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Physio Detective Blog

How I broke through my front squat plateau…and got a 12% increase in 2 months

Antony Lo's Front Squat - much improved form over the last 2 months

Antony Lo's Front Squat - much improved form over the last 2 months - there is a prowler next to me in the picture!

Those of you who know me or have read this blog long enough will know that I am a stickler for technique. I love getting the "mechanics, consistency, intensity" right. I love improving people's mobility, flexibility, stability, strength, power/speed, etc etc. Being the human that I am, sometimes I find it hard to take my own medicine. Please remember that in the Crossfit world, I am just your average (or below average) CrossFitter who will never make it to Regionals or the Games nor ever grace the podium at a local comp. If I ever compete, it will be fun or charity only. But I do have a desire to get better. I do want to improve...and I HATE plateaus in my strength.

Give'm Cold Steel - Different Workouts for Different Goals

Give'm Cold Steel - Different Workouts for Different Goals

Acknowledgements First...

Firstly, I have come a long way this year. For 1.25yrs, I was training in a CrossFit gym which had a good coach and was following the main site workouts...it was good and I got exposed to a lot of movements and I slowly made gains. I appreciated the coaching I got there and the other members were great. But I started work at Reebok CrossFit GCS (www.reebokcrossfitgcs.com.au) and started following the Free Workout (www.givemcoldsteel.com), which is what their classes are based on. I was doing the athlete program GCS for a little while because the coaches wanted me to get to know what the athletes were going through...Man, that was hard!

So to Darren Coughlan (who programs), Blocker Walsh, Pip Malone, Steve Evans, JR Bedford, and Kat Dalecki who have been my coaches at some stage during the year...thank you. The fact that I had a barbell in my hands every day and there was a strength piece in the workout every day has been awesome. I genuinely got stronger because of their programming.

But my front squat had issues. I couldn't do more than 95kg for 3 reps. I could never load 100kg on the bar. The only reason I know I had 105kg was because someone else was doing it and I wanted to try just once to lift it and it was UGLY. My front squat and some other movements and lifts had plateaued...but it wasn't the programming, it was me...but a bit more on that later...

Problem List...

I have lots of issues to fix in my CrossFit movements. My Overhead squats suck. Consequently, my snatch sucks. I only have a couple of strict pullups and I haven't really worked on getting more. I can do 5 kipping pullups, maybe more but I don't have the grip strength to do more or do 5 over and over again like in Cindy. For a guy my size, my deadlift is only 395lbs (179.5kg)...I should be over 200kg/450lbs. My back squat is only 125kg (that was 2 months ago...haven't tested that since...). My strict press is only 70kg for 1 on a good day. I jerk less than I can clean. My hang clean (100kg) is basically the same weight as my full clean (102.5kg). I only can get a handstand sometimes and can't go for more than 30secs on a good day. Chest-to-bar is amusing to watch. Don't have a strict ring dip...There are lots of problems.

For the front squat in particular, I was just trying to "get stronger" by allowing some loose form and hoping my "heart" and effort would carry me through...of course that ignores my own way of things - technique will carry you through, not brute force...but I also acknowledge that you need to "fight" for the last rep sometimes.

The Physio Detective Way...

So basically the way I work with athletes is that I listen to their problem list, I investigate their body and the way they move and I try to find the location/region that starts the whole domino effect - this is often call the "Primary Driver" where "Failed Load Transfer" occurs - simply a fancy way of saying "this region is the first to give way". I use this system whether you are a CrossFit Games or Regionals athlete, a local competition competitor or simply a sedentary worker who doesn't exercise...that is the beauty of the system!

This is what I do on others but I was slow to do this on myself. Anyway, I traveled to the USA and I have spent about 8 weeks over there in total this year and have visited 14 different CrossFit gyms during that time. And each time I go somewhere, I am well aware that my form will be judged and I don't want to let the Reebok CrossFit GCS and CrossFit BodiComplete (the other place I work - www.crossfitbodicomplete.blogspot.com) names down...(I also work at CrossFit Scorch - www.crossfitscorch.com.au, but only after my USA trips). Also, being away at different gyms, everyone picked on the same problems in the above problem list. So, because I had the time and space to think about my CrossFit, I applied the principles to myself and decided to put in some self-discipline into my workouts.

So, looking at my problem list, you could group my issues to shoulder mobility/flexibility restriction, weakness in the upper body, and back weakness. I have been working on my shoulder strength a bit - the pressing has improved. I can jerk 90kg now, Push press over 80kg and Strict press about 70kg on a good day. My push ups have improved and I can get a helluva lot more strict push ups in a row compared to before but I still struggle with pull ups and ring dips. My hips are still a bit too tight in the set position meaning that I round my back on all my lifts because I am not in the ideal position. This leads to increased flexion when i am under fatigue.

Drawing all the threads together, I decided that it was my mid back (mid thoracic spine) region that was the main problem. It simply wasn't able to keep up with the rest of my body. It makes sense of a lot of things including the lack of pullups and ring dips because it is unable to stabilize well in those positions (extension in pullups and flexion in ring dips).

So the plan was to hit the primary problem - mid back stability.

The Method:

I don't program. I am happy to prescribe some accessory work for you to do but your strength and conditioning program should come from your coach. I will advise you on how to scale and modify your movements, give you options and give you clear "NO GO" instructions...so this plan isn't about some magically accessory exercise/s that I did.

All I simply did was to scale back the weights by about 20-25% and complete them with perfect form. So if Back Squat 5x5 appeared, I would do them at 80kg instead of 105kg.  The same for Front Squat. I made sure that each rep was as good as possible. Some got ugly towards the end and that was ok...I would just bail on the set.

Basically, I followed my own advice...

The end of the set occurs when you can no longer do the reps perfectly

Usually that means that if you do an ugly rep, I had to get the next one perfect or it is all over...kind of like the dreaded Beep Test.

I must have been doing something right because the coaches started commenting about how good my form and squats looked. There was a marked change in how my squats looked and felt. The weight was easy enough, the discipline to maintain perfect form and no-rep myself was hard. I wasn't doing any extra stretching (I don't do much already!) nor was I doing any extra strength training. i was and still am eating pretty badly. This experiment was going to be all on technique...

Coach JR Beford from Reebok CrossFit GCS - he was coaching during my attempts today

Coach JR Beford from Reebok CrossFit GCS - he was coaching during my attempts today

Results?

So far the past 2 months, I have been doing back squats between 80-100kg (whatever form allows) and Front squatting between 80-95kg. I began to notice my cleans started to get stronger. I power cleaned 90kg the other day when my previous best was 75-80kg. My 100kg hang clean was about a week ago as well. My 102.5kg clean was about a month ago.

My front squat 1RM chance came up today in the WOD. So i did the following

  • 60kg x5
  • 70kg x 3
  • 80kg x2
  • 90kg x1
  • 95kg x1
  • 100kg x1
  • 105kg x1
  • 110kg x1 - UGLY
  • 112.5kg x1
  • 115kg x1
  • 117.5kg x1
  • 120kg - FAIL
117.5kg on the bar - incorrectly loaded...yes, I know!

117.5kg on the bar - incorrectly loaded...yes, I know!

I was ready to stop at 110kg being a PB and it got ugly but I felt like I could have done better technique-wise so I tried at 112.5 with the "2-bad-reps-in-a-row" rule in mind - even if I got it up, if it was ugly, then I was stopping. You can see from my rep scheme that I had planned to hit 110kg but since I didn't fail or it didn't get ugly twice in a row, I kept going. I failed at 120kg and then started the met-con - "Nicole"...gross!!! (400m run, max pullups).

Future plans...

I am hesitant to write it here but I guess the accountability is worth it.

Next is shoulder strength, especially pullups. I believe that the mid back stability issues I have been having is the reason why my pullups haven't really changed much. Even when I was doing accessory work for the shoulders, the push ups and floor press improved but the pull ups, chin ups and ring rows all stayed the same.

Now that the strength and stability has improved in the upper back, I think the base from which my shoulders have to work from will improve.

I also want to be able to jerk what I can clean and the long term goals are to get strict ring dips, handstand push ups and obviously a muscle up.

Hold me accountable please!!

Summary:

You simply cannot beat "Mechanics, Consistency, Intensity". Scaling back 20-25% allowed me to focus on what my back was doing and not have to worry about the weight. But for you, it could be your hips, ankles, low back, shoulders etc. Whatever it is that is the "primary driver", you have to wait for that to catch up. Then, if you can complete the sets perfectly at that level and the coaches are happy with you, add 2.5 to 5kg the next time and see how you go.

I patiently waited for 2 months to test my 1RM. If it didn't come up this week, I would have done it in the week between Christmas and New Year anyway. Be patient, put in the work and trust your coaches.

Also, you need someone to find that primary driver for you... that's what I specialize in!

Please let me know (below in the comments) of some of the training successes you have had - people read the comments and will learn from your experiences 🙂

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