Find Your Own Groove In The Gym

Ever wondered why your training partner can squat deep below parallel, while no matter how much hip mobility and “dynamic warmup” drills you do it’s just not happening?  Maybe your upper back rounds a bit in the deadlift, but you know your lower back isn’t in a prone position and you’re vastly stronger this way? Maybe you try to adjust your form to suit the masses and don’t feel right, so you return to your way of doing things?

Don’t fret. You’re doing it right.

Just as some people are more comfortable with a wide stance on squats (generally taller guys and gals) with toes slightly pointed to the side, others prefer shoulder-width with toes pointed forward. We are all unique.

On a recent episode of Physique Science Radio, hosts Layne Norton and Sohee Lee had on “Glute Guy” Bret Contreras, and this very topic was discussed in detail.

Layne and Bret routinely get criticized by YouTube trolls for their forward lean on squats, but what the trolls seem to miss is Bret is north of 6 feet tall and Layne has long femurs in relation to his torso. They’ve found what works for them. The poundages they throw around speak for themselves, nor do you see them crippled with injuries.

Forget popular jargon like “don’t let your toes track over your knees.” You are different from the next person in the gym using the smith machine to do some sort of contorted good morning (no judging, it apparently works for him). If your best, strongest (even safest) squat dictates a little forward tracking over the toes, so be it.

Hint: Ultimately, once you’ve been in the game a while and have a good feel for training, it’s all about what works best for your own unique biomechanics!

For your own good, you need to shut off the exterior detractors. You need to shut off the internal over-analyzing voice in your head and truly listen to your body. You need to shut off your self doubts and put in the work. You know what’s best for you, just stop questioning everything (note: if you’re a complete newbie to the gym, maybe find a mentor or trainer to help you discover your groove first. There’s a learning curve here, don’t misinterpret).

Case in point: Here’s a photo of two femurs (the long bone acting as the base for those thick quadriceps muscles you’re sporting) direct from the Movement Fix blog. One connects to the pelvis at the hip joint pointed up, while the other connects on basically a 90-degree angle to the left. Do you think these two people will squat exactly the same? No chance.

I’m 6-foot-3 myself, and some would look at my squat and deadlift form and question it.

It’s not textbook form, but it works for my own, unique biomechanics.

I have a bit of upper back rounding on deadlifts, but my lower back is never in a prone position. I’ve been deadlifting this way for 13 years, and yet I got some criticism when I first posted this video below. Believe me, I’ve tried starting from a lower position with an upright stance, and the power output wasn’t there.

YouTube video

My story…

To take this a step further, though, just as form varies from one person to the next, so should exercise selection. Despite a steady diet of deadlifts in my early training days, my back was a constant point of contention, lacking in size in relation to my legs and chest despite training it in much the same fashion.

I thought if I trained it hard and heavy, with deadlifts and other compound movements, it would magically grow to the size of Ronnie Coleman’s. But no matter how much weight I deadlifted, the lats didn’t seem to budge. I wanted the Christmas tree look back there!

So how did I force my lat spread to get wider? Instead of pounding my head against the wall, doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, I figured I needed to change my approach to back training. Hitting my back in the low rep range that worked for my chest simply wasn’t yielding results, so I needed to think outside the box. Note: I was focused on hypertrophy first and foremost. A powerlifter shouldn’t neglect accessory work, but nor should it form the base of their workouts.

Basically, I “got freaky with it” when it came to building my back. What does this mean, you ask?

Answer: Changing angles, rep schemes and exercises as often as possible, and pumping up the volume (16+ sets of 10-15 reps per set each workout).

I found if I focused on movements that allowed me to really feel the lats contract with each rep (feel the stretch) and didn’t focus so much on the weight I was using, my back rewarded me with more width.

Here are a few of my favourites that have stood the test of time:

One-Arm T-Bar Rows

You want to emphasize the stretch on the negative (eccentric) portion of the lift (slow and controlled) and explode upward on the concentric. See the video below for an example. I use smaller plates for the largest range of motion possible, and work in the 12-15 rep range for the best pump, generally pyramiding up in weight for 4-5 sets. Start with a couple plates and keep adding weight each set until you no longer hit your desired rep range. This was ripped from John Meadows. Thanks, Mountain Dog.

YouTube video

(Editor’s note: Thankfully, I didn’t stay on the Vibram fad for long – they got smelly after two workouts – to the point where I got dirty looks in the gym)


Pullovers are a great movement for lat width as well, but form is key here. Lie on the bench with your head hanging off the end. Lower the weight slowly and feel the stretch at the bottom. On the concentric portion of the movement, only pull up to a point where the bottom half of the dumbbell is parallel to the top of your head. If you feel it in your triceps you’ve gone too far. Three sets of 10-12 with a fairly heavy weight (for you) will work wonders here.

YouTube video

 Closing Thoughts

Ultimately, you need to find the form, movement patterns and exercises that work best for you. If you’ve been training for a while, you should have a feel for your body and where it naturally wants to position itself for each exercise. Setup your stance to best suit your biomechanics. There are narrow squatters and wide squatters. As importantly, you need to find exercises that best suit you.

Keeping an eye on PubMed and following recommendations made there is fine, but Bret mentioned in the podcast that his research has found individual responses to exercises can vary greatly from one person to the next. Leg extensions might be an awesome exercise for one person, and ineffective for another. Read up on EMG at his site

Also of note, don’t compare your Level 1 to another guy’s Level 15. If you’ve been completely sedentary forever – and try to duplicate Layne Norton’s volume in your first foray into the gym – you’ll fail and fail hard.

Case in point:


Find your own groove. The results you seek will follow suit.

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Mitch Calvert is a Winnipeg-based fitness coach for men and women like his former self. Heavyset in his 20s, he lost 60 pounds and now helps clients find their spark and lose the weight for life.