The Question

What's your best squat tip?

Bronwen Blunt – Nutrition and Strength Coach

Do heavy squat stand-ups.

Warm up to about 90% of your max but don't squat this weight. Unrack it and hold it for 10 seconds then put it back down. Continue to add 5-10% for each set and up to 20% over your 1RM. Be conservative if it's your first time trying this.

This is a way to overload your squats, which will allow your body to recognize and adapt to heavier weights beyond your current capabilities. It stimulates your nervous system and makes you feel more comfortable with heavy weight on your back. Once you become more comfortable with these overloads, your current 1RM is going to feel a lot less taxing.

Pay attention to your setup to maintain stability during the movement. Proper breathing and bracing is extremely important to avoid injury. Most people neglect the importance of proper breathing while unracking the bar. It's a problem that can get you out of position and make or break your squat. – Bronwen Blunt

Jake Tuura – Strength and Conditioning Coach

Jump first, then squat.

For years we've known about the benefits of something called "post-activation potentiation." Get warmed up, then do a heavy, low-volume squat or deadlift. Afterward, do a jump or sprint. What happens? Explosive jumping and sprinting performance increases after the heavy lift.

Put another way, loading muscles with high resistance acutely improves explosive muscle action. Heavy helps explosive. But we never look at it the other way. Will explosive help heavy?

Research by Masamoto et al. tested this out. They tested the 1RM of several athletes: sometimes they did tuck jumps and drop jumps first; other times they just performed their usual warm-ups first. The result? When they jumped before squatting heavy, they lifted more weight.

Tuura
Next time you're getting ready for a heavy squat workout, do a few jumps before training. Not only will it develop explosive ability, but it can significantly add poundage to your squat.

Joel Seedman, PhD – Strength and Performance Expert

Do eccentric isometrics – lower slowly and pause at the bottom.

Visually, the squat pattern is simple. However, neuromuscularly and biomechanically it's actually very complex. It requires a number of precisely executed components to lock the movement in. Some of these include:

  • Set the hips back without bending over.
  • Spread the knees apart but not excessively.
  • Keep a neutral spine while maintaining a very slight natural curvature of the back.
  • Squat somewhere between 90 degrees and parallel (don't collapse or go ATG).
  • Pull yourself into the bottom position rather than allowing gravity to push you down.
  • Brace the core and tense your abs.
  • Keep the chest out without hyperextending the back.
  • Screw the feet into the floor by pushing slightly more to the outside of the feet.
  • Keep the feet relatively straight and aligned with the each other.
  • Pull the bar into your back by activating your lats.
  • Keep the head neutral (don't look up but don't let the head drop).
  • Maintain maximal full body tension each and every rep.
  • Move in a perfectly vertical fashion without shifting horizontally.
  • Load each leg as symmetrically as possible without favoring one side.

And this list doesn't cover everything. So how the heck do you actually learn to squat without going through an exhaustive myriad of endless cues?

The answer lies in performing eccentric isometrics.

Now I'm not talking about simply collapsing down into the bottom of a squat, then pausing for a few seconds while you hang out on your tendons and ligaments. That's a bastardized version of an eccentric isometric squat, and it won't do anything to improve your squat mechanics... not to mention strength or muscular development.

Instead, squat with painstaking attention to sensory signals and proprioceptive feedback using Jedi-like focus and intensity. Lower slowly under control, stay tight, then pause in the naturally stretched position while attending to as much somatosensory feedback as possible.

Why does it work? Your own body can provide all of the necessary feedback, coaching, and cuing you need. You simply have to learn how to listen to the sensory feedback coming from your proprioceptive mechanisms and you'll immediately begin to use the "sense of feel" to make subtle adjustments and fine-tune your movement. The best way to do this is through properly executed eccentric isometrics.

This also means learning to sense where the natural stopping point and optimal range of motion is, which happens to be somewhere between 90 degrees and parallel.

And just in case you were wondering, no, your body is not an exception to the rule. A proper squat including optimal range of motion and ideal joint angles will look almost identical from human to human if it's performed correctly, regardless of individual anthropometrics. – Joel Seedman, PhD

Lee Boyce – Strength Coach and Performance Expert

There are two that I recommend.

1 – Squat the bar with your HANDS.

This clearly doesn't make any sense at first, but here's what it means. Creating tension has to come from both halves of the body – not just from creating "a solid base" or "screwing your feet into the ground."

Some of the most confusing cues regarding barbell squatting comes in relation to foot cues. In my opinion, there's no real need to be thinking of circular tension and torquey rotational forces through the feet, tibia, and femurs. Keeping the feet flat on the ground, sturdy, and creating the right geometry with tension is sufficient for 99% of healthy individuals.

The real key to improving squat performance is more than likely going to come from examining the areas of the body that most think aren't involved. Assuming we're talking about back squats, the hands play a crucial role for how heavy and unstable the load feels on your back. Actively pulling apart on the bar creates tension through the entire back and also takes some of the pressure of the bar off your back.

"Putting the bar where you want it to go" is a key change of reference that psychologically gets you ready for a good squat. And it helps you keep your entire body engaged, and not just your lower half.

2 – Acknowledge what works for your frame.

In truth, good squatting performance – both by quality and by numbers – should come from a whole lot of trial and error. No two bodies are equal. That means the anatomy of each lifter's hips is slightly different and may require different setups and stances to attain a comfortable, safe, and strong squat pattern. Forcing a shoulder-width stance when your acetabulae are located towards the front of the pelvis (which would support the use of a narrower stance instead) is the first step down the long road of frustration and possibly injury.

Moreover, recognizing the geometry you need to achieve for your leverages if you're a lifter with longer or shorter limbs should be paramount in your practice. You'll need greater dorsiflexion to achieve deep, upright squats when you're 6' 5" with long femurs. In such a case, chances are the squat variation you choose can be quintessential for your progress.

If back squats just plain don't work, no one's holding a gun to your head. Make front squats your go-to squat pattern and enjoy all of the benefits. – Lee Boyce

Christian Thibaudeau – Strength Coach and Performance Expert

Get solid on your walk-out.

Not getting tight and solid before unracking the bar is responsible for more missed heavy lifts, injuries, and bad performances than everything else.

See, most people just unrack the bar without thinking too much about it; they stay soft or at least don't make a conscious effort to get tight. Then they walk back in that weak position and try to establish tension before squatting. By that time it's too late.

First, unracking the bar without being tight will make the bar feel a heckuva lot heavier, which can psych you out, and walking backward with that suboptimal tension is dangerous. Plus it's harder to assume a strong setup right before squatting if you didn't start that way. So before you take the bar out of the rack make sure that:

  1. You're squeezing the life out of the bar with your hands.
  2. You're trying to crush your ribcage with your elbows to engage the lats.
  3. You're squeezing both shoulder blades together.
  4. You're contracting your abs as if you were going to get punched in the stomach.

Then you unrack the bar, but do it like you mean it. The lift starts when you unrack the bar. Show the bar who's boss. Whether you have the empty bar or a max effort weight, set up exactly the same way and with the same intent.

By the way, that's why I love cluster sets for squats. For clusters you do a set of several reps with 10-20 seconds of rest between reps. You rack the barbell after every rep. It will give you the opportunity to practice the setup and unracking of the bar several times in a set. That's on top of the other benefits of cluster training. – Christian Thibaudeau

Chris Shugart – T Nation CCO

The "right" squat may not be right for you. So shop around.

We sometimes put artificial limits on ourselves because we're following artificial rules. Here's how it happens:

  1. You read an article or book by a respected coach about the best way to squat, and it's very compelling and science-based.
  2. You try to do that squat and it feels terrible, even after you spend months working on it, maybe even getting coached.
  3. You think, "Well, I guess I just can't squat."
  • The artificial rule is: "There's a best way to squat."
  • The artificial limit is: "Since I can't squat the best way, then I can't squat."

But maybe that coach's "best way" is really just the best way to squat for 70% of people who have the same goal. You may not be in that 70%, or maybe that's not even your primary goal.

The experts like to use the word anthropometry. That basically refers to things like height, arm length, leg length, torso length, hip width, and all the mathematical ratios between body parts. Humans come in all shapes and sizes, even athletic humans. And one person's "best way to squat" may not be another's.

You should definitely read all those great coaches' books and articles. You should definitely attend their seminars. You should definitely test out their advice. Maybe it's perfect you, but maybe not. It doesn't mean that coach sucks, and it doesn't mean you suck. It just means you haven't found YOUR best squat yet.

And you're free to shop around at Squat-Mart where you'll find everyday low prices on goblet squats, dumbbell squats, safety-bar squats, Smith machine squats, squat machines, front squats, bottoms-up squats, trap-bar squats... and the list is endless.

Variations

Yes, the squat is a foundational movement pattern. Your body was made to do it. But there are a whole lot of ways to do it.

There are also a lot of folks who mainly just want to build their legs. But they follow the "rules" of coaches who are focused on 1-rep maxes or athletic performance... none of which overlap much with the "I want big legs and defined quads" goal. So make sure your squat guru has the same goal as you. – Chris Shugart

Tom Morrison – Weightlifting Coach, Martial Artist, CrossFit Trainer

Change the complexity of the squat.

Trying to just add weight or reps every session can only work for so long before you're going to need a new muscle stimulus. But it's no secret that squatting makes you better at squatting. So if you're smart about it, squatting multiple times a week is beneficial... if you change the way you do it.

Ideally you'd have a standard heavy day that you progressively load as normal, a moderately heavy day, and then a lighter technique/volume day. This way you could consistently build your squat without accumulating too much fatigue or making your joints explode.

Changing the complexity of the squat is one of the best ways to get that new stimulus. Building some of your leg sessions with harder variations will make normal squats seem like a treat and prepare you for when it's one-rep max day and you need to pull out a grinder. If you're not used to that struggle you'll crumble!

Two squat variations that I love are the pause squat and the one-and-one-half squat.

Pause squats are a great exercise to get extra time under tension and also build up strength in your bottom position. A lot of people going for a max back squat can sometimes struggle to reach depth. The pause squat helps build familiarity with the bottom position.

Remember to keep your core braced through the entire squat. Some people, especially those with good flexibility, tend to relax in the bottom which isn't a good idea. It's a lot harder to engage from a fully relaxed position, but it can also cause injury.

Your pause can be anywhere from 3 to 10 seconds. Just make sure you don't push until you become extremely light headed – also not a good idea with a barbell on your back.

One-and-one-half squats are another trick that's effective in building squat numbers. Here's how to do it: Squat down to full depth, come up to around parallel, then go back down to full depth, and finally stand up fully.

This is a surefire way to get the legs pumped. This is especially great for weightlifters that struggle to get out of the bottom of their lifts; it develops that speed and power necessary for Olympic lifting.

If you're limited with the amount of training sessions you have, the one-and-one-half squat and pause squat are great even for warm-up sets or drop sets. Ideally though, squatting multiple times per week is the best way. The more time you spend under the bar, the better you're going to be at moving it. – Tom Morrison

Woman Squat

Paul Carter – Strength and Bodybuilding Coach

Give the ankles some attention.

It seems like many coaches teach the squat, or try to correct problems in a squat, starting at the wrong point in the kinetic chain. The place my eyes first go to when trying to break down someone's squat is their ankle movement.

A lot of coaches try to get people's hips or knees to do this or that, all the while ignoring that if the ankles aren't moving properly, the knees and hips can't move properly for efficient load distribution. For the hips to open up, you have to have adequate hip abduction. The knees should move out to the side when that happens very naturally. However, if the ankles are pronating and not supinating, then none of that will ever happen.

Now there are times when the ankles supinate because the glute medius is simply too weak to hold proper position of the kinetic chain, but that can be tested with light weights (during warm-up sets). If the lifter can hold position during warm-ups, but then loses it, mobility isn't the problem. They just aren't strong enough to hold that position.

More often than not, what you'll see is a degree of inward ankle rolling the entire time during the warm-up sets. If this is the case, then the lifter will have knee valgus just the same as if the glute medius is weak. You have to determine if knee collapse is happening due to lack of ankle mobility or weak glutes. More times than not, it's really the ankles that are the culprit.

Those with flat feet or fallen arches will have the most issues with this. And if that's the case, then a balancing drill that forces them to produce force from a position of ankle supination will often remedy the problem.

Heel Squat

Photo Credit: Wolfgang Unsoeld

If it's due to a tight Achilles then doing heel-elevated squats for a period of time and reducing the height of the elevated surface (until no elevation is required) will often fix that as well. – Paul Carter

Nick Tumminello – Strength Coach and Author

Establish consistent standards without being stuffed into a standardized one-size-fits-all approach.

What kind of standards? Ones that help you maintain proper form. Here's what I mean. Everyone should go as low as they can without...

  • Losing the arch in their lower back.
  • Allowing their heels to lift off the ground.
  • Letting their knees track in a different direction from their toes, i.e. toward the midline of the body.

However, to avoid the above mistakes you need to adjust your stance (width and foot position) to best fit your body and the way you move. Experiment with wider stances than parallel and turn your toes out slightly to find the stance that allows you to go down the deepest in the squat while maintaining an arch in your lower back.

Many lifters think a proper squat is a shoulder-width stance with your feet pointed straight forward. The new approach here is to avoid such a one-size-fits-all approach to squatting.

Research in both Eastern and Western populations has not only found normal variations in femoral neck angles but also asymmetrical differences between the left and right sides of individuals. This is in addition to normal anatomical variations in the structure of the hip acetabulum, which can influence how someone is able to perform the squat movement.

The normal anatomical variations of the hip joint structure and the length of one's torso, femur, and tibia (structure determines function) indicate that an optimal squat is individual and therefore uses a variety of foot positions, stance widths, depths, and torso angles. This also means that not every type of squat variation is right for everybody. – Nick Tumminello

Dan John – Strength Coach and Performance Expert

Figure out if you're more of a squat-focused lifter or a hinge-focused lifter.

One of the first decisions I have to make as a strength coach is to figure out how we'll train work capacity for the athlete. Universally, the loaded carry family works for almost everyone: sleds, Prowlers, farmer walks and other carries.

From there, we have to make a choice: Hinge work or squat work for the athlete. I've been lucky to work with Dr. Stuart McGill and I've listened to his insights about both hip and spine structure. Since I don't have the equipment, knowledge, and experience of Stu, I've had to simplify my little decision matrix on whether the athlete should be hinge-focused or squat-focused.

I have the athlete get in the six-point position: hands, knees, and feet on the floor (toes tucked in). I learned this from Tim Anderson and his system called "Original Strength."

Begin by simply rocking in and out of the deep squat position. It feels good, and for some people like the elderly or injured, this might be the perfect squat.

Widen the knees (you may need padding), until the rocking feels "just right." Now comes the key: keeping your hands and knees in the same position, widen your feet out as far as you can. Try a few rocks here.

6-Point Rock

If you HATE it, like many of the athletes I work with, you'll use the hinge family (deadlifts, swings, and Olympic lifts) to build work capacity. In other words, more volume and intensity with those lifts but still maintain the movement of squatting.

If this position feels comfortable, the athlete can use high-rep squatting and high-load squatting to develop work capacity.

Is this perfect? No. But, it gives us a bit of an insight into the structure of the hip and the ability of this athlete to use squatting. Everyone I work with squats, but this little test gives us an insight about the hip structure that will support the athlete's progress and, perhaps, guard against injuries in the future. – Dan John

Related:  11 Damn Good Deadlift Tips

Related:  The Worst Squat Mistakes

Reference

  1. Masamoto, N., Larson, R., Gates, T., & Faigenbaum, A. (2003). Acute effects of plyometric exercise on maximum squat performance in male athletes. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 17(1), 68-71.