That exercise you’re doing now, or the one you did last night, isn’t working and it isn’t because it’s a bad exercise, you’re just doing it wrong.
Ask any decent strength coach, personal trainer or physical preparation specialist what their pet hate is in a gym and 99% of the time you’ll hear something relating to poor technique.
Now this isn’t because we’re hating on the people using poor technique, it’s because we know how poor technique can change an exercise, both in terms of the training effect (the stuff you want it to help achieve) and the PAR (performance associated risk).
I’d also like to clarify that we’re not talking about right or wrong technique here. Aside from the fact that there’s rarely such a thing when it comes to exercise, we’re more concerned with why you’re doing what you’re doing, and whether you’re actually doing what you think you are.
For the purpose of this article we’ll focus on the Bulgarian split squat, although it could well be any exercise.
Now before we can evaluate technique we need to determine what the objective is. So for the purpose of this discussion, we’ve identified the key objectives as being:
- Train knee extension through active range of motion
- Improve hip extension
- Improve thoracic extension
We’ve also identified the potential PAR’s for this exercise as being:
- Increased shear forces on the front knee
- Increased hip flexion
- Thoracic or lumbar flexion
This list isn’t necessarily exhaustive, but it hits the main points.
It should also be noted that I’ve chosen videos for the following section that aren’t ‘obviously’ problematic, as I’d like to think most people could spot that without help.
So let’s have a look at a popular youtube video. I’d like to preface this by saying that I have a massive amount of respect for Christian Thibaudeau, who’s the coach in this video and he probably had a good reason for the client/athlete performing the exercise like this. However, this is not how we would do this exercise:
Why we wouldn’t use this technique:
- The stance is too long which restricts the range of motion at the knee
- Very few people have the hip mobility to avoid excessive lower back extension/compression in this position
- The foot position encourages use of the back leg to assist in the movement
What we like:
- The athlete eventually gets an upright torso with the shoulders over the hips. At 0:42 the torso is angled further forward than we like, but at 0:48 he corrects this in response to Christians cue of a straight posture
- The knee’s forward travel is unrestricted
The next video also has some good points and some concerns:
Why we wouldn’t use this technique:
- The knee moves backwards as well as downwards, which will shift some of the load off the knee extensors
- There is a degree of restriction in the forward travel of the knee. We assume because the trainer was told at some point to make sure the knees don’t go over the toes for fear of injuring the knee (which is not true).
- There’s a slight shift to the forefoot at the bottom of the movement, which will increase knee shear and reduce glute recruitment (you’ll use your butt less, almost NEVER a good thing).
What we like:
- Spinal alignment is maintained
- Good foot position on the bench
- Good hip extension throughout
Lastly, here’s a great video in terms of technique:
Why we like it:
- Upright torso (shoulders over hips)
- Weight in the heel of the front foot throughout the exercise
- Full range of movement at the knee on the front leg
- Limited use of the back leg
What we loved:
Peter Rouse (the guy in the video) puts the weights down without rounding out his back. Far too often people pay complete attention to perfect posture during an exercise, but neglect it when picking the weights up at the start of their set or putting them down at the end.
The big issue!
Unless you’ve been coached properly you’ll probably be tweaking, changing or even cheating the exercise. If you read the comments on the last video, two people both draw issue with Peter’s knee movement. Why? Because there’s a lot of ‘hearsay’ evidence out there, and also a lot of out dated traditions and belief. The knee not being allowed to go over the knee is one of the longer lasting myths and whilst there are certain conditions to the truth, in general healthy knees stay healthy when they’re allowed to move naturally.
So what to do? There are three possible solutions:
- Hire a good personal trainer. Be fussy about this because the movement patterns you develop under their tutelage will last you a lifetime, so make sure they’re the right ones.
- Train with a friend and critique each others technique. Just make sure you know what you’re looking for first.
- Video yourself. Nothing weird, just video yourself performing the exercise and then play spot the difference.
The truth is, no-one intentionally has bad technique. In the most part it’s down to one of three things:
- Misinformation – lack of understanding/knowledge of good technique
- Focus – the attention is on something else
- Kinaesthetic awareness – some peoples brain-body connection just isn’t that good and they’re consequently convinced that they’re doing the right thing when they’re not.
If this applies to you and your training/technique, then hire a personal trainer who can choose exercises that bias better form.