Squatting 101

“The squat is the king of all exercises.”

If you’ve trained long enough, chances are you’ve heard that before. And for good reason; the squat may be the single best lift you can perform in the weight room.

Unfortunately, many people have no clue what they’re doing when it comes to squatting. Not to mention all the mythology that’s associated with it — you know, squatting will blow your knees out, wreck your back, etc. Dispelling myths is an entire article in itself!

Before we get into the performance and variations of the squat, let’s briefly examine reasons why you should include this great exercise in your programming.

Total Body Development

Squats work every muscle in your body, from your lats and upper back, all the way down through your hips and thighs. Quite simply, this one lift will recruit and develop your entire body. Maybe even more importantly, it will teach your body to work as a well-oiled, functional unit.

One of the obvious arguments that I get from women is the old mantra of “I don’t want my legs and/or butt to get too big!”

Fair enough, but generally this comes from women who have excessive body fat on their thighs, and/or are genetically pre-programmed to store more muscle in this area. I hate to break it to you, but we can’t genetically alter how our body is developed without plastic surgery.

Rather, I would have you focus on what squats cangive you: A set of well-defined and sculpted legs and glutes that any woman would die for!

Every body is a little bit different. Rather than focusing on what some celebrity magazine tells you should look like (and don’t even get me started with the lies and deception in that industry!), take pride in your body and what you can make of it. But, I digress; my rant is over.

Build Strength

While squats are great for building muscle, they’re equally great for getting stronger, as well. Many people shy away from squats: It could be due to lack of knowledge (which we’ll take care of now), or it could be the simple fact that they’re flat-out hard to do.

If you want to take your strength levels to the next level, pushing up your squats is a sure-fire way to do so.

Lose Bodyfat

It may sound counterintuitive at first, but many women want to “tone.” As I discussed before, there’s no such thing as toning — you’re either building muscle, losing fat, or a little bit of both. The great thing about squats? They can do both!

As I’ll discuss in a future article, one of the keys when developing a fat loss program is to include big, compound movements for higher reps with shorter rest periods. Essentially, the way you program squats into your program can greatly determine the changes they will have on your physique (i.e. strength gains, muscle size gains, or improvements in body composition).

Now that we’ve covered why the squat is such a great exercise, let’s take a look at how to perform it correctly.

the viscous cycle

The Back Squat

The back squat is the gold standard when it comes to squatting. Once you understand how to back squat properly, all the other variations make a lot more sense.

One of the most critical aspects of the squat is the set-up. Everyone focuses on the performance of the lift itself, but many lifts are missed due to poor set-ups, not just poor execution! A good set-up should enhance your execution of the lift.

To begin, make sure that the bar is set-up appropriately in the power rack. If possible, it helps to set the bar at approximately chest height. If it’s too high, you end up doing a calf raise with a lot of weight on your back, which is never fun. If the bar is too low, you end up doing a good morning to get it out of the rack.

Once the bar is set at an adequate height, it’s time to dial in your set-up. Grab the bar with both hands evenly spaced; it may help to use the smooth portion of the bar as a reference point.

Generally, the closer your hands are in to your shoulders the better. This will not only increase the tension in your upper back (improving your posture and making the bar feellighter), but will make you feel more stable throughout the course of the lift.

Once your hands are set, duck under the bar and make sure your upper back is placed in the middle of the bar. As you’re setting up, think about pulling your shoulder blades back together — this will create a “muscle shelf” for the bar to rest on. Many thin people I’ve worked with find this tip to be a huge relief as they no longer feel like the bar is digging into their upper back.

Now that you’re under the bar with your upper back tight, it’s time to get a feeling for the weight on your back. Many will step under the bar and let the bar push them down. Don’t do this!

Instead, it may help to think of actively “pushing” into the bar a few times before un-racking the weight. This may be purely psychological, but it definitely makes the bar feel lighter.

Get your feet underneath you and take a big breath, forcing your chest out. This is the posture you’re going to assuming when squatting, so it’s best to start getting into this position before you ever walk out. Once you’re tight, press into the bar, extend your hips and knees, and stand up with the bar. Let the weights settle for a moment, and then walk the bar out.

When walking the weight out, it pays off to be efficient. You don’t want to take twenty steps to get in and out of the racks! Think about taking three total steps — one step gets you back and out of the rack, the second places your first foot, and the third places your opposite foot.

With regards to stance width, I generally recommend something just outside of hip-to-shoulder width. If you’re a competitive powerlifter or Olympic lifter, this could changes things, but it’s a good rule of thumb for those who are just learning how to squat.

Once your stance width is set, it’s time to fine-tune your foot position. The goal here is to maintain a nice alignment between your hips, knees and feet throughout the course of the lift. To accomplish this, the wider your feet go, the more toe flare you’re going to need.

Keeping your feet, knees, and hips in a nice alignment will allow you to not only move the most weight possible, but will make the lift more comfortable, easier to perform, and the least stressful on your joints.

The set-up isn’t complete until you’re actually squatting, so go through one final checklist: Take one more big breath, lift the chest as high as possible (which will “set” your upper and lower back with a slight arch), and “spin” your elbows underneath the bar.

Now you’re ready to squat!

the viscous cycle

Back Squat Performance

To initiate the squat, you’re going to be thinking about sitting back versus sitting down. This is weird for many people; they’re used to a quad/ankle dominant squatting pattern, but this doesn’t constitute ideal technique. Instead, we want to sit back and engage all the muscles of our hips/thighs.

Another way to get those bigger muscles firing is to think about pushing the knees out to the sides. Just like many people want to sit down versus back, many have a tendency to really cave their knees in when squatting.

It may be easier at first, but this flaw will not only hold back the weights you’re using, but could be more injurious to your knees as well. Ed Coan, arguably the greatest powerlifter of all time, refers to this as “opening up your groin.” Maybe not the most PC term, but I think you get the point.

As you’re sitting back, a common concern is just how deep to go. This is largely dependent upon your joint health, current levels of mobility and stability, along with a host of other factors.

Here’s a simple rule of thumb: How deep can you squat without having any pain and without losing the arch in your lower back? Obviously if deep squatting causes pain, you need to figure out why.

We also want to maintain an ideal back position throughout the lift. If you have to “tuck” your pelvis underneath you to go deeper, don’t do it! It can be improved with time and smart training.

Some people can squat butt to calves with no pain and with flawless low back positioning. If this is the case, great! If you can only squat to above parallel due to muscle imbalances and/or pain, it would behoove you to figure out what the limiting factors are and address them.

Once you hit the bottom position of the squat, many people have a tendency to collapse their chest. To prevent this, think about keeping your chest elevated the entire time. Another cue that may work is to think about driving your upper back into the bar, versus simply driving with your legs.

Finally, when returning from the depths you’ll often see people lose that ideal hip, knee, and foot alignment because their knees cave in. Just like you have to focus on pushing the knees out when initiating the squat, you have to keep pushing them out just as hard as you return to the upright position.

Keep the chest up and knees out throughout the course of the lift and you’ll be impressed with how much better your lifts look and feel.

Squatting Variations

The Front Squat

The front squat is a simple variation of the back squat, but it’s definitely a change of pace!

The most obvious difference is the fact that the bar is carried in front of the body versus behind it. This altered bar position not only increases your stability needs from the core, but since you can’t sit back as far it definitely torches your quadriceps to a higher degree.

Another reason to include the front squat in your programming is if you are having issues achieving full range of motion with proper technique in the back squat. The altered bar position in the front squat generally allows people to squat deeper with less change in their lower back position.

I’m a big fan of using the front squat as a primer to teach people more effective back squatting mechanics.

The Box Squat

The box squat is very similar to the back squat when you consider bar position used, basic mechanics of the movement, etc. However, the back squat puts an even greater load on the muscles of the posterior chain (especially the glutes and hamstrings), due to the performance of the lift.

In the back squat, the lifter initiates the movement with the hips moving backwards and then down. In the box squat, there’s an even greater emphasis on sitting back. This movement is great for people who have knee issues and find the back or front squat variations troublesome.

There’s less flexion at the knee and ankle, which generally makes the box squat a more knee-friendly variation.

The Safety Squat Bar and Cambered Bars

Have you ever had an upper extremity injury and tried to squat?  Basically, it sucks.

I had a wrist injury back in my powerlifting days that cost me almost six weeks of training time. Luckily for me, we had a safety squat bar in the weight room that allowed me to continue my squatting and lower body training practically pain free.

Safety Squat Bar Cambered Squat Bar

While the execution of these exercises is virtually the same as a back squat, specialty bars like the ones I mentioned above really overload the muscles in your core and torso. Couple the increased torso development with decreased stress on your upper extremity, and you’ve got a pretty sweet squatting variation.

If you train at a gym that offers either one of these bars, count your lucky stars! If you’re interested in purchasing one for yourself (or getting your gym to purchase one for you), you can find them at www.EliteFTS.com.

Summary

Whether your goal is to get bigger, leaner, or flat-out strong, squats can help you get there. Make it a dedicated goal of the New Year to push your numbers up in the squat and see what it can do for your strength and physique!

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