I’m a huge fan of strongman movements – not only for the awesome competitions but also how the movements can be used as incredible accessories for all things strength.
So on today’s podcast we talk all about that with strongman coach Mike Westerling.
We get into how he trains his strongman athletes, how he keeps them healthy, and the incredible crossover between strongman events and all other strength sports. This one is a great listen for anyone who simply loves strength.
A World Class Coach's Guide to Building Muscle
Hypertrophy for Strength, Performance, and Aesthetics.
World champion and world-class coach Travis Mash has combined the latest research with his decades of practical experience to bring you an amazing resource on muscle hypertrophy.
Coaching youth athletes is the most rewarding job that one can have if your motives are in the right place.
We get to help mold young men and women not only as athletes but also as humans. We get to help them avoid the mistakes that we made (or at least make fewer mistakes). We have the opportunity to make sure they enjoy the process, so they can look back at their time as an athlete and smile.
My goal is to make sure they walk away from their chosen sport as healthy as possible and to make sure then end up enjoying the process of health and fitness. I want my athletes to work out for the rest of their lives, and I want them to teach their children and spouses the joy of strength and fitness.
Some of you might remember Hannah Black. I was her strength and conditioning coach for volleyball and softball, while she was in high school. She also became one of my first national medalist weightlifters. Now she is becoming a high level CrossFitter, and more importantly she is in love with fitness. Several of my former athletes have gone on to enjoy weightlifting, powerlifting, bodybuilding, CrossFit, and general fitness. When I see that, I know I have done my job. I taught them to love strength and fitness, making it a part of their lifestyle.
Once in a while I get the chance to work with very high level athletes. Some are team sport athletes like football players or soccer players – and of course some are weightlifters or powerlifters who are amazing. What I’m saying in this article applies to all athletes.
Sometimes as a coach, you have to get your athlete to take a few steps backwards to go forwards.
It’s easy to let your high level athletes move forward with less than perfect technique.
If you work with gifted athletes, then you already know they’re going to figure out some way to complete a task if you tell them to perform it. Even with horrible technique, they might lift more weight than the other athletes. Heck, they might lift more weight than any other athlete in the country – but that doesn’t make the way that they are lifting automatically a good thing. If you’re letting them persist with bad technique just because they’re putting up numbers, it makes you a lazy coach – or worse, an incompetent one.
When I am referring to perfect technique, I am well aware that none of us are going to 100% agree on technique. However there are a few nonnegotiable items like a vertical bar path, close to neutral spine, and knees tracking with the toes. I’ll give you a few suggestions for the six main lifts:
Jerk- Feet straight in the catch, neutral/stacked spine (no excessive lumbar extension), back knee bent in catch, and arms locked aggressively overhead above or slightly behind the ears.
Snatch- Long legs during the first pull, staying over the bar for as long as possible, vertical bar path with no horizontal displacement, whole foot through the floor for as long as possible, vertical and stable spine during the catch phase, and aggressively locked out arms in the catch above or slightly behind the ears.
Clean- Long legs during the first pull, staying over the bar for as long as possible, vertical bar path with no horizontal displacement, whole foot through the floor for as long as possible, vertical and stable spine during the catch phase, and continuing the pull until the bar meets the shoulders with minimal to no crashing.
Squat- Neutral and stable spine during all phases of contraction, knees tracking with toes without any valgus or varus, and proper bracing techniques utilized at all times.
Bench- Shoulders tucked together and down (retracted and suppressed), stacked bar/wrist/forearms/elbows, and drive the bar back toward the head off of the chest.
Deadlift- Neutral and stable stacked spine, some thoracic flexion is acceptable for elite powerlifters only, and vertical bar path with no horizontal displacement.
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Now some of these are absolutes in regards to lifting maximal amounts. However most of them are absolutes for avoiding injuries. For example, if you continually catch a jerk with an externally rotated femur, you are going to get injured. In my experience, an athlete who jerks like that can expect a knee injury. If an athlete squats over and over with a flexed spine or hyperextended spine, that athlete can expect a back injury in short order.
How the Mash Mafia Has Taken a Step Back
Lately I have taken a few steps back with several of my athletes, and now they are starting to reap the rewards of their labor. Their strength is skyrocketing – and more importantly, I know they are safer with solid technique. I am going to give you a few of those instances and explain how we are trying to fix the issue. Let’s start with Ryan Grimsland.
Ryan came to me from CrossFit with a hairline-fractured hip. I am not going to explain the details of the injury, but just know it was from some CrossFit programming that wasn’t well thought out. Over time this caused Ryan to experience back pain and to twist during most of his heavier lifts and even some lighter ones.
We took a team approach on this one. I referred him to my lifelong chiropractor, Dr. Gray. Dr. Gray started him on the “All Core 360” machine, which is an amazing tool designed to stabilize the entire spine. I also took advice from Kelly Starrett about using some unilateral work paused in the lunge positions with a focus on a neutral spine. The isometric contraction with the hip in extension really helped to balance out the constant flexion that weightlifters are in. We also used a lot of slow eccentrics and long paused isometric contractions to stabilize the body in the proper positions. The result has been way less twisting, almost zero back pain, and now lots of PRs.
I want to make a quick point before I move on. The moment one of my youth athletes mentions pain is the moment we stop what we’re doing. I have an amazing group of practitioners who I trust to get results. Dr. Gray is one of those, and he is amazing. I am not sure why so many strength and conditioning coaches try to step out of their lanes nowadays, but it’s a sign of immaturity and arrogance. If you’re not a physical therapist, don’t pretend you are. Your athletes deserve better. Look, if that’s what you want to do, go back to school.
Morgan McCullough is my 16-year-old phenom. We have now taken steps backward twice in his career. The first one was with his jerk. His positioning was all off. His split was so shallow that he couldn’t get under weights that he could push press. When he did get under the weight, his positioning was all off. His leg sometimes was externally rotated, his back foot was flat and pointing out, and his overhead position looked downright painful. Here are a few things that we did to fix his jerk:
Press from Split- We had to teach him exactly where he should be in the split. We also had to stabilize that position, so he would feel comfortable getting into the proper position at the high speeds of a jerk.
Jerk Step Balance- This is very similar to a press from split, but you start in a shallow split. Then you dip, drive, and push off the back foot into the correct position. This teaches the athlete to drive the back foot down, stabilize, and end in a secure split position.
Jerk Dip Squats- Let’s face it! If the weight feels light, you are more comfortable driving that weight overhead.
Pauses in the Dip and Pauses in the Catch- Slowing a movement down allows the athlete to perfect positions during certain portions of the movement.
I am most proud of Morgan’s jerk improvement, as it now is just as beautiful as his clean. The last few months have been spent on the snatch. One thing I find funny is the wannabe coaches on the Internet. Morgan ran into a slight plateau with his snatch earlier this year, and all the armchair coaches were screaming that we needed to work on his snatch (like I needed the peanut gallery to inform me). Then we took the time to step back and fix his movement. During that time we did a competition where he clean and jerked 190 kilograms for an American record. His snatch was only 131 kilograms because we were in the middle of fixing his movement. All they wanted to point out was the snatch to clean and jerk ratio. Laughable really!
Anyways just this past Friday he smoked 140 kilograms for an all-time PR with much better technique. Of course none of the Internet coaches had anything nice to say about him improving his weaknesses. It has really become an ongoing joke at our gym. The moral of the story is that it was nice to see his hard work pay off. Now it’s going to be fun to watch him run with his new movement to all new heights.
Morgan’s main issues with the snatch were:
The bar was moving horizontal to go around the knees. He’s 6’0” tall with a long tibia, which is a challenge.
He was getting impatient and moving behind the bar too soon. The goal is to stay over the bar for as long as possible, driving with the legs to take advantage of his strong legs and to ensure a straighter bar path and more consistency.
Here are a few things that we did to improve this movement flaws:
Slow Eccentric pulls and Hang Snatches- This is to get him stronger and encourage more hypertrophy in the areas needed to stay over the bar as long as possible.
Lasha Pulls- Pyrros Dimas brought my attention to the way that Lasha does pulls, which is basically an exaggerated first pull never moving behind the bar at all for a second pull. This movement will strengthen the position (especially if you throw in some isometric contractions and slow eccentrics), and it teaches the athlete the movement.
Lift Offs with a Pause at the Knee- This movement is great for practicing the initial lift off with bringing the bar in and “clearing the road” by moving the knees out of the way. If you focus on driving your feet through the floor, this will happen naturally.
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I am not just talking about weightlifting. This goes for coaching youth in powerlifting, CrossFit, strength and conditioning, or any sport. The goal is long-term development and safety. What good is it for a running back to kill it in high school only to get injured as a freshman at his new D1 school because you didn’t take the time to teach him squats properly? What good is it for a 16-year-old to deadlift 700 pounds only to hurt his back when he’s 17?
I have some news for all of you coaches that is probably going to hurt some feelings. Just because you find a Michael Jordan at some basketball hoop in America who goes on to the NBA, that in no way makes you a good coach. That makes you a good recruiter. However if you find that Michael Jordan and teach him better ball handling skills, proper jump shot mechanics, and strength training that keeps him from injury, now you are working toward being a great coach.
Coaches need to coach! It sounds simple, but I see quite the opposite almost everyday of my life. Writing a program and cheering for somebody as they lift big weights doesn’t make you a good coach. Great coaches:
Teach proper mechanics
Continue sharpening those mechanics everyday of the athlete’s life
Individualize programming that works and continues to evolve
Work on communication.
Teach their athletes about life
Teach athletes how to have fun – so they will learn to love strength, fitness, and sport for the rest of their life.
These are just a few of the things a great coach does every dang day of their life. Are we always 100% killing it? Nope. I just came out of a funk that I had been in for several months. I recognized that funk, I made some changes, and now I feel like I am on my way to being a better coach because of it.
Coaches, we have to continue sharpening our saw until the day we die or the day we retire. You will never perfect this craft. The moment you feel like you have perfected coaching is the day you need to retire or find something new.
I hope this article has given all of you something to think about. We are in a profession that happens to be a very important influence on many young people in the world. My high school coach literally changed the course of my life. He had such on impact on me that I wanted to pass those lessons on to other youth in my community and around the world. I hope all of you will take your position as a coach as seriously as I do. It has absolutely nothing to do with your ego and everything to do with those young people who you are working with. I hope all of you will change at least one life for the better. Then you too will be able to look yourself in the mirror with a heart full of joy. I thank God for my ability to coach my young men and women.
Man I get tired of coaches trying to push their agenda onto folks with nothing more than their preference to back up their statements. It’s the absolute statements that literally drive me crazy.
Yesterday, I almost got caught up in an article which was bashing unilateral squatting and exalting bilateral squatting. I almost shared the article, and then I realized I would be doing the very thing I hate. Plus the article was using half-truths like most all-or-nothing articles will use.
Knowing the Pros and Cons
The article (I am going to leave the author unnamed because I appreciate his work for the most part) used Dr. Stuart McGill as a reference. Yes, Dr. McGill has written articles and has spoken on the dangers of rear leg elevated split squats performed incorrectly. He has also written and has spoken on the benefits of RLESSs, but the article left that part out. If I were a new coach, I would have bought right into the article. I probably would have never used single-leg movements at all from that point forward, which would be a major mistake.
Luckily I know Dr. McGill personally, and we have talked about unilateral versus bilateral movements in detail. The key is keeping the pelvis locked in to neutral as much as possible. Dr. McGill is clear about the following statement, “There is a biological tipping point for every exercise on planet Earth.” Once you cross that threshold, you are in dangerous waters. For example, the goodmorning was a great accessory movement for me. When I could perform sets of 5 with 405 pounds, I could easily squat over 700 pounds without any equipment. However, when I kept pushing the movement to the 600s, it probably contributed to a lumbar injury. Boy did I ever need a good coach! Sometimes I will cut someone off with his or her heavy squats or pulls, and I will secretly laugh to myself knowing I would have kept going as an athlete. Thank God I can use my brain as a coach much better than when I was an athlete.
The article isn’t about unilateral versus bilateral. No, I didn’t flip my stance on that issue. This article is aimed directly at coaches both young and old. As coaches we have a responsibility to properly enlighten the coaches who will come after us. You never know when a young coach is reading your work. You never know when one of your athletes will become the next great coach. We have to be responsible for our words.
Differences in Coaching Systems
Listen – there are several ways to prepare athletes, just like there are several ways to get folks off the couch and in shape. Your program will be developed based on your belief system, equipment available, time allotted to coach each person, the number of people getting coached at a time, and the number of coaches available for the athletes/clients.
For example, Mike Boyle loves unilateral squats, trap bar deadlifts, and hang cleans. Is he wrong in choosing these movements to prepare his athletes? Absolutely not, which shows with the results he is putting out. However, there is one aspect on which we will always disagree. He’s had a lot of bad results with coaching the bilateral back squat at his facility. He’s had a lot of injuries occur in his facility teaching the bilateral back squat. Therefore, he chooses not to use that movement in his coaching. I get it. I have to assume the injuries from back squatting are due to the sheer volume of athletes running through his facility each and every day. His facility is one of the busiest private athletic performance operations in America. I am coaching 7-10 at a time, and he’s coaching 50-100 at a time. That’s a big difference. I have never had an injury from a back squat occur in my facility, but it’s easy for me to coach and manage my athletes.
McGill has shown injury can occur with the rear leg elevated split squat as well, but it is a bit easier to coach – and with a safety squat bar the athletes can spot themselves. So I totally understand using unilateral squats, but I don’t understand demonizing bilateral squats. Both unilateral and bilateral squats can produce amazing results pertaining to increases in speed, vertical leap, and muscle mass. There is a lot of evidence to support both movements. If you heard the debates between Coach Boyle and me, then you heard a lot of evidence to support both sides. Each have their pros and cons, and it is up to the coach to decide which one fits their system the best. Obviously with my athletes the bilateral squat is a necessity, but we use unilateral work as well.
Absolutes and Non-Absolutes
Maybe I am sounding a bit wishy-washy, so let me make my point. I started this article criticizing an article that was totally pro-bilateral squatting and was bashing unilateral work. Then I went on to say Boyle was wrong in bashing bilateral squats in support of his unilateral system. My only point is to stop bashing a movement because you don’t like it, especially when the science doesn’t support your conclusions. There are a few absolutes in the industry – such as knee valgus is dangerous (most of the time), knee varus is dangerous (most of the time), and spinal flexion while squatting is a bad idea. Other than these, there aren’t very many more. Sorry to tell you!
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Here are some “absolute” statements which are absolutely not absolute:
High bar squats are superior to low bar squats (or vice versa) – There are advantages and disadvantages of each. Normally the low bar will build the hips a bit more due to slightly more range of motion in the hips. The high bar will build the quads a bit more due to a greater range of motion in the quads.
Olympic weightlifting movements are superior to powerlifting movements for preparing field athletes (or vice versa) – There are advantages and disadvantages of each. Weightlifting is great for demonstrating power, rate of force development, and force absorption. Powerlifting is great for hypertrophy, increasing the potential for power development, and of course absolute strength. In a perfect world, the combination of disciplines is the best.
Unilateral squats are superior to bilateral squats (or vice versa) – see above
These are just a few to get you guys thinking. The next time you hear someone make an absolute statement, even if the person making the statement is someone you look up to and admire, I want you take that absolute statement and ask the following questions:
Is there any scientific data to support this claim?
Is there any scientific data that disputes this claim?
Has anyone achieved good results training the way the expert is telling you not to?
Does the expert have an agenda by making the claim (for example a new book or digital product)?
What reasons would the expert have to be irrationally biased?
Luckily it’s always been my nature to question everything. It’s just in my DNA. Plus I have been burned a time or two buying into what some so-called expert was saying, only to find out later there was a better way. We are in the information era. Pub Med is but a click away. If someone is claiming a certain technique is the only way to lift, go to YouTube, watch some slow motion clips, and see for yourself. There is only one Messiah. The rest of us are not all-knowing. Therefore, you should question everything until you find the truth.
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Coach Travis Mash shows you how to simply and scientifically diagnose and fix your squat weaknesses. Squat Gainz also contains six supplementary squat-focused programs you can add to your current strength work to drive your squat through the roof.