You only get one body and everyone should have the tools to master it. At least that’s what drives Dr. Aaron Horschig to continue to create some of the best educational content in the fitness space.
Horschig — a physical therapist, coach, speaker and founder of Squat University –wants everyone to find their true strength.
In a world of differing opinion, convoluted information and quick fixes, he offers a refreshing emphasis on the basics and research-based application.
IT ISN’T JUST YOUR GLUTES
“How often do you hear a coach or practitioner say, ‘well the glute medius is weak’ but if an athlete’s knee pain was ONLY due to the weakness of one muscle wouldn’t we see dramatic benefits from isolated strengthening of that specific muscle? That doesn’t work,” Horschig said.
“You need to address the poor movement that caused that muscle to lose strength in the first place. Isolated strengthening of weak muscles [like the glute med] won’t improve their ability to coordinate well with the other muscles of the hip to produce efficient movement. Yes, isolated strength exercises have their place in rehabilitation, but they cannot be the be-all, end-all. You must fix movement.”
In the weak glute medius example, that means things like addressing a proper hip hinge and teaching an athlete how to create efficient external rotation torque through glute activation.
It also means evaluating balance —which Horschig said is the No 1. issue he sees in the squat— and stability.
“When you see knee cave on an athlete, typically on the ascent up [of a squat], people will see that and go, ‘My hips are weak, my glutes are weak. I need to strengthen them’,” Horschig said. “But there’s a big difference between strength and stability. Strength is force and stability is limiting unwanted motion. You need to fix that [stability] different than a pure strength issue, where, [if it was just glute strength] you would simply do some kick outs to the side.”
A key factor in trying to fix balance and instability issues? Volume. Most people, even if they are warming up properly, aren’t doing enough volume with corrective stuff to make a change.
Throwing a band on for a couple reps isn’t going to do the job. One set of 10 in warmup isn’t going to change the way your glutes, hips or core stabilize under heavy hold because you haven’t built up any endurance.
“We don’t want to do strength exercises and think it’s going to have carryover to core stability,” Horschig said. “I see people constantly doing GHDs and back extensions. Just because a muscle is strong doesn’t necessarily mean it will be able to turn on and maintain tension for a long period of time. Stability is an endurance movement. A movement like a bird dog is going to have much more of a carryover than a GHD sit-up.”
Dead bugs, side planks (including variations where you move your arms) and farmers walks are all great examples of building up core endurance. You are bracing and moving, challenging your body to maintain tension and resist rotation.
For the glutes, things like lateral band walks —for multiple burnout sets—banded squats with cues to actively push out against the band or a banded clamshell with a five second hold at the top can also help.
“You are teaching the body to create stability. Getting muscles to turn on and keeping them turned on,” Horschig said.
“The ability to control and limit any motion with an exercise is going to be more efficient and have carryover to your squat. Your leg isn’t moving much laterally during the squat- your glutes are just maintaining tension. Exercises that create tension and maintain tension are going to have more carryover to your end goal.”
Simply put, if stability is an issue (and it very often goes hand-in-hand with mobility and strength issues) time under tension should be utilized to build up the endurance of the affected muscles.
BREATHE YOUR WAY TO BIG NUMBERS
Another key element when it comes to squatting big numbers is stabilizing the core through bracing.
Research has shown that a brace is the most efficient way to create tension through the entire spine and, as Horschig points out, you can never isolate one specific core muscle. To create maximal stiffness you have to think about all the muscles around your core, all 365 degrees around, getting involved.
“A cue I like to use is, if someone is going to come up and punch you in your stomach, what are you going to do?,” Horschig said. “You are going to brace and hunker down and create stiffness. Just like if you’re wearing a tight corset- you’re going to tighten up. Bracing is not pulling in or pushing out [to make yourself] super fat. True core stability is the most efficient, safest way to protect the spine.”
How do you start teaching yourself this? Start doing it.
Whether you’re stopped at a red light or just sitting around at home, practice the act of tightening up. Do it again and again. That mind-muscle connection can be the toughest thing for people to learn.
“Eventually you should be able to just create tension no matter what you are doing, standing, sitting. You should be able to maintain that tension while you talk and while you breathe. That’s the endurance component again,” Horschig said. “And as you get a heavy bar on your back, you have to create a little bit more.”
Movements where you have to brace and move, like a dead bug or bird dog, can also be helpful after you’ve made that cognitive connection. They’re a great bridge to loading up that bracing pattern with a barbell.
“When you learn to brace correctly and turn on those muscles you create that weightlifting belt,” Horschig said. “Most people turn to a belt because they don’t know how to create that stiffness. But a belt doesn’t [keep you tight] on it’s own and that’s why people can still have back pain wearing one.”
REFINE YOUR TECHNIQUE
Squat therapy? Knock it off. And while you’re at it, easy on the upright chest cue too. Both started with good intentions, but drive Horschig crazy.
“People go, ‘Well, when you front squat you need an upright chest, so same thing in a bodyweight squat’,” Horschig said. “But your bodyweight squat is not going to look like a front squat. The barbell changes where your center of gravity is.”
“People will use squat therapy [against a wall] to get a more upright chest and they are totally missing the point. The squat is about staying balanced and not assuming we can all get into an ideal position. Some people will have a much more inclined chest position. We should be be teaching people how to stay balanced because no two people are going to have the same squat.”
That means, depending on your dimensions, not only can squat therapy and forcing an upright torso be impossible for some people, it can also lead to poor form and injury.
“It’s almost like a circus act if you can stay that close to the wall and not fall over,” Horschig said. “Most people can’t do that. Squat therapy is basically a misunderstanding of proper mechanics and proper balance.”
Instead, spend more time working on your base. As noted above, balance is one of the biggest issues Horschig sees and can often be due to poor stability or motor control. Ever noticed one hip/ankle/knee getting tighter or more sore than the other? Video yourself squatting from behind: a lot of us are victim to the hip shift, using one leg a little more on the ascent, descent portion or both.
The video above—along with proper bracing techniques— gets into fixing hip shift, assessing the glute medius and finding weak links in your squat to help restore quality movement.