Squatting…like it or not, you just have to do it if you are serious about getting strong! There are two main ways of squatting today; one being the high bar, narrow stance squat (Olympic squat), and the other being a wide-stance, low bar squat (Powerlifting or Power squat).
While they are in essence the same movement, their individual movement patterns and muscle groups stressed are quite different. The Olympic squat puts a premium on quadriceps strength, whereas the power squat puts the emphasis on the posterior chain, e.g. the muscles of the hip, hamstrings and glutes. The purpose of this article is to help your understanding of the wide-stance squat, including proper warm-up, how to adjust the bar placement to improve your individual leverages, how to train the major muscles used during its performance, and finally how to tell what muscles groups are holding you back.
Warming up is absolutely necessary to squat properly. A general, total body warm-up should be first, such as jogging, rowing, sled dragging, etc. Anything that gets a sweat going and the entire body warmed up will work for the general warm-up. Next up is a dynamic flexibility routine, again trying to get the entire body loose and ready to go. Dynamic flexibility is preferred over static stretching for two reasons: 1) Dynamic stretching works through an active range of motion to help improve flexibility during movement, and 2) Static stretching has been shown to decrease strength when used as part of a warm-up.
The specific part of the warm-up is geared towards squatting. The first thing you want to do is ensure that your entire torso is warmed-up. First off, try doing abs on a lat pulldown machine for 3 sets of 20 reps. The weight should be relatively low here; you’re not working on strengthening the abs but rather to get the torso warm. Louie Simmons (?) uses this to warm-up the entire torso prior to squatting. After this, try gently stretching the spine by laying on a physioball. Dr. Michael Hartle, a chiropractor and powerlifter in Ft. Wayne, states “this is a great way to get the erectors stretched out and ready for a heavy squat workout”. Finally, start squatting by doing two sets of 10-20 repetitions using only the bar as weight. These squats should be performed with an even wider stance than usual to warm-up the muscles of the hip and to help improve flexibility; the key here is to try and get a little lower with each consecutive rep. This is key, especially for powerlifters, since the muscles of the hip are often very tight, making it hard to consistently break parallel with a wide stance.
Leverages and Bar Placement
Before you start squatting, you have to know your body. People with a medium-to-long torso and short legs are genetically pre-disposed to efficient squatting. Their leverages allow them to maintain a very upright posture. However, those of us with shorter torsos and/or long legs have to find ways to work around our leverages and make our squat weights go up. Before going on, try this out to better demonstrate. If necessary, watch yourself in a mirror. First off, stand with your feet hip width apart and squat down to parallel. Note the distance that you have to travel. Now, move your feet out another 12″-18″ and do the same thing. Note how much less actual vertical displacement there is. This is your first basic physics lesson as it applies to lifting. The basic definition for mechanical work is:
Work = Force x Distance
This may be an oversimplification of the equation, but think about it like this. Force is defined as:
Force = Mass x Acceleration
So, if you have 500 pounds on the bar you’re going to have the same mass (it’s always 500 pounds) and move it with approximately the same acceleration. Now, assuming the force component of the equation is fairly constant, this leaves us with only the distance component of the equation. When using a wide stance squat compared to a narrow one, the actual WORK done in the wide stance squat is much less because the DISTANCE moved is smaller. I don’t know about you, but when on the platform I want to move the shortest distance possible in order to move the biggest weights possible!
One thing that has to be noted is that the bar must stay somewhere over the feet. If it goes in front of the feet, your lower back is going to round, your chest cave in, and you might get your head ripped off by the bar. On the flip side, if the bar gets behind your feet, you are going to fall over backwards and make your spotter earn their money. The key here is to keep the bar over your base of support
Now, let’s move on to the bar placement. A high bar technique allows any squatter to stay more erect, even those with shorter torsos. One benefit of a high-bar stance is that by staying more erect, the squat will LOOK deeper. The drawback to this is that it increases the lever arm between the bar and low back, therefore putting more strain on it. A low bar technique has the opposite effects. In powerlifting especially, since the torso is at a smaller angle relative to the legs, it will give the PERCEPTION of a higher squat. However, the low bar placement decreases the lever arm between the low back and the bar, while also allowing the lifter to recruit the gluteus maximus muscle to a greater degree. This is a matter of preference for most people, and something that each individual must decide based on their goals, particular body structure, etc.
Before we start squatting, it’s important to understand what muscles are utilized in the squat, as well as their specific role in squatting.
- Movement: Abduction of the Hip/Thigh
- Muscles: Tensor Fascia Latae, Gluteus Medius, Gluteus Minimus, and Piriformis
The muscles of the hip are the ones that give you that
tight feeling in the bottom of the squat, especially when you are forcing your knees and feet out to the side. There are several ways to build them up, such as band abductions, box squats, box squats with bands above the knees, etc.
- Movements: Hip Extension & Knee Flexion
- Muscles: Biceps femoris, semitendinosus, semimembranosus; gluteus maximus (hip extension only)
The hamstring muscles (coupled with the gluteals) are the primary hip extensors during the squat. Exercises that help build the hamstrings include glute-ham raises, pull-thru’s with bent knees, box squats, reverse hypers, lunges, good mornings, and stiff-leg deadlifts (which also help build dynamic flexibility). The gluteus maximus is the other primary hip extensor during squatting, along with the hamstrings. This benefits you, the lifter, since the same exercises tend to work both these muscle groups in concert.
- Movement: Trunk Extension & Maintenance of Erect Posture (when used bilaterally)
- Muscles: Iliocostalis lumborum, Iliocostalis thoracis, Iliocostalis cervicis, Longissimus thoracis, Longissimus cervicis, Longissimus capitis, Spinalis thoracis, Spinalis cervicis, and Spinalis capitis
In case you didn’t already know, these are all the specific muscles known as the erector spinae. Notice, however, I said when they work bilaterally (or at the same time)! The erectors are very similar to the obliques in their function. If one side contracts and the other doesn’t, it causes rotation. When both contract simultaneously, the product is trunk extension (or in the case of the obliques trunk flexion). Exercises that help build the spinal erectors include reverse hypers, regular hyperextensions (either an arched or rounded back can be employed), the conventional deadlift, and my personal favorite, the arched back goodmorning. Why is it my favorite? The static contraction used in the good morning is almost identical to that used when squatting. If you want to build your back, you better start doing good mornings!
- Movement: Stabilization of the spine
- Muscles: Rectus abdominis, external obliques, internal obliques, transverse abdominus and quadratus lumborum
The use of the abdominals in the squat could be several articles in and of itself, so for the sake of brevity I’m going to hit the basics. The main role of the abdominal muscles during the squat is stabilization of the spine. Yes, yes, it’s not a movement, but it’s nonetheless important to know the role of the abs when squatting. The abdominals work in several different planes of motion, and to be an effective squatter, they must be trained in all these planes. It comes down to the weakest link theory: You’re only as strong as your weakest link. During squatting, all the various abdominal muscles work together to provide gross and segmental stabilization of the spine. The main movements of the abdominals are trunk flexion, trunk rotation, lateral flexion, and compression of the abdomen. Some abdominal exercises include side bends, lat pulldown abs, machine crunches on a swiss ball, leg raises, decline crunches with a twist, static abs, etc.
- Upper back (Trapezius and Rhomboids)
- Primary Functions: Scapular retraction
While scapular retraction may not sound that exciting, it’s pretty important when it comes to squatting. By pulling the scapulae together and TIGHT, you form a nice “shelf” for the bar to sit on. The majority of people who first start squatting hate it because the bar hurts their back. Build up these muscles and you won’t have the same problem. Exercises to build up the scapular retractors include Olympic pulls, pulley rows to the face, and any kind of prone shrug.
Technique is very important to moving heavy weight, and should be perfected from the first rep of the day to the last. The basic body position prior to squatting should have the head and chest up, low back arched and tight, the abdomen full of air, and the knees straight (don’t get redlighted at a meet for not having your knees locked at the start and finish!).
The set-up is key. First of all when getting under the bar, pull the scapula together and get them tight. This will give you that shelf for the bar to sit on. Place your hands as close as possible that is still comfortable. The closer your hands are together, the easier it is to keep the upper back tight. Bigger guys will have more of a problem with this due to upper back hypertrophy and/or inflexibility in the chest and/or shoulders, but smaller guys shouldn’t have a problem. Find the sweet spot on your back where the bar feels most comfortable, take a breath, and push the bar up to un-rack the weight. Let the plates settle for a second, then walk it out and set up with your wide stance.
The first movement is to push BACK with the glutes. The hips should move first, and there should be minimal movement at the knee throughout the course of the lift. Olympic squatters often make a brief effort to sit back, and then the movement goes straight down from there, pushing the knees forward and placing the majority of the stress on the quadriceps. Sit back until it FEELS like your hamstrings are going to rip off the bone (Note: You don’t actually WANT them to rip off, just get that good stretch). Thanks to my coach Justin Cecil for this tip; it helps ensure you are sitting back as far as possible. When you think you’ve sat back as far as you can, SIT BACK FURTHER!!! At the same time you are sitting back, you have to push out on the knees and feet to fully activate the muscles of the hips. Now if your flexibility is good, you are going to be below parallel. From this point, push BACK into the bar with your head, neck and back. Notice I didn’t say push up, contract the hamstrings, glutes, etc.…this will cause the weight to shift forward and possibly rip your head off (as stated before). Pushing back into the bar keeps it in the groove, while keeping you safe. The whole time you are pushing back, you still need to be pushing out on the knees and feet, keeping the head and chest up, and maintaining that tight arch.
One problem that I often see is that people too often look great on their first rep, and then each rep after that looks worse and worse. When you get tired, you rely on the muscles that are strong, and for most people that’s their quadriceps. If this is the case, you can keep your volume and weight the same, simply make all your sets 2 reps. For instance, if you were to do 3 sets of 8 reps for a total of 24, try doing 12 sets of 2 reps. This way, you can control and focus on each individual rep, rather than just trying to blow through the set. This is especially important for beginners; the sooner you set that proper motor pattern, the easier it’s going to be for you to progress.
Another key to ensuring proper technique is box squatting. I’ll refer you to Louie Simmons and Dave Tate to tell you how to perform these properly, but they are key to helping you learn that proper groove, as well as putting all the stress on the muscles you need to squat big weights. If you’re just starting out, I would do at least half of my work on the box to get the correct feel, along with making sure to bring up the squatting muscles.
My squats haven’t gone up for months…what can I do to fix it?
The dreaded plateau; everyone who’s been lifting for a lengthy period of time has had one at some point. Many things can contribute to a plateau: Lagging muscle groups, poor technique, improper or no program design, etc. The most important component of breaking through a plateau is to find the muscle group that’s lagging and bring it up to par. This is a constantly evolving process: Once you’ve brought one muscle group up to par, another is probably not up to the new standard. Strategic planning and training awareness can help you stay on the path to success. The only situation where this isn’t true is when your problem is technique, and the key in this case is to PERFECT TECHNIQUE! Don’t just perform technique work mindlessly; train PERFECT TECHNIQUE ALL THE TIME! If necessary, include extra technique when you are fresh. Work with lower weights, reps, etc. to make sure that the reps are performed the way they should be. Perfect reps time and time again in practice will eventually lead to perfect reps on the platform.
Here are some typical problems and how to fix them:
If you miss at the very bottom of the squat, due to the back rounding over:
Remember what I said about good mornings and abs? This is where both come into play. You have to learn to maintain that tight arch no matter what. I learned this the hard way at the Viking Open, my second meet. I sat back, but at the bottom lost any semblance of an arch and got stapled to the floor on my last attempt. The arch has to be locked in and the abs tight to properly stabilize the spine and maximize performance.
Another possible reason for this is dropping the head and/or eyes: The body has a tendency to go where the eyes go. Think about it when driving your car; you start looking at something, and next thing you know you are veering off in that direction. The same goes for squatting. If you start looking down you’re going to lose your arch and get stapled with the weight. Keep the head and eyes up throughout the course of the lift.
If you miss at the very bottom, but maintain good posture and balance:
This is most likely hip muscle weakness and/or lack of explosive strength out of the hole. Sitting back and getting that hamstring/glute activation is necessary and will give you a great stretch, but the muscles of the hip are what give you that initial drive out of the bottom. 1″ below parallel box squats are the best way to bring up the hip muscles. Another solution is to add in accommodating resistance to your training, ala Westside Barbell. The bands teach your body to be explosive and drive through any sticking point you may have.
If you miss anywhere from 1/2 to 1/3 of the way from the top:
Again, this is most likely hip strength, but not in quite the same way. If you are missing in this range of the movement, it is probably due to the knees caving in and putting the stress on the quadriceps muscles. If you aren’t forcing the knees out throughout the entire course of the lift, you aren’t putting yourself in an optimal position to squat big weights. Again, specific hip work and high box squats just below where you miss will help rectify this problem.
If you can’t sit all the way back and your knees come forward:
Your quads are dominating the movement. The quadriceps main function is extension of the knee; therefore, in the wide stance squat where you are sitting back vs. down, the quadriceps play a minimal role, other than controlling the eccentric portion of the movement. Bring up the strength of the glutes and hamstrings through special exercises, and use box squats to train them through the proper movement pattern. Remember to keep sitting back!
Hopefully after reading this article you have a better idea of how to properly execute the wide stance squat. By properly applying physics and biomechanics, you can find the optimal squatting form for your specific body type. Add to this a desire to learn and train with perfect technique and the sky’s the limit. The recipe to success in powerlifting isn’t complex: it takes hard work, guts, dedication, training intelligence and an absolute disdain for defeat. Athletes who possess all these qualities will be the ones who are consistently improving and elevating the game. Be one of them!!!