What could Stephen Covey tell us about Squatting?

I first came across this cool concept from Stephen Covey in one of his talks on productivity. He was speaking to a group of business students and, to drive home a point, used an illustration I’m sure those students will never forget and after you read this… neither will you!

After I share it with you, you’ll never forget it either.

As this man stood in front of the group of high-powered over-achievers he said, “Okay, time for a quiz.”

Then he pulled out a one-gallon, wide-mouthed Mason jar and set it on a table in front of him. Then he produced about a dozen fist-sized rocks and carefully placed them, one at a time, into the jar.

When the jar was filled to the top and no more rocks would fit inside, he asked, “Is this jar full?” Everyone in the class said, “Yes.” Then he said, “Really?”

He reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel. Then he dumped some gravel in and shook the jar causing pieces of gravel to work themselves down into the spaces between the big rocks.

Then he smiled and asked the group once more, “Is the jar full?”

By this time the class was onto him. “Probably not,” one of them answered. “Good!” he replied. And he reached under the table and brought out a bucket of sand. He started dumping the sand in and it went into all the spaces left between the rocks and the gravel. Once more he asked the question, “Is this jar full?”

Article4-2“No!” the class shouted. Once again he said, “Good!” Then he grabbed a pitcher of water and began to pour it in until the jar was filled to the brim. Then he looked up at the class and asked, “What is the point of this illustration?”

One eager beaver raised his hand and said, “The point is, no matter how full your schedule is, if you try really hard, you can always fit some more things into it!”

“No,” the speaker replied, “that’s not the point. The truth this illustration teaches us is:

If you don’t put the big rocks in first, you’ll never get them in at all.”

Our body has big rocks that need to be dealt with first and this concept applies to squatting too. The body’s big rocks are the hips, ankles and thoracic spine.

Why are those guys the big rocks? These joints serve as the foundation of movement for the joints above, which is the ankles for the knees, the hips for the lumbar spine, and the thoracic spine for the shoulder and neck.

Most often, an injury to a small rock (knees, low back, shoulders and neck) will originate

Article4-3For example a rotator cuff injury. The rotator cuff muscles help stabilize the shoulder joint. They are often asked to work in mechanically poor conditions, such as a slouched posture caused by an immobile thoracic spine. Under these conditions they are easily injured.

Therapy involves rehabilitation of the injured muscles but if nothing is done about the uninjured but immobile thoracic spine…

…the problem is never fixed and we run around putting out fires all the time.

The big rocks anatomically are form closure joints…which means the shape, structure or form of the joint provides the stability.

Form closure is achieved passively at end range (osteo-ligamentous restraints) or by the shape of the supporting surface. The center of mass of one bone is passively supported over the horizontal aspect of the body of the adjacent bone e.g. the tibia and fibula over the head of the talus, and the vertebral body on disc and body below.

The joints are very robust but inclined to respond to faulty loading by becoming im-mobile. This has serious consequences on the smaller rocks up the chain.

Try this. Get into your worst slumped position and slowly take your arms above your head. How far do your shoulders go before you hit end range? How do you think your shoulders would like pressing weight overhead from this position?

Many people are trashing their bodies in life and the gym because of poor postural relationships between restricted joints and weak muscles.

So what should we do?

As Stephen Covey would say “Put first things first”

That is we observe the movement- a squat- with the focus on the Big Rocks (the an-kles, hips and thoracic spine) and their relationship with the joints they serve (the

Article4-4Knees, lumbar spine and neck/ shoulder complex.

For example, if someone can’t sit below parallel with a flat back they will most likely have restrictions (or structural limitations) at the ankles or hips.

If the knees do not progress forward over the toes the ankles are restricted. This will make deep squatting difficult… and there will be little chance of an Overhead Squat which requires allot of mobility through all the big rocks.

You could choose a low bar, hip break squat which doesn’t require the ankle mobility or …

…you could try and work on your mobility.

Here’s a few techniques that I use to help people mobilize the big rocks so they can meet the positional demands of certain lifts

Article4-5Ankle Mobilization

The ankle mobilization improves the glide of the talocrual joint.

This allows the ankle to glide forward and the knees to progress over the toes so that deeper positions can be achieved.



Hip Mobilization

The hip mobilization distracts the femoral head in the socket leading to a relaxation of the associated muscles. This relaxation of the hip muscles improves both the range and the quality of the movement in that range.

Deeper hip positions can be achieved.


Article4-7Infant Crawl Pattern

It’s not just about mobilizing, we need to re-educate the body using patterns like the crawl. The crawl pattern can be performed to re-educate thoracic extension coupled with shoulder extension. This will be done after mobilizing the thoracic spine. Using mobility and re-education techniques such as these will make a huge difference to how your big rocks move and how you perform.

Moving better will mean those little rocks (the knees, lumbar spine and neck/ shoulder complex) don’t get so beat up.

You can look forward to less time rehabbing and more time lifting!

So thanks Mr. Covey. The Big Rocks approach works in productivity- both in business and the big lifts!