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Squat

October 5, 2011 Category: Coaching, Exercises, Powerlifting Tags: , .

squatThe squat may be the single most important lift you can perform in the gym.

When properly executed, the squat is not only an amazing tool for strength development, but it can promote fat loss or muscle gain (depending on your nutrition), and it can reinforce mobility in almost all the major joints of the body!

Whether you’re a seasoned veteran of the iron game or someone who is just learning the ropes, you owe it to yourself to learn how to squat properly.

This blog will help you get there faster. Enjoy!

Benefits of Squatting

The benefits of adding the squat into your program are numerous:

  • Improved mobility in the ankles, knees, hips and thoracic spine.
  • Development of muscle mass.
  • Fat burning.
  • Strength development.

Let’s take a moment and look at each of these in a bit more depth.

Improved Mobility

Mobility is a common buzzword in the fitness industry. But too often, people assume that mobility is simply something we do unweighted, or as part of a pre-workout routine.

In fact, loaded mobility training may be even more important than unloaded! Going through a full range of motion like you would in a Goblet or front squat reinforces mobility through the ankles, hips and even the thoracic spine.

Quite simply, you can do all the “unloaded” mobility training in the world, but until you start to load and cement your mobility, you’re not going to see maximal benefits.

Development of Muscle Mass

The squat has long been regarded as the premiere developer of total body muscle mass.

If you’re squatting heavy, you’re obviously going to see development of all the muscles around the hips and lower body – specifically the glutes, hamstrings and quadriceps.

But what’s really cool about the squat is how simply supporting heavy weights can lead to some appreciable improvements in size as well. It’s not uncommon to see someone add heavy squats into their program and their upper body development goes through the roof as well!

Fat Burning

While many may scoff at this notion, high rep squats are one of the first exercises I work into a fat loss program.

Now I’m sure you’re wondering, how can this lift build muscle AND burn fat?

The answer is largely in your diet, and that’s not necessarily my area of expertise. The bottom line is if you’re in a positive caloric balance you’ve created an environment that’s conducive to building muscle, while if you’re in a negative caloric balance you’ve created an environment that’s conducive to fat loss.

Strength Gains

The final (and perhaps most obvious) benefit of squatting is getting stronger.

Regardless of your physique-related goals, almost everyone can benefit from getting stronger. Driving up your squat carries over to all sorts of sports and daily activities, from blasting someone off the line in football, to jumping higher in volleyball or basketball, or simply picking stuff up and moving it around the house with greater ease.

How to Squat – The Set-Up

Visualization

For me, a heavy squat session starts the night or two before the actual workout. I like to relax in bed and visualize the entire workout – the warm-up, the music that will be playing, going through the exact step-by-step process, etc.

This way, I’m getting quality “reps” in my brain before I’ve ever gotten to the actual workout. If you haven’t tried visualizing your workouts before, definitely try this before your next session.

Wear a Tight Shirt

Who would’ve figured? A tight shirt is good for more than just going out to the club or blasting your biceps for the 110th week in a row!

I’m sure this sounds ridiculous, but wearing a tight shirt can make a huge difference when you squat, especially if you use a low bar position. For instance, I typically wear a large t-shirt, but when I squat I wear a medium because it improves my connection and feel with the bar.

Grab the Bar, Hands Close

While rocking your smedium t-shirt, the next thing we need to do is grab the bar. If you’re a bigger guy or your shoulder mobility is lacking, you’re going to have to go a bit wider with your grip.

However, if you’re a lighter lifter or someone with good shoulder external rotation, I would highly recommend getting your hands in close to your shoulders. When you get your hands in close this locks in your entire upper body, and helps keep your chest out.

Squeeze Under, Shoulders Back

With your hands appropriately placed, the next thing we need to do is get underneath the bar.

As you step under the bar, think about actively pulling your shoulder blades back and together. Doing this should give you a nice “muscle shelf” for the bar to rest on. Many novice lifters will complain that the bar is uncomfortable or digging into their upper back, and this is often due to the fact they aren’t actively pulling their shoulder blades back.

Please do not go grab the sissy pad! Trust me, I’ve done this with 6 foot tall, 135 pound women’s volleyball players to help them squat without the bar digging into their upper back. If they can do it, you can do it.

As you’re squeezing under and getting tight, think about setting your feet directly underneath your hips and parallel to each other. DO NOT SET YOUR FEET IN AN OFFSET FASHION!

Chest Up, Elbows Down

So you’re under the bar and your shoulder blades are squeezed back. The next thing you need to do is really force your chest up.

Too often, you see someone walk the bar out and they’re already pitched too far forward – you know the lift is going to be a struggle. To counteract this, make sure your chest is up before you ever unrack the bar!

To help in getting your chest up, think about spinning your elbows down and underneath the bar. Again, this will help lock in your upper body/torso position and get you ready to squat!

Push Aggressively Into the Bar

As you’re getting ready to unrack the bar, think about pushing your upper back aggressively into the bar. Really try to feel the weight out, dominate it, before you ever take it out of the racks.

A typical mistake the beginners make is treating 315 like it’s 135. It’s not! You have to be aggressive in your mindset – don’t let the weight manhandle you!

If you let the bar sink into your back, I can guarantee it’s going to feel heavier than it should, and that plays on your psyche. Be aggressive, push into the bar hard, and unrack the weight.

Big Breath, Stand Up, Let the Weights Settle

So you’re nice and tight under the bar, you’ve pushed aggressively into it, now it’s time to actually unrack the weight.

Take a big, deep belly breath, and get tight. Press into the bar and stand up, but don’t step back yet! Instead stand up and let the plates settle for a second. The more weight you get on the bar, the greater the tendency will be for the plates to “whip” you around.

This is a great routine to get into – if you step back immediately when the weights are light, it’s going to throw you off completely when the weights get heavy.

1-2-3, Feet Set

Once you’ve unracked the weight, the next step is to walk the weight out and get your feet set appropriately. Here’s the routine I like to use, but feel free to switch it up if something else feels more natural to you.

  1. Take a step back with my right foot, and set it approximately where I want.
  2. Take a step back with my left foot, and set it where I want it. I squat with approximately a shoulder width stance, and my toes turned out so they’re in line with my knees and hips in the bottom of the squat.
  3. Dial in the toe/foot position on my right foot.

Try and make your set-up as effortless and consistent as possible. As the weight gets heavier, the last thing you want to do is take 4, 5 or even 6 more steps to set your feet and get ready to squat. You’ll waste too much energy before you’ve even tried to squat the weight!

Make this incredibly consistent and do this while setting up on every single set. As the immortal Ed Coan says, “when you start to treat the light weights like heavy weights, the heavy weights will go up a lot easier.”

Shift Your Weight Back

After you’ve walked the weight out, many will have a tendency to shift the weight towards their midfoot or even their toes.

Before you squat, make sure to shift your weight towards your midfoot, or even your heels. If you’re familiar with the concept of tripod foot, that would be ideal.

Reset, Pack the Neck and Get Tight!

Now you feet are set and you’re almost ready to squat. Do one more final check, and really focus on getting tight. Take a deep breath, push your chest up, and spin your elbows down.

Finally, think about “packing your neck,” or getting it into neutral before you squat. Here’s a quick video that describes why this is important:

Now, FINALLY, t’s time to squat!

How to Squat – Performance

Sit Back and Push the Knees Out Slightly

To initiate the squat, think about sitting back and pushing your knees out to the side. This will help you load the glutes and hamstrings, as well as helping keeping your lower back healthy.

The biggest newbie mistake  squatting is to straight sit down versus back. Not only will this limit your depth, but it will put a ton of stress on your knees and force your quadriceps to do all of the work.

If you’re uncomfortable sitting back, or if you just can’t seem to figure out the motion, you may want to consider starting with the box squat (described below).

Keep Chest Up

As you squat down, it’s critical that you keep your chest up. This will help keep your lower back flat/neutral, and allow you to transfer maximal force into the bar.

If your chest gets caved over and your lower back rounds, not only is this a massive energy leak where you’re leaving pounds on the bar, but you’re putting yourself at risk of injury as well.

How Deep is Deep Enough?

This is the million dollar question – how deep should I squat?

And honestly, I don’t care how deep you squat, as there are so many things that play into squat depth:

  • Ankle Mobility
  • Hip Mobility
  • Core/Lumbar Spine Stability
  • Bar Position (Lower Bar vs. High Bar)
  • What Powerlifting Federation You Squat In
  • What Type of Powerlifting Gear You Use
  • Etc.

So let’s just say this: You should squat as deep as you need help you achieve your goals, and without putting you at risk of injury.

When I’m training someone new, the biggest thing I’m looking for is their ability to squat with a neutral spine. So if they can squat to 2″ above parallel without losing their lumbar curve, that’s as deep as they’ll squat for the time being.

If you goal is to squat to the basement with a flat back, I’ll provide you with strategies later on to help you out with that!

Push BACK Out of the Hole

As you’re coming up out of the hole, don’t think about standing up – think about pushing BACK into the bar. This will help you keep your chest up and the bar moving in a straight line.

What happens when you think about standing up is the bar tends to drift forward on you a bit, which shifts your center of gravity forward and puts you in a poor position to finish the lift.

Keep Knees Out

As you’re standing up, don’t forget to keep pushing your knees out as well. If your knees are caving in, your shifting the stress to your quadriceps and adductors, versus your glutes and lateral hamstrings.

Moreover, this caving in of the knees puts a great deal of stress on the lateral compartment of the knee. If you’re going to squat for as long as possible, do everything in your power to keep your knees healthy!

The goal is to maintain a solid Foot-Knee-Hip Relationship – if you look at someone from a 45 degree angle when they squat, you’d like to see their foot, knee and hip in a straight line throughout.

Finish the Rep

As you’re standing up if you need to you can always grunt, exhale forcefully, or whatever helps you finish the rep.

You did it! You just finished one rep.

If you’re doing numerous reps in a set, you may need to reset before performing the next rep. Think about taking another big breath, pushing the chest out, and resetting the elbows if necessary.

Some high level lifters can get away with doing a handful of reps all while holding their same breath. This may or may not work for you – just make sure you don’t pass out!

Squat Variations

The Goblet Squat

The goblet squat is at the forefront of my squat coaching progression because it’s almost impossible to screw up and you can have virtually anyone squatting well in a matter of minutes.

Popularized by Dan John, the goblet squat is performed with a kettlebell or dumbbell. I’ll describe the kettlebell version for simplicity’s sake.

Grab a kettlebell “by the horns” (i.e. at the two “corners” if you will) and tuck your elbows in next to your sides. Set your feet approximately hip or shoulder width apart, with the toes turned out slightly. Lift the chest and brace the core.

Initiate the motion by sitting back and pushing the knees out. In the bottom of a goblet squat, feel free to hang out for a moment and use the elbows to “push” the knees out. This will give you a great stretch through your groin and adductors, while helping your engage your glutes and lateral hamstrings more.

Squatting in this fashion will not only teach you to load and mobilize your hips effectively, but to help keep your chest up and lower back flat/neutral as well.

The Front Squat

While the back squat is what most people of think of when they hear the word “squat,” true gym veterans know that the front squat may be even more evil!

Keep in mind, I could probably write an entire blog post about the front squat (EDIT: And I later did – you can find it here: Front Squat), so this is a condensed version.

2011-07-31_13-48-32_842Set the bar in the rack and walk up to it so the bar is at approximately collarbone height. You’re going to step into the bar and “tuck” it into the bottom of your throat. If you get the bar too high it’s going to be on your windpipe, and you’re going to enjoy front squats even less!

With the bar at the base of your throat, lift your neck up slightly and “set” it as far back as you can. Next, place your hands on the bar – this can be done with either a cross-arm (bodybuilder) grip or Olympic (clean) grip.

Stand up to unrack the bar, walk it out and set your feet. Typically, you’ll front squat with a slightly narrower stance than you would back squat.

2011-07-31_13-48-49_639Take a deep breath, lift the elbows (drive them up, so they point straight forward), and then squat. The mechanics are essentially the same – you’ll sit back slightly, push your knees out, and focus on keeping the chest up throughout.

With the load in front of the body, you won’t be able to sit back nearly as far as you would in a back squat. This will keep you more upright, and shift more of the weight to your quadriceps versus your glutes and hamstrings. This is one of the reasons why the front squat is considered more quad/knee dominant when compared to a back squat.

Perhaps the most important cue when having someone front squat is to have them keep their elbows up. Even if the elbows start “up” initially, it’s not uncommon when coming out of the hole for the weight to shift forward and the elbows to come down with it.

I will often cue my clients and athletes in the following manner:

The deeper you squat, the more you need to think about driving your elbows up.

The Back Squat

While we’ve already described back squatting performance in-depth, let’s take a quick moment to review some tweaks and variations we can play around with.

2011-07-31_13-55-15_245Above, I described a low-bar back squat – this is what’s most commonly utilized by experienced strength trainers. The low-bar back squat is preferred by powerlifters as it shortens the lever between the bar and the hips, and allows them to really sit back into the lift, maximally recruiting the glutes and hamstrings.

In the case of the low-bar position, you’ll think about pulling your shoulder blades back and together to create a “muscle shelf,” and this is where the bar will rest.

2011-07-31_13-54-47_966In contrast, you’ll also see the high-bar back squat used. This style is often preferred by Olympic lifters, as it keeps the torso more upright (as it would be when catching a clean in the bottom position), while still allowing for more load than can be used in a front squat.

For the high-bar position, you’ll simply dip under the bar on your set-up and rest the bar high on your upper back/traps, but not so high that it’s resting on your cervical spine (neck).

Debating the efficacy of which squat is better isn’t even worth the time, as it really depends on your needs, goals, etc. The argument can be made for each type of squat in a variety of situations.

The other variable you can play around with when squatting is the width of your stance. It’s not uncommon to see everything from a very narrow (hip-width) to very wide (well outside of shoulder-width) stance.

Narow Stance

Moderate Stance

Wide Stance

As a general rule, the more narrow you squat the less you can sit back, the more upright you will be, and the more quad-dominant the lift will be.

In contrast, the wider you squat, the more you will sit back, you will have more torso lean, and the lift will be more hip dominant.

The type of shoe you wear will also play a role in your squat performance and technique, so we’ll discuss this in more depth later.

The Box Squat

While the box squat is just another variation of the traditional back squat, it probably deserves its own section due to its popularity in powerlifting circles.

The box squat has a long history, and even Louie Simmons (who is often given credit for popularizing box squats) gives credit to Roger Estep for introducing him to the lift.

The box squat would typically be performed like any other squat – the focus is still on getting tight, sitting back, pushing the knees out, etc.

The box squat, however, can be coached and cued in numerous ways. Here are a just a few ways that I’ve seen over the years:

  • Extra wide stance, sitting as far back as possible, and keeping the shins/tibiae vertical.
  • Normal stance, used as a coaching tool to cue someone to “sit back” versus just “sitting down.”
  • Sit back on to the box, pause, rock back (allowing lumbar flexion/rounding) and then rock forward to come off the box.
  • Staying tight/stable (neutral spine), and then “exploding” off the box with no rock.

Part of the reason box squats are so popular in the powerlifting community (and especially within the multi-ply federations) is due to the fact that it mimics the style of squat they perform in competition.

A multi-ply squat suit provides stopping power in the bottom, as if you were sitting on a box. By sitting back into the suit, it stops you and helps you reverse the motion.

Therefore, this type of squat may be more “specific” to these lifters than a free squat. As the saying goes, “Practice like you play.”

The Safety Bar Squat

One final option I want to discuss is the safety bar squat.

The safety bar squat is ideal if you want the feel of a back squat, without having to support the weight with your shoulders, elbows and wrists. Many times due to injury or flexibility issues, trainees cannot back squat, so the safety bar squat is an ideal solution to keep the bar on their back but out of their hands.

Safety bar squat performance is identical to that of a back squat. Simply rest the bar on your back and grab the front handles. Walk out, set your feet where appropriate, and squat!

Two things you’ll find when using the safety bar:

  1. The offset nature of the weight is a bear. The bar is always trying to “pull” or cave you forward.
  2. Since your hands aren’t gripping the bar, you lose out on some of the stability that’s normally provided by your upper body. Instead, your torso and upper back are forced to take over more of the workload, and this makes the lift much more challenging as well.

Common Flaws and Coaching Cues

Poor Starting Torso Position

You see it all the time – someone goes to squat a heavy weight and they get caved over.

In my opinion, though, this happens well before they ever squat – it actually starts when they’re unracking the bar and setting up!

If you have a tendency to get caved over, work hard to get your chest up before you ever unrack the bar. Make sure it’s set exactly where you want it and your chest is up and out.

Once you walk the weight out and start to set up, reset it again before you squat.

Feet Offset – Toe Out or Front to Back

Another common issue you see when people set up is failing to get their feet symmetrical.

As you walk the weight out, make sure your feet are in-line with each other. Again, this comes down to setting up the same way time and again, but never squat with your feet offset from front to back.

Even if someone’s feet are set appropriately front to back, you’ll often notice that they have one foot that’s toed out more than the other. This could be due to asymmetries in hip strength, mobility, or a host of other issues which we’ll address below.

If you can’t get your toes turned out to the same degree, you’ll want to check out some of my squat fixes at the end of this piece.

Breaking with the Knees

Breaking with the knees often happens for two reasons:

  1. The person is new to squatting and doesn’t know they are supposed to sit back. They may also think that “chest up” means “stay as upright as possible,” or
  2. They physically can’t sit back due to strength issues.

The first is an easy fix – simply cuing someone to sit back and push their knees out often immediately cleans up their squat. If they are uncomfortable doing this, try having them squat to a box for a cycle or two and see if that doesn’t clean things up.

If they assume they are supposed to stay bolt upright, please explain to them that just because we want their chest up doesn’t mean they have to squat straight up and down. The torso is going to have some natural lean to it when back squatting, but the goal is to keep the chest up in spite of that lean.

If they can’t sit back due to strength issues, I think you need to assault their posterior chain until they get things sorted out.

Start by having them back squat to a box. Make it very hip dominant (sitting way back), at least initially until they get comfortable with the motion.

I would also make sure virtually all of their assistance work is geared towards the back side of the body – RDL’s, good mornings, glute-ham raises, ball leg curls, etc.

And of course, a steady diet of deadlifts wouldn’t hurt either :)

Not Pushing the Knees Out

Again, failing to push the knees out could be a coaching/technical issue, or it could be a strength-related issue.

Start by simply cuing your client to “sit back and push your knees out.” If they don’t get the picture, let them goblet squat and work on using the elbows to “push” the knees out.

Another option, again, is the box squat. Have them sit back and push the knees out, and as they drive off the box cue them to push their knees out hard.

If they have a legitimate strength/mobility issue, try having them mobilize/foam roll/stretch their adductors pre-workout, and activate/strengthen their glutes and lateral hamstrings. Clam shells, hip wall slides and similar exercises should fire up the lagging muscle groups and get them ready to take on their fair share of the workload.

Not Keeping the Chest Up

If you get caved over when you squat, make sure you read the first section about the set-up. If you’re caved over in your set-up (before you ever start squatting), there’s no way you’re going to power through it.

If your set-up is solid but you’re still getting caved over, try one (or all) of these simple tips:

  • Move your hands in closer to your shoulders.
  • Drive your elbows underneath the bar hard.
  • Push BACK into the bar out of the hole.
  • Adjust the bar up (or down) on your back.

Accessory Lifts, Tips and Tricks to Fix Your Squat

If you have weak glutes and hamstrings, or you struggle to sit back….

Failing to sit back in the squat could be a technical issue, or it could be a strength issue.

If you can’t sit back in the squat, start by squatting to a box for a period of time. Make sure the box is far enough back that you are forced to sit back. If you don’t put it far enough back, you defeat the purpose as you can still squat down versus back.

If you lack the glute and hamstring strength to sit back, try throwing in hamstring exercises where you’re training the knee-flexion component of the hamstrings. Exercises like ball leg curls and glute-ham raises are ideal in this situation.

If you have weak hips and can’t keep your knees out…

Another common issue when squatting is allowing the knees to cave. Again, this could be a technical issue, or it could be more mechanical in nature.

Start by squatting to a box. Box squats should allow you to slow the squat down and make sure you’re pushing your knees out hard. If this still isn’t working try placing a light band around the outside of the knees so you’re forced to push the knees out.

If the issue is more mechanical, it’s probably due to weak glutes, lateral hamstrings, and hip external rotators. The box squat will help here as well, especially if you’re focusing hard on keeping the knees out.  Other options you can try include sumo deadlifts and almost all single-leg work (step-ups, split-squats, single-leg squats, etc.).

Some isolative work for the hip abductors and external rotators could help as well.

If your torso is weak and you have a tendency to get caved over….

This used to be a recurring theme in my training – when the bar would get heavy, I’d have a tendency to fall forward.

Firstly, moving your hands in on the bar will go a long way to keeping your chest up and out throughout the squat. This adjustment alone made all the difference in the world for me.

If the issue persists, try throwing some good mornings into your program. These will help mimic the bent-over bar position you’re probably falling into, and can help you learn how to “correct” the issue and save some of those squats that might get away from you.

If you miss in the hole…

Getting stuck in the bottom of the squat is a common sticking point.

Start by incorporating box squats into your programming. Hold for a one count in the bottom, work on staying tight, and exploding out of the hole.

If box squats aren’t your thing, consider pause squats. Pause squats are similar to box squats, but instead of sitting on a box, you’re simply holding tight in the bottom position for a specified period of time (generally 1-3 seconds).

A final option is 1 1/4 squats. To perform a 1 1/4 squat, squat down to the bottom position, come up about 1/4 of the way, go back down, and then return to the starting position. That’s one rep.

Yes, these suck – bad. But they work.

If you miss halfway up…

Missing halfway up may be the most common sticking point. This is especially true if you use a little “dip” to get you out of the bottom.

The options that worked above will work here as well – especially box squats and pause squats. Focus on staying tight in the bottom and exploding through the sticking point.

Another option is to add in speed work, or any sort of accommodating resistance. Squatting against bands or chains, or squatting with bands, can help you focus on exploding out of the bottom and driving through your sticking point.

Finally, make sure you’re keeping your weight shifted back on your feet. Many will have a tendency to “drift” forward when they squat, and when the weight drifts forward onto the toes, it’s often very tough to recover.

Think about keeping the weight shifted towards the heels slightly and pushing “back” into the bar.

If you miss at the top…

This is really rare, and mostly seen in guys who are using multi-ply squat gear. If this describes you, you’re probably going to benefit the most from accommodating resistance that’s going to overload the lift at the top.

Squatting against bands and chains, or squatting with bands and really overloading the top portion of the lift will probably get you the most carryover.

Squat Gear and Accessories

Chalk

Chalk should be a staple when squatting. Apply it liberally not only to your hands, but to your upper back where the bar will rest as well. This will keep the bar from rolling, and if you’ve got the small t-shirt on, will help improve your connection with the bar.

Belt

A belt is another staple when squatting heavy. Typically I won’t throw a belt on until I’m near 80% of my 1-repetition maximum, but that doesn’t necessarily have to apply to everyone. I like to squat “raw” a fair amount of the time so I don’t become reliant on a belt. It also helps improve my natural core strength and stability.

To effectively use a belt, think about not only pushing out to the front, but to the sides and back as well. Think about “filling” the belt all the way around.

Knee Sleeves

Knee sleeves, while not necessarily providing a ton of support, are awesome for keeping your knee joints warm and well lubricated. This is especially important if you’re training in a cold environment, or if you’re taking a lot of time in between sets.

Knee Wraps

While knee sleeves are more for comfort, knee wraps are worn to improve performance.

Tight knee wraps not only increase compression and stability at the knee joint, but their elastic properties act like virtual quads and help you extend the knee joint more powerfully.

Just like you shouldn’t wear a belt all the time, I wouldn’t suggest wear knee wraps every workout either. Cycle them in throughout the course of your training year for maximum benefit.

Squat Suits

Squat suits are much like knee wraps, in the fact that they help improve squatting performance (i.e. heavier weights). All suits work via increased compression and stability at the hip joints, but different suits work in slightly different ways.

Squat suits range from a single-layer of polyester, to multiple plys of polyester, to canvas and everything in between. A single-ply suit will generally be tighter, and will allow for more “rebound” out of the hole. In contrast, multi-ply and canvas suits are known more for their “stopping” power. This is why you’ll often see multi-ply guys rely on box squatting more so than single-ply guys – it’s more specific to the type of squat they perform in competition.

I’m not going to go to in-depth into squat suits – just like bench shirts and deadlift suits, the gear is constantly changing and evolving, and what’s new and awesome today will be yesterday’s news tomorrow.

Squat Briefs

Squat briefs are similar to squat suits, with the exception being there are no straps. Think about the tightest pair of underwear you’ve ever worn, shrink them by 50%, and that’s what a pair of squat briefs feels like.

Footwear for the Squat

A discussion on squatting gear wouldn’t be complete without discussing footwear. There are a lot of choices out there, but when we really break it down, there are two general types of footwear we can use when squatting:

  1. Something with a flat sole, or
  2. Something with a raised heel.

Let’s examine both.

Flat Soled Shoes

Flat soled shoes are excellent for people who have great hip and ankle mobility, those who don’t necessarily want/need to squat butt-to-calves, or those who want to focus on really sitting back into their squats.

Flat soled shoe options would include the New Balance Minimus, Vibram Five Fingers, Chuck Taylor’s and wrestling shoes.

Shoes with a Raised Heel

Shoes with a raised heel are excellent for people who may have limited hip and/or ankle mobility, those who want/need to squat as deep as possible, or those who want to use a mix of quads, glutes and hamstrings when they squat.

The most common raised heel option’s you’ll find are squat shoes (such as the Safe squat shoe) or Olympic lifting shoes.

Squatting Modifications

As I’ve mentioned above, adding bands or chains to your squatting workouts can provide serious dividends, assuming you’re at the right place in your own training.

Keep in mind, these are more advanced techniques, and I honestly wouldn’t consider using any of them until you’re squatting at least 2x bodyweight, and perhaps more.

Squatting Against Bands

Squatting against bands is a sure-fire way to become stronger and more explosive. The key to squatting effectively with bands is to make sure you’ve got at least some band tension in the hole – you never want the bands to lose all their tension.

Squatting with bands is best done using a monolift, as you don’t have to walk the bar out. However, squatting in a power rack is do-able assuming it’s sturdy and hopefully bolted into the ground.

Squatting Against Chains

Squatting against chains is very similar to squatting against bands. As you squat deeper the chains will pile up on the floor,  unloading the weight momentarily. The goal is to be explosive and get back up to the top as quickly as possible.

While squatting against bands and chains was initially used by powerlifters to improve their squat, these methods can absolutely be used with athletes to help improve speed and power.

Squatting with Bands (AKA Reverse Band Squats)

Squatting with bands is ideal for powerlifters who compete in a squat suit. Since the squat suit will give you stopping/rebound power out of the bottom, the middle and top portion of the lifts are often the most difficult. Squatting with bands will mimic that strength curve/sticking point, and hopefully help you power through them.

In this case, the bands are supported by the top of the power rack. As you squat down the bands increase their tension, decreasing the load in the bottom. As you stand back up, the band tension is released and you’re left to finish the weight on your own.

A Basic and Intermediate Squat Routine

For beginners, I think they need to consistently get the bar on their back and squat with great technique. While you can do lower rep sets, I think 3-4 sets of 8-10 reps works well. Beginners need a lot of repetitions, and often their first 3-5 reps are a feeling out process.

When you let them perform 6, 8 or even 10 reps in a set, they can often dial in and refine their technique over the course of a set.

Some may disagree with me on this point, but this is only for the first couple of weeks/months of training. Let them figure the movement out, get in a lot of reps, and work to get a base level of strength.

Once someone has squatted with good technique for 4-6 months, or once their newbie gains have stalled, try this squat routine:

The Modified 5×5 Squat Routine

In case you don’t want to read the entire article, here’s the jist of the program:

Sets and Reps Load Rest Period Gear Used
Week 1 4×5 70% 3-4 minutes None
Week 2 5 x 5 80% 4-5 minutes Belt (Optional)
Week 3 3×3 65% 3 minutes None
Week 4 3×5 85% As needed Belt

I used this training cycle myself over the course of 2 years and took my competition squat from 407 to 530 pounds while lifting in the 198 pound weight class.

Probably not the most amazing numbers you’ll ever see, but at least respectable!

Now that we’ve covered all the basics, let’s look at some of the most basic and common questions I get asked about squatting, as well as how to work around injuries.

How to Fix Buttwink

This is one of the single-most popular questions I get asked with regards to squatting:

My low back tucks/rounds when I squat – how do I fix this?

Some people call it tucking, some call it rounding, and still others call it “Buttwink.”

The problem is, every time you do that you’re exposing your lower back (muscles, ligaments, discs, etc.) to possible injury. This is why I have all of my clients squat to a depth where they can keep their low back/lumbar spine flat.

But let’s say you want to squat deep – leaving sweat stains on the floor. But, you can’t do that without losing your lower back position.

How do we get you from A–>B?

I’m glad you asked!

“Buttwink” constitutes a stiffness imbalance. All the muscles and joints in your body have a certain amount of stiffness; when the stiffness between adjacent muscles, joints, etc. is balanced your movement is fluid and natural.

Along those same lines, being “stiff” isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The best athletes in the world understand how to use their stiffness to jump high, throw things far, or to lift very heavy weights.

When the stiffness between your core/trunk and your hips is balanced, you can squat deep without seeing any changes in your lower back position. Olympic lifters may be one of the greatest examples of this.

Pyrros Dimas Squatting

However, a lot of us (for a lot of different reasons) have stiffness imbalances. To be more specific, our hips are stiffer than our core/trunk, so when we squat deeper (more hip flexion) and start to move into that stiffness, if our trunk isn’t every bit as stiff, it will move first.

Think about two bands which are interconnected – one is big and thick, and the other is half its size.

If you pull equally hard on each band, the bigger/stiffer band will move less and will force more movement from the smaller/less stiff band.

This is what happens when you squat deep and your back rounds – your core/trunk isn’t as stiff as your hips, and therefore lumbar flexion (instead of hip flexion) is the path of least resistance for your body.

Quite simply, it’s easier for your body to squat deep while rounding your lower back than to keep it in neutral!

Now if I lost you somewhere along the way, that’s ok – I’m going to tell you what to do to fix it.

If your want to squat deeper, we need to address the stiffness imbalance on two levels:

  • Decrease the stiffness in your hips, and
  • Increase the stiffness in your core/torso.

To decrease the stiffness in your hips, you should be foam rolling pre-workout, performing dynamic stretching/mobility drills pre-workout, and going through a static stretching routine in the evening.

But most importantly, you must perform all your stretching while maintaining a neutral lumbar spine position!

If you perform a hamstring stretch and round your lower back, you’re reinforcing the fact that your back is more “flexible” that your hips.

Now if you have zero desire to write-up your own warm-up routine, I would highly recommend picking up a copy of Assess and Correct. You can go step-by-step through our assessment and develop your own customized warm-up routine as a result. Not to mention the fact that there are coaching cues in there to make sure you’re doing it right!

So while you’re working to decrease your hip stiffness, you also need focus on increasing the stiffness in your trunk/core.

Just like you need to train with a neutral spine when you perform your stretching/mobility routine, you need to do the same thing when strength training. This goes for every exercise (squats, deadlifts, RDL’s, etc.) – focus on moving through the hips, and keeping the lower back flat.

If you can’t go through a full range of motion for a short period of time, so be it.

We’re no longer working through a “full range of motion” – we’re now working in what’s called your “functional” range of motion, or the range of motion you can access without losing your neutral spine alignment.

The biggest training swap I would make is to trade your back squats in for front squats. Front squats not only place more stress on the quads (versus the hips), but they also require an incredible amount of core/torso strength to keep you upright.

If someone comes to me with a serious buttwink, I can guarantee you they’re going to get a steady diet of front squats in their training programs!

And by the way, my new product, Complete Core Fitness, covers this in-depth as well!

If you are having issues figuring out how deep you can squat, I would suggest squatting to a box for the time being and setting it at the point just before you tuck or round. Squat to that box for a month, and work to squat a little deeper with each ensuing month.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a quick fix, but following the steps outlined above can make a huge difference in not only your squat technique and performance, but your long-term lower back health as well!

How To Fix Your Squat Shift

So if “how do I fix my buttwink” is the most popular squat question I get, this is the second most popular:

“I shift to the left/right when I squat – how do I fix that?”

Let’s start by looking at why you’re shifting in the first place, and then we’ll deal with fixing it.

The reason you shift when squatting could come down to a ton of different factors:

  • Asymmetries in hip motion,
  • Asymmetries in ankle motion,
  • Thigh muscle imbalances,
  • Hip muscle imbalances,
  • A rotated pelvis,
  • A rotated spine,
  • And a whole bunch of other issues I’m not going to mention.

Let’s look at the most common issues, as well as how I’d go about fixing them up.

Why You’re Shifting

The two biggest reasons that someone shifts when they squat are due to asymmetries in hip motion, along with asymmetries in hip strength.

Assessing hip rotation goes beyond what we can effectively cover here. Consider picking up Assess and Correct, or meet with a qualified sports medicine professional and have them evaluate you for asymmetries in hip rotation, or total hip motion.

The other option is that you have asymmetries in hip muscle strength. For instance if you are looking at someone from the back and they’re shifting to their right, they have a weak right hip (hip abductors/external rotators) and weak left hip adductors.

To fix this, we need to strengthen their right hip ABductors and external rotators to “push” them over to the left. We also need to strengthen their left hip ADDuctors to “pull” them back to the middle.

For the right hip, I still feel like clam shells may be your best bet. Once you’ve got body weight mastered, don’t be afraid to throw some weight on their – use a band, an ankle weight, or anything really to help load that hip and get it stronger.

For the left hip adductor, here’s an exercise we’ve been using at IFAST. We call it “The Money Maker” because you can get some right hip strength while also training the left hip adductors.

Why Does My _____ Hurt When I Squat?

Lots of people have pain when they squat. Does this mean they shouldn’t squat at all?

Do they need to switch to a different type of squat?

Should they change their technique?

Let’s look at some of the common areas people have pain when squatting, as well as what they can do to fix themselves up.

Shoulder Pain when Squatting

Here are the two most common things I see when someone says their shoulder hurts when squatting:

  1. They have an impingement type pain when back squatting.
  2. They have an A/C joint pain when front squatting.

The answers here are extremely simple – switch up your squats!

If you don’t have the shoulder mobility to back squat effectively, that’s not going to come overnight. Check out my Are You Dysfunctional article over at Elite Fitness for a comprehensive approach on getting yourself right.

While you’re addressing those limitations, get familiar with front squats or safety bar squats. Chances are you need them anyway!

A/C joint issues are often exacerbated when you front squat, so I would highly suggest switching to a back squat for the time being.

Low Back Pain when Squatting

Lower back pain is often multi-factorial, and I’m not going to tell you I can give you all the answers here. However, here are two very basic reasons why people’s backs hurt when they squat:

  1. They are exceeding their current level of hip mobility, and stressing the posterior elements of their lumbar spine.
  2. They are using lumbar hyper-extension to stabilize themselves.

We covered “buttwink” above, so I won’t go in-depth here. The bottom line is this: If you’re squatting too deep and losing the natural curve in your lumbar spine, chances are you’re going to get injured at some point in time.

For now, hammer your hip mobility and only squat as deep as you can with a neutral spinal alignment.

On the other hand, you’ll often see people who arch excessively hard to create stability. This is an example of relying on passive stability, i.e., your bones or joints, to provide stability.

While passive stability will help, you need to utilize a blend of passive and ACTIVE stability if you want to squat safely, effectively, and pain-free. This is a bigger fix, and it’s going to require you to get your anterior core brutally strong.

A good starting point would be to hammer your external obliques via anti-extension core exercises, and make front squats a staple in your exercise program for months to come.

Hip Pain when Squatting

Again, hip pain is often multi-factorial and we can’t cover all the bases here. However, here are some quick tips and tricks that should help you.

  • Limit your squat depth. Often, deeper hip flexion causes more and more pain. If this is the case, simply limit your squatting motion to whatever is pain-free for the time being.
  • Control your hips. Another common issue (especially in the case of a hip impingement) is poor hip control. Focus on keeping your knees pushed and turned out throughout the course of your squat. If your knees cave or turn in, chances are this could be influencing your pain. Remember: You should always be striving to maintain that foot-knee-hip relationship when squatting, deadlifting, etc.

Knee Pain when Squatting

I can’t tell you how many people I’ve worked with that have knee pain when squatting. In fact, many think they will never squat pain-free again.

While I can’t promise you ass-to-grass, pain-free squats, these tips should help.

  • Limit depth. Again, deeper squats increase loads on the knee joints, so going through a shorter ROM is an easy fix that can at least keep you squatting.
  • Switch to back squats. Back squats (especially to a box) are more hip dominant and takes stress off the patello-femoral joint. Focus on sitting way back and keeping your tibia (lower leg bone) vertical throughout.
  • Push the knees out more. When the knees cave, this creates a lot of compressive forces through the lateral compartment of your knee. Pushing your knees out “opens” this space and reduces wear and tear.

Squatting Motivation

Just in case you need a little motivation before that next squat workout, here are some sweet video clips to get you in the zone!

Summary

Whew!

There’s a ton of information here, and I think this is a post you can come back to time and time again to continue learning more about my personal favorite lift – the squat!

If you enjoyed this post, please do me one simple favor:

Take a moment and help me spread the word. Send it to your Twitter followers, Share it on your Facebook profile, or simply e-mail the link to a friend or loved on.

Posts like this are truly a labor of love, and I sincerely hope you enjoyed it!

All the Best

Mike

P.S. – Don’t forget – Complete Core Fitness is on sale this week only. Be sure to check it out ASAP!

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