One of the most common squat technique issues I see is an initial backward shift of the hips as the lifter starts up out of the hole. This hip shift creates several problems:
- It is an energy leak: Instead of using the squat’s rebound and knee extension to drive the bar upward, you lose that energy, allowing the hips shift backward. At that point instead of using good squat technique to come up out of the hole, you end up muscling the bar up, using largely posterior chain.
- You drop your chest: As your hips push back, your chest drops, flattening out your hip/back angle, and likely let the bar to drift forward ahead of your center of gravity. This puts you at a mechanical disadvantage – it makes the bar heavier.
To get to the root cause, there are a couple of issues to look for:
- Knee Valgus: If your knees collapse inward as you start back up, it often forces your hips backwards, causing your chest to drop.
- Early Knee Extension: If you extend/straighten your knees without driving the bar up, it will push your hips back without doing any of the lift’s work.
How do you address this technique issue? I usually attack it from a number of directions:
- Strengthen your Glutes: If your gluteus medius (abducts the hips) is less powerful than your adductor magnus (adducts and extends the hips), you will not be able to keep your knees tracking in the direction of your toes under load. One of my favorite tools to strengthen the gluteus medius is warming up all lower body sessions with banded side-walks.
- Strengthen your Quads: If your quads are underpowered, they will not be able to drive the load upwards as you extend your knees. To build quad strength I like to use heavy, high volume leg presses.
- Hip Thrusts: Thrust your hips forward hard as you come out of the hole. Use the thrust to maintain the hip/back angle out of the hole, then drive them forward hard as you pass parallel. I’ve added ‘hip thrust squats’ as the warmup sequence for squat working sets to build this pattern.
Taking the time to address this little technique issue can have a significant impact on your squat’s power!
A lot of novices and uneducated social media lifters bemoan the bench press arch. There are times a flat back arch is appropriate, that is for a separate discussion. I submit that you should use some level of arch whenever you bench…unless it is one of those times. This discussion also is not about the ‘high arch’ you see in competition. That, again, is a separate discussion.
A strong arch creates a number of benefits to your overall bench press strength:
- It reduces the range of motion (ROM) of the lift allowing you to move more weight, but that is not the primary purpose of this approach.
- It creates tremendous full body tightness. With a good arch and leg drive, you should see very little body movement during the bench. As a coach, I watch for body movement as a sign of poor leg drive.
Note: Sudden leg drive, and heaving to create momentum is a technique for a separate discussion
- Strong leg drive helps you keep your chest up throughout the lift’s ROM which:
- Gives you a very stable and strong platform to push from
- Expands the surface area your pecs stretch across, giving you a stronger initial contraction (note: my personal theory).
How do you create a good Big Man Arch (aka leg drive arch)? I like to start at the bar and work my way down:
- Once you grip the bar, squeeze your shoulder blades tightly together and pull them downward, tucking them into your back pockets. Keep them firmly planted this way throughout the full ROM.
- Pull your feet back up under your hips. Drive through the balls of your feet and push your hips toward your shoulder blades.
- Your actual foot position will vary based on your body mechanics and hip mobility. Start with a position on the edge of discomfort and adjust from there.
- Loosen your core as you push your hips then retighten it once you’ve positioned them; this helps you get to a more stable, tight position.
- Finally, take a deep breath of air, filling your lungs completely and hold it as you lower the bar to your chest. Don’t begin exhaling until the bar has upward momentum, then snake the air out through your teeth through lockout.
You can find a full discussion on the bench press in my bench press technique article
You don’t train for the best case scenario…
If you know me, you may have heard me say that before. Failing to prepare for the worst case scenario leads to the comment you hear so many times after bombing out in competition: ‘But I just lifted that weight in training!’. Even assuming you’re training to your federations lift requirements, try to create conditions that match what you’ll encounter on the platform as closely as possible.
The bar, for example. The stiffness, the thickness, the brutal knurling on a good competition bar can be intimidating right off the bat (we’re talking about the bar! the bar you sickos!). If you train with a bar that’s smaller diameter, it may have more whip and be easier to grip than a comp bar. It may have knurling or rings in different positions than a comp bar, throwing your setup off.
If your gym has bars that meet comp specs, it’s of course beneficial to do the bulk of your big three training with them. If not, at least educate yourself on what those specs are so you can prepare correctly for comp.
When you perform a lower body lift (squats, deadlifts, etc.) your legs perform the work against a weight that is supported in some way by your shoulders – either by a bar resting on them or hanging from your arms. Since your back lies between the load and the force, the more efficiently it transfers the power from your legs to the load supported through your shoulders, the more effective and stronger your lift will be.
A comparison I like to make is a brick and a sponge.
- If your back is rigid, solid like a brick, the power from your legs is transferred directly to the load, driving the load in the desired direction (up) with as much acceleration as your legs can generate.
- If your back is soft and malleable like a sponge, power will be inefficiently transferred from your legs to the load. Before the bar moves, the slack in your back needs to be taken up as sponge compresses and your back flexes. Only then will the bar begin to move. In addition to inefficiently transferring power, a loose back also increases your injury risk and gives you less control over the load.
- Upper/thoracic region: The upper back can be tightened by creating a strong upper back contraction to pull your shoulder blades downward, ‘tucking them into your back pockets’.
- Lower/lumbar region: Strong bracing to create intra-abdominal pressure braces the lower back creating good stability. You do this by taking in a deep breath of air, allowing it to expand into your abdomen, then tightening your core and pushing down (hard) with your diaphragm like you’re trying to push out a turd.
Building a strong back, and learning to leverage it, can have a direct, significant impact on your lower body lifts.
If you’ve lifted for any length of time, you’ve likely dealt with bouts of knee pain, it’s part of the game. Having spent a few decades under a heavy bar, I’ve learned the hard way that if you are not addressing mobility and performing regular maintenance activities (massages/myofascial release, chiro treatments, etc.) you are going to become closely acquainted with pain.
A relatively common cause of knee pain is excessively tight quads. As the quad becomes tight it creates an imbalance in muscle tension on the patella which results in knee pain. I’ve found that simply adding Bulgarian Split Squats to your warm-ups/dynamic stretching for a squat session can have a tremendously positive effect on knee pain.
Disclaimer: This discussion assumes you don’t have physical damage to your knees; if you do have a physical problem/weakness with your knee structure, get medical clearance before performing intensive kneel/unilateral lifts like split squats.
When used as a warmup, you don’t need to turn split squats into a mini-workout. A few guidelines I use:
- 3-4 sets of 5 reps
- Bodyweight only, no added weight
- Take a large step forward to set up, so you can get a good stretch in the quads and hips
- Use a bench high enough to stretch the rear leg until your knee points straight down
- Pause and really push the rear leg down to fully stretch your quad and hips
- Focus on keeping your core really tight to maintain balance
After split squats I go right into squat warm-ups with the bar.
Despite popular opinion, there is such a thing as a dumb question. I should know. I was once told “That is a ridiculously stupid question. It is so ignorant, in fact, that I am now dumber for having heard you ask it, and I am not going to even acknowledge its utterance.
Guess what? I have never forgotten the answer to that question.
As a coach, a high level athlete, or any subject matter expert for that matter, there may be hesitation to ask a question about a topic in which you are expected to be an authority. Will asking questions reveal that you don’t, in fact, know it all? Will it chip away at your expert status?
Well, which is better…a perception of knowledge, or actual knowledge?
Sometimes with lifting you find you have to set your ego aside, admit you have a weakness and do the grunt work to fix it. The same thing goes as a coach, or ‘expert’. Set your ego aside, admit to yourself you don’t know everything, and ask the dumb questions when you have to (unless it’s 5PM and your dumb question is all that stands between a room full of people and the bar. Pick your battles!). You’ll be less dumber for having asked.
Have you ever watched a lift video that wasn’t clipped and thought ‘get to the fucking lift already’. Take this video, for example. From the time I get my hands on the bar to the time I’ve walked out and am ready to squat 45 seconds have expired. In comp this much pissing around before lifting can result in timing out! You’ve got 1 minute from the bar loaded to get on the platform, walk it out, and get the squat command. I’ve literally gotten to the platform before with 10 seconds left on the one minute clock. It happens. You need to be able to get it done.
All that wasted time getting ready to lift does more than simply delay you. It distracts you from the lift, gives your mind time to talk you out of the lift, and drains energy if the bar is on your back.
On your next squat day, audit your lift – find your energy wasters and eliminate them:
– How long does it take to get to the bar, fixing your belt, wrapping your wrists, thinking about the lift. Stop stalling, when it’s time for your set, get up, wrap up, get under the bar.
– When you get to the bar, how much time do you spend shifting your hand and foot position? You’ve done it a thousand times. You know where your hands and feet go, practice put them there right the first time every time.
– When you get under the bar, how long do you take shifting the bar, shuffling before unracking?
– When you walk the bar out, how many steps do you take? How much do you shuffle before locking out and getting to work? Work on hitting your stance with no more than three steps and little or no shuffling.
Your setup should be by the numbers, mechanical, and consistent every time. Don’t give your demons time to whisper how fucking heavy the bar is, and suck up your precious energy!
I have two go to’s I like to use when a lifter is struggling with squat technique.
If the lifter is brand new, does not have lifting experience or a strength foundation to draw on, and struggles with squats I’ve found goblet squats a very good tool to introduce them to proper squat technique.
For lifters who do have experience and have developed some level of strength, and the subject of this article, I find box squats quite useful. This includes relatively experienced lifters who may struggle because of body mechanics (long legs and short torso for example).
I’ve found that if you get the stance right for a lifter, and keep the bar path straight up and down over the center of the feet, the rest generally falls into place. Box squats are a great way to find those positions for people with differing body structures.
You’ll find a myriad of technique styles for the box squat – what I share here is primarily focused on hammering the squat lifting pattern. Additional power out of the hole is, of course, a useful by-product.
Key points of the ‘technique’ box squat:
- Box should always be low enough to get below parallel when on the box (I can hear it now, ‘THAT box??? That box is WAY too low!!!’ No, no, it really is not).
- Come to a complete stop on the box, it’s not a touch and go. Coming to a complete stop allows you to think about the descent and ascent separately, and perform each movement more accurately – While on the box, remain tight, don’t relax on the box.
- Do not lean forward as you get to the box or forward as you start back up. Keep that bar right over the center of your feet at all times, even while on the box. The bar should move up and down as if it were on rails.
- If necessary, adjust the width of your stance until you can squat to the box without having the bar shift forward in front of your center of gravity, or backwards as you get to the box. Once you have that bar moving straight up and down over your shoe laces throughout the full ROM you should be in a good stance
This version of the box squat isn’t just for beginners, or for technique corrections – I’ve found it can also be a great accessory lift to help internalize that squat pattern and make it feel natural. I useful to cycle this lift into your programming occasionally.
Although ‘it doesn’t matter how heavy it feels’, there are times (particularly with deadlifts), a lift just feels impossibly heavy. When you review the lift’s instant replay, however, you find that it was in fact possibly heavy. All you had to do to finish it was to NOT GIVE UP…and now you want to kick your own ass for quitting.
Enter the Two Second Rule. I established this rule to curb the tendency to give up on a lift before breaking through the sticking point, and reaching the point where you’re sure to lock it out.
It’s quite simple: Even if a lift is obviously impossible, grind it out for (at least) 2 seconds before quitting on it.
I know what you are thinking – “are you fucking insane?!”.
Well yes, but that is beside the point. The Two Second Rule has a number of benefits:
- Even if you eventually fail the lift, you’ve just turned a failed lift into an isometric hold, and gotten some benefit out of it
- Even if you eventually fail the lift, you are teaching your mind and body to grind; this help you finish out the tough lifts in the future
- You may actually finish the impossible lifts
In the long run, you’ll be teaching yourself to grind through the tough lifts, and build greater mental as well as physical strength