It should come as no surprise that two of the biggest challenges with beginner clients are body weight movements and anything utilizing a kettlebell. Both ask them to use muscles and move in ways that are completely foreign to them, and the ways their bodies move on a daily basis.
Here are 2 of the 4 tips to help a client to become successful at Inverted Rows and Bodyweight Squats. We will cover Push-Ups and Kettlebell Swings in part 2.
In the decade plus that I’ve been teaching Weightlifting to the general PE population at the high school I work at, I’m most proud of the fact that the Pull-Up has gone from a forgotten movement to something that every student can perform at least one rep by the end of the year.
Instead of asking each other how much they can bench, the question is now “How many pull-ups can you do?” The key to getting all kids, big and small to do pull-ups are inverted rows. We start with their feet on the ground, then elevate them onto a bench.
Once they can perform ten solid inverted rows with their feet elevated, touching the bar, they should be able to perform at least one full pull-up or chin-up. But they can’t be sloppy, their shoulders must remain packed the entire movement in order to fully transfer all their strength to the bar.
For that we use two drills, the batwing, popularized by Dan John, and scapular retraction. The batwing is done lying prone on either a flat or incline bench, with a very light weight in each hand, if anything. Keeping the elbows close to the body, they are drawn up and behind the centerline of the torso until the hands are next to the rib cage and the elbows are pointing behind them.
Hold this position for 5-10 seconds, then rest for 30 seconds, then repeat for 3-5 sets. Gradually increase the time of the hold until they can hold each set for 45 seconds. Scapular retractions can be performed either in an inverted row position, or hanging vertically from a pull-up bar, and should be done with an overhand grip.
Keeping the core tight, allow the shoulders to disconnect from the torso and the shoulder blades to spread. Then, re-pack the shoulders, and squeeze the shoulder blades together, holding this position for a second or two. Perform 3-5 sets of 5-10 reps. In language your clients can understand, these will strengthen the muscles between the shoulder blades, as well as the muscles high on the lats, just below the armpits. These are key in successfully performing inverted rows and pull-ups.
Again, teaching 150 high schoolers per year how to properly squat is a challenge, but it has taught me a few things. They, like your clients, tend to forget about the muscles they can’t see, namely their glutes.
So, the first thing we do is a drill that teaches them to “trust their butt,” in other words, to initiate the squat with a hinge and not drop straight down. To do this they stand with their backs against a fence/wall, and then step away about 8 inches. Then, keeping a tall chest, they reach back with their butt until it touches the fence, and then sit down from there until they reach parallel.
To stand they reverse the movement, driving through their heels up, and then bringing their hips forward at the top. It is a popular topic in the industry to immediately start attacking the hip flexors with stretches from multiple angles when a client is challenged by a bodyweight squat. While some might definitely need this, don’t be so quick to this conclusion.
While a 15 year old kid has been sitting in a desk at school for 9-10 years at this point, they haven’t put in the 20-30 years that our clients have. But they still exhibit the same difficulties squatting. What a teenager does have in common with an adult is tight ligaments and tendons, not from sitting for decades, but from going through growth spurts in which the bones are growing faster than the ligaments and tendons can keep up with.
Most of them (usually the taller ones who have recently shot up a few inches) have tight ankles which do not allow the knees to travel far enough forward, resulting in a movement pattern that could easily be labeled as a hip tightness issue, which it is not. Regular ankle stretches done throughout the day as homework help here tremendously.
Lastly, both adults and kids suffer from not only gluteal amnesia, but also “hip flexor amnesia,” in that, they don’t know how to use their hip flexors to pull them down into a squat. An old adult client of mine always knew he had a successful squatting workout when, the day after, the front of his hips felt like someone had hit them with a ball peen hammer.
A good partner drill to wake up the hips is to have partner A lay down on the ground on their back with their feet towards partner B. Partner A puts their heels on partner B’s thighs, just above the knee with their feet dorsiflexed. Partner B places their hands on top of Partner A’s feet, and provides resistance while Partner A pulls their knees up toward their own armpits.
After 3-4 single repetitions of this, Partner A stands back up, and then performs a squat, making a conscious decision to use the hips to pull them down into the bottom position. Without even intending to, this assists them in maintaining a neutral spine at the bottom.
Hopefully this helps you improve your clients Inverted Rows and Bodyweight Squats, stay tuned for Part 2, where we address Push-Ups and Kettlebell Swings!
Tim Peterson, Chief FitRanX® Instructor