One of the problems with the Internet is that its websites, blogs and podcasts offer undereducated and misguided trainers the promise of fame. As these trainers obsessively count their hits and Facebook fans, the web feeds on their narcissism and creates a distorted self-image. To bring a sense of order to the cyber-universe, I’m offering a series of articles that examine many of the dumb training recommendations of these self-appointed gurus – and I provide viable alternatives.
The first training recommendation I’d like to explore is the idea that cluster training is an effective training protocol for hack squats.
I first learned about cluster training from a textbook that weightlifting coach Carl Miller published in the late ’70s, so it’s certainly nothing new. It involves using prolonged repetitions between sets to increase the amount of weight used in the set and thus the overall intensity of the set. Here’s an example:
Let’s say you can deadlift 300 pounds for one rep and 260 pounds for three reps. If you were to rest 10-15 seconds between sets, pausing with the barbell on the floor between reps (not in the top position), you might be able to add an additional 20 pounds to the barbell. That way you are performing the same number of reps, but the intensity – based upon your best repetition maximum (1RM) – is greater, so you will be using more of the higher-threshold motor units. (For more information about the science behind this training method, I suggest you pick up a copy of my book Modern Trends in Strength Training.)
Cluster training has been around for a long time, but the hack squat exercise has been around longer. The hack squat, which can be described as a deadlift performed with the bar positioned behind the body, was popularized by wrestler Georg Karl Julius Hackenschmidt. Hackenschmidt, born in Estonia in 1878, won more than 3,000 straight matches over a span of 20 years.
In order to perform a true barbell hack squat, you need a barbell and an adjustable rack so you can place the barbell at an optimal height for picking up and racking the bar. Elevate your heels with a two-by-four so you can squat down with a straight back and so that your hips will be in alignment with your shoulders in the bottom position. (However, I prefer to use a wedged board instead of a two-by-four because it’s easier on the arches of the feet.)
Set the two-by-four in the middle of the power rack. Place a barbell on the rack so it is positioned about four to six inches lower than your gluteal line. Standing with your back to the bar, grasp the barbell. Oh, and this is one of the rare instances where I do recommend the use of straps, as you will be able to use a heavy weight and your grip will fail before your lower body muscles will.
Step forward, using small steps, until your heels rest on the board. Initiate the squatting motion by allowing your knees to travel as far forward as possible, without allowing your glutes to move back. Maintain a slight arch in the lower back. Once your knees have gone as far forward as possible, lower your hips to the bottom position of the squat. Be sure to keep your back upright by pushing the bottom of your sternum up. Don’t allow the shoulders to round forward, and be certain your hips are under your shoulders in the bottom position.
Cluster-Hack Combo: An Injury Just Waiting to Happen
Although cluster training and hack squats have long histories by themselves, it is highly inadvisable to use hack aquats in a cluster training protocol. Here are a few reasons why this is true:
First, hack squats should only be performed by those who have extensive strength preparation in the vastus medialis oblique (VMO), a quadriceps muscle that crosses the knee joint and is key in providing knee stability. Training with maximal loads in this exercise with cluster training places enormous torque on the knee extensors, torque that could result in injury to those who are not structurally balanced and who lack a high level of strength in the VMO.
As a general guideline, you should rest 10-15 seconds between reps during a cluster set. Holding a barbell for this long during a hack squat drains the strength of the forearms, thereby taking away the neural drive to the knee extensors that is necessary to make this exercise effective. Besides, it becomes a circus act trying to replace the barbell on squat racks between reps, which again takes away the needed neural drive to the knee extensors.
To be effective, cluster training requires the use of high loads, often exceeding 90 percent of maximum. As soon as you lean forward, the stress is taken away from the knee extensors once again. It’s difficult for most trainees to maintain their concentration for such an extended period, so that’s why in cluster training there is a greater potential for injury.
All in all, the barbell hack squat is best suited for hypertrophy or functional hypertrophy methods. Performing it with a relative-strength training method such as cluster training is not just dumb but potentially dangerous as well.
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