Friday, November 21, 2008

Coming back to Kettlebell Front Squat Form: head, eyes, sequencing strength

Awhile ago i posted a vid of Will Williams demo'ing the kettlebell front squat for particular emphasis on Will's breathing. That breathing pattern demonstrates what Pavel's presented as "power breathing" to optimize the stiffening of the core to get the optimal leverage for heavy lifts to build strength. Breath is not held. And that's the rather tricky part in a repetitious move like a front squat series, which Will does so well (another variant of breathing for heavy lifts in particular is something called the Valsalva Manouver which i touch on for reference only, and where breath is held).

Also in that discussion of the Front Squat, i noted a concept learned from ZHealth (overview) that Eric Cobb calls Bone Ryhthm, with a video and discussion by Mike T. Nelson demonstrating with a DL. In brief, the idea of bone rythmn applied to a front squat would be that the movement of the knees forward finishes with the butt back. Looking at Will's vid, the knees finish moving before the hips are down at parallel.

In practicing with folks, getting bone rythmn in the front squat to happen generally means speeding up the descent of the hips so that the hips come down in time with the movement of the knees: both joints at the end of the same bone finish their movement together. When balancing the joints on each end of the bone like this, it's like the body gets in phase with itself, and that synergy of the lever timing (joint at knees; joint at hips, like the way an oil well pumps) seems to effect more power.

So let's say we have breathing down, and we have rhythm down. I've been experimenting with another concept learned from Eric Cobb on spine alignment and eye position.

A core concept in Zhealth is "tall spine." Tall spine means, if i have heard it right, keeping the spine in neutral alignment, and thinking about the vertebrae having spaces between them - not getting crushed or squished, but free to move through their full range of motion. The idea in Z is to keep the spine in that tall *neutral* (not over extended) position throughout athletic activities.

Head Position What does that "tall spine" mean in the KB Front Squat? Well i dunno about you, but when i'm in the decent position, with my butt down, my head sorta tilts back, which rather squishes the vertebrae in the neck, or the cervical spine, as they go into extension (see middle pane of xray image below). This squishing is NOT good for strength.

In fact, i've seen a compelling demonstration of a hamstring muscle test where someone with their head in neutral, with strong hamstrings then cocks their head back, and it's like those hamstrings go to zero. Not kidding.

This effect of strengthening/weakening has been dubbed the arthrokinetic reflex. This means something is happening around a joint. Arthrokinematics refers to the possible movements of joints. So the arthrokinetic reflex research has looked at connexions between joint mobilization and muscular strength.

Applied to the front squat, this means there's benefit to that tall spine position, as that's a position of optimal mobility - nothing's squished. Now, i find if the head position stays in neutral to keep the spine aligned in neutral, i feel like i'm looking a bit down when in the down position of the KB front squat. And that's ok; that's aligned. Trying a few sets trying to remember to keep my head neutral did in fact feel smoother and streonger in the Front Squat. Felt a little funny at first, but i've found it's worth the practice.

There's one more thing that can benefit this refined strength practice: eye position.

Eye Position. Again, from the ZHealth R-Phase Certification, one of the things we learned is that eye position corrolates with muscle action: flexion is enhanced by looking down; extension by looking up. Cobb has writen about this over at DragonDoor:
How does [eye position] apply to your lifts? It's quite simple, really. The small nerve endings in the extraocular muscles actually create full body muscular responses to help guide movement. Practically speaking, what this means is that if your eyes are moved up, the small nerve endings in the extraocular muscles facilitate the extensor muscles of the body, creating a simultaneous inhibition of the flexor muscles. Conversely, the eyes down position will create flexor facilitation and extensor inhibition. Put simply, the eyes lead the body.
Applied to the front squat, this means while doing the descent, the eyes look down to support leg flexion. When coming UP, keeping the head neutral, but eyes looking UP enhances the extension of the legs. Try it and see if that feels stronger, smoother, less effortful.

Sequencing What to Learn First There's a lot to take in for this simple move of going up and down with a kettlebell or two: bone ryhthmn, breathing, head position, eye movement. When learning these moves, where does one start? Well, again, drawing on ZHealth and its emphasis on efficiency, it puts it this way:
  1. Perfect Form - hitting the target - so in the kettlebell front squat for me this would be getting teh KB into the correct position and going down and up with bone rythmn. Picking a weight that lets me get in lots of reps or sets of reps to get form drilled in. One might also say head and eye position is part of this Perfect Form, and it complements bone rythmn.
  2. Dynamic Postural Alignment - in atheletic moves this does mean keeping tall/neutral spine throughout actions - resetting to neutral. In the front squat, as part of perfect form, this DPA is achieved with the head/eye position work.
  3. Synchronize Respiration - no. 3 in the cycle is breathing. In the front squat, this breathing practice becomes more important as weight goes up, to ensure proper stability of the trunk. So the take away here is: get the physical form perfected first, then, work in breathing.
  4. Balance Tension and Relaxation - in kettelbell practice tension and relaxation balance are constant themes. Intriguingly, in this sequence this is also a crucial relationship, but not a primary focus: it's fourth, after form, alignment, and breath. In the hardstyle kettlebell world that would mean that the move towards strength ("tension is strength" to quote Pavel) comes only AFTER the form.
While these concepts are all familiar to kettlebell practitioners, a questions may arise such as how long AFTER the form is perfected does the real strength work come into play? Does this sequence mean having to get the first one entirely at the unconscious activity level before proceeding to the next step?

Maybe we should switch the focus around a little bit. The above four steps provide a set of heuristics for a coach or individual to check in with in their own practice. Is bone ryhthm in the front squat locked in? What about head and eye position? if not why, not stay with a weight that will not compromise form (ie cause a lot of breathing requirements to lift the weight; cause a lot of tension to be called into play).

There's LOTS of work that can be done while getting right with that form (to say nothing of the enduring value of bodyweight work). Indeed, something i've been trying in a Grease the Groove (GTG) kind of way, is just to do a lot of body weight front squats, focusing on feeling the rythmn and keeping my head/eyes position working. These reps can be done anytime/anywhere. And reps=habits, or the ability to execute a pattern without conscious thought. I want to be able to get in sufficient form reps to have as a base for the more challenging heavy work or longer sequences for strength/power work where breath/tension/relatxation become more critical.

Indeed, as part of that work, and to complete the cycle from form to tension, Pavel comments: " On the "tall spine": make sure that the emphasis on the cue does not inhibit the lats and the diaphragm."

If you are practicing any of these components of the front squat, let me know how it's going.

3 comments:

whoreray/redfive said...

Good post.

ironbellathletics said...

Great article! I remember learning how to squat and reading from several sources that one should look up at a spot on the wall while squatting in order to keep things in proper alignment. What they never differentiated between was looking up by bringing the chin up or looking up with the eyes only.

I just tried this method and I feel like I've been practicing it all along (whether by design or luck, who knows?).

It seems like this would work for deadlifting as well. Interestingly enough, looking through the latest Powerlifting USA, there's some folks squatting and pulling some serious weight with their heads cranked waaaaaay back. I wonder if they'd have bigger numbers using these principles.

Jim Lane
http://www.ironbellathletics.com

mc said...

Thank you JIm,
really appreciate you stopping by - especially having given this approach a go.

yup, that's the cool question:
if we get the neural stuff working WITH the bio-mechanical, would super performance become great?

we know that good becomes better, so why not? especially where every little bit can make such a difference.

Combining this technique with the eyes, and bone rythmn, even more awesome goodness.

(bone rhythm's covered in detail in the z-health s-phase vid [overview])

ShareThis

Related Posts with Thumbnails