When a new lifter comes through the doors of Burley for their first coaching session the first thing we address is the skill component of strength training. We generally start with the technique for the squat. While I watch them squat the first thing I look at (before stance width or bar position or depth) is the tempo of their movement. The tempo at which you lift can go a long way to informing me of your level of movement skill.

Often novice lifters will start the descent of their squat slowly and speed up as they hit the hole resulting in a sort of ‘bounce’ out of the bottom position. Bouncing into/out of the hole of a squat is not inherently bad. In fact, many advanced lifters will speed up as they descend in order to increase the stretch reflex they get allowing them to produce more force. The problem with a tempo change comes from the distinction between conscious and unconscious. Advanced lifters will consciously speed up knowing that they can maintain their position and rebound out of the hole. Novice lifters will unconsciously speed up.

I’ve found, in most of the lifters I’ve coached, that squatting an empty bar often feels much worse (and look worse) than squatting with even a relatively small amount of weight on the bar. This is a really common symptom of instability and a lack of control throughout the range of motion. That small amount of weight provides enough of a stimulus for the lifter to be able to (often unconsciously) generate more stability thus improving their movement quality.

Have you ever noticed that you can’t seem to hit depth with an empty bar but once you put a plate or two on it becomes much easier? I’ve heard (and said myself in the past) things like “I can’t hit depth with less than 100kg!”. Let’s just look critically at that statement for a minute using a hypothetical disaster situation. Let’s say that’s true and, after a worldwide apocalypse caused by the much-anticipated release of the latest album from TOOL and the ensuing chaos, you’re hiding out in a remote bushland area. You’re just going about your day, surviving and relishing the last of your iPhone battery by listening to the new album.

Suddenly the urge to defecate is upon you.

You’re telling me you’d have to spend an immeasurable amount of time searching the bush for a 100kg worth of rock to load up onto that suspiciously straight branch you found near your camp before throwing it on your back and, after removing your pants, squat down just to poop? Seems like you might be up the proverbial creek without a paddle…

Once we’ve found and addressed the cause(s) of the instability often we’ll have you squatting to depth comfortably without any weight. Your ability to control the new position and maintain the stability is then related to the speed at which you perform the movement. As a coach I want every lifter to lift as fast as possible. The caveat to the phrase ‘as possible’ comes from the level of control. The easiest way to understand this is to look at how we learn to drive.

When you first learn to drive I imagine most of you were probably taken to a large, relatively empty car park, put in the driver’s seat and instructed to crawl around the space at a speed best measured in metres per hour. If you’re as impatient as I am you probably found that frustrating. Ultimately it’s entirely necessary and generally best practice for learning any new skill.

Remove as many risk factors as possible and start very slowly.

When learning a new skill your brain is processing a huge number of inputs and variables every step of the way. This takes time, even for the quickest of wits. When you start too fast you’re far more likely to make mistakes that have significant consequences. You don’t learn to drive at 100km/h because in the time it takes you to recognise, process and respond to any mistake you make you’ve travelled much further than you would have crawling along in that car park. When you dive bomb to the bottom of the squat your ability to correct position on the way down is substantially limited. In order to give you enough time to process everything we slow you right down and often, we’ll break the movement into several steps.

These steps then become the foundations of your system for performing the squat. As you improve your system and it becomes more efficient and consistent we can begin to look at altering your tempo. In the meantime and in the words of the JP Cauchi:

Move slow, learn fast.

Until next time,

Stay Strong.


John Sheridan
John Sheridan

Burley Owner & Bearded Overlord

Burley Strength

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