In this episode, I speak with the grandfather of barbell training, Mark Rippetoe, who has given us many a great things, like Starting Strength and Practical Programming.
I’m a fan of Mark and his work, of course, because nobody has done more to promote, teach, and defend barbell training than Rip, and because he’s extremely disagreeable, which always makes for a fun conversation.
In this interview, we talk the squat, an exercise Mark kinda likes. In fact, he says that there are few things graven in stone, except that you have to squat or you’re a pussy.
And whether you agree or not, I think you’re going to find today’s talk helpful. You can find the basics of good squatting in Mark’s book Starting Strength, but once you get some experience under your belt, you begin to wonder how to optimize the movement.
For instance, you’ve probably wondering…
- Should you high- or low-bar squat?
- Should you squat with a narrow or wide stance?
- Should you use paused reps?
- Should you use weightlifting shoes?
- What are the best cues?
In this episode, Mark is going to answer all of those questions and more. By the end, you’ll know more about squatting than 90% of the people in your gym, including the trainers.
Lastly, if you want to support the show, please drop a quick review of it over on iTunes. It really helps!
11:12 – What is The Barbell Prescription about?
14:52 – What are you thought on high bar versus low bar squatting?
28:11 – Which is better for squatting – a narrow or wide stance?
32:25 – What are your thoughts on pause reps?
36:35 – What are your thoughts on heels elevated on plates?
40:32 – What are your thoughts on weightlifting shoes?
41:43 – What are coaching cues that you recommend?
48:58 – What are your thoughts on the safety bar?
49:58 – What are your thoughts on functional training?
Mike : [00:00:25] Hello, dear listener, Mike here, back with another episode of the Muscle For Life podcast. And this time I speak with the Grandfather, the grand Jedi of barbell training, Mark Rippetoe, who has given us many great things like Starting Strength and Practical Programming. Of course, I am a fan of Mark’s and I am a fan of his work because nobody has done more to promote, teach, and defend barbell training than old Rip. And because he’s extremely disagreeable, extremely opinionated, which always makes for a fun conversation.
And this time around we talk the squat, which is an exercise that Mark kinda likes. In fact, he says that there are few things in life that are graven in stone except that you have to squat or you’re a pussy. And whether you agree or not, I would tend to agree. I think you’re going to find today’s talk helpful.
Now you can find the basics of good squatting in Mark’s book, Starting Strength or in my books Bigger Leaner Stronger, Thinner Leaner Stronger, but once you get some experience under your belt [laughing] you see what I did there? You begin to wonder how to optimize the movement.
For example, if you are an experienced squatter, you’ve probably wondered things like should you high or low bar squat, should you use a narrow stance or a wide stance, should you do paused reps or box squats, what about weightlifting shoes, what about cues, what are some good cues to help you maintain proper form, especially when the weight gets heavy?
Well, in this episode, Mark is going to answer all those questions and more, and by the end, I think I can say that you are going to know more about squatting than 90 percent of the people in your gym, including the trainers.
Mike : [00:04:04] Mark, welcome back, it’s been awhile, man.
Mark : [00:04:06] Yeah, it’s been a while, Mike. Glad to be back with you, always have fun bothering you about your abs. [Laughing]
Mike : [00:04:14] That’s what I was thinking we talk about, we talk about your favorite subjects. So, like, how do I get really small and skinny and have really good abs?
Mark : [00:04:19] Yeah, I know. What do you want to talk to me for? I haven’t had abs in 40 years, bro. [Laughing] I must have something else to bring to the table.
Mike : [00:04:27] That makes you completely unqualified to talk about anything then. Why are we talking?
Mark : [00:04:31] Well, there you have it. Some people would agree with that. [Laughing] I mean, you’ve read YouTube comments haven’t you? [Laughing] “Man, what does Rippetoe know, he’s fat? What does he know about squats, he’s fat?”
Mike : [00:04:43] A part of the bilges of the internet.
Mark : [00:04:46] Oh, God, can you imagine? We have to actually leave those on. We tried leaving them off for a while, but what we find is that viewership goes down if you actually turn this inane nonsense off.
Mike : [00:04:58] Oh, yeah, I know. I mean, because I’m sure it’s part of their allegorithom.
Mark : [00:05:01] It may very well be YouTube’s thing. That’s a good point. I hadn’t thought about that. I kind of you know, attributed it to the fact that people just like to post their inane, unqualified opinions on the internet so everybody else can read it. Maybe it’s both.
Mike : [00:05:16] Yeah, I think it’s definitely part of the algorithm, because people leaving comments is a good signal to YouTube saying, “hey, people are engaging with this video, show it to more people.” Unless it is saying things that they deem as thoughtcrime then disappear in that video.
Mark : [00:05:35] “We must ignore him because he’s clearly guilty of bad think”. [Laughing]
Mike : [00:05:40] “Wrong think.”
Mark : [00:05:41] That’s the term, “wrong think”. So how you been? How’s business been, Mike? Tell me about how your business is going. We’re having a hell of a nice year so far. Just a damn good year. Past couple weeks, I don’t understand it, but in the past couple weeks we have exceeded all of our previous sales records and we’re just killing them. I think it’s a good economy, it has a lot to do with a good economy. And this most solid economy anybody can – any of the kids can actually remember since it’s been so damn long since we’ve had one. But things are going pretty well for everybody.
Mike : [00:06:15] Not just the stock market, but we have good economic fundamentals.
Mark : [00:06:18] That’s the deal, everybody is confident that they’re going to continue making money. You and I live at the top of the food chain, so they spend money with us when they know they’ve got to spend. This is a good time for our business.
Mike : [00:06:32] I agree. And then I think also health and fitness on the whole is on the rise. I mean, you can just see it on Google Trends, for example, like it’s factually on the rise. But we also see that in our lines of work where you have – there’s obviously a seasonality effect, but every year, everything just gets a bit bigger because more and more people, not only find their way to health and fitness and wellness, but specifically to strength training, because it’s probably a combination of factors.
One, I just read research that just came out, it was actually this month, it came out a couple weeks ago, that basically, the long story short is, the stronger your body is as you age, the less likely you are to die from all causes, which seems obvious, seems like an obvious statement, but for a lot of people, it’s not so obvious. A lot of people go, “wow, so I should be strength training then?”
Mark : [00:07:21] And that’s been in the literature a very long time. But you know how these trends resurface, even in the literature from time to time. And if people were focusing on that now, that’s good. There has been a demonstrable relationship between the retention of lean body mass and longevity, a demonstrable relationship between the loss of lean body mass and death. In fact, that’s how most people die of cancer.
Mike : [00:07:47] Right. You lose too much muscle and then your heart stops.
Mark : [00:07:50] It’s a wasting disease as much as anything, cancer is a wasting disease. I’ve got a guy in here, for example, that three and a half years ago was diagnosed with stage four kidney cancer and he’s been on chemo more on that off since then. He’s had a couple of operations.
And when he came to the gym that day with his diagnosis, he was obviously panic-stricken and crushed and I just told him, “look, you cannot die of cancer if your lifts are going up and you’re not losing anybody weight. So you do what you need to do to keep your lifts up and not lose anybody weight.” And that seemed to make sense to him. And he came back from his last checkup a couple weeks ago and told me that the two big nodes of this shit that were on his lung were gone.
Mike : [00:08:49] Wow. And that’s obviously a consequence of treatment and then also lifestyle interventions.
Mark : [00:08:55] I’d like to think that most of it was that: if you give the body a chance to fight it off it will. You give it some help in terms of not particularly aggressive chemo. Because he’s a poor guy and he can’t afford particularly aggressive chemo, but they’ve been treating him. You just stay big and strong. I mean, the guy weighs 265, he’s 6’2, 265, and he hasn’t lost any weight during this whole process. How do you kill a guy that’s 6’2, 265 if he’s, you know, pulling 500 pounds off the ground.
Mike : [00:09:27] I mean, it’s interesting. I have actually – I mean I can’t say I’ve read much in terms of lean – I mean, I know lean mass is obviously just associated with a stronger immune system. So from that perspective, of course, it makes sense. You know, in some ways your muscle is kind of a fuel reserve for your immune system.
Right? And so you have that association between total lean mass and just longevity. And then also strength, though, like not just total muscle mass, but how strong you are, as measured in various ways, even starting with as simple as a grip strength.
Mark : [00:09:57] That’s an effective proxy for muscle mass as well.
Mike : [00:10:00] So long story short, the stronger your body is, the longer you are going to live and the better your quality of life is going to be.
Mark : [00:10:07] Precisely, precisely. That ought to be intuitively obvious to most people. But people handed a diagnosis like this are almost universally encouraged by the medical profession to just take it easy. Sit down, take it easy. Get your affairs in order.
Mike : [00:10:25] Get ready to die.
Mark : [00:10:26] Yes. They’re not ever told, “hey, you know what? Get your deadlift up.”
Mike : [00:10:31] [Laughing] Imagine if that was your doctor, “all right, so I have an unusual recommendation here, it’s get your deadlift up.”
Mark : [00:10:38] “My what?” [Laughing]
Mike : [00:10:43] “Your deadlift. You do know what deadlifting is, don’t you sir?” [Laughing]
Mark : [00:10:47] So, yeah, that’s clearly insane, nobody would ever recommend that to a sedentary patient. But wouldn’t it be neat if they did? Wouldn’t it be neat if they understood the relationship between strength and longevity, between lean body mass and longevity? It’d be good if the medical community updated.
Mike : [00:11:05] Yeah. And, you know, looked more toward the preventative side of things as opposed to the palliative or the, you know, intervention. The Barbell Prescription, right? That’s a book that you published, right, your company published?
Mark : [00:11:18] Right, yes. We are the publishers of The Barbell Prescription. Barbell Prescription is written by Dr. Jonathan Sullivan and Andy Baker. And it specifically deals with strength training for people over the age of 40. It focuses quite a bit on the “why”. There’s a very long development of our ideas about why older people ought to be strong.
Some of them are obvious, some of them are not, all of them are quite straightforward and very well explained and it is an excellent place to start if you, an older person, are thinking about actually giving this a little bit more aggressive shot. Don’t go quietly into that good whatever the hell it is you go quietly into, go kicking and screaming. Get strong, stay that way and, you know, take like three weeks to die instead of 30 years.
Mike : [00:12:20] Yeah. Or just, you know, hopefully one day we’re just going to go to sleep and not wake up, right?
Mark : [00:12:25] Yeah. I suppose that’s an easy way to do it. There’s a concept called compression of morbidity that I think is very important. I mean, we’ve all got older relatives who just laid there and wasted away in the rest home for years and years and years. And then we’ve all heard of people who were just fine up until three weeks prior to their death.
They got a cancer diagnosis and three weeks later they were gone. But four weeks prior to being dead, they were having a pretty damn good time. And I think that’s probably the better way to do it, don’t you?
Mike : [00:13:04] Yeah. And actually, my dad’s neighbor went that way. It was unfortunate. I mean, he was in his 50s and in great shape, family and stuff, pretty shitty situation, but he had some weird form of cancer behind his eye or something. He was doing fine and there were no symptoms. I don’t know how they caught it, standard type of checkup type thing. And then three weeks later, he’s gone. It was just like that. And that sucks because of his age and you know, but …
Mark : [00:13:32] It sucks, but it would have sucked a whole lot worse if the guy had spent the last 20 years of his life disabled.
Mike : [00:13:39] Yep.
Mark : [00:13:39] That’s not any fun.
Mike : [00:13:40] Yep. Yep. My wife’s grandpa went through a bit of that, went through cancer and it went on for about a month of surgeries and chemo, and it was pretty grueling. I was telling her I was like, if I ever found myself in that situation, I’m going for euthanasia. Just O.D. me on barbiturates, I just want to get high as fuck and disappear. Like that’s just not for me.
Mark : [00:14:05] I’m not really interested in being in horrible pain for years.
Mike : [00:14:09] For nothing too. Like, there’s no chance that you’re going to make it and you and I know that.
Mark : [00:14:13] I’m really not interested in that at all. Not a bit.
Mike : [00:14:17] All right. So let’s move on to less morbid things. Let’s talk about squatting, a great exercise for increasing strength and not getting cancer or not dying in horrible ways. Okay, so obviously you have written and spoken extensively about how to squat and all the key things you gotta do right to be squatting, at least with decent form. So I thought it’d be fun, though, to pick your brain on some of the more nuanced aspects of squatting and just hear your thoughts.
And so I kind of put together a little bullet point list of aspects of the squat that I just want to throw out to you and see what you have to say. So let’s start with high bar versus low bar. This is an ongoing debate, something I’m asked about fairly frequently. I personally prefer a low bar, it’s more comfortable for me, but what are your thoughts on high bar versus low bar?
Mark : [00:15:05] Well, I think that we’ve developed a set of criteria that we use to analyze all of the exercises that we do. That set criteria are as follows. First is, the exercise should involve the most muscle mass that it can. The exercise should involve, two, the lowest effective range of motion that it can. And if these two things are satisfied, the exercise will allow you to handle the most weight possible in order to, four, get you as strong as you can get because we’re strength training.
We’re not bodybuilding, we’re strength training. We’re talking about getting stronger. So if we correctly analyze the lifts and make a little list of the things that we can do to change the lift, to hand them in the direction of those criteria, then the outcome is one of increased efficiency in terms of the time we spend under the bar at the gym. Right? It would be better to get more done than less down at the gym in the same period of time.
And as a result because of the practical – well, because of the fact that wasted time is wasted opportunity. The people that we do business with, people that you and I do business with, are productive individuals, they’re not 23-year-old kids living in the basement and they don’t have six hours a day to fool around in the gym. So we have to look at this from a practical standpoint and if there’s a way to squat that accomplishes our objectives much more efficiently, then that’s the way we oughta squat.
And as it turns out, the low bar squat, squatting with the bar in what is called the low bar position produces a more horizontal back and angle and produces more use of the larger muscles of the posterior chain because we expose that muscle mass anatomically to longer moment arms as a result of these angles. It allows us to lift more weight, but it also causes us to have to use more muscle mass.
And that’s why we like the low bar position because it produces a slightly more horizontal back angle and more activation of the glutes, the abductor’s, the lower back muscles, the hamstrings. The quads are there anyway, they go along for the ride because they have to work their one joint muscle and they take up a large role in the activity no matter how you squat. High bar, front, and everything else uses quads. But if we assert a little bit more horizontal back and angle than all of the other muscle mass gets brought into the equation.
You know this because you can lift more weight that way. You activate more muscle mass, you get stronger. You make that increased amount of muscle mass lift heavier weights and do more things during the squat than it would otherwise. And otherwise would mean high bar squats, a more vertical back angle, and front squats, the most vertical back angle of all.
Now, in the grand scheme of things, if you’re squatting, you’re doing just fine. All right? If you’re squatting, you’re doing what you need to do. All right? So high bar squats are obviously better than no squats at all, except people can’t do low bar squats because of their shoulders, because – I will say this, the low bar squat is a lot more difficult to coach.
It’s a lot more complicated movement pattern. It can be done wrong quite easily and has to be coached, it has to be dealt with correctly and as a result, high bar squats are easier to do. And if you don’t have access to some coaching, just squat. Okay? But if we’re talking about what is optimum, optimum is the greatest amount of muscle mass operating over the longest effective range of motion so that you can lift the most weight and therefore get the strongest. That’s optimum.
So in an ideal world, we low bar squat. In a less ideal world, we do something else, but we squat. You know there’s a lot of yelling and screaming about how we’re going to squat, you know, it’s secondary considering we have a squat. But if we have the luxury of deciding which way we’re going to squat, those are the criteria we use for the decision. And the way we squat is a way that satisfies you.
Mike : [00:19:23] Make sense and, you know, you can apply that same logic to just weight lifting on the whole. And that’s why, yeah, you start like, you know, start with your squats, your deadlifts, your presses, and if you can do those exercises, and those are the ones you want to do, and I would say, you know, you mentioned earlier strength training versus bodybuilding, and I would say for people that aren’t on drugs, there isn’t as big of a difference between those two things as many people think.
I would say a good natural bodybuilding program is kind of more like a basic strength training program with some, you could say, accessory work and diet. Right? So some extra volume for the pretty muscles and then diet. That’s really what bodybuilding is for most people unless you’re on a shitload of drugs. You’re not going to get very far if you do anything other than that, actually.
Mark : [00:20:10] Right. If you do not base your training on that, which affects the largest muscle mass in the whole body, then you are not going to have as big muscle mass as you could than if you did. And this ought to be obvious. It ought to be obvious that a guy with a 500-pound deadlift has got bigger back, hips, and legs than a guy with a 200-pound deadlift.
So how do you best get to a 500-pound deadlift? Well, you do sets of five. Basic heavy loading on sets of five gets you to those big numbers. Do sets of 15, get your deadlift up to 500 pounds, I’ve never seen it happen, because a set of 15 is a lot relative to a set of five. So if you want to get strong and get big by getting strong, then you do sets of five and you do sets of five as long as that simple program works and then when it becomes necessary much later on to get more complicated in terms of your programing than do what you want to do.
But until then, what we do is just do a set of five on the deadlifts. Go up five pounds next time, do a set of five. Go up five more pounds the following workout, do a set of five. Don’t make it more complicated than it needs to be. Change as little about your programming over time as is necessary. Make the smallest amount of change at any given time that you have to to keep progress going up.
PRs, personal records on the lifts on your sets of five are the guarantee of progress. You cannot put five pounds a week on your deadlift and fail to make progress, because that is, by definition, progress. And since you’re getting stronger, your muscles have to get bigger to get stronger, and therefore you get bigger when you get stronger and sets of five is the best way to do it.
And there’s just not any other analysis that makes as much sense because it is simple and straightforward. And the human mind for some bizarre reason, just is in love with complexity. Complexity sells. Complexity is a novelty and complexity, both of them are confused quite often. Sometimes novelty – sometimes to your doctor, if you go in with cancer, your doctor is going to find the five pounds of workout approach to your deadlift to be quite novel, isn’t he?
It’s complicated but it is novel because he’s never heard of it before. But complexity to a lifter – for some reason people want to do a program that sounds complicated, because the guys they want to be like do complicated programs. So they copy what their heroes are doing and that may or may not be useful. It usually is not useful.
It is usually best to stay as simple and uncomplicated with your training as you can. And as long as merely adding some weight to the work set next workout works. Do that and save all of this complicated shit for later when it will in fact be necessary. But for most people, it really is not, is it?
Mike : [00:23:18] And, you know, it is in some ways it’s never necessary. I mean, I think of a review in MASS in which is Greg Nuckols’ is and Mike Zourdos and Eric Helms’s research review, and they were talking about, I think it was DUP versus just straight sets, and the long story short was, and, you know, these are smart guys that I don’t think that they have an agenda or an ideology they’re trying to sell, I think they truly are just trying to get at the truth of things.
And based on a pretty extensive review of just relevant literature, it was that in high-level strength athletes that are doing everything right, DUP does seem to be a little bit better over the long term. But by a little bit better is like, you know, five percent better in terms of strength gain. And what does that really mean in terms of – like, yes, that matters if you’re a strength athlete, that does matter.
And so if you’re an advanced strength athlete and you can gain strength five percent faster, gain five percent, it was something around there, it was a relatively small increase, that yes, I can understand that, if that’s what you live and die by are your numbers, that matters. Now, how does that matter, though, to the average guy or the average girl who just wants to be fit? They just want to put on, you know, the average guy, I’ve worked with thousands and so have you.
You know, the average guy wants to put on, let’s just say, 30 to 40 pounds of muscle and wants to be relatively lean and look good. The average girl, I’m speaking from my personal appearance. Your experiences are going to be a bit different actually, because you probably have a little bit different crowd, but in terms of just the everyday gym fit person, that seems to be the sweet spot for guys.
And for girls it’s probably mostly, let’s say, 15 to 20 pounds of muscle added in the right places and around 20 percent body fat and they’re thrilled. For those people, they don’t even need to ever hear the word DUP. You know what I mean?
Mark : [00:25:10] I’ll tell you a little secret, but I don’t know what DUP means. [Laughing]
Mike : [00:25:15] Oh, daily undulating periodization.
Mark : [00:25:18] Oh, I see, complexity.
Mike : [00:25:24] Yes, yes.
Mark : [00:25:24] No, I don’t care about that.
Mike : [00:25:24] But you could appreciate it because it’s actually from a programming perspective, it’s just working different rep ranges in different workouts, that’s all. So it’s like you’re doing your really heavy training on one day and you’re doing a little bit lighter on another day and a little bit lighter just to work in different rep ranges is the long story short.
Obviously, it’s a bit more technical but that’s the gist. Anyways, so yes, I totally agree, keeping it simple is going to get the vast majority of people listening to this and just the vast majority of people out there that are interested in strength training is: simple is better. Just stick to the fundamentals.
Mark : [00:25:56] Right. The vast majority of the time, who are the vast majority of people? Are they competitive? No.
Mike : [00:26:01] That’s exactly the point.
Mark : [00:26:07] It’s not who we do business with. I don’t care what competitive lifters do. They can figure all this out themselves. They’re certainly entitled. You’ve been training for 10 years, you probably know more about your training than I do and I’m going to always defer to your judgment, whatever you want to do, have fun. Look, as long as you’re making progress, as long as you’re making PRs on a regular basis, then what you’re doing is obviously working. But I don’t care about those people. They don’t need me to care about.
I care about their mom, I care about their uncle, I care about their little brother who’s not a competitive lifter, I care about people who want the most straightforward, uninterrupted period of progress that we can hand them with the simplest, most effective programming possible. And that’s all I’m concerned about.
I mean, if a guy is lifting at the Nationals this year, I’m not even going to presume to offer an opinion about what he ought to be doing. He’ll figure that out and if he doesn’t figure it out right, he won’t win. And he’ll come back, he’ll reassess, and he’ll go through the process of making better decisions next time, because he has to if he’s going to win. But that’s who we train. It’s not who you train, it’s not who I train.
And for our clients, our demographic, the best approach to all of this is always the most simple, straightforward way to squat that you can do it. And the only conflict I would have is that our low bar squat is not always simple and straightforward, it requires a little bit of coaching.
And as a result of that, I am aware of the fact that most people who squat are squatting in what we would consider to be a less than optimum way. They’re probably doing high bar. I don’t care, at least their squatting. And at least the squat is going up. Does that sound more reasonable than I’m expected so?
Mike : [00:28:01] [Laughing] That makes perfect sense to me. That’s what I say, at least. And for me, low bar, I like it more for the reasons that you gave and now I’m also used to it. I’ve been low bar squatting for years now and high bar squatting feels awkward to me. Let’s move on to another point here, let’s talk about the width of the stance. Like, a more narrow stance versus a wider stance.
Mark : [00:28:20] Well, we coach a position that is about – and this works for 98 percent of everybody – we use a position where heels are at about shoulder width. So if you draw a line vertically down from your shoulders to your heels, that’s how wide your stance will be. And then we use a stance angle of 30 to 35 degrees. And the reason for this is because it produces conformity with our criteria. It uses more muscle mass.
Mike : [00:28:55] And by that, just to clarify, you’re talking about the position of the feet, right?
Mark : [00:28:58] Yes. Yes. The stance is heels at shoulder width, toes out at 30 to 35 degrees. And then when you squat, you keep your knees in line with your feet so that feet and knees and femurs are parallel. And the parallel nature of that alignment at 30 to thirty-five degrees of extra rotation requires that your hips engage all of the musculatures that produces external rotation.
Now, all of that musculature is the three big glute bellies, as well as the internal – the physical therapy muscles, I like to call them – the pure form is the operators, the gemelli, and the – I always forget the quadratus guy in there, I think he’s the quadratus lumborum. But I don’t really care. What I care about is that all of the muscle mass that produces external rotation is called into the squat.
It’s involved in the exercise if external rotation is a part of the execution. So we intentionally choose a stance that produces external rotation, thus involving the external rotator muscle mass and the exercise. This has another side effect. It produces a more complete activation of the adductor, the groin muscle.
Which when that stance and when external rotation is involved in the movement, the adductors, the groin muscles, become very, very strong and effective hip extensors because of their anatomy, and you’ll just have to look this up. So in other words, if we are pointing our toes out at 30, 35 degrees at that stance width and we are keeping our knees out in a line over the foot, then we are involving all of the muscle mass that produces that external rotation, the glutes and all the physical therapist muscles, and we’re involving the adductors, the groin muscles in the squat.
Whereas, if you take the standard conventional wisdom, narrower stance, toes pointed, knees pointed straight ahead, you leave all of that muscle mass completely out of the movement pack. And I don’t think that’s a good idea because I’d like to train as much muscle mass when I squat as I can so that I can lift more weight and get stronger, strengthening all that muscle mass.
So that’s the reason for our stance differences. You know this works if you’ve ever had a groin injury and trained through it. Groin pulls are amazing little things. You have no idea how many things your adductors are involved in until you tear one of them. It’s exquisitely painful, but you’ve probably had one yourself.
Mike : [00:31:43] Fortunately, I haven’t had an injury, but I’ve had very sore adductors that got in the way of squatting. I remember I had to work through that. I actually had to drop weight for a bit and if I remember, for about two months I was just working through extreme soreness. This was the first time when I started to get up into the low and mid 300s on my back squat.
There was a period – I may have been in a deficit at the time, there was just a period when for some reason, my hip flexors, and my groin muscles, they were just very sore. And I actually had to back off on the weight, and I had to let them recover and get strong enough to allow me to continue progressing.
Mike : [00:34:00] So what are your thoughts on paused reps?
Mark : [00:34:02] I think they’re useful for advanced lifters. I do them myself because a pause rep below parallel to a box allows me to stay out of my creaky old knees. I tend to make mistakes because I train in here late at night by myself and I tend to make mistakes with my form, just like everyone else does, I need a coach.
And if I’m in here by myself at night, what I do is squat to a box that is twelve and three-quarter inches high, which puts me about a half-inch below parallel then I pause on that box and then I grab my hips up. And in doing so, I am able to stay out of my knees. I hurt my left knee doing this wrong about a year and half ago. So I’ve just decided I must do all my squats to a below parallel box with a pause.
And why that’s not good for novices should be obvious, I’m 62 years old, I’ve just barely held together with chewing gum and baling wire. I think that the older you get, obviously, the more nuanced your training is going to have to be. But for the vast majority of people, they don’t need to do a paused squat, they just need to squat. They just need to learn how to squat correctly and do it correctly. So that’s what we coach. We don’t use paused squats for many people. Now, later on, advanced lifters, once again, can do anything they want to do.
Mike : [00:35:24] It makes sense. And what are your thoughts on paused reps without the box?
Mark : [00:35:29] They’re real hard.
Mark : [00:35:29] Simply, you’re getting down in the hole and you’re pausing a few seconds? Yeah, they’re difficult. [Laughing]
Mark : [00:35:34] They’re difficult because they remove the stretch reflex, the rebound from the bottom of the squat.
Mike : [00:35:41] Yeah. You don’t get the hamstring bounce, right?
Mark : [00:35:42] You don’t get any bounce at all and it’s not just the hamstrings you’re bouncing off of, it’s all of the posterior chain. All of the glutes, all abductor’s, the quads, all of that muscle mass is involved in the stretch reflex if you produce a bounce out of the hole. So paused squats, box squats, pin squats, all the variations of a squat that removes the stress reflex makes the movement much harder because the stress reflex increases mechanical efficiency of the squat to a gigantic extent. It’s supposed to be in there.
The stretch reflexes of normal human movement. Anytime we jump, we use a stretch reflex. Anytime we push on something hard in real life, we’re using a stretch reflex. All of that movement pattern stuff is quite thoroughly dependent on the stretch reflex and so is the squat. And if we artificially remove it from the squat, that’s a good way to increase the difficulty of the squat.
But think of it like this. What is force protection? If doing a pause squat reduces your ability to squat by 25 percent, just like going eight inches below parallel. Does it have the ability to make you as strong? No. It may be necessary later on for special reasons, it may be useful for an advanced lifter as an assistance exercise depending on the particular nature of his squat training, but it does not have the capacity to allow you to lift as much weight and therefore it cannot make you as strong.
Mike : [00:37:17] Agreed. Yeah, I mean, I’ve always done it. If I have done it, it’s been an assistance thing. So it’s been – I’ll do my heavy regular squats and then simply because I mean, I feel like – it’s not, I can’t say for sure the reason why I was doing it for a period of time – is that I was just trying get stronger out of the hole and also just get used to – because I would actually still keep the weight heavy, it would just be fewer reps. You know, I was progressing on my squat nicely at that time, not necessarily because of pause squats, but it was something that I had read about and I’m like, “interesting, I’ll try it.”
Mark : [00:37:49] Well, I think everybody oughta try it after they’ve been training for three or four years. You need to be experienced in doing all kinds of things, but there really isn’t a better way to distract a novice or an early intermediate trainee than to introduce a bunch of assistance exercises that have the net effect of lowering the amount of weight on the bar.
Mike : [00:38:09] Right. Totally agree. What about heals elevated on plates? That’s something we see fairly often.
Mark : [00:38:15] Well, we don’t see that as much as we used to.
Mike : [00:38:18] Yeah.
Mark : [00:38:18] In most gyms, I think that’s gone away. A heel on a shoe is a useful thing for some lifters depending on their anthropometry. I’ll ask you to consider the case of femur tibia ratio, the length of the femur to the tibia. And in your mind, I want you to draw a person in the squat at the bottom of the squat who has a short femur and a long tibia.
Where are his knees compared to a person with a long femur and a short tibia? You could see that the person with a long femur’s knees are going to be forward of the person with a short femur. Right? And you can see that the knee position relative to the shin produces a different angle in the shank. The part of the leg dominated by the tibia. A person with a long femur is going to have a more horizontal shank angle than a person with a short femur.
Mike : [00:39:27] Oh, yeah, that’s me. My knees, you know, they just are more forward than some of the, you know, a couple of guys in the office who have different legs and they’re much more upright, their tibias are much more upright at the bottom.
Mark : [00:39:38] Right. And you’d mentioned earlier that your femurs were long relative to your tibia. So if a guy is going to have anthropometry that produces a more forward knee relative to his toes, because that’s really what we’re talking about here, then I don’t see a point in elevating the heel for him, because he’s already – and the reason we might want to elevate the heel is to get more quadricep into the movement pattern.
All right? Well, a guy with that anthropometry, with your anthropology is already using a whole bunch of quad anyway, because below parallel his knees are going to be more forward than the guy with short femurs and long tibia. Now, the guy with short femurs and long tibias at the bottom of a squat may very well see his knees behind his toe at the same depth that you’re at.
Two completely different tibia angles. And as a result, a person like that might find that even a one-inch heel on his lifting shoes helps him squat more weight because it more thoroughly activates the quads and adds that muscle mass in a little bit more to the squat that his anthropometry is interfering with. Right?
Now, log tibias and short femurs are typically what we see in sprinters. Have you ever noticed that sprinters, if you look at the last heat of the hundred meters at The Worlds, you’ll see that every one of those guys is built the same way. They’ve got short femurs and long tibias. And it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see why that might be very, very useful for a sprint.
By the same token, it doesn’t necessarily make for the best squat. Best squatting is going to be effective with a more normalized anthropometry, neither long or short femurs relative to tibias. But if you have an anthropology situation where you have a long femur relative to your tibia, I think a flat shoe works just fine. Plates under the heels are heel high.
So I think you just have to make the judgment call. I recommend that most people are going – I said to my coach, in fact all the time, “I wish I could get somebody to make shoes like this.” I think about a five-eighth heel is optimum for most people to squat. It helps a little bit with quad push off the floor in both the squat and pulls off the floor. Deadlifts and cleans too.
Mike : [00:42:05] Yeah, yeah. I mean, I want to transition into weightlifting shoes and get your thoughts on that, I think you’ve pretty much covered it. But, you know, I’ve noticed probably not so much because of the heel, because again, just how my body’s built, but I find that I’m able to generate – when I like the stable base of the shoe and I like the torque that I can generate and, you know, I’ve noticed a slight increase in performance with good lifting shoes with no apparent change in technique, I just am able to dig my feet into the ground and generate a bit more power.
Mark : [00:42:41] That is because lifting shoes primary role is to produce stability between your foot and the floor. And stability increases the efficiency of the force production, between your foot and the floor. It increases the efficiency of the force transfer between your foot and the floor. If you have a solid block under your feet and your feet are squeezed in tightly, stabilized laterally by a nice metatarsal strap, just shut up and buy some shoes. This is not silly, these are not that expensive, they last 10 years.
Mike : [00:43:17] How about cues? I’d be curious as to some of your cues or some of the cues that you recommend for, let’s say, the knees starting to cave, you know, the butt shooting out of the hole, the standard kind of mistake. You feel like one leg is working harder than the other, stuff like that.
Mark : [00:43:35] First off, let’s talk about what a cue actually is. When we coach really anything, what we coach, and let’s just use the lifting example, if I’m going to coach lifting, I have to know what it is that I’m trying to coach. I have to have personal experience with what I’m coaching, just reading a book doesn’t do it, I’ve got to know what the guy I’m trying to coach is going through under the bar.
I have to use my own experience, I have to use the information I’ve gathered from reading, so I’ve got to accumulate quite a bit of information in order to be able to coach. And then what I need to do is condense all of that information into a teaching method. When I take somebody out into the gym and teach them how to squat, I have a procedure that I go through that I’ve distilled from over 40 years of doing this.
I can teach somebody how to squat about five minutes with an extremely high degree of accuracy in about five minutes because I’ve condensed all of my experience and all my information into a method that very, very quickly puts somebody in the correct position at the bottom squat, gets them out of that position effectively with the most effective force transfer to the loop.
Okay, so that’s my teaching method. So I’m teaching a guy how to do the squat. I teach him how to do it as he’s squatting. He’s taught under the bar. His first set at the bar. Second set at the bar. Then we put a little weight on it. And what I am doing during that process is I’m watching him do the thing I have taught him.
I am gathering information about how he is executing the model of that movement pattern that I have taught him. And then I must communicate to him the corrections that he needs to hear in order to more accurately execute that movement pattern. Those corrections are cue. Those are the things that I’ve already taught him about the movement he is supposed to be doing that are essentially reminders of things he already knows.
Cues are reminders of things that we’ve already given him in terms of what he’s supposed to be doing under the bar when I taught him how to do it during the teaching method. He’d learned all of that stuff. And now I’m reminding him to do the things that he needs to do to execute the movement better correctly if I see him making errors.
Okay, so a cue is a reminder to do something that I’ve already taught him how to do. That’s how cues can be short. So look at like this: not everybody needs the same cue. Not everybody will process the teaching method the same way. Not everybody will execute the teaching method perfectly. And as a result, cues are highly personal.
They’re highly dependent on the coach-athlete relationship. Right? If I’ve just been coaching this guy five minutes, I’m going to see a different set of problems, he’s going to show me a different set of problems that an advanced lifter who’s been training ten years is going to show me. So cues are going to vary depending on the history between the coach and the lifter.
If I am being coached, for example, somebody sees my knees going too far forward, how many ways could a person trying to coach me tell me to not let my knees get too far forward? Well, there’s several things they could say, they could remind me of my back angle, because a too vertical back angle is going to drop the knees too far forward.
They could remind me of the knees themselves, they could say, “shove your knees back on the way down. Knees back, knees back.” They could say knees out, if there is a forward and a-duction component to my knee problem, they could say, “knees out,” because if knees are going out, they’re not going forward.
They can remind me of my hips, they could remind me of weight on my feet. There’s several different ways that all of these things are interrelated and depending on which of these interrelated things that we see the guy doing wrong and how we know that he’s going to interpret that cue, that might determine the cue that we’re going to give him.
Mike : [00:47:38] Are there any cues that you find yourself that just are useful with most people? For again, some of the more common mistakes like, let’s say, shooting the hips up too quickly. Right?
Mark : [00:47:50] The cues that are useful for most people are in the teaching method. Right? So the most common error we see, and we’ve got thousands of people through this process, we coach this year we’ll be doing 16 seminars with 30 people, we’re coaching lots and lots of people all the time and the most common error we see in squatting is the tendency to try to squat with too vertical a back because it’s normal for most people to think that squat is legs. Squat is hips.
The squat is a hips movement. And in order to get the most out of the hips and thereby accidentally get the most out of leg, the back angle must be more horizontal than most people want it to be. This is why we put the bar down low and why we have to continually remind people to bend over. Present your hips to the floor. Present your chest to the floor.
Point your nipples down. There are several different ways to work with this back angle, because if your back is too vertical, you can’t drive the hips up out of the bottom and hip drive is an inherent part of every heavy squat whether you want it to be or not. There are no videos available of people squatting heavy weights without an initial hip extension.
Without the use of the hips as the way to get out of the bottom. Whether you’ve been taught not to do that or not, that’s what you do. And it makes absolutely no sense to ignore that perfectly reasonable way to improve your ability under the bar to think correctly about what it is you’re going to do with that movement pattern.
As a result, hip drive is the primary feature of effective squatting and all of this stuff that goes into driving the hips up, needs to be the thing that you as a coach get very good at getting out of your lifter and there’s many ways to interact with lifters as there are coaches and lifters. But squats are all basically the same. Squats your hips out of the bottom.
They may all look different because of anthropometry, bar placement, all that other stuff, but the human body squats one way. And this is why, Mike, experience in coaching the barbell lifts is the most important aspect of passing our certification. And it is the least accessible thing that we can provide with the person we’re trying to train.
You just have to go coach a whole bunch of people, develop your ability to watch what they’re doing wrong, to explain effectively first what to do, to watch what they’re doing wrong, and then to effectively communicate through cues. “I just feel as though Rippetoe is teaching a good morning.” Well, he’s not.
Mike : [00:50:28] Exactly.
Mark : [00:50:28] So what you feel is irrelevant. Deal with it.
Mike : [00:50:32] [Laughing] Okay, last question for you: safety bar?
Mark : [00:50:36] I can see a role for it. I don’t have one here. Never found it.
Mike : [00:50:40] What’s that role?
Mark : [00:50:41] I never found it necessary myself? Well, a guy with one arm. He could probably squat more effectively with a safety bar. A guy with a bad shoulder injury, a guy with terribly arthritic shoulders. Some kind of a problem with interfacing with the bar with his hands and upper back is what a safety bar is for. But what does the safety bar due to the back angle? It makes it more vertical, doesn’t it? It turns a squat into a front squat.
Mike : [00:51:08] Right.
Mark : [00:51:08] And what do we want to do? We want a more horizontal back angle so we can do more muscle mass over a longer range of motion. So I don’t see a point in using a safety squat bar unless there are special considerations with respect to injuries. Yeah, I see no point for it. It’s unfortunate that Olympic lifters have to do those, but they have no choice. But they’re a terrible exercise.
Mike : [00:51:32] Great. Okay, so last thing, just for fun. I mean, those are all my squat questions. We can’t complete one of our interviews without you ranting about something. So what’s something that is just annoying the shit out of you these days? What’s something that you wish were not so? Just one thing quick, just give us something. Make us laugh.
Mark : [00:51:53] Functional training.
Mike : [00:51:55] [Laughing] Still functional training?
Mark : [00:51:56] Still functional training. The worst thing that’s ever happened to strength and conditioning is functional training. We were talking about this the other time.
Mike : [00:52:03] What’s the state of functional training now? Has it changed since the last time?
Mark : [00:52:07] Far as I can tell, it’s the norm. All of the D1 and proteins are using some version of functional training. Apparently in the complete absence of the ability to think logically about any of this. You know? Now, would you run, for example, what are you doing? You’re using one leg at a time, right? Well, what they want to say, of course is that, “if you’re using one leg at a time, then we ought to train one leg at a time so we get better at using one leg at a time.”
This is so preposterous. I can’t. Do you want to be strong or not? Does an NFL football player need to be strong? Now, if all NFL players have agreed that they’re not going to worry about being strong, then everything is fine. All right? But if we come to the awareness that we need to be strong, what’s the best way to get strong on one leg at a time?
What are you doing on one leg at a time? Any time you’re on one leg, what do you do? You’re going somewhere, right? You’re moving forward. What are you doing with respect to your body’s center of mass in relationship to your body’s center balance? You’re translating it forward across the ground.
In other words, you are unstable when you’re on one leg at a time. You are unstable. Can you produce strength under conditions of instability? Well, no. That’s not what it’s for, it’s for moving across the ground. You get strong on both legs at a time, and now you take your stronger body and you move it through positions of instability, and it works better because it’s stronger because you got that weight on both legs.
Mike : [00:53:46] And so that’s a big thing, doing the unilateral, you know, doing split squats, over barbell squats.
Mark : [00:53:53] Right, it’s the basis of the whole thing. You know, the best functional trainers are the ones that have figured out novel approaches to doing shit with lightweights on one leg at a time. And I just don’t see – the only way anybody gets away with it is that everybody in professional and D1 sports has somehow bought into this nonsense.
And so since none of them are squatting 700 pounds when they ought to be, a lot of them can do that without a lot of training, these guys are freaks. But if we all decide we’re just gonna do one leg at a time and nobody ever gets their deadlift up over 500, then, you know, “hey, it works just fine,” because everybody’s weak.
And B, when they get hurt, you know, because their knees are not nice and strong like I just explained to you about front squats, I think it’s probably good because that enables a guy down the bench to do your job that he wouldn’t be doing if you actually just did your squats and deadlifts. So I guess it’s good, you know it makes opportunity.
Mike : [00:54:53] [Laughing] I mean, there’s also something to be said, it’s almost like a survivorship kind of bias because like you said, these people that – these guys are super freak athletes – and, you know, they’re gonna be super freaks. They’ve been super freaks her entire life, it doesn’t really matter what they do or don’t do. Now, they could be more freakish, but, yeah, you’re looking at, you know, gym heads.
Mark : [00:55:10] If you got a whole locker room full of guys with 36-inch verticals – this is another thing we always talk about – if you have a locker room full of guys with 36-inch verticals, it automatically looks like you know what the hell you’re doing. Because guess what always happens with guys that have 36-inch verticals when they go from 18 years old to 22 years old? They get stronger, they get bigger because they’re still growing and you get the credit. Even though all you’ve had them do is dance around on bosu balls with ten-pound dumbbells.
Mike : [00:55:44] Was there a time when – and this is something you know a lot more about that world, about this whole we’re talking about than I do – was there a time when that was not the case? When it was more just about traditional strength training?
Mark : [00:55:55] Back in the 70s, I think it was. Back in the 70s but …
Mike : [00:56:00] And do you know why it moved away? Did people think the traditional strength training was riskier or was not as effective as what is being done now? Like how did that happen, do you know?
Mark : [00:56:15] Well, I don’t know the actual mechanism by which this took place, but I suspect it has something to do with the training programs at colleges and universities that generated the strength coaches. Who’s dominating those programs now? You know? The certifying body, the NSCA is the one that’s dominating all of this. You can’t even – you have a CSCS just by virtue of the fact you graduated with a PE degree now. What changes have you seen in the NSCA since Boyd Epley established it back in the 70s? Can you name one important change in the NSCA? I can’t.
Mark : [00:56:53] I mean, I can’t.
Mark : [00:56:54] I can, the physical therapists have taken over the damn thing.
Mike : [00:56:58] This is a hole that I’m not familiar with.
Mark : [00:57:00] What do the physical therapists do? Rehab. And what is functional training based on? Rehab. It’s not based on anything that ever got anybody strong. How many people have the NSCA made strong? How many 600 pound deadlifts have CSCS generated over the past 20 years? They don’t even do the exercise.
Mike : [00:57:19] Yeah.
Mark : [00:57:20] So yeah, I think it’s you know, it’s all going down the toilet as a result of that. I mean once we’re all operating under the same assumption, then it gets real hard to change that paradigm, doesn’t it?
Mike : [00:57:31] Yeah, you just get stuck in the cave, right?
Mark : [00:57:34] And that’s where they are.
Mike : [00:57:35] Interesting, interesting. All right well, that’s everything that I had. We’ve talked about squatting, we’ve talked about functional training, one of your favorites. We even talked about abs. Two of your favorite things, abs, and functional training.
Mark : [00:57:46] I love abs and functional training. My favorite thing.
Mike : [00:57:50] [Laughing] It’s the best way to get abs.
Mark : [00:57:52] Oh, yes. [Laughing]
Mike : [00:57:53] That’s correct, right? [Laughing] Perfect. No, this has been great, Mark. I really appreciate it. Super informative. Thank you for taking the time.