last lifted weights, and my body jumped back into the routine quickly.

The biggest challenge I’ve had is finding a program that allows for consistent strength gains. I think this is a perpetual search¬† for most strength trainees. I’ve now tried several programs with varying success. I’ll review the Stronglifts 5×5 and Greyskull LP programs in this article. I hope the information helps other strength trainees find a productive program more quickly, with less trial and error.

For the first three months of my lifting program, I used information on the website to design a weightlifting program focusing on four basic, compound lifts: overhead press, bench press, squat, and deadlift. Since I was untrained, with the exception of many years’ rock climbing and hiking, my strength developed quickly. Improving my form is the most important driver of my strength gains during these months.

By the end of the first 90 days, I was using a weekly cycle of weight increases, doing one heavy set of three repetitions at 90% of my one-rep max, and a light set of 8 reps at 78% of my one-rep max. I felt like this wasn’t enough volume to continue driving my progress, and I felt like I’d skipped over a true beginner’s program, so I decided to try the Stronglifts 5×5 program (SL5x5). I tried this for the next eight weeks.

SL5x5 is a linear progression (LP) program, in which the trainee tries to set a new personal record (PR) for each lift performed during a workout. While I feel the Stronglifts 5×5 program is a great place to start weight training, Mehdi, the program’s promoter, does not think this program is ideal for people who can squat at least 220 lbs. (100 kg).*

I agree with Mehdi’s assessment of SL5x5. I was already squatting 255 lbs for five reps before starting this program, and my 5-rep max (5RM) for squat did not increase on this program or the Greyskull LP program: I’ll say more about the Greyskull LP program later. I think Mehdi makes this recommendation because SL5x5 has the trainee squatting and deadlifting heavy weights on the same days, which makes new PR’s hard to attain when both lifts are at difficult weights. When I couldn’t make progress on the 5×5 program only one work set, I switched to the Greyskull LP program.

The Greyskull LP program is another beginning, linear progression program. It uses the same lifts as SL5x5, but it puts the deadlift in a separate workout from the squat, so these lifts don’t interfere with each other as much. However, I found a similar problem with this program over time: as the intensity of each lift increases (i.e. the weight gets heavier), the volume of weight lifted in each workout stays the same (i.e. a trainee does the same number of sets and reps), which means that the body can’t recover in the two days in between each workout, and the trainee accumulates too much fatigue to continue setting new PR’s each workout. This happened to me, and that is an indication that it’s time to change the weight training program.

In my case, I reduced the frequency of workouts in which I try to set PR’s. In the linear progression programs, I was doing this every workout. Now, I try to set new PR’s in each lift once a week. The rest of the week I do more reps with a lighter weight: these volume workouts should push my muscles to grow without making my muscles accumulate fatigue, like I did under the LP programs. In essence, I’m back to the program I was doing before I started the LP programs.

Did the beginner programs increase my strength at all? My 5-rep max (5RM) for deadlift has increased 45 lbs. as of this writing, from 315 to 360. My 5RM for squat has not increased from 255. Overhead press has improved 2.5 lbs. to 112.5 lbs., and bench press is up 8.75 lbs. to 158.75 lbs. My form is better than it was before going through the beginner programs: doing more volume at lighter weights helped me improve some form problems — this is probably the greatest benefit I found by doing the LP programs.

Have you done any of these programs? What’s your experience been?



* I think this weight limit is directed at men, and women who are proportionate to this level of strength on a chart of women’s squat standards will see similar results; however, I’m not an exercise scientist — that’s just my amateur opinion. On a tangent, I feel that most weight lifting standards are focused on men, and there needs to be a more inclusive description of strength standards and training practices online to include women. There are many female strength trainees out there who need good information.