Exercise Anatomy and Physiology and the NINE Foundational Movements (+ something for abs)
In this third and final part of summarizing the CrossFit Level 1 Trainer Manual (for the solo practitioner), what I am calling Dire Wolf CrossFit since there is already a “Lone Wolf CrossFit” Box in NY and the Dire Wolf has become the new Sigel of my training family’s Crest, we dive into the pragmatic side and discuss the practice of crossfit. This includes a common language for effective communication with other CrossFitters and Coaches and the 9 Foundational Movements. I think that you’ll find, after examining what is actually taught in CF that the naysayers are misinformed and those that have drunk the CF Kool-aid have a bit more to learn as well. But that is typical of any training program.
In CrossFit, Athletes are asked to learn:
4 Body Parts – Spine and Pelvis (Trunk), Femur and Tibia (Leg)
3 Joints – Knee, Pelvis, SacroIliac joint
2 Directions for joint movement – Flexion (reducing a joint’s angle) and extension (increasing a joint’s angle)
3 concepts for biomechanics
-Functional movements usually weds the spine to the pelvis. The SacroIliac joint (joining the butt bone to the pelvic bones) and Spine (joining the back to the butt bone) were designed for small ROM movements in multiple directions. Endeavor to keep the trunk tight, or the spine in a braced, neutral position.
-Dynamics generally come from hip extension. Powerful hip extension is essential for elite athletic capacity.
-Do not let the pelvis “chase” the femur instead of the spine (a “muted” hip). In this situation the hip angle remains open and loses power to extend.
Nine Foundational Movements
Air Squat (or just the Squat)
Front Squat (FS)
Overhead Squat (OHS)
Strict Press (Shoulder press or just The Press)
Push Press (PP)
Push Jerk (PJ)
Sumo Deadlift High Pull (SDHP)
Medicine Ball Clean (MBC)
You should know the points of performance for each movement to correctly perform them, as well as the common faults and corrections if you are going to teach/coach and even just for your own self-diagnosis and ultimate perfection of the movement.
This is one of the most important exercises you can do and will both improve both your athleticism and keep your hips, back, knees, and ankles healthy throughout your life. Additionally, squatting, and other functional movements that use a large amount of muscle mass such as the deadlift, stimulate a large neuroendocrine response when engaged in intensely. That means more metabolically active hormones released from your endocrine system – including testosterone and growth hormone.
The bottom position of the squat is nature’s chair. Actual chairs are man-made inventions that have been recently found to be detrimental to our bodies in many ways. You’ve probably heard by now that sitting is referred to as the “new smoking”. There is a sound reason for this when it comes to physical function.
The Air Squat, or simply the Squat, is a body weight exercise. Weighted squats are back squats (high or low bar), Front Squats, and Overhead squats. The squat has been mastered when technique is perfect, and performance superior. You should attempt to master the squat before proceeding to the weighted versions. This rarely happens. Thus it is important that you practice air squatting throughout your training career.
If you can Tabata squat (20second of squatting with 10 seconds of rest for 4 minutes) – see High-Intensity Interval Training: Foundations – then you are ready to add weight. You should be doing 1 squat per second, roughly, or 150 or more in 4 minutes. That’s half a Murph – without the weight vest.
10 cues to a solid Squat
- Feet shoulder width apart, toes 10-30 degrees outward, screw your feet into the ground to create torque.
- Look forward (parallel)-looking up leads to back extension
- Keep the midsection tight (braced neutral spine)
- Push your hips back and down (like closing a car door with your butt)
- Keep your knees actively out as you descend so they track over your toes
- Keep the weight over the midfoot to heels, forward weight rolls the knees inside the toes
- Delay the knee’s forward travel as long as possible.
- The ear should move straight down as you descend (imagine the bar in a vertical track as in a Smith Machine)
- Stop descent when hips are just below the level of knees
- Squeeze the glutes and hamstrings to explode out of the bottom and end standing as tall as you can.
The Causes of a Bad Squat
- Weak glutes and hamstrings. They are responsible for powerful hip extension – the sine qua non for elite athletic performance
- Poor active engagement of the glutes and hams. “The road to powerful, effective hip extension is a 3-5 yr odyssey for most athletes.”
- Squatting with the quads. The dominance of leg extension over hip extension is a leading obstacle to elite athletic performance.
- Lack of mobility of the hamstrings is a leading contributor to slipping in to lumbar flexion at the bottom of the squat. This is the most dangerous fault of all due to the forces on the lumbar spine.
- Poor focus on form, there is a lot involved in a proper squat – aim for perfection. Practice doesn’t make perfect though – Practice makes permanent.
If your squat is inadequate, begin therapy by utilizing the below corrective exercises:
Wall squats – Begin facing a wall with your toes 6 inches from the wall. Take a squatting foot position and squat down pushing your butt back and down and keeping a neutral spine with your arms overhead. Do not touch the wall with your knees or hands. Perform 20 perfect reps to complete a set. Do this several times a week and move your feet closer to the wall each time.
Box Squats – Squat to a 10 inch box, rest at bottom with no alteration in posture, then squeeze and rise without rocking forward.
Bottom to Bottoms – Stay in the bottom position rising to the top once every 5 seconds. Work up to 5 straight minutes of this.
|Not going parallel||Quad Dominance, Weak Hip Extensors||Bottoms to bottoms, Wall Squats, Box squatting|
|Knees roll inside feet||Weak abductors||Deliberately abduct, attempt to push knees out|
|Dropping the head||Weak upper back or lack of focus||Wall Squats, Overhead Squats|
|Loss of lumbar extension||Tight hamstrings, cheat for balance due to weak glutes/hams||Wall Squats, Overhead Squats|
|Dropping Shoulders||Weak upper back, tight shoulders, lack of focus||Wall Squats, Overhead Squats|
|Heels off the ground||Cheat for balance due to weak glutes/hams||Bar Holds|
Table Modified from Page 69 of the CF-L1 Trainer Manual
Back Squat – Two Versions
The Weighted Back Squat is not included as one of the Original 9 foundational movements but I add it in here as it is the easiest weighted squat to learn and will jump start your athleticism while you gain the mobility to execute front squats and overhead squats. Although there are proponents on each side that see one or the other of the back squat versions as superior, it really boils down to what you are comfortable with and what your end goals are. High bar squats have the bar positioned on the upper trapezius, above the spine of the scapula (what most people feel as their shoulder blade), whereas low bar squats position the bar just below the spine of the scapula. Since the bar is closer to the pelvis with the low bar squat, the lever arm is shorter and the mechanical advantage greater – so you can lift more weight with a low bar squat properly executed.
Your muscles pull in straight lines but your joints move in an angular or rotational manner. Multiple muscle groups are thus required for any one movement. The farther away the resistance is from the center of movement (hips and knees for the squat) then simple physics tells you that the harder the weight will be to move. Low back squats shorten the lever arm so that you can move 5-10% more weight than you can with the bar positioned higher. Either way, the effects on the muscles remains pretty much the same.
Since you’ll be able to move more weight low bar, if you plan on competing in powerlifting, it would probably behoove you to learn how to squat low bar. Powerlifting isn’t exactly about being the strongest person; it’s about moving the most weight. If you’re slightly stronger than someone else, but you squat high bar and they squat low bar in competition, and they post a higher number than you, they beat you. It is irrelevant that you may have been producing more hip and knee extension torque; the sole measurement of proficiency in powerlifting is the amount of weight you can squat to competition depth.
With that in mind, since the form is slightly different, I’d recommend you take at least a few months to squat mostly low bar to learn the motor pattern while maintaining some high intensity work with high bar. Establishing a skill takes more practice than reestablishing or maintaining it. After you’ve mastered the movement, train however you want. Plenty of good squatters train mostly high bar. Fred Hatfield is a prominent example. Though I wouldn’t put myself in the same category, 90% of my squat training is high bar as well, and I’m no slouch.
Then, transition to all low bar squats for a few months to peak for a meet. Plenty more (Eric Lillebridge and Andrey Malanichev come to mind) train exclusively low bar all the time.
If you’re going to compete in powerlifting, learn how to squat low bar. After that, train with whatever bar position you’d like, but make sure you squat low bar for at least 4-8 weeks leading up to a meet to make sure your groove is fresh and locked in, and you have time to get comfortable handling the 5-10% heavier weights you’ll be able to move low bar.
If you’re training for weightlifting or CrossFit (for which weightlifting proficiency matters more than a huge 1rep max squat), there’s really no reason for you to ever squat low bar. As was previously established, there’s no significant difference between high and low bar squats in terms of how effectively they’ll train the muscles involved in squatting. High bar squats, since you can do them with a more upright torso, will help ingrain a more favorable position for catching heavy cleans and snatches.
If you’re training for literally anything else, I stand by my basic premise: It really doesn’t matter. If you like moving more weight in the gym, squat low bar. If your elbows get banged up squatting low bar, or you just want to give your body a break from handling really heavy weights, squat high bar. Squat however you enjoy squatting. Both will make you stronger. Personally, if I had to give the edge to one, it would probably be the high bar squat; for most people, it allows for a slightly longer range of motion. However, the difference isn’t big enough to make a ruckus about. Squat however you enjoy squatting and the rest will take care of itself.
Front Squat (FS)
We’ve written extensively on the value of the FS: https://www.healthandperformanceupdate.com/front-squats-a-primer/
- Same Starting position as the Squat
- Bar is racked on the shoulders (Front Rack Position)
- Keep elbows high and arms parallel with the ground
- Chest up, braced neutral spine position
- Hips travel back and down until hips are just below knees
- Knees out, tracking over toes
*Most common faults are improper rack (bar should contact the chest/delts and not keeping the elbows up during the lowering phase. As you lower the bar you will need to actively focus on keeping your elbow high.
Overhead Squat (OHS)
CrossFit describes the OHS as the “ultimate core exercise, the heart of the snatch, and peerless in developing effective athletic movement.” Since it places extreme demands on the transfer of energy from the core to extremities, it is an essential tool for the development of speed and power.
“The overhead squat is to midline control, stability, and balance what the clean and snatch are to power – unsurpassed.”
Overhead Squats: This exercise is the most demanding of the squat movements. Begin with a broom handle or PVC pipe and use a “snatch” type grip (hands very wide). If you can overhead squat correctly with a broom handle you can squat well doing anything. More on this later.
- Same strating position except arms overhead with a wide “snatch” grip.
- Active shoulders (actively push the bar up, face armpits forward)
- Elbows locked, weight on heels
- Chest up with spine in neutral braced positioned
- Hips travel back and down with bar remaining in the frontal plane
- Rest of squat is as previously described
*Most common faults are lack of active shoulders and allowing the bar to move forward of the frontal plane (which usually means a missed lift).
The top 3 obstacles to overcome in learning the overhead squat:
- Lack of skilled instruction/coaching (i.e. tons of BS out there)
- A Weak Squat – the OS cruelly punishes faults in squat posture, movement, and stability
- Starting with too much weight. I tried the bar (45 pounds) starting out and this was way too much. Start with a broomstick or PVC pipe.
To learn the OHS you’ll need to make sure you can Squat perfectly and be able to hold the perfect squat in the bottom position for at least 2 minutes. Learn the “pass through” to find your training grip and stretch your shoulders and (likely) tight pectoralis muscles. Next, be able to do the pass through at the top, bottom, and mid-range of the squatting movement. Feel comfortable at finding the frontal plane at any depth of the squat. Keep the bar in a solid vertical track much like mentioned for the other squatting movements. Increase the load in the smallest increments possible. Once you are adding load, always maintain active shoulders (press the weight up as you squat and keep your arm pits facing forward).
The difference between your OHS and your BS or FS is a potent indicator of your midline stability and control.
Shoulder Press/Push Press/Push Jerk
This progression of movements allows for the learning of motor recruitment patterns that are found in many challenges in life – on and off the field. The Bench Press – not as much. Even in Football there are no situations where you will find the need to press out perpendicular from your torso against a stable and fixed torso unless you are pushing people off of you after the whistle blows. “Core to extremity muscular recruitment is foundational to the effective and efficient performance of athletic movement”. These lifts help to cement the fact that movements such as jumping, punching, throwing, etc. orginate in the core (your power zone) and emanate outwards. If your power zone is weak, a 300 pound bench press will not compensate. Raw strength is developed with the Press while speed and power is developed with the Push Press and Push Jerk.
The Press: It is critical to engage the abs here because not doing so under heavy load will lead to dangerous thoracic extension and excessive lay back in the press. Press in strict form to overhead and pull your torso through to underneath.
- Hip width stance
- Hands on bar just outside shoulders
- Bar is in the Front Rack Pos but elbows are almost under the bar and ready to press.
- Chest up, neutral spine, and brace the abdominals HARD during this exercise
- Retract the head slightly as you push the bar up
- Once the bar passes your head bring your head back under the bar and lock the elbows out
*Common Faults are excessive layback which is fixed by contracting the abdominals harder, and the bar arcing around the face rather than traveling in a straight path.
The Push Press: Same setup but dip a few inches to give the bar a hip drive boost and then press out overhead.
Dip – with the hips
Drive – with the hips
Press – with the shoulders
The Push Jerk: This exercise builds on the prior two. Unique component is the press under the bar that is also used in the Snatch to some extent. Same setup, Same Dip, Same Drive up, once the bar begins to move, press and dip simultaneously to lockout the elbows when you are in the lower part of the dip – then stand.
Dip, Drive, Dip under the bar, Press to lockout.
When performed with good form and appropriately conditioned, you should PushPress 30% more than you Press and Push Jerk 30% more than you Push Press.
*Most common faults are lack of full hip extension during the Drive and landing too wide (this is not the snatch yet)
The Deadlift is foundational to all pulling lifts with the key elements of execution being the maintenance of a neutral spine and keeping the bar as close to the frontal plane as possible.
“The Deadlift is unrivaled in its simplicity and impact while unique in its capacity for increasing head to toe strength…keeps company with standing, running, jumping, and throwing for functionality but imparts quick and prominent athletic advantage like no other exercise.”
The Deadlift has been inappropriately named – it’s older name, the Healthlift – is more accurate in terms of connoting what it does for the human body. It is a component of what you do every day and is a component of the world’s fastest lift (Snatch) and the world’s most powerful lift (Clean). In summary, it is the safest way to lift ANY object off the ground.
Cues to a perfect deadlift:
- Natural stance with the feet under hips (if you jump up the width of the feet where you land should be your normal stance for the deadlift)
- Solid grip that can be parallel, alternate, or hook
- Hands wide enough to be just outside the legs
- Bar over the front of the feet
- Shoulders slightly forward of the bar
- Chest up, full breath to brace with the spine in a neutral position
- Tight abdominals
- Arms straight
- Keep your weight on your heels ( and push through your heels)
- Keep bar path close to your legs and hips and shoulders rise at the same rate until the bar clears the knees
*Most common faults are loss of a neutral spine (rounding the back), fix this by lessening the resistance…and hips rise before the chest (leading to a stiff-legged deadlift), fix this by cueing the athlete to lift the chest more aggressively.
Sumo Deadlift High Pull (SDHP): Builds on the DL but uses a wide stance and narrow grip. It is a great conjugate exercise to the Thruster and at low loads this can be substituted for the Concept 2 Rower.
If you’ve ever done upright rows, this is a similar grip (narrow).
- Take a wide “sumo” stance
- Braced, neutral spine
- Narrow grip inside the knees
- Deadlift – Shrug – then Pull with hips and legs until both are at full extension
- Powerful shrug into an upright row to complete just under the chin
*Most common fault is pulling early, the hips are not completely open before the shrug or arm pull.
Medicine Ball Cleans (MBC)
These building on the DL and SDHP and add the “pull-under” that is needed in the Clean and in the Snatch.
- DL stance with weight in heels
- Grab the Ball (which will be between your feet) with shoulders over the ball
- Arms straight, palms on outside of with fingertips pointing down
- Deadlift – shrug – pull-under – stand
- During the shrug, prepare to dip to pull the hands and elbows under the bar to the Front Rack position
*Common faults are lack of full hip extension and “curling” the ball up rather than shrugging since it is relatively light.
The Olympic lifts are the most challenging lifts to learn. Specifically these are the Clean and Jerk, and the Snatch. Do not avoid these because of their technical difficulties. The are a key to your development of strength, power, speed, mobility, coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy: the physical skills that we are after. Medicine Ball Cleans are taught to introduce the Olympic Lifts and the Dynamax 20 pounder is the standard (It’s also used in many CF WOD’s with Elizabeth being 150 “wall balls” for time).
Glute Ham Developer Situp (GHD Situp)
I know you want abs, everyone loves abs. If you want to know the “Truth about Abs” then we have that for you ;). Crunches will get you 25% to what you’re after. You’ll need other exercises for the rest. GHD situps are very similar to the old “Roman Chair Situps” that fell out of favor when the abdominal crunch began to be popular. The argument at the time was that the prime mover of the situp was the hip flexors and that the situp placed forces on the spine that were destructive. But if you do GHD Situps, the next day you are most sore in your….abs. Something is amiss.
The GHD situp is a full ROM exercise for the abs, or trunk flexors. Sure they use the hip flexors as well but they recruit the abdominals in three powerful ways.
- The trunk is taken from extension to flexion
- The role of the abs is primarily and powerfully isometric (keeps the torso stable). Isometric exercises have long been known to be a significant contributor to strength gains.
- This utilizes the abdominal wall in its primary function – stabilizing the spine in a neutral, braced position.
Over the past few decades of crunch dominant ab work, most people, athletes included are hip flexion weak which significantly hampers performance.
If the GHD situp causes our low back to hurt it is because you’re engaging the iliopsoas complex alone and not engaging the rectus femoris. To engage the rectus formis, straighten the legs as you come up with will impart more force to the movement and more isometric challenge to the abdominals, while preventing the cause of the back pain.
If you can’t do a proper GHD to at least parallel and hold it for 30 seconds, then start out with the ab mat until you’ve mastered 20-30 perfect from situps unbroken.
So there you have, in this article, the basics of anatomy and physiology for sport and the 9 foundational movements of CrossFit. The prior two articles discussed the foundations of CrossFit, the new definition of health, and of fitness, and the programming methodology so that you can take this outstanding basic strength and conditioning program to your gym – whether that be at home or at the local health club. Always remember to maintain your virtue in movement and your virtuosity in practice, virtuosity being to do the common uncommonly well. It’s all about fundamentals and building steadily, slowly, deliberately, continuously and consistently, on those fundamentals. Rome wasn’t built in a day and no one wins the SuperBowl without good blocking and tackling. You have to block and tackle to win. You have to be sound in fundamentals to win your best body – and your best life. Now go become who you were born to be….
Lanny Littlejohn, MD