Lee Boyce is a Toronto-based strength coach who helps clients and athletes reach strength and conditioning, sports performance, and hypertrophy goals. In his new column, Basics Made Better, he’ll help you tweak classic exercises to squeeze out even more muscle gain. Follow him on Instagram.
Try this right now: Stand in front of a mirror at your gym. Now get into the bottom of a split squat, back knee off the ground slightly, front knee bent. Look straight ahead. Watch your hips closely. Where are they pointing? Are your hips fully square to the front? Or are they tilting off to the side ever so slightly?
Don’t be shocked if they’re tilting ever-so-slightly off to one side. And no, that’s not the ideal way to do a split squat. It’s also not the ideal way to do split-stance exercises either, and it’s holding you back on every single motion you do with a staggered stance.
The split stance, which has you placing one foot in front of the other, is a popular one in today’s gym world, for many reasons. First off, it’s an athletic position, and it’s a position you use often in life. Sure, the classic, balanced, feet-even stance you’d use when deadlifting or squatting, is ideal, but in real life, it just doesn’t happen that way, either on the field of play or when you’re pulling a bag of groceries out of you car. So training from a split stance has serious benefit, whether you’re in the bottom position, as you were in that split squat, or whether your feet are just slightly set apart.
But to make the most of this position, you need to find a way to keep your hips and shoulders square to the front the entire time. Doing this is not only safer for your body, but it’ll open a whole new world of gains in strength and stability through your glutes, abs, and lower back muscles.
Thing is, it takes mental focus to get this position right. Generally, when you do a split squat or lunge, or you hold a split stance, you think only about foot position, or you make sure your front knee doesn’t twist inward. All that’s good. But now, you need to layer one more thought onto that: Where are your hips? The name of the game should be total alignment, which includes rotation at the hips too.
What Hip Position Affects
Getting your hip position right in the split stance has plenty of benefits. Chief among them, it affects your spine. Your spine can help you bend at the waist, arch your back, flex laterally (as you do during a side bend) and rotate your torso one way while your hips go another.
This rotation is key. You can create throughout many parts of your spine, but you primarily want it to happen from your mid-spine, between your shoulder blades (also known as your thoracic spine). If your hips are rotating when you’re in a split stance or split squat position, there’s a good chance you’re emphasizing rotation through the lower back. You don’t want this, because it can wreak havoc on a healthy spine.
How do you stop it? By squeezing your glutes and abs hard when you’re in a split stance (look in the mirror: You’ll see the precise tension you have to apply to get your hips back the way they need to be). Think of pulling the ribcage down and using a slightly wider foot position to avoid rotating.
The bonus of making this adjustment is that you’ll experience new tension through your muscles. The length and tension of the hamstrings in the leading leg drastically changes when the hips are tucked properly. And sure, you’ll have to go a bit lighter with the weight, but you’ll get more benefit from doing all split stance exercises correctly, whether you’re lunging, doing split squats, or using the split stance for other movements like overhead presses or biceps curls.
And it will all make you even better in your everyday movement too, whether you’re walking out with the kids, taking a morning run, or driving the lane for a layup on the basketball court.
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