The Smart Program Design Series: Incorporating Variety & Making Progression Seamless
Part 2 – Positioning of Load
In Part 1 I discussed manipulating the stance/set-up of an exercise to create a progression with regard to stability. Another way in which stability can be challenged & exercises can be tweaked is through the positioning of the load.
If loading is kept close to one’s center of mass, there will be more overall stability. It is likely that a person will be able to work with heavier loads when the placement is close to their center of mass. If the load is moved further away from the center of mass, it changes the stability requirements & overall impact on the body. A great depiction of this is a simple “Plate-In Squat” vs a “Plate-Out Squat.”
In the Plate-In Squat, the weight is pulled tight to the body, whereas in the Plate-Out Squat it is held at arm’s length out front. The Plate-Out Squat would be a great place to start if someone is having difficulty sitting down into the squat, as the plate acts as a counterbalance. Loading is not the goal with this variation, as it’s pretty obvious that holding weight out in front of the body will become fatiguing for the arms & shoulders. The goal is to pattern a better squat!
When a person has mastered this, they could theoretically move to the Plate-In Squat, which can be loaded up a little more. That said, the Plate-In Squat is obviously not a great choice if the overall goal is to build strength. The limiting factors are the nontraditional position in which the bumper plate is held, as well as grip limitations. Most people are not going to be able to hold more than a 55-pound competition bumper plate in their hands. Yes, there are companies that make 100-pound plates…but really, what’s the point when there are better ways one could load a squat if that is the goal?
So, wait, I’m confused. If we are considering a more challenging load position to be a progression from one that is more stable, wouldn’t the Plate-Out Squat be considered a progression from the Plate-In Squat?
Yes, if our main goal is to simply challenge stability without a lot of load, then the Plate-Out Squat could very well be considered a progression for those who have graduated past remedial squatting 101. You could perhaps load it up a little more &/or attempt to “go for time” in squatting this way (or hold arms outstretched at the bottom of the squat) if you wanted. What’s the point really, though? I would consider this scenario to be one that is more challenging to the core & posture than the legs, as the limiting factor will again be having to hold the weight out in front of the body.
The answer is also “no.” The Plate-Out Squat is a poor example of a progression in general due to the limitations just mentioned. Again, it is more of a teaching tool than an actual squat variation. To simplify this, we must ask ourselves “what is the goal?” If the goal is to help a person who is having difficulty with excessive torso lean, shifting forward onto their toes, &/or not sitting back into their hips build a better squat, then the counterbalanced-nature of the Plate-Out Squat will probably help them! If the goal is to strengthen the squat for a person with supreme squat mechanics, then neither is optimal because both are poor examples of variations that can be loaded up in an efficient manner.
I feel these two variations are a great way to help teach good patterning of the squat. If a person has moved past the Plate-Out & Plate-In squat variations as a way of learning better squat mechanics, they could still benefit from incorporating them into warm-ups!
So, I kinda went down the rabbit hole there. Thank you for bearing with me! J
A loading position that places more challenge on the core musculature is undoubtedly going to be a progression from a position that is more basic.
Another aspect of load position has to do with distribution. Loading that is offset in nature can be a progression from more a uniform position.
Using a split squat as an example, the exercise can be progressed from bodyweight by adding a load. Holding two dumbbells or kettlebells in the “suitcase” (hanging) position would be a good start, as it is a balanced position. From here, we could place a slightly-heavier kettlebell in the hand opposite the forward leg while keeping the original load in the opposite hand. This creates a slightly-offset distribution of weight. The musculature of the lateral torso opposite the heavier-loaded side has to work a little harder to keep the body upright. A progression from this could be performing the split squat with one kettlebell held in the hand opposite the forward leg, which creates even more of an unevenly-distributed loading situation.
From here, we could go several ways, once again asking ourselves “what is the goal?” If the goal is to simply load up the movement, then we would be better off sticking with an evenly-distributed suitcase position & increasing the load in both hands. If the goal is to challenge different aspects of the body’s ability to resist unwanted movement in all three planes, then we could continue down a path of variations that emphasize offset loads. We could progress to an offset situation in which one kettlebell is racked while the other remains in the suitcase position. We could use a double racked position. We could hold one kettlebell overhead while the other is racked. We could…you get my point.
Again, if the goal is to simply move the most weight, then one should choose the position that facilitates this. You would be able to perform a split squat performed with kettlebells held in the hang carry or “suitcase” position with heavier loads than a split squat performed with both held overhead.
To illustrate these concepts using the good ol’ squat, here is an example of a progression that emphasizes creating an ongoing challenge with loading position. You will see that I use the Ultimate Sandbag (USB) in many ways for this progression. I feel it is a superior tool in many instances simply because it engages the grip & facilitates engagement through the creation & maintenance of tension.
- USB Press-Out Squat – just as with the Plate-Out Squat, this press-out serves as a counterbalance which facilitates sitting down into the squat & may help with patterning the movement.
- USB Bear Hug Squat – keeping the load in front of the body continues with patterning, as it helps with core bracing & optimal alignment while squatting. As with the Press-Out Squat, the Bear Hug Squat can be considered to be a “learning variation,” but it can also be loaded up! I have found it to be a lot more effective than the goblet squat for teaching good mechanics. By gripping and pulling the USB into the body, tension is created, which helps stabilize the torso & promote good mechanics. In the video I am explaining a sprinter stance variation, but it is no different for a regular stance squat!
- KB Double-Rack Squat – here we can add more loading while still having the benefit of increased core engagement due to the anterior position of the kettlebells.
- KB Double-Rack Squat: Offset Loading – if we take the loading used in the double-rack position & decrease one side by 4kg (8-10 lbs), this creates an offset situation. There will be more of a challenge to resist unwanted motion in the frontal & transverse planes.
- USB Front Load Squat – moving on to a position that is very similar to the double-rack, but with a more unstable piece of equipment (especially if you use a water-filled bag), we can continue to challenge the body.
- USB Offset Front Load Squat – if we shift more of the load to one side of the body, we can create an offset situation that continues to bring in the frontal & transverse planes.
- USB Shoulder Load + KB Racked Squat – yes, this one is kind of weird, but the difference in loading positions creates an offset effect. To create more of an impact, the weight of the kettlebell can be decreased, or the weight of the USB can be increased.
- USB Shouldered Squat – placing the load on one shoulder is a great way to challenge the body to resist motion in the frontal plane! The video demonstrates a sprinter stance squat, but the position of the USB is the same for a basic stance.
This sample progression isn’t meant to be gone through & eventually leave you with the dreaded “okay, what’s next?” In other words, you can go back to previous variations & load them up a little more, then work back through the progression. Alternately, after having built up a great degree of resiliency via these offset loading variations, you could change course. You will find loading up the body in a more traditional way (ie: barbell front or back squat) to be more effective due to improved total-body stabilization.
To illustrate these concepts paired with what was discussed in Part 1 of this series, stances & set-ups, let’s map out another progression incorporating the basic & sprinter stance squats!
- Basic Squat Stance:
- Sprinter Stance:
It is important to note that everyone has different needs, therefore, some may not need to spend a ton of time (or any) with each of these variations. Case in point the Press-Out Squat – if someone has progressed through the variations in the basic squat stance & you are wanting to move them on to the sprinter stance variations, they may not need to begin at the press-out in sprinter stance. You may find that they are able to start with the front loaded sprinter stance squat & build from there.
Stay tuned for part 3 where we get into various methods of manipulating sets & reps and then move onto conditioning segments of this series!
in the mean time…….
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