(Look at that mustache!)
Lifting 101 is a new series that will be covering how to perform the basic compound movements. These movements include the squat, deadlift, and bench press. In this edition, I will be talking about the fundamental principles of how to perform the back squat correctly.
The squat is not only a universally recognized lift that is essential to any athlete’s development for lower body strength and power, but also the everyday gym-goer. Although the athlete will have superior training in the squat, the everyday gym-goer doesn’t have the luxury of an athletic trainer to teach them properly. In response, I have broken the squat into three main stages to help those struggling with the squat: 1) the set-up, 2) the walk out, and 3) the squat itself.
Stage 1: The Set-up
This is perhaps the most overlooked stage because many don’t take it seriously. In reality, however, it usually “sets the tone for the rest of the lift” (Starrett & Cordoza, 2013). The first thing you want to do when you grab the bar is to find a comfortable grip position. Usually this is slightly outside shoulder width, 6-12 inches, but not to the extreme where your hands are at the end of the barbell or close enough for your arms to be parallel.
Once you find your grip, you want to squeeze the bar as tight as you can and pull yourself with force under the barbell so you create tension in your back. Once under the bar, you want to find the most comfortable bar position. This may be a low bar position, where the bar rests on the lower mass of your scapula/deltoid region, or a high bar position, in which the bar rests below the base of the neck on your upper scapula/deltoid region. Note: the bar should never rest on your neck under any circumstances. If so, stop and re-position yourself.
Stage 2: The Walk Out
After you have your bar position, you want to create maximal tension throughout your body to lift the bar off the rack. Do this by tightening your core (taking a deep breath) while looking straight ahead with your elbows pointed at the ground. Squeeze your butt, spread your knees, and screw your feet into the ground and lift the bar off the rack while trying to keep your torso as vertical as possible with eyes level to the horizon. While in this position take a couple of short steps directly backwards while maintaining tension throughout your body. Note: It is important that you don’t look down, wobble back and forth, or take too big of steps so you don’t lose tension throughout your body. If you do this, you may lose optimal bar position and allow your body to succumb to the weight and lose the ability to squat correctly (i.e. rounded back).
It is also vital to try and step back in a way to end up in your squat stance so there’s not a lot of adjustment once you’re ready to squat. Your stance should have your feet pointed as straight as possible with a variability of approximately 5-15 degrees from parallel depending on the width of your stance. The rule of thumb to remember is that the wider your stance the more forward your feet are pointed and the closer your stance the greater external foot rotation you will have.
Stage 3: The Squat
Once you’ve got your stance, now you are ready to squat. Before you squat down you want to squeeze your butt and take a deep breath (so you create intra-abdominal pressure to support your torso) while looking straight ahead. Next, break at the knees and hips concurrently so you descend in a controlled fashion. Make sure your weight is over your heels and not your toes so you don’t lean forward and create unnecessary tension in your knees that may lead to injury.
The important thing to remember is to make sure you have tension throughout your body while you drive your knees outward as you descend with the weight on your heels. If you’re doing this correctly your back should be in a neutral position throughout the lift (i.e. no rounding or excessive curvature) as you can notice in the picture below. If you have a high bar squat your head should be approximately level to the horizon. If you have a low bar squat, your head should be at a slight angle of depression toward the ground.
Squat down trying to keep your torso vertical–chest up!–with the tension throughout your body until you reach a position just past parallel with knees over the toes (the degree to which your knees pass over your toes depends on the length of your bones and the width of you squat stance).
The statement that your knees shouldn’t go over you toes is a myth and unfounded. It is a natural human response for the knees to pass over the toes during a squat. Because a lot of everyday people usually lean forward too much because of poor ankle mobility causing excessive knee position over the toes that is dangerous, it forced this myth, started by a University of Duke study, to perpetuate throughout the fitness community (check out the links below for more on this myth).
While in the actual squat position, you should experience a natural bounce reflex where your body can thrust itself upward. Keeping tension throughout your body, drive your feet into the ground while squeezing your butt to create torque to facilitate the lift of the bar upward again. Make sure that your hips and torso rise together in a synergistic fashion as to not create unnecessary tension in the hips or knees by leaning forward or backward. Tip: remember to drive your knees outward just like you did in your descent so you create maximal torque.
As you rise-up, breathe out through pursued lips while squeezing your butt and screwing the outer portion of your feet into the ground with knees pushing out until you reach your pre-squat position (vertical torso, tight upper back and shoulders, elbows pointed down, and head straight).
Congratulations! You’ve just done a correct squat.
Thanks for reading, feel free to comment, and stay tuned for the rest of my Lifting 101 series. See ya next time!
Starrett and Cordoza. (2013). Becoming a Supple Leopard: The Ultimate Guide to Resolving Pain, Preventing Injury, and Optimizing Athletic Performance. Victory Belt Publishing Inc. Las Vegas, NV.