Confessions of an Ugly Squatter
This article is dedicated to those of you that either aren't squatting, or squatting with weights well below what you should be using because you have bad levers. I can't tell you how many times I've heard people bitch and moan about having a short back, long femurs, or just poor squatting levers all together. Some people get over it, but most just whine and then saunter over to the leg press machine. Not any more!
Let's face it, for some of us, squatting isn't the easiest thing in the world to do. On the flip side, certain people appear as though they were born to squat massive weights. One of my good buddies from Ball State, Steve Kouimanis, is one of those blessed with amazing squat leverages. In his first meet ever, this guy squatted 600 pounds, and a little over a year later squatted 660 on his way to a National Championship. Watching him squat was like poetry in motion: a super smooth set-up, that perfect blend of speed and control on the descent and ascent, and not one ounce of wasted motion the whole time. Let's just say I'm a little jealous.
So, what can you do about having poor levers? Not a damn thing! But, you can make the most out of what you have by using a little science and common sense. Below are just a few ways you can take your squatting to the next level!
Sounds simple, eh? I'm not going to delve into great detail regarding proper squat technique; there are several articles on this site dedicated to that topic alone. I'd highly suggest you read Dave Tate's squat articles or my article 10 Tips for Flawless Squattin' for a more thorough breakdown.
What we're looking for here, however, is proper technique on every rep from start to finish. We want to hardwire this movement into your brain so that when you get to those PR attempts or heaviest sets, your brain knows nothing other than flawless form. To do this, you need to make every rep perfect!
Most people come into the gym, hit a couple sloppy warm-up reps to get the blood flowing, and then wonder why their technique is atrocious as the weights get heavier. A thorough warm-up where every rep is perfect will improve your squat by leaps and bounds!
This is sometimes easier said than done, but I'm going to give you some heavy artillery to improve your posture while squatting. When you have bad levers, the first thing that usually happens is your chest gets caved in, you get forward on your toes, and then you get your head ripped off by the bar! If you want to squat well, you have to force your chest up. Here are just a few ideas to help you do this:
Chest up from the set-up
A lot of poor squatters who get caved in are doomed from the start. It's really simple, if you start with your chest caved over, you have very little chance of bringing it back into a good position. At the very least, you're going to make the lift much harder than it needs to be. To remedy this, make sure that you force your chest up from the start. While you're setting up, use the "muscle beach" effect of pushing your chest up and out like you're at the beach. This will force your chest out and set your back before you squat.
Arch the upper back
I wish I could take credit for coming up with this one, but I can't. Jim Wendler discussed in a recent article about arching the upper back when squatting. This is an excellent coaching cue, as it kills two birds with one stone. By arching the upper back you not only set the entire back into a perfect squatting position, but you also force the chest out. It may seem a little awkward at first, but this is another way to think about forcing your chest out from the start.
Move the hands in
This tip is more applicable to lighter lifters and/or those with good flexibility in the chest, shoulders and wrists. As you're warming up, slowly work your hands in closer to your shoulders on each successive set. By moving your hands in, this creates an extension effect in your upper back that helps you force your chest out.
Elbows down and forward
This is an excellent tip that not enough people use. Once you're set-up and ready to squat, take your elbows and rotate them forward so they're pointing almost straight down. If your hands are in close on the bar, this will pin your elbows into your lats, increasing your stability even further.
Decreasing your leverage in training is one of the simplest things you can do to improve your overall squatting ability. In fact, Ed Coan often talks about how the majority of his off-season training is geared around high-bar Olympic squats rather than powerlifting squats!
Powerlifters are masters of biomechanics: a low-bar, wide-stance squat is a biomechanically efficient way to hit PR's in training or on the platform. But, if you ever played team sports in high school, you probably had a coach that told you to "make practice harder than the game" and then proceeded to make you do defensive slides, run suicides, and perform push-ups and sit-ups until you puke. But this adage actually works very well for off-season squat training.
To decrease your leverage, take every aspect that makes squatting easier or more efficient and do the opposite. Put the bar up high. Take your stance in narrow. Move your hands out wider. Just by doing these things, you'll have to work even harder to keep your chest up, and you should be able to go deeper than before as well.
Decrease your leverage in training for a mesocycle or two and then return to your normal squats. They may seem a little bit off at first as you "re-groove" your motor patterns, but in the end you'll be that much stronger!
This tip goes hand-in-hand with the previous one. Front squats, safety bar squats and Olympic squats all decrease your leverages and make you work that much harder. Most importantly, all these squatting variations make it more difficult to keep your chest up. By performing these squats, your torso muscles will really feel the brunt of the work. Many lifters who switch from back squats to front squats say they can't get over how sore their abs are the next day!
Another thing you want to focus on while performing these exercises is to make them look and feel as close to a powerlifting style squat as possible. USA World Team member Greg Simmons said that he's gotten to the point where safety bar squats and Olympic squats feel almost identical to his PL-style back squat. Once you get to this point, hopefully you'll be squatting close to four times bodyweight as well! (Greg currently squats 568 pounds in the 148 pound weight class.)
This might sound simple, but I'm always amazed at how people want to isolate certain muscle groups when they squat. Whether it's the glutes, hamstrings, quads, adductors, spinal erectors or anything else, I want to use every single muscle fiber I can to move that weight! This should be true for you as well, whether your goal is to build some steel wheels or just move massive amounts of weight.
Hopefully I don't have to go into great depth telling you what exercises to use to bring up your squat, but one thing I will say is please get your ass off the leg curl, leg extension and booty blaster machines in hopes of driving your squat up! Everyone has slightly different technique, levers and strength levels, but these machines focus on muscles, not movements, and there are about a thousand better choices out there.
Just a few exercises you can use to build your squat are the squat variations listed above, lunges, Romanian deadlifts, good mornings, Bulgarian squats, single leg squats, glute ham raises, reverse hypers, back extensions and a ton of other exercises. By the time you count the exercises listed above and their derivatives, you have enough movements to blow up your squat for years to come, without so much as looking at a machine!
This is my last and probably best piece of advice. When I first started powerlifting, I was trying to figure out why the hell my squat wasn't moving. My deadlift was about 100 pounds over my best squat, and to me that simply wasn't acceptable. The reason? Every time I entered the gym on squat day, I'd dread the workout to come. Mentally, I was already beaten. It wasn't until I stopped fearing the movement that I started getting better at it.
The best thing you can do is keep getting under the bar! Hone your form until it's picture perfect. Use different types of squats. Strengthen the muscles of your hips, legs and low back until they start to resemble hydraulic jacks. Keep doing this and eventually you'll win more battles with the squat bar than you lose. As they say, "confidence breeds success, and success breeds confidence."
Squatting is like any challenge in life: we can either pony-up and get the job done, or we can put our tail between our legs and move on. The choice is yours, but I personally love a challenge. Squatting is a hard exercise whether you have great levers or not, but that's also why it's the most rewarding exercise you can do for your strength levels and physique.
Now get your butt into the gym and have a great squat workout!