When The TUBOW Doesn't Help

by Jordan Burnett, SSC | June 19, 2019

at the bottom of the squat

I had been coaching Lauren for about three weeks. She’d been referred to me by another client and decided that she was going to take the plunge and do something about her health. At 25 years old she was overweight, had a history of chronic back pain, and had never even touched a barbell before. I coached her through her first day on the Novice Linear Progression and all seemed well. She was barely able to squat the empty bar for a couple of sets of five, but it was a start. Things progressed as you might expect: we added five pounds to her squat every session for 3x5. It was around the third week of her training that I started to notice her knees sliding forward at the bottom of the squat.

As a budding coach who was still developing his chops, I was excited. It was a problem to solve. This had not been an issue I had noticed with her before, but when one doubles the weight on the bar in such a short period of time, new problems can present themselves. I whipped out my trusty mental list of knee-related cues and went to work. “Knees out harder!” Didn’t work. “Set your knees early!” Damn, that one didn’t work either. And on and on it went, but to no avail. I had exhausted all the cues I had, and they just weren’t working. I decided it was time to break out the TUBOW.

The TUBOW, or Terribly Useful Block Of Wood, has been a very useful tool for many Starting Strength Coaches. I had used it several times myself with good success. It’s a beautifully simple premise: place a 2x4 upright on the floor at the precise point the lifter’s knee should stop moving forward. It provides a tactile cue for the lifter, giving him something with which to gauge the position of his knees in space during the lift. If the squat is performed without knocking the TUBOW over, it has been successfully executed without excess knee slide.

At the start of Lauren’s next squat session, I brought out the TUBOW, explained what I wanted her to do, and we got to work. On this particular day she was supposed to squat 90x5x3. The TUBOW didn’t move at all with the empty bar. It didn’t move at all during her next warmup at 60 pounds. I was sure that I’d figured it out and that her work sets would at least show some degree of improvement. Her last warmup was at 75 for a set of 3. She knocked the TUBOW over on the first rep. The thunderous clap of the 2x4 hitting the wood of the platform was particularly unsettling for me that day. We spent a little more time on it during that session, but eventually she had to complete her work sets and there was knee slide aplenty. I said to myself, “Well, she just needs more practice with it. It’s only her first time using it. We’ll keeping using it and see what happens.” We used the TUBOW for about 3 or 4 more sessions with no noticeable change in her knee slide during her work sets. I was stumped. Clearly there was something else at play here that required further analysis – the TUBOW doesn't work by itself every time.

The skeletal system is essentially a system of levers that is operated by our contracting muscles. These levers are not only influenced by the muscles and tendons that move them, but also by their relationships with each other. The need to balance the lifter/barbell system over our base of support constrains the system – the segments of the back, thighs and shins interact with each other in the context of performing the squat according to the model. For example, when looking at the bottom of the squat along the saggital plane, if the hips move backwards, they pull the knees back with them due to their connection via the femur. This then causes the back segment to become more horizontal and the shins to become more vertical.

In Lauren’s case, I knew that something in the kinetic chain was influencing her knees to slide forward at the bottom of the squat. I started at the knees and reverse engineered the problem. If the knees were sliding forward at the bottom, the hips must also be sliding forward at the bottom. So, then the question became “Why are the hips sliding forward?” The position of the hips relative to the knees at the bottom of the squat is a direct result of the angle of the back segment. I began to pay special attention to her back angle as she began to descend into the hole.

Lo and behold: her back angle was too vertical. Because the back segment was more vertical, the hip angle was more open, the knees were forced to close into more flexion and the shins became more horizontal, allowing the knees to travel too far forward over the toes. She was sitting her hips straight down upon descending. This resulted in her bottom position being 1-2 inches too deep with the hips coming forward, causing the knees to slide. What seemed like a problem that was local to the knees themselves could be traced back to the root cause of not assuming a horizontal back angle quickly enough when she initiated the squat.

I cued Lauren to shove her hips back and point her chest down at the floor immediately upon descending. The first rep wasn’t perfect, but that alone reduced her knee slide drastically. I told her to lean over even faster while reaching her hips back. Each rep got better and better until she performed the last rep of her set of 5 with no knee slide whatsoever. She racked the bar and casually said, “Well that felt way better.” She went on to perform her next two sets of 5 at 110 damn near perfectly. This was nearly 5 months ago. Today Lauren is about 3 months into Texas Method and is squatting 195 for a set of 3 on her intensity day with no knee slide in sight.

The TUBOW is not the guaranteed fix for knee slide, and it should be weighed carefully against our analysis of the execution of the lift and our understanding of the model. It’s easy to fall into the routine of assuming that every deviation from the model can be fixed by using the same tactics and cues for every lifter every single time. There is a tendency to develop an over-reliance on a familiar set of cues that work well for the majority of those we coach. “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

Our value as strength coaches, the thing that separates us from the Master Trainers at your local commercial gym, lies in a deep and intrinsic understanding of the mechanics of loaded human movement; not in our ability to memorize and regurgitate a list of cues in the hope that one of them will magically fix a specific problem that is individual to the lifter.

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