Simplifying Your Squat and Deadlift

DerekHummerI don’t know about you, but I can’t stop thinking about lifting and training.

Even when I’m attempting to zone out or dial in on something else, often my thoughts drift and I find myself thinking about training once again.

Lately I’ve been re-visiting my thoughts on squatting and deadlifting. Not only am I working on my own technique, but my recent seminar in Ireland where we coached the entire second day brought it to the forefront as well.

I’ve already covered technique for the squat and the deadlift in depth in other posts, so I would suggest starting there if you want (or need) a complete overview.

Here’s what I’d really like to accomplish with this post:

Firstly, I want to update my “Position Statement” on squatting and deadlifting a bit. The type of movement I’ll describe below is focused on coaching athletes, or general population clients.

In other words if you’re a powerlifter and your only goal is to maximize weight moved, this may not apply to you.

Second, I want to get you thinking about how and why you do things. It’s easy to get caught up in the ever present (and often, super-annoying) world of Internet debates.

So my goal isn’t necessarily to debate, but rather, to show you a simple and effective way to clear the clutter with regards to technique. Instead of a 10-step process to squat and deadlift, what if we could whittle it down to two or three big things to focus on?

I think most would not only appreciate that, but their lifts would go up to boot.

So let’s start with a really big question here…

What Are You REALLY Trying To Do?

Last time I checked, in a squat there are two goals:

  1. To move the bar/body down to a certain point (1/2 squat, below parallel, butt-to-calves, etc.), and then more importantly,
  2. To move the bar/body back up to the top.

In a deadlift, it’s even simpler:

  1. Pick the bar up.

Sounds simple, right?

Here’s the issue – sometimes I think we make coaching the squat and deadlift far more difficult than it needs to be.

Sure, there are 1,000 things we can focus on with our clients. But do you really need to coach them on all 1,000?

I doubt it. And if you tried, they probably wouldn’t be very successful!

But here’s the bigger issue: Sometimes I think we try to outsmart ourselves with biomechanics.

If we’re going to make our cues simple, we need to make the movement simple.

Basic Biomechanics for Squatting and Deadlifting

One thing I’ve tried to do (especially in recent years) is focus on neutrality.

The spine should be set, and then neutral throughout the course of a squat/deadlift.

The feet/knees/hips should be in alignment throughout.

The weight distribution should be balanced throughout the feet.

One of the big issues back in the day was everyone cuing their clients and athletes to “arch hard,” to set the back. And trust me, I was there as well, so I’m not throwing stones in my glass house.

But I hope we know now that this isn’t the ideal way to coach spinal stabilization.

Sure, it is ONE WAY to do it – and yes your spine will be stable. But you’ll be using passive (i.e. bony) restraints to create that stability.

And furthermore, arching hard will negatively alter joint and muscle position. This will effectively limit squat depth, and take your big muscles (glutes, hamstrings) out of the big picture to a degree.

So neutral spine it is. Now let’s talk about the knees.

Like everything in our industry, things tend to overreact in one way or the other.

We see a handful of people whose knees cave in during a squat, and now everyone has to push their knees out hard.

And don’t get me wrong – I love a good “knees out” cue for the appropriate person. But here’s what I see more times than not.

You cue to someone to push their knees out, and they push out so hard that they start to actually supinate at the foot.

When someone pushes the knees out excessively, you’re putting undue torque at the knee joint. Basic biomechanics tell us that the knee is a condyloid joint, with a small degree of rotation available to it.

I would reserve knee rotation for times when it may actually need it – like on a sporting field, not when I’m trying to move a bar up and down.

And to add insult to injury, pushing out hard like this doesn’t even engage the glutes the way you would like!

If you want to make this super simple, just watch your client or athlete squat. If their hips, knees and feet are in alignment in the bottom are good, then they are fine. They don’t need to excessively push their knee out to the point where they’re about to sprain an ankle.

Which leads me to our last joint, the foot.

Often, you see people thinking about “spreading” the floor with their foot. I tried this for 2 years*, with literally zero results or improvement in my competition squat.

(*Side note: N=1 here. If you have great results with this technique, that’s great. I’m just explaining an alternative, and what I consider to be a superior, option.)

Instead, think about keeping your tripod foot position, where the weight is equally distributed from side-to-side and front-to-back.

Now with a balanced foot position, think about pushing away from the floor.

When your foot is balanced, your foot, knee and hip are in alignment, and your spine is in a neutral position, this crazy thing happens:

You actually feel your extensors kick on!

In other words, you tend to dissipate a lot of the “extra” motion that comes into a lift when you’re cuing someone to arch hard, push the knees out, and spread the floor.

Instead, when you stand up you feel your quads extend your knee. Your glutes and hamstrings extend your hip.

And coming back to my main point here, isn’t that the end goal?

To squat down and then stand back up?

OR to pick the bar up off the floor?

The goal isn’t to create torque through every joint imaginable. We just want to keep things neutral, and allow our big extensor muscle groups to “do what they were born to do.”+

(+First person to get that analogy and post the artist/title in the “Comments” section gets a free product. Classic hip-hop right there!)

Your Simple Squatting and Deadlifting Checklist

When setting up to squat, here’s a very quick and dirty checklist you can follow with yourself or your clients:

  1. Set your spine in a neutral position. I like to exhale to get the ribs down, and possible even “pull” the pelvis up a bit (if necessary). Take a slight breath in while holding this position and brace.
  2. Open the groin. If you must cue knees out, great. If not, simple tell your client to “open the groin,” “sit down” or “sit between their knees.”

See how easy that was? Pretty cool, right?

So two steps to squat – I like that. Now here are a few cues I’m liking these days:

  • Feel your whole foot. Too often, people’s feet are all over the place. They’re on their heels. Then their on their toes. Then they’re on the inside or outside of their foot. If they can feel their entire foot during the lift, then this sets them up for the next cue.
  • Push away with the feet. When you cue someone to push on the squat, this facilitates their hip and knee extensors to work simultaneously. Often you see people whose hips shooting up into outer space out of the hole, and then they have to finish with a good morning. When you push, your hips/pelvis stay underneath you during the entirety of the lift.

Summary

I’m so focused on efficiency, I’m going to wrap the post there.

Sure I could drone on and on about this, but I want you to give this technique a shot.

Next time you’re in the gym, set your spine, feel your whole foot, and think about pushing when you squat and deadlift.

I can virtually guarantee you’ll like how it feels!

All the best

MR

 

 

12 Comments

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  1. Good article. I follow starting strength(low bar) so I:
    Crank up my elbows so my upper back arches
    Raise my chest for a light lower back arch
    Sit down between my knees and push my butt out to get depth and knees out

  2. Great post Mike! The less cues to use with clients the better and you definitely illustrated that with this blog post.

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