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Getting to Know The Squat
If you’re serious about your strength, physique or physical prowess in general, the squat is arguably the best lift you can learn to perform in the gym. Simply put, there are a plethora of reasons you should start squatting TODAY even if you’ve never tried them before. And if you’ve been doing them for years, hopefully you’ll learn something along the way that can help you take your squats (as well as your strength and physique) to a whole new level.
Before we get to the meat and potatoes, I’m sure a lot of you are thinking, “Why the hell is this guy writing an article on squatting?” I’m sure plenty of you reading this out-squat me, and I’m OK with that (for now!) But, for someone who has pretty poor levers and started off with one of the worst squats of all time, I’ve taken it from absolutely terrible (336 pounds at a body-weight of 176) to something almost respectable (530 pounds at a body-weight of 198 pounds). To do that, it’s taken a lot of hard work, dedication, and most of all learning about what perfect squat technique is and feels like.
As I stated before, the reasons are numerous, but here are just a few reasons the squat is such a great exercise.
Increased Strength and size
Squatting is arguably the best all-round strength exercise you can perform. Not only will it develop the muscles of the legs, hips and low back to a high degree, but squatting also creates a favorable endocrine response, causing your entire body to grow. Your legs may be moving the weight, but virtually every muscle in your body is working in some form or fashion to stabilize the weight. In essence, squats create an environment that promotes systemic, not just local, growth.
As well, if you’re one of those guys who suffer from the “light bulb” effect (e.g. all mass in the upper body, no mass in the lower body), you need to put this article to good use! Heavy squatting will put some mass on those wheels with quickness.
Improved athletic performance
I’ve seen it time and time again – take a weak athlete, make them stronger, and watch their performance go through the roof. Most importantly, improved strength (especially relative strength, which measures strength levels relative to body-weight), can improve your scores on athletic tests like the vertical jump and 40 yard dash. I think it’s safe to say that most athletes would be very pleased with these results!
For example, my thesis research studied how squatting can improve vertical jump performance in elite level athletes. We took Division I volleyball players and squatted them heavy, in-season, for 3 weeks. Normally we wouldn’t think of doing this, but their average squat was only 10% over body-weight (1.1x body-weight), which pretty much sucks! After 3 weeks of heavy squatting not only had they seen an average of 10% improvement in their squat, but they’d also averaged a 1-inch increase in their vertical jump! This is a huge increase, especially for an in-season program. (And let’s just say the volleyball coach was my best friend from then on!)
Just like a weak athlete cannot display their best performance, a weak athlete is also at increased risk of injury. Performing deep squats can improve strength in the hamstrings and gluteals, two muscle groups that are often underdeveloped in athletes and strength trainers alike. Female athletes in particular should heed this advice, as a stronger posterior chain will significantly decrease your risk of ACL tears.
Great “Training Economy” lift
Finally, in our fast-paced world, training is quite often pushed to the back burner or overlooked in our daily schedule. For this reason alone, picking exercises that give you a ton of bang for your buck are hugely important. We all know that big exercises are where it’s at, and squats will definitely fit into that category. Remember, it’s not just about working harder, but working smarter as well.
I briefly discussed the fact that squatting is a great lift if you’re into training economy; when you squat, you use virtually every muscle from your torso down. Whether their role is to produce movement or to stabilize the load, the squat uses some serious muscle mass.
Here are the muscles that are used when squatting:
- Gluteals (glute max and some glute medius)
- Spinal erectors
- Core musculature (rectus abdominus, external and internal obliques, transverse abdominus, etc.)
The gluteals are heavily recruited in the deepest portions of the squat
As well, Caterisano (1) performed a study to determine which muscle groups were most active at various points in the squatting movement. As we all know, most people love to load up the weight when squatting; problem is, as the weights go up, the range of motion gets shorter and shorter! It ends up being more of a curtsey than a deep knee bend. As you’ll see from the chart below, this isn’t all that surprising, as most average gym-goers have great quads and no glutes or hamstrings whatsoever.
* Denotes statistical significance - Adapted from Caterisano, 2002
This study shows us that in the initial parts of the squat, the quadriceps are the most active muscle group – this is also where most people spend the majority of their squatting time. However, as you go lower and lower in the squat, you get an ever-increasing contribution from the gluteals. So if you just want to blow up your quads, feel free to cut those squats high. But, if you’re into total thigh development (and building the muscles that will make you stronger and more athletic), leave your ego at the door and go deep!
Variations of the Squat
Another great aspect of the squat is that there are multiple variations that can be employed to develop the muscles of the legs, hips and torso. Below are several variations, along with how they differ from the squat in its most basic form.
- High bar, narrow stance squat used by Olympic lifters to develop leg strength
- Traditionally uses a very upright torso position
- Also characterized by going “ass-to-calves”
- Squat variation by Olympic lifters when receiving the bar after a clean
- Like the Olympic squat, torso is very upright and squat taken as low as possible
- With the bar carried in front of the torso, increases the stabilizing role of the abdominals
Extra wide squat (an exaggerated power squat used by certain power-lifters)
- Very similar technique to that of the power squat, with the exception of using a much wider foot stance
- Focus is on sitting back and putting maximal emphasis on the hips
- Best performed using power-lifting briefs or squat suit
How to Squat
Now that we’ve discussed the muscles used and several variations, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty: How to squat!
For the purposes of this article, I’m going to describe a very basic squat: Moderate stance and bar position. Let’s go through things step-by-step; even if you’ve never squatted before, you’ll be able to after reading this article! If necessary, you can even print it off and take it to the gym so you can try the techniques out.
I can’t make this point clear enough: The set-up for your squat greatly determines whether or not you’ll make the lift! I’ve seen great squatters who missed weights simply because they set-up improperly. A rock-solid set-up will provide the foundation for a rock-solid lift.
1. Hand position
To begin, grab the bar with hands even on the bar and in tight to your shoulders. When you take a wider grip, it not only puts a ton of strain on your posterior shoulder capsule, but you also lose tension and stability throughout the torso. If you don’t understand what I mean, try both hand positions with a light weight and I’m sure the difference will be obvious.
Don’t let pec and shoulder flexibility be the limiting factor in your squat – if you need to work on it, as they say here in the Midwest, “Git-R-Done!”
A narrow grip width takes strain off the shoulder capsule and improves positioning while squatting
2. Getting under the bar
Once your hands are set, you’re going to step underneath the bar; your feet and hips should be underneath you, allowing for an easy removal of the bar from the racks. I hate watching people who take a goofy split stance and then good morning the bar out of the racks! Get your feet underneath you to make it as easy as possible – save your strength for the lift, not the walkout.
As you are getting your feet set underneath the bar, you’re going to want to pull your shoulder blades together and your elbows underneath the bar. As you do this, you should start to feel a “muscle shelf” that develops in your upper back – this is where you want to set the bar.
3. Make the weight feel light!
So big breath, push aggressively into the bar with your back, and then use your hips and legs to stand straight up with the bar. Once you’ve stood up, give the weights a second to settle before starting your walkout; as they weights get heavier, some bars will have a tendency to “whip.” If you don’t give the plates a chance to settle, you’ll end up making the walkout much harder than it needs to be.
4. 3 Step approach to an effortless walkout
With the bar on your back, we want to make your walkout as effortless as possible. Along these same lines, we want to be very economical with our approach; taking 8 steps back just to get set-up isn’t a viable option when you have heavy weights on the bar.
After the weights have settled, take a small step back with either your right or left foot (this is all about preference), to help you clear the racks. Your next step should set the opposite foot at your appropriate width, and the final step isn’t really a step but more of a “placing” of your foot.
Taking more steps than this will needlessly expend energy that you should be saving for the lift! To make it super simple, here’s what I do EVERY TIME:
- Step 1 – Moderate step back with right foot to clear the racks
- Step 2 – Set the left foot where I want it
- Step 3 – Set the right foot where I want it
As you’re setting up, you’ll also want to make sure that your feet are set evenly and toed-out to the same degree. The squat should be a symmetrical movement from side-to-side, so if your feet aren’t lined up or are toed-out unevenly, you’re going to be putting more stress on one side of the body than another. This may not sound like a big deal, but uneven distribution with a couple hundred pounds on your back is a sure-fire way to get injured, either now or in the future.
Finally, once your feet are set, you want the weight distributed evenly in the middle of your foot, or shifted slightly back towards your heels.
Improper foot alignment and toe-flare can be very damaging to the body, so get symmetrical!
5. Preparing for the squat
At this point your feet should be set and you’re almost ready to squat. Before doing so, let’s go through a final checklist to make sure you’re ready go.
Start off by setting your eyes on a fixed object that’s just above eye level – no matter what happens during the lift, you want to keep your eyes on this position. Not only will keeping your head and eyes up help you keep an optimal low back position, but it will also help you make more lifts! Your body has a natural tendency to follow your eyes, so keep them up at all times.
Next, it helps to use what I call the “Muscle Beach” effect; in essence, you’re going to exaggerate the lifting of your chest and maintain your low back position, just like you would if a pretty lady walked past you at the beach. Remember how I discussed previously how imperative the starting position is? This is a huge component of it, because your body position before starting a lift often mimics your position upon completing the lift. Basically, if you want to have perfect posture during and after the lift, make sure it’s perfect before you ever start.
Last but not least, take a HUGE breath of air before you squat – you want to maximize intra-abdominal and intra-thoracic pressure to keep your back healthy and move the most weight possible. I can’t imagine anyone not heeding this advice.
Performing the Squat
6. Sit Back and Down
Now that we’re set-up, let’s get to the actual performance of the lift.
Your first movement when squatting should be sitting back with the hips. Too often novice squatters try to initiate the squat with their knees; all this does is result in knee problems and, worse yet, shallow squats. By sitting back, you distribute the weight evenly between your quads, glutes, and hamstrings, allowing you to perform the lift in an effortless, balanced fashion.
As you’re sitting back, you also want to push your knees out to the sides hard. Remember that the glutes are our primary hip extensors and abductors, so activate them early on as they’ll help you stay tight and get out of the hole.
7. How deep to go?
The question that always comes up is, “How far down should I go?” The easiest answer here is that there’s no one size fits all answer; it’s really dependent on why you’re squatting, what you want to get out of the lift, and if you have any injuries that should limit your depth.
For power-lifters, the goal is to move a maximal amount of weight and to break parallel. For the power-lifters reading this, I’d focus on flawless technique and hitting the same depth on each and every rep – one that is just below parallel. Obviously this is different between each federation, so the best advice I can give here is to practice how you play. Know your federation, what they expect with regards to squatting depth, and train there. The more perfect reps you get in the gym, the more perfect reps you’re going to hit in competition. Perfect practice makes perfect.
For the Olympic lifters, the goal of squatting is two-fold: 1) To develop strength the legs and hips, and 2) to prepare yourself for the receiving position of a big clean or snatch. With Olympic lifters, I’d like to see them go down as far as mobility allows on each and every rep. Not only will this develop the entire hip and thigh musculature, but will also help to prepare for maximal lifts that may take you a little deeper than your body wants to go.
Finally, for the bodybuilders out there, I generally like to see them go down as far as their mobility allows. There are plenty of isolation or specialty exercises you can use if you want to bring up a lagging body part; use squats to build some serious overall leg size and you won’t regret the results.
Regardless, as you hit the hole, the performance of the lift can have some subtle differences depending on the depth you want to hit. If your only goal is to hit parallel, you can continue forcing your knees out hard until you hit that depth. However, if you actually need to break parallel, this tip can help: As you get to that point where you can’t get any lower, relax your hips for a split second – if you continue to force your knees out, you can’t achieve the depth that will get your lift passed in a meet. Relax the hips for a brief moment and allow for a little “dip” in the bottom. As soon as you’ve dipped and hit depth, immediately force the knees back out to help you on the ascent. It’s all about timing and using the stretch-shortening cycle to your advantage, but this tip can work wonders for improving your depth and overall squat performance.
8. Coming back from the depths
So you’re almost there, you’re coming up out of the bottom, but what do you do know? This is where a lot of people go wrong; so make sure to apply these principles to finish that squat.
As you’re coming up, most people have a tendency to think about pushing their heels through the floor; while this may work for some, I’d venture to say most elite squatters don’t let this thought cross their mind. Instead, they focus on forcing their chest up and pushing their back into the bar. It’s not a huge difference in thought process, but this cue is perfect in its simplicity and its effectiveness. After all, your goal is to move the bar, not your legs, right?
As well, you’ll also want to make sure you’re pushing your knees out hard to the side. This movement will really activate the muscles of the glutes, helping you finish the lift. Finally, keep the head, chest and eyes up throughout until you finish the lift.
The 30 Second Recap
Whew! We’ve covered a lot there, so let’s go through a brief recap:
- Grab the bar with a narrow hand-spacing near the shoulders (as close as flexibility will allow)
- Pull yourself underneath the bar, pointing the elbows down and resting the bar on your “muscle shelf”
- Get your feet and hips underneath the bar
- Take a big breath, then push aggressively into the bar while extending the hips and knees to un-rack it
- Take 3 steps to get set; one moderate step back, place the opposite foot, then place the lead foot
- Make sure the feet are in-line with each other and have the same amount of toe-flare. Your weight should be distributed through the middle of the foot or slightly towards the heels
- Lift the head and chest, then set the eyes on something above eye level
- Big breath, then Squat!
- Sit back and down, forcing the knees out hard
- Hit the hole at a comfortable pace, then use a little rebound to bounce out of the hole
- Push back into the bar, keeping the chest up and continue forcing the knees out hard
- Finish the squat, and then rack it
Common Squatting Flaws
Now that you know how to perform flawless squats, let’s do a little troubleshooting. No matter how great of a squatter you are, as your weights go up and you get closer to your max, chances are your technique is going to break down in some form or fashion. Use the typical scenarios I’ve listed below to figure out what your weakest link is so you can take your squat to the next level.
Flaw #1 - Rushing the set-up leads to a poor starting position
Solution – Slow down!
This one is really self-explanatory, so I’m not going to delve into it too deeply. As we discussed in the beginning, a strong squat starts with a solid set-up. Rushing through your set-up is a sure-fire way to miss a lot of squats, so slow down, take your time, and make sure your set-up is flawless.
Flaw #2 - Tendency to cave-over during the lift
Solution – Bring your hands in, use the muscle beach effect, point elbows down
This is a problem that I used to suffer from myself, so I’ve found a myriad of ways to resolve it. Quite often, it’s what you do BEFORE you lift that’s the difference between caving over and making the lift.
First and foremost, work on bringing your hands in on the bar, closer to your shoulders. If you squat with a very wide hand placement, you lose a lot of tension and stiffness in your upper back. If you don’t believe me, just try various hand positions while sitting in front of the computer. Start out wide and notice how your upper back feels, and then pull your hands in more and more to see what it does to your upper back posture. This tip alone helped cure a lot of my squatting woes.
Another tip that I really like is using the muscle beach effect. After you’ve walked the bar out, if the weight is heavy enough, it has a tendency to cave our chest over before we even start to squat. By lifting our chest before squatting, it helps us maintain this position throughout the lift.
Finally, after you’ve lifted the chest, think about rotating your elbows underneath the bar as much as possible. It may feel awkward at first, but it will tighten up your upper back and aid in achieving a locked in torso position. Again, if you don’t believe me, try it out now and see the difference – your upper back can’t maintain that same tension when your elbows are pointed back, but as soon as you rotate them down your posture improves immensely.
Flaw #3 - Knees cave in
Solution – Get some glutes
Having the knees cave in is possibly one of the most common errors I see when people squat. It’s sometimes present on the descent, but I see it most frequently when people are coming out of the hole.
I’ve heard of all kinds of crazy reasons as to why this happens, but most of them are wrong: The knees cave in when there’s insufficient strength in the gluteal muscles. The gluteals are the primary abductors of the hips, so when they aren’t up to the job, the quads and adductors (which are typically stronger and more dominant), will try to take on the additional workload.
So what do we do about this? First and foremost, exercises that strengthen and develop the gluteals are in order. These include mini-band walks, glute bridges, or even very light squats with a mini-band placed around the thighs, just above the knees. The last option is my personal favorite, as it teaches you to recruit the gluteals while squatting. Start off with your body-weight only and focus on forcing the knees out throughout the movement. Just don’t let me catch you working in with the housewife on the seated hip machine!
Flaw #4 - Poor mobility
Solution – Get mobile!
I’ve seen certain people that, to be quite honest, have no business getting underneath a squat bar. These people can’t touch their toes, let alone perform a body-weight squat with good posture and technique. So why would we even think about this person squatting with weight on their back?
The simplest solution here is to develop appropriate mobility, especially around the hips and ankles. Eric Cressey and myself have developed a DVD titled Magnificent Mobility which covers a ton of exercises to help improve your mobility and get you squatting appropriately. If your mobility sucks, this DVD could be the difference between flawless squats and a major injury. Check it out!
Flaw #5 - Weight shifts onto toes
Solution – Toe out more; get better hip mobility; get some posterior chain strength
This is another mistake that I see a lot of beginners make; not only do they stay totally upright (which I’ll cover in the next point), but they also shift their weight onto their toes to perform the squat. Not only is this ineffective, but will totally destroy your knee joints as well.
The first thing I’ll try here is having the athlete toe-out more; if their toes are pointed straight-forward, it could be a simple mobility issue that immediately clears up. If you try this and you still shift forward, you may be tighter than a banjo string and need additional mobility work – until you can squat properly, I’d make mobility your focus versus trying to build your squat.
Finally, many trainees squat in this fashion because they are totally reliant on their quads to move the weight. If this is the case, box squats and a heavy dose of posterior chain exercises are necessary to build the appropriate squatting musculature.
Flaw # 6 - Too upright
Solution – Box squat, technique
This is a pretty typically mistake; many trainees think they have to perform the squat with an ultra-upright stance. As well, many people squat like this because they have the posterior chain of a 5 year old. The key here is to emphasize form and technique, so box squats are a great option to clean up that squat.
If you box squat West-side style, you have no choice but to squat correctly. Now I’m not saying this is the ONLY way you can learn to squat properly, but over the years I’ve found it to be the most effective way to quickly and easily teach beginners proper squat technique. Try it out for yourself and I think you’ll see what I mean: Focus on sitting back with the hips, allowing your torso to find it’s most comfortable amount of forward lean while still maintaining an arch in the lower back. It sounds a lot more complicated than it really is; once you get on the box a lot of those little flaws tend to work themselves out.
So there you have it; a perfect squat from start to finish. Now all you have to do is go the gym, load a couple wheels on the bar, and get the job done. Good luck and good squatting!
Written by Mike Robertson
Discuss, comment or ask a question
If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums - Getting to Know The Squat discussion thread.
1. Caterisano, A., et al. The effect of back squat depth on the EMG activity of 4 superficial hip and thigh muscles. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 16(3):428-432, 2002.