As I talk with a lot of coaches, physios, and physicians a phrase I often hear is: "well he/she just needs to get stronger". Even those supposedly "in the know" say it so much it's almost reflexive — as if more strength or capacity is all that is preventing someone from getting healthier, picking their kids off the ground, winning gold medals, etc. Often we are more focused on the rep completion: rep or no rep, rather than the process or competency of that rep.
I think the most pertinent thing here is defining the goal of training. For nearly everyone, including professionals, the purpose should be to enhance movement efficiency and adaptability by teaching then reinforcing motor patterning (competency). Only then should capacity (output: numbers/stats, times, weights, reps) be pursued. Sure, a competitive weight lifter's (Olympic and power) main goal is maximizing capacity — the more weight, the more capable. In this group, it is essentially a linear relationship: the more weight the lifter can move, the more competitive they are.
But what about everyone else, from pro sports to weekend warriors and soccer moms? Does more strength automatically equal better performance? Injury prevention? Increased longevity? Does an NFL running back who squats 450 but keeps blowing out his hamstring need to "get stronger"? I guarantee if he gets stronger and squats 500 his hamstring problems will not just go away. The teaching and reinforcing of even basic motor tasks is almost always lacking and has probably been skipped past or brushed aside since junior high gym class. I am all for getting bigger, faster, stronger — these are crucial — but not at the cost of sustainable movement.
Yet this capacity-first mindset is easy to fall into and the long-term cost can be quite high. It's easy to throw more weight on the bar and blow up your ego, it is much more difficult to tease out movement faults and restore movement variability - I can say this firsthand as I rework my own competency in Oly lifts. But I think this argument for competency first fits both the biomechanics and neuroscience silos. Loss of movement expression, especially under increased load, only serves to stress and threaten the nervous system contributing to the experience of pain and plateau or loss of performance. A stressed-out system lacking neutrality and variability is a rigid, painful and injury-prone, not-gonna-last-long, system. Good riddance.
There needs to be a baseline competency that we must obey and display prior to going after capacity. AND, in the pursuit of capacity, we continue to monitor movement fluency, efficiency, and adaptability so that competence is maintained. I have found that maintaining competency allows capacity (the outputs) to come more easily and without as much risk. Look at Shannon Turley's training program for Stanford Football - quality is sought over quantity and ego is left at the door.
What is the best measure of competency? I don't think the system matters as much as the pursuit. You can make an argument for the FMS or anything else you can come up with that shows you (as the athlete, coach, or physio) where you stand and where you need to go in order to reach the training goals. It should be specific to the individual's training goals and should be revisited often. Those who last the longest (in sport and function) are often not necessarily the strongest but the ones who move with variability, efficiency, and resiliency.
Respect the movement process.
I've had a number of questions regarding the correct performance of the box squat such that I wanted to address it here. The main theme being "When performing box squats, should one sit on the box (apply all the weight to the box) before coming back up?"
I love box squats and coach them often in my clients. We should probably be doing some form of box squatting every 7-10 days to reinforce mechanics. It's an excellent tactile cue and external focus for the posterior chain allowing one to sit deeper into the squat and teaches the athlete how to maintain vertical tibias. I also find it as a useful progression of the hip hinge pattern, as well as a way to standardize depth of squatting for training noobs and/or groups.
In theory, the purpose of sitting on the box is to challenge the concentric drive out of the hole by reducing the elastic response (stretch-shortening) of the system during the transition from eccentric to concentric phases at the bottom of a traditional squat.
I understand that and share the goal to increase power out of the squat. But fully sitting on the box with a large external load on the spine is not a good idea:
1) It essentially forces a posterior pelvic tilt (or butt wink) in which the spine goes from a neutral position into a flexed position while the system come off of tension — this is nightmarish for spine and hip integrity. You're essentially relying on the passive structures of the lumbopelvis (IV disks, longitudinal ligaments, SI joints) rather than neuromuscular control — not exactly the goal of squatting.
2) In order to reclaim the tension needed to come off of sitting on the box, I have seen far too many generate that stability thru the spine by rocking forward and locking into hyperextension: a stable position, certainly, but not a sustainable one.
3) So we've essentially gone from a braced neutral spine (assuming set-up was correct) to an unbraced and flexed spine to an extended spine over the course of the movement — which is the opposite of the goal of squatting which is to maintain neutral spine while generating wicked force thru the lower extremities. I think we should absolutely challenge all spinal shapes for maximal competency and resiliency, just not during box squats with heavy weights on our backs.
So to correctly and safely perform the box squats, I coach my clients to touch and go.
1) Sit back into the posterior chain (with appropriate load ordering) and pull into the depth until the ischial tuberosities (sit bones) make contact with the box.
2) Once that tactile cue is received, rocket out of the bottom position to generate power out of the hole.
If you want to have the athlete pause for a beat, that's cool, just don't have them sit down. That isometric pause is essentially the ti-phasic training that Cal Dietz promotes, NOT completely coming off tension by sitting down. If you or your athlete is really obsessed with removing the stretch-shortening cycle from the squat (rarely is this sport appropriate, by the way, as even in jumping we dip before we drive to claim an elastic response), set the rack at the bottom depth desired and just have them squat it up from the bottom. This maintains braced neutral without loss of lumbopelvic position in the hole.
Bottomline: we love box squats and do them often — just don't sit on the box, bro.