Do you have “crazy feet”? When squatting in your normal foot position, do the arches collapse and tripod connection is lost on each rep? When you try to squat with our recommended foot position, or anything better or different than your normal, do your heels slide in and/or the toes slide out? When you receive a snatch or clean, do your feet jump out and toes turn out excessively and inconsistently? Then the answer is YES. We’re talking about complete lack of control and constant movement of the feet where there should be a calmness, a stillness, STABILITY. The feet should be a solid, immovable foundation as you descend and ascend through a squat rep AND the moment they return to the ground upon reception of a snatch and clean – not another changing variable. For athletes in this category, along with recommendations resulting from the assessment and assignment process, I’ve found that the desired changes we seek can be assisted and expedited by using “training wheels” for the feet.
These specific training wheels are what I call “Contraption Squats”: using a solid object to block the feet and lock them into a specific position. With these, we can manipulate the feet and gain that control with the purpose of aiding in the development of a more stable and consistent foot position, teach the body quality up from the feet, and assist with overall mobility improvements. This eliminates or lessens the potential for compensation with the feet, just as the reverse grip for the overhead drill does for the forward twist of the arms, and the straps do for your grip width and finger wrap of your front rack position. Also, like the overhead and front rack exaggeration drills, we can increase and decrease difficulty and use the simple and effective concept of progression. These can be used alongside working on your overhead and front rack positions and should absolutely be combined with any individualized mobility work that you’ve been assigned with information gathered from the bottom position assessment.
This has been a surprisingly powerful tool for me in helping those that really need it, but I’ve kept it mostly to myself up to this point. When I reflect and think about why I’ve held back, I can see that it has been from fear of how they might be perceived by other coaches and especially Physical Therapists in the community. I’ve always assumed they would be rejected on some level without any consideration being given to them. As we’ve previously covered, foot position is a VERY touchy subject, and Contraption Squats are forcing the feet into a specific position. The position I’m aiming for is that “gold standard” of shoulder-width apart and a 0-15 degree turnout of the toes. To someone who preaches a much wider range of individualization with the feet, I can see how this could be perceived as very extreme or even unsafe. Additionally, the bumper plates, metal plates, and dumbbells that lay on the floor and make up the “contraption” could seem elaborate and sketchy to the uninformed. In fact, the phrases “badly made” and “unsafe” are found in the definition of the word “contraption”:
“A machine or device that appears strange or unnecessarily complicated, and often badly made or unsafe.”
With the insecurities I have about the potential negative perception of the concept, perhaps I should have come up with a name less intimidating or questionable, but it’s just the word that came to mind; it seemed catchy to athletes, and it stuck. As I thought about it, I reasoned that there are certainly pieces of equipment or devices used in other sports that from the outside looking in seem odd, unnecessary, or extreme but to the insiders are priceless tools to help make change or learn and develop the basics. In the end, as a coach and athlete, I’m more than open to and ready for extreme measures if it is helpful in any way to reaching goals we are trying to accomplish, and certainly most other coaches and athletes from any sport would say the same.
And yet, some in the community will still indicate that forcing foot position in this way (especially such a specific one) is far too aggressive. But in the end this is mobility work. You are going into and out of a stretch for different amounts of time, at most with light loads. Saying this is unsafe is like saying a thoracic stretch with a barbell and foam roller is unsafe. If we are not aggressive with stretches or other mobility work, if we do not EXAGGERATE, change will not be made. Just like if we are not aggressive with our strength work, and fight through difficult reps, we will not get stronger. Or if we do not do exercises that leave us breathless, we will not increase our work capacity. I’m not saying it should be or has to be painful in an injurious way, but we must push ourselves to discomfort to effect change.
Following is a list of circumstances and statements that should be labeled as “unsafe” instead; and they certainly limit your potential in the Olympic lifts. (Remember, that while the below are common, weightlifting is still statistically one of the safest activities.)
- The acceptance or allowance of compensation in the feet and the resulting impact up through the rest of the body., either in squats, or squats and cleans.
- Limiting squat depth and therefore not preparing the body for the extreme depth that is unavoidable and optimal with heavy snatches and cleans.
- “That’s just how I lift” (belittling, justifying, or “sugar-coating” compensations that could be improved upon).
- Or worse, “I think it’s my mobility” and then not assessing to confirm.
- Even worse, “I know it’s my mobility” and then not taking the appropriate steps to work on it.
- Or THE worst, “It’s my anatomy” as an excuse not to examine possible mobility limitations they COULD work on.
This last statement cannot be overstated enough. While understanding your individual anatomy and how variations (such as retroversion) can change technique slightly, it does not mean you stop trying to continuously improve your positioning! While variations such as hip retroversion may limit a completely straightforward foot in the bottom position of a squat, that does not mean we should accept an extremely toed-out position either. I have never met an athlete with significant retroversion that could not greatly improve their positioning (and move their feet closer to that 15 degree toe-out “gold standard”) through consistent mobility work focusing on improving hip internal rotation, tibial internal rotation, and ankle dorsiflexion. While it may take time to see large improvements, consistency to purposeful mobility work paired with these exercises you will soon read about can help almost everyone move in this more optimal manner.
What about the research? Unfortunately, it’s not there. If it HAD to be available before something could be used, then nothing would ever be invented, nothing would change, nothing would progress, and nobody would improve. I’ve experimented with this and a handful of other ideas, concepts, methods, and cues at any given time. Some are successful, some not. I hope you as an athlete and/or coach have the courage and confidence to go out there and experiment in general. Whether it produces positive results or not, any experiment is a success with the information you’ll obtain and what you’ll learn and be able to use moving forward.
With this specific experiment I’ve discovered this extreme contraption setup can help fix the extreme compensations that are seen in athletes who have complete lack of control of their feet. Following is an overview of some of the experiences that I’ve had that have led me to this conclusion.
I remember the first day I played with this concept of blocking feet. I walked through the gym and noticed an athlete doing back squats with a bumper plate between his heels. My wife Jodi, who is a brilliant coach in all definitions of the word, was coaching so I asked her what was going on. She placed it between the athlete’s heels because she got tired of his heels sliding in. I immediately saw the genius in it, especially since I was familiar with the athlete and could see the difference in his foot position and how he was now able to maintain it. I turned into the idea thief that I am and the experiment began. I went straight to the weightlifting gym and excitedly got to work. I knew I had something to keep “out of control” feet where I wanted them to stay, and therefore the athlete would maintain more foot stability. But I also knew there could be other mobility restrictions and compensation could still bleed up. So, I thought combining heel elevation with blocking the feet could maybe limit that and increase quality. With that in mind, the plan was to build up from the feet with mobility work, and progress the feet in (more narrow and/or turned in) and the heels down over time, working slowly towards the gold standard with less and less elevation.
My first step was to look at the athlete’s ability while locked into the gold standard foot position without elevation (specifically, the most difficult end of the range: shoulder width apart and 0 degree turnout of the toes). My thinking was that I would take note of the amount of lacking quality up from the feet and squat depth, and then decide what 1) width, 2) turnout, and 3) elevation to start out with. I’ve been thrilled with the results: During initial observation with feet locked to the gold standard, the quality of the entire squat was improved for an estimated 95% of athletes (let that sink in for a moment). Now, sometimes depth is slightly more limited than usual, sometimes it’s the same, and sometimes the athlete was able to go deeper! (Remember this is with more narrow and straighter feet than is normal for them, AND with solid overall quality). The contraption would either block the depth that would cause compensation for the individual, or improve their positions and movement up from the feet so much that it allowed them to push past a depth they otherwise would not be able to get to.
I learned that by grabbing control of the feet in this way (meaning that they are now not sliding around as the athlete descends and tries to keep knees open and stay upright) and therefore maintaining a more quality and stable base, it benefits the body up from that point. The athlete can now execute on common cues (“knees out”) without the compensated feet dictating their movement. Often the only area needing improvement was depth, and that’s where heel elevation comes in. The combination of the two is magical, and together they make up this entire method of “Contraption Squats.” NOW they can sink to new depths WITH the quality we want them to learn and reinforce (in the feet AND up through the rest of the body).
So what the heck is this contraption anyway, and how does one use it? Read on!
Until next time,
2-Time Olympian, USAW
Dr. Aaron Horschig, PT,
DPT, CSCS, USAW
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