You've heard it a thousand times. To get big and strong, ya' gotta' squat. But how many of you are doing it right? The squat isn't as complex as a clean and jerk, but whether you're a competitive powerlifter or just the basic trainee trying to put some size on your wheels, paying attention to some of the details of the lift can pay huge dividends.
Let's take a closer look at how to squat properly, then discuss some common problems and how to fix them.
No More Ugly Squats!
The key to the squat, like all exercises, is to perform it consistently with flawless technique. If you really strive to have perfect technique all the time, you'll not only add pounds to your lifts, you'll also decrease your chances of injury.
But what is perfect technique? I'm going to give you what I consider to be the ten most important tips to improving your squat technique.
1 – Hands In
Bringing the hands in on the bar can really help those who get "caved over" when squatting. When I say caving over, I mean when the shoulders roll forward, the chest is no longer up, the low back rounds, or a combination of all of these. (Obviously we don't want you to be totally upright, but excessive lean isn't conducive to squatting big weights, either.)
By bringing your hands in closer to your shoulders, your upper back and traps "bunch up," so to speak. Not only does this help give you a nice shelf to set the bar on, but it also activates the synergists in the upper back, creating an extension force that helps keep you more upright and your chest from caving in.
Obviously, this is limited by the flexibility in your wrists/forearms, anterior deltoids and pecs. As you work to get your hands in closer, do so gradually over the course of several workouts. Even if it's just a finger-width closer each workout, it's going to make a profound difference in your posture.
2 – Back Together and Tight!
Once you have your hands in nice and tight, think of pulling your shoulder blades back and together, squeezing as hard as possible. This will again help to "bunch up" your upper back and give you that nice shelf to rest the bar on. If you're skinny or don't have a lot of meat on your upper back, this can really make squatting more comfortable. Set the bar on top of this muscle shelf and you're ready to rock.
If your upper back isn't very developed, you'd be well-served to put some beef on this area. Exercises to help develop your upper back include Olympic pulls, cable rows to the neck or face, and prone shrugs.
3 – Comfortable Stance with Toes Out Slightly
Once you've unracked the weight and are getting set-up, you want to set your feet with a comfortable stance. Those with longer legs and shorter torsos (dolicomorphs) will probably prefer a slightly wider stance, while those with shorter legs and longer torsos (brachiomorphs) are usually more comfortable with a narrower stance. Find something that suits you and stick with it.
Toe position is something that can be argued with regards to pointing the toes straight forward or out slightly. Usually those with a closer stance prefer pointing the toes straight forward, while those with a wider stance need to toe out more. When you squat with a very wide stance and point the toes forward, it'll be very hard to go deep with the weight. Beyond that, you might have some balance issues as well. Toeing out more can usually solve 99% of the depth issues seen with wide-stance squats.
4 – Weight Balanced
While you may not realize the importance of having your weight balanced on light warm-up sets, it's extremely important to develop the right groove from the start. The weight should be balanced over the mid-foot or shifted slightly towards the heel. Again, comfort is most important here. You want to find a technique you're comfortable with and that will allow you to move the heaviest iron possible.
Keep in mind that if you get the weight too far towards the heel you'll fall over backwards and lose coolness points. Also, if the weight gets shifted towards your toes you'll get rounded over. Neither is conducive to moving heavy weights or your general health!
5 – Chest Up, Low Back Tight
This is an extremely important point to remember. Not only will it help your squatting form, but it'll also aid in keeping your low back healthy. I refer to this as the "muscle beach" effect, where you try to stick your chest out and up. If a beautiful member of the opposite sex walked past you on the beach, you'd want to have great posture and exude your astonishingly high levels of self-confidence, right?
Before you squat, really work to "puff" the chest out and elevate the rib cage. Not only will this help you keep your chest up throughout the set, it'll help you set a nice arch in your lower back.
6 – Focus on a Spot
Find a spot on the wall slightly above eye level and focus on it throughout your set. If you're facing a mirror, it's going to really tempt you to look down. Whether it's to checkout how "swole" your legs are getting or to admire your flawless technique, the fact is that your body tends to follow your eyes. By looking down at the ground you increase the chance of your head and chest coming down, thereby caving over and ruining the set. If you can't fight temptation, squat facing away from the mirror and keep your eyes up to ensure success.
7 – Big Breath, Core Tight
At a powerlifting meet, you'll always see the competitors taking a big breath immediately before they do any of the lifts, but especially before they squat. Taking in and holding a big breath prior to squatting increases your intra-abdominal pressure (IAP) and intra-thoracic pressure (ITP). Not only does this help stabilize the spine and make it more rigid, it also helps you move more weight.
After you've taken a big breath, you want to get all your core muscles really tight. Your low back should already be tight from using the muscle beach effect, but you also need to get your abs and obliques tight. Really brace your abs. In other words, make them tight like you're about to get punched in the gut. This mechanism is called abdominal bracing, and it's been scientifically proven to be more effective than abdominal hollowing. (Low Back Disorders, McGill, 2002).
8 – Sit Back
Working in both the sports performance and rehabilitative fields, I can't tell you how many times I've seen people squat with absolutely atrocious form. Not only do they not "sit back," they aren't even capable of sitting back!
When I was taking the class for my USA Weightlifting certification, Mike Kattan, a former strength coach for the Chicago Bulls, referred to America as the "gluteless society." To be blunt, most Americans have absolutely no posterior chain development!
To squat properly, you need to sit back. To sit back, you need to have strong glutes and hamstrings. A study by Caterisano indicated that the deeper you squat, the greater the glute activation becomes. Along with that, the more shallow you squat, the greater the quadriceps activation (~70% quads in a quarter-squat as compared to ~50% quads in a full squat).
If you're just plain weak, you need to focus on glute-ham raises, Romanian deadlifts, good mornings, reverse hypers, full squats, and basically any other exercise which works to develop the posterior chain. If your technique is poor, box squats are an excellent exercise to teach you the proper motor pattern as well as developing the posterior chain.
9 – Knees Out
As you're sitting back, you also need to force your knees out. This helps to activate the muscles of the hips and it also works to keep the femur, knee, and ankle in proper alignment. If your knees are collapsing on squats, you really need to focus on developing your thigh abductors, especially the glute medius and minimus.
The best exercise to work on the thigh abductors is performed using a Jumpstretch band. Double loop it and place it approximately one inch above the knees. Then perform walks side-to-side with the toes pointed forward.
To develop the abductors with hip and knee flexed, perform bodyweight squats in the same manner with the knees forced out to the sides throughout the course of the movement.
10 - Speed!
When trying to move serious weight, speed is essential. Louie Simmons, Dave Tate and the guys at Westside Barbell know that to move maximal weights they have to be strong and fast. It's such an important part of their training concept that they devote two of their four days in the gym to improving speed and acceleration.
I think almost everyone could really benefit from not only working to improve their concentric speed (e.g. coming up), but their eccentric speed as well (e.g. going down). When squatting, you need to think about hitting the hole with controlled speed. I'm not talking about being all loose and sloppy just to get down fast–you still have to be tight and in control. When you hit the hole with speed, you increase the potentiation of the stretch reflex and therefore come out of the hole with more speed!
If you still don't get this concept, think about a vertical jump. You wouldn't lower yourself very slowly and expect to jump very high, so why do it when you squat?
Perfect Technique Every Rep
This may sound simple, but it's easier said than done. From the moment you put the empty bar on your back to the last rep of your last set, you need to focus on squatting with proper technique. The old saying goes that practice makes perfect. That's a good saying, but this one is better: Perfect practice makes perfect.
The closer your warm-ups are to resembling your work sets, the more engrained that motor pattern is going to be in your memory and the easier it's going to be to repeat that motor pattern time and time again, no matter how much weight is on the bar!
Now let's take the ingredients I've given and put them all together. I've broken this part down into three separate sections:
- Preparation before the walk-out
- The walk-out and set-up
- The perfect rep
Many squat sets are won or lost by simply setting up properly, so give set-up the attention it deserves. As you read through this section, don't just skim over it and move on. Read it section by section, then close your eyes and walk through it, step-by-step. This will help burn the image in your mind and help you better understand what it takes to perform perfect squats.
1. Preparation Before the Walk-Out
Before you even approach the bar, you need to be visualizing what's about to happen. Go through some of the points given above and really focus on the ones that apply specifically to you. I know the two main points I need to focus on are keeping my chest up and forcing my knees out. Everyone is different, so focus on the ones that apply to you.
As you approach the bar, get the hands set exactly where you want them. As stated before, the closer you can comfortably get them to your shoulders, the better. Next, wiggle underneath the bar and pull your shoulder blades together and get tight. This is giving you that nice shelf the bar can rest on.
Move your back up and down on the bar until you find that place where the bar feels perfect. Once you hit the spot, make sure your chest is up and the bar is locked in where you want it. Take a big breath and press the feet through the floor to unrack the weight. Don't set the racks up so low that you have to do a good morning! Before you walk out, let the plates settle for a second.
2. The Walk-Out and Set-up
Hold your breath and take one step back. Don't be in a hurry; step back slow and under control. The next step will set your first leg, and the following step will set the opposite leg. If possible, take no more than three steps total as it wastes energy.
Get your toes pointed at the exact angle you want them. Next, balance the weight over the middle of the foot or slightly towards the heel. Shifting the weight forward is a big no-no as it doesn't allow you to sit back. Once the weight is balanced, elevate your ribcage and get that chest out. Not only does this help you keep your chest up throughout the rep, it also gets the low back tight and sets your arch.
Once the chest is elevated, find a spot on the wall slightly above eye level and dial in on it. Nothing should take your concentration off this spot, not even Debbie the Lycra Queen. Last, take a big breath and get the abs as tight as possible. You should be able to break boards over your stomach and low back if you're bracing correctly. Finally, it's time to squat!
3. The Perfect Rep
You've set up flawlessly and you're ready for the perfect rep. As you start, you simultaneously sit back and force the knees out. This is going to activate virtually every muscle in the upper thigh and hip region. As you're doing this, focus on getting down with some speed! We aren't focusing on increasing time under tension or accentuating the eccentric; we're focusing on hitting the hole with speed and coming out with speed.
As you hit the hole and start to rebound out of it, think about pressing into the bar with your back, keeping the eyes and chest up, and forcing the knees out. This is where most people lose the rep for one reason or another, so stay focused! Keep grinding through the sticking point and exhale slightly as you pass through it and reach the top. Recover and rejoice in the beauty of a flawless squat!
Now I'm going to give you a brief rundown of common problems I see in the squat, as well as ways to fix them.
Below are a few things you can try if you always get "caved over" in the squat.
- Stretch the hip flexors. Excessively tight hip flexors not only predispose you to a low back injury, but they keep you from squatting properly. Stretch them out daily if necessary.
- Move the hands in. As stated before, this helps keep the chest out and provides an extension force in the upper back area.
- Get your core stronger. 'Nuff said.
- Use the muscle beach effect. Lift the chest and ribcage to get the body upright from the start.
- Try other types of squats. Front squats, Olympic squats, and safety bar squats all force you to stay more upright than the traditional powerlifting squat.
- Lengthen your torso! Okay, so you can't really do this one, but it's true that people with longer torsos are more biomechanically efficient at squatting because they can stay more upright. Couple that with short femurs and you usually have someone who can squat compact cars!
What you can do is move the bar up on your back slightly. If the bar is too low, you won't necessarily round your back, but your chest will still be forced down. Remember, the bar has to stay over the feet so the lower the bar goes on your back the more forward lean you'll need to balance. Sometimes the bar actually needs to be lowered on the back, but this is usually the exception versus the rule.
Missing In Or Just Above The Hole
Missing in or just above the hole is probably the most common reason people miss reps in the squat. Several things can be utilized to help solve this problem.
- Speed work. While this may not always be the best option for bodybuilders or those looking for physique gains, speed work will definitely teach you to utilize the stretch-shortening cycle to its fullest. Methods of accommodating resistance (bands and chains) can be used here and will teach you to accelerate out of the hole. Don't forget to lower under control and hit the hole with some speed!
- Pause squats. For those looking to increase their explosive strength out of the hole, pause squats are another great option. They teach you to stay tight in the hole and explode out of it. Simply go to the bottom position, pause for a second, then explode up.
- Develop the posterior chain! The research has shown that the posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings, etc.) is most important in the deep position and on the concentric portion of the lift. If you aren't pounding your posterior chain, you aren't going to squat as much as you should.
Missing At The Midpoint Or Near The Top
This isn't a very common problem, but one I've seen in a few lifters I've worked with. Here are some ideas to help you finish out those big squats.
- Develop the quads. While the posterior chain is most often the weak link in squatting, sometimes it's actually the anterior chain that's holding a lifter back. Exercises such as lunges, step-ups, and Bulgarian squats all help to develop the quads and develop some finishing strength.
- Overload the top portion of the lift. Whether it's quarter-squats or high box squats, sometimes you need to work on a partial range of motion to destroy that sticking point. Not only will this get some extra weight on your back, it'll also strengthen the quads to a high degree since they'll be the most involved muscle group.
- Use accommodating resistance. Not only will it teach you to be more explosive and drive through your sticking point, it'll also overload the body at the top where you'd normally miss.
I hope this article has given you a good idea of what flawless squat technique should look and feel like. Whether you like it or not, squatting is one of those necessary evils when you enter the iron game and can make all the difference in your strength and physique. So work on your technique, get some weight on the bar, and find out what flawless squatting can do for you!