It pains me to see ugly squats. Seriously. Physical pain, nausea, and nervous ticks all occur when I see the average gym goer hit the iron and try to squat.
The only thing I can imagine being worse are the clowns who still hang out in the Smith machine so they can "hit their glutes and hams harder."
A few weeks ago, Eric Cressey wrote an article titled The Seven Habits of Highly Defective Benchers, and it was fantastic. So yes, this is blatant plagiarism at its finest. (Plagiarism between Eric and me is fine, though, because for the first two years we wrote for T Nation, everyone thought we were the same person anyway!)
Most importantly, however, his article got me thinking about my favorite lift, the squat.
As I've espoused in earlier articles, I'm definitely not the world's greatest squatter. But for someone with long legs and a short torso, but a will to squat more weight, I've done alright for myself. And hopefully over the course of this article, I'm going to help you take your squat to the next level as well.
Here are my top five habits of defective squatters. Learn or be crushed.
Habit #1: Losing Your Low Back Arch
Losing your lower back arch in the hole of a squat is a surefire way to not only lower your training poundages, but to put your body at increased risk of injury as well.
When you lose your neutral spine position, you not only stretch the posterior ligaments that support your spine, but you lose the ability of the deep spinal erectors to produce a posterior shear force. In layman's terms, you increase the likelihood of spraining a ligament or herniating a disc in your back, neither of which sounds like a whole lot of fun!
While many think that some simple hamstring stretching is all it takes to rectify the problem, that's a pretty rudimentary way to look at it. What you have is a stiffness imbalance between your hips and your lower back.
"Stiffness" is a fancy way of saying relative flexibility. In this case, the muscles that surround your hips are less flexible than the muscles that surround your lumbar spine. When you move into deep hip flexion (i.e. a squat) and the muscles of your hips are stiffer than your lumbar spine, you're forced into lumbar flexion instead. If you want to fix this, you have to balance the stiffness.
Will old-school static stretching help? To some degree, sure. However, that's only one part of the equation. Instead of just working on the hips, why not focus on fixing the hips, the lumbar spine, and the motor pattern all at the same time?
This is what I described to some degree in the Mythbusters Vol 3 article. Foam rolling combined with dynamic and static flexibility work for all the muscles supporting the hips is important. Couple that with some serious core training (which I'll discuss later), and you'll be well on your way to success.
Finally, maintaining a neutral spine will lead to more hip recruitment and a better transfer of energy to the bar. Not only will you be safer, but you'll be moving more weight to boot.
Solution: Squat to a high box.
Beyond the remedial hip and lumbar spine work, you'll need to couple that with squat training that works within your functional range. This is the range of motion that you can squat without losing the arch in your lower back. This will vary depending on the type of squat you're performing (front squat, back squat, safety bar squat, etc.).
In this case, squat to a box that's just above the point where you'd lose your arch. Over the course of a couple weeks, continue to lower the box until you're squatting to a depth you're comfortable with.
Habit #2: Knee Caving
Another common flaw in squatting is knee caving, especially when coming out of the hole.
Now, we could argue biomechanics until we're blue in the face. Is it weak adductors? Weak glutes? Weak hammies? And depending on what research we're looking at, almost any of those answers could be valid. For now, though, I'm with functional movement guru Gray Cook — instead of isolating a muscle, let's just try and correct the pattern.
Knee caving, like losing your low back arch, reflects the idea of an energy leak.
Now, I know what some of you are going to say: "But I've seen world class Olympic lifters squat that way and they aren't injured!"
First off, you don't know that they aren't injured. World-class athletes are quite often paid to compete, so they're willing and/or forced to train through a lot of things they probably shouldn't train through.
Second, and I hate to be the one to break this to you, but you probably aren't world class. Remember that a lot of the best strength athletes in the world are at the top merely because they're genetically predisposed to handle ridiculous training volumes and programs.
Just because they do it, and can get away with it, doesn't mean you should.
Solution: Use bands to re-groove your squat pattern.
This is a simple tip that works time and again. Take a mini-band from EliteFTS and double it up around your knees. As you sit back/down, make sure to keep your knees out. Ideally, maintain a neutral alignment between your feet, knees, and hips.
If you're used to letting your knees cave, it may take a little while to get the hang of it, but you'll be rewarded, again, with safer squats and more weight on the bar.
Habit #3: A Shit Setup
If your setup sucks, your squat is going to suck. Period.
The setup determines the rest of your lift. If you don't lift your chest prior to initiating the rep, your chest will be caved over throughout. If you don't set your arch in the beginning, you'll never get it set.
Think of it like this: Whatever little issues you have before you squat will only be magnified when you actually perform a rep. What's worse is if you perform an entire set, you'll most likely get worse and worse as the set goes on. This entire issue can be resolved by dialing in your setup.
My first squatting article for T Nation, 10 Tips for Flawless Squattin', covered the setup almost exclusively. The keys to an efficient setup are:
• Chest up
• "Set" your back (you can also just think about "setting" your entire torso)
• Elbows forward
• Solid base; feet hip-width apart with toes comfortably flared
While this is just a brief recap, I'd highly recommend going back and reading the entire article.
Solution: Make your setup a routine.
Have you ever watched a great free-throw shooter in basketball? While their techniques may all be different, one thing that's universal is their individual routine. The same should be said of your squat setup.
Make sure that you do everything exactly the same on each and every rep. Grab the bar in the same place, set the bar in the same spot on your back, walk out and setup the same, etc. Do this for every rep, from your warm-ups with the bar to your work sets. The more routine you make the light weights, the lighter the heavy weights will feel.
Habit #4: You Suffer from Dough Boy Core Syndrome
The name of the game when squatting is transferring energy. While your legs and hips provide the strength, your core has to transfer that strength upwards to the bar. If it's not rock solid, your squat is going to suffer.
This is why I'm confused as to why people think squatting and deadlifting is the only type of core training you need. Sure, if your core strength and stability are already up to par, it may be all you need as you're already balanced.
But what if it's not? If your legs are consistently stronger than your core, do you think continuing to squat will magically fix the problem?
Hint: It won't.
In this case, you need to focus on dedicated ab/low back training with a heavy emphasis on core stabilization. It just so happens that I've written several articles on this topic, the most recent of which should help you out quite a bit.
Solution: Make static ab/core work a priority.
Read Complete Core Training. Start using several of these exercises at the commencement of your training, or even on your off days. Watch your squat grow.
Habit #5: Avoiding the Squat
The absolutely, positively, worst habit you can get into is simply avoiding the squat.
I can't tell you how many average gym goers I've seen who do this. They complain about their knees, their backs, or their bad levers, basically giving 1001 reasons why they can't squat.
The only reason I can say this is because I've been there. I had a powerlifting meet in 2002 where I deadlifted 505 pounds and squatted 380. For you math majors out there, that's a 125-pound difference!
I then realized I needed to get serious about my squat.
I'm a big believer in working your way through the various training programs. If you're a rookie, almost anything is going to get you stronger — 3x8, 3x10, 4x12, just friggin' squat!
As intermediates, you need that healthy balance of volume with intensity. The Modified 5x5 Squat Program that I outlined previously took me from that 380 to a respectable 530 in about two years.
From there, we can talk Sheiko, Westside, or a host of other methods. At the elite level, I think it's the program you really buy into psychologically that's going to give you the best gains.
Solution: Don't avoid the squat.
This one is brutally simple. If you suck at squatting, bitching and moaning about it to anyone who'll listen isn't going to help. You need to get your ass under the bar and work tirelessly on improving your technique. Over time, your confidence will grow and your weights will go up. I promise.
Squats never have been, and never will be, an easy lift. In fact, they may be the hardest lift you'll ever perform.
But in that same breath, taking your squat to newfound heights may be one of, if not the most, rewarding things you can do in the gym.
Take the time to critically analyze your squat, and take the steps necessary to bring it up. Whether your goal is to add slabs of muscle or to simply squat more weight, you won't be disappointed with the results.