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Indicator Exercises (These Ain’t Your Parents’ Assessments!)

I’ll get my shameless plug out of the way now: for the 10 people that read this blog, we have a new class schedule at MBX and the prices are supah reasonable and there are hundreds (or at least 8) of different classes to try at thousands (again, 41 at the moment) of times throughout the week.

I’ve said for a while that I’m a big fan of the front squat. A lot of athletes at MBX favor the back squat, justifiably because it allows you to typically use more weight than a front squat. Hence, it looks more badass. Plus, you can totally fudge-up a back squat and still somehow make it out of the hole.

I tell everyone that I’m more impressed by a big front squat than a big back squat. How many guys have you ever seen with a big front squat that couldn’t back squat that number or more?

That’s right, not many.

But I don’t think that the front squat is the end-all-be-all of strength exercises. You wouldn’t say that any squat variation shows you the total body strength of a person. It leaves out valuable information on upper body strength and overall power.

So here are my “indicator” exercises. I tiered them in accordance with value.

1st Tier

The first tier consists of the overhead press (hereafter known as the press), front squat, conventional deadlift, and standing vertical jump (or SVJ).

I chose the press as my upper body movement for a few reasons. First, it requires total body stability through the legs, hips, and core. If you have a weak core, you’ll crumble underneath the weight, arch your back like a banana, or not be able to get it up (the worst problem of all).

Just like a banana.

Second, the press requires stability in the shoulder blades, as well as upward rotation. Many people have a tough time upwardly rotating the shoulder blades to accommodate their arms going overhead and I have gained a lot more respect for people capable of correctly putting their arms overhead. It’s not as common as you’d think.

Third, the press requires drastic shoulder and triceps strength to get the weight up and lock it out. The range of motion is very large and there’s no way to bounce the weight off your shoulders (except in maybe a push press) like you can do off of your chest in the bench press.

If you can press your own bodyweight over your head, you’re doing alright.

Next is the front squat. I chose it over the back squat for the reason I mentioned earlier: if you start to fudge it up, the weight is going to fall off of your shoulders and crash to the ground. This is because of the intense demand on the thoracic erectors and anterior core to keep the body upright. Versus the back squat where the demand is more on the lower back.

Next, I like the front squat because it demands greater ankle dorsiflexion than a back squat. There aren’t many exercises that really put us in (or close to) end-range dorsiflexion, but the front squat and goblet squat achieve that. And since, like our friends the upwardly rotating scaps, fully-dorsiflexed ankles can be very hard to come by, I have a respect for people who can achieve it.

Third, the front squat is a good test of overall leg strength. The demand on the hips is less due to your more upright posture and this places a great emphasis on the quads. And although we sometimes relegate the quads to all-show-no-go club with biceps and calves, it’s important to realize that they’re essentially 1/3 of the leg equation (glutes-quads-hams) and play a big role in squats, deads, single-leg patterns, sprinting, and jumping.

I haven’t fully determined a good number to shoot for on a front squat, but I think the 2x bodyweight neighborhood is pretty awesome.

Big front squats are awesome.

The third exercise I chose was the conventional deadlift. The first reason I love the conventional and have a great respect for it is the tremendous hip mobility it requires from a person. Specifically, hip flexion. Leverages aside, conventional is typically the most difficult of all the deadlift variations because of this mobility demand and long range-of-motion.

I paired the conventional deadlift with the front squat and press because they essentially cover all of the major mobility and stability requirements in the body. Mobile ankles, hips, thoracic spine, and shoulders. Stable knees, core, and shoulder blades.

The conventional deadlift also addresses the posterior chain aspect that’s missing from the front squat. It also requires strength in the lats, rhomboids, and traps to hold onto the bar and keep it close to the body during the pull!

The current marker for deadlifts seems somewhere around 2.5-3x bodyweight. (Obviously, that doesn’t include trap bar deadlifts.)

The last exercise I chose to place in the 1st tier is the standing vertical jump. Relatively untrainable (as compared with the power and Olympic lifts), the SVJ is probably the best marker of power that we have today. Although the first three exercises really encompass all of the mobility, stability, and strength demands of the body, the SVJ brings that explosive element to the table.

Like I said, the SVJ is relatively untrainable, meaning that an improvement of a few inches through a high school or college training career would be quite impressive. I don’t have exact numbers here, but the best verticals at the NFL and NHL combine are typically around 40 inches and 30 inches, respectively.

2nd Tier

Although the first tier seems to hit on pretty much every muscle group in the body, it definitely leaves out a few key movements. My second tier includes the pushup, bulgarian split squat, and chinup.

I included pushups for their extra demand on the chest and anterior core as compared with the press. They also include a slight rotation of the shoulder blades.

I think a common misconception is that everyone (especially men) should be able to do one pushup. Unfortunately, with the invention of the bench press, we have a generation of youth that are more concerned with finally benching 135 to impress their friends than actually being strong and athletic. The pushup helps address this by forcing you to be strong throughout your upper body and core, while at the same time not being round (because excess bodyfat will not help you complete your first pushup, but will probably help you bench more).

The second movement I chose was the bulgarian (rear foot elevated) split squat. First off, a single-leg movement requires stabilization of the thigh/leg in the sagittal, transverse, and frontal planes. Especially in the case of  a bulgarian where the back leg doesn’t contribute to much except balance.

But the real reason I chose this movement was the fact that you will have difficulty with it if you have tight hip flexors. In the case of a bulgarian, the body is forced to put one leg into extreme flexion, while leaving the non-working leg in extreme extension. This is a position that you only find with single-leg movements, most notably the bulgarian versus the lunge or split squat.

The third movement that I chose here was the chinup for overall upper body pulling strength. Similar to the press, it puts the shoulder blades through complete upward and downward rotation. And similar to the pushup, you can’t be “round” and be very good at chinups. Additionally, it places a great strength demand on the lats and subsequently the anterior core.

You should be able to do a chinup with 1/2x your bodyweight attached to you (if you’re a guy, less if you’re a girl because of the difference in muscle distribution) and anything close to 1x bodyweight is pretty amazing.

Taken from a Ben Bruno YouTube video.

Addressing My Blasphemy

Now I know what everyone’s thinking. Where’s the rowing? Barbell rows? Dumbbell rows? T-bar rows?

Josh, how could you leave out such a valuable exercise!?

Because I’m looking for indicator exercises, and rows don’t “indicate” much for me.

I know how the sayings go, “If you ain’t rowing, you ain’t growing!” And to a point, I agree. But let’s examine the row from a technical stance real quick. First off, the range of motion is smaller from a shoulder extension standpoint. We start at about 90 degrees of flexion and finish with 0. In the chinup, we start at 180 degrees of flexion and finish in the same position, albeit with greater elbow flexion. Therefore, your lats and even your biceps all get a better workout from chinups.

Second, there is minimal scapular rotation. We start with slight upward rotation and finish in a downwardly rotated position. Again, compared to the chinup where we go through a full range of upward and downward rotation. This means that our rhomboids probably get a better workout from chins too.

And although rows can be more easily scaled to a person’s current strength level than chins, it’s much harder to teach somebody to retract the shoulder blades and not jam their humerus into the front of their shoulder capsule.

So here’s where I think the real value is in rowing. Rows are the upper body farmer’s carry. Just holding a heavy dumbbell in your hand is enough to elicit a response from muscles of the upper back, especially if you perform a variation like a Kroc row where the reps can get up to 20, 30, or even 50.

Kroc rows: Just grab a weight and let ‘er rip!

For instance, deadstop barbell rows and Yates Rows are obviously different in the angle of the upper body, but also different in the time-under-tension of the upper back musculature! Maybe the difference in use and results is due to the second difference, not the first?

Don’t cut out horizontal rowing altogether. Just row smarter. Use a bilateral variation like a barbell row or TRX row and supplement it with some higher-rep dumbbell rowing. That way you can maintain your strength and put some muscle on that bony-thing you call an upper back!

What About The Clean&Jerk?

I debated throwing Oly lifts in here and here’s the reason I didn’t. For me, the C&J could replace the front squat and vertical jump, but not necessarily the conventional dead, press, pushup, bulgarian, or chinup. If you have a well-trained athlete, the C&J could absolutely be substituted for the front squat and SVJ.

Conclusion

So what are indicator exercises? They’re a way to sniff out deficiencies in your training. They’re a way to say, “Hey, maybe I should step my game up in the deadlift because I suck at it.” If we simplify it, strive for somewhere around 1/2x, 1x, 2x, and 3x bodyweight lifts in the chin, press, front squat, and conventional deadlift, respectively. It doesn’t have to be exact, but if you can’t do a bodyweight chin and you’re stuck in the deadlift, maybe try addressing your glaring weakness first.

My favorite thing about the big three (press, front squat, and conv. deadlift) is the idea that they encompass almost all of the mobility and stability that a person should have. If you aren’t mobile and stable, then what kind of base are your building your strength on?

Addtionally, you can take this post and analyze your own training real quick. Are you missing something? Are all of your upper body push exercises done with fixed shoulder blades? Maybe you don’t perform single-leg work or chinups. Or maybe you like my ideas on rowing and want to add some higher-rep rowing for upper back muscle and grip.

Or maybe you think I’m crazy. Which is also possible. But at the risk of using the word “sniff” twice in the same article, give these ideas the sniff test. See where your weaknesses are, in your strength, mobility, stability, or programming. These ideas might help you break through that plateau!

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