I’d like to pick apart my squats and talk about some key points in a good squat. A good walkout sets you up for a solid squat. When I get new lifters in, I probably annoy them early on with my ‘rerack!’ commands, making them redo the walkouts over and over to get it right.
I was spotting in a recent meet, and wanted to make many of those lifters rerack. Some of them took haphazard steps out of the rack, then shifted their feet for four minutes trying to get them ‘perfect’ (ok, to be fair, since you only have one minute to get the ‘squat command’ I’m sure it was something less than four minutes…)
A good walkout goes something like this:
- Start with your feet directly under your hips. This is a very stable and strong position, and you don’t have to shift the weight much to take a step.
- Bring your first foot straight back. It doesn’t have to be a big step, just enough to clear the rack – heel to toe.
- Bring your second foot back and out to the side into your squat stance.
- Shift your first foot straight out to the side into your squat stance.
You should be able to get into your stance with 3 short steps, and adjust your toes if needed. Even in this video, I counted 4 shuffles to adjust my feet…that is at least 2 too many.
A solid setup makes the bar feel much lighter, builds confidence, and preps you for a strong lift.
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!
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.
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
Someone asked me the other day what the proper head position is during the squat and deadlift.
My preference is to keep the head up and fixate on a spot on the ceiling well out in front of me. There are successful lifters and coaches who use the neutral spine approach, fixing on the floor 10 yards or so in front of the lift. While this can be a successful approach, the body has a tendency to follow the head (have you ever looked at your passenger while driving and found your car drifting towards the ditch?). Looking down can lead to a tendency to lean, bringing the chest down and leaving the hips high.
While head up and head down/neutral spine have have both been (arguably) proven successful, let’s touch on a couple approaches that are WRONG 🔴🔴🔴
Don’t look straight up. You’re not a bird. Stop it.
Don’t move your head around during the lift – once you start the lift, rep or set, maintain the same focus point throughout the lift, changing your focus during the lift makes it even harder to maintain a consistent body position during the lift.
When I’m lifting, I treat my head as an extension of the spine. For squats I watch my feet to walk out then pack my head back into my neck and focus on a point in the ceiling in the middle of the room during the lift. Provided I keep the proper body angle, my head does not move.
On deadlift, again my head is an extension of my spine. As I pull myself into the bar, and my hips come down/chest comes up, my focus point rises with my chest. Once set, I again fix on a point at the opposite end of the room or ceiling at the far end. I do not change that focus point until I’m locked out.
Your head should be an extension of your spine, fixated on one focus point – don’t create a moving target to shoot at during your lift.
I originally discovered just how important the rebound is in the squat when doing high rep sets. At that point where your muscles are shot, your heart and lungs are shot, I found that the momentum created by the rebound was the only reason I was completing reps.
Most times you take the rebound created by the stretch reflex for granted. You don’t feel it working until EVERYTHING ELSE is shot.
If you watch to the last rep in this video, you can see how I generate a lot of speed out of the hole before the bands cinch up and try to kill me. A great deal of that momentum is created by the rebound, I kick in the ‘voluntary muscles’ to really accelerate and drive through the sticking point once the bar already has a head of steam behind it.
How, exactly, do I maximize this rebound? In my last post on the topic, Stretch Reflex in the Squat, I discussed the technique aspects to stay in position and prevent that energy from leaking. The other key is hitting the bottom with a bit of velocity, creating a strong stretch reflex, like bouncing a basketball off the floor.
One thing to keep in mind, if you’re a newer lifter, or hyper mobile, you may not be able to use this technique effectively until you effectively built a mass of muscle to rebound off…
First, a quick primer on the stretch reflex. The stretch reflex is an involuntary reaction of a muscle, once stretched, to automatically try and contract. You can use this reflex to strengthen your lifts.
In the squat it creates a rebound off the bottom of the squat, helps you change direction to get upward momentum started.
Since it is an involuntary action of the muscle, it’s not necessarily something you can force to happen. There are, however, things you can do to maximize its affect:
1. Keep your upper body rigid. A rigid upper body transfers the power of this rebound directly to the bar, driving it upward. A soft torso absorbs some of this energy reducing its impact on your lift. I break upper body tightness down into two components – a) Thoracic tightness is created when you tighten your upper back by squeezing your shoulder blades down, hard b) Lumbar tightness is created by strong bracing and a strong core (with or without a belt).
2. Maintain your body position at the bottom of the squat. The most common error I see here is allowing the hips and knees to shift forward at the rebound point; this shift allows the hamstrings too loosen up, and reduces the rebound effect. A cue I like to use is to spread the floor before you start each rep, and to push out throughout each rep; drive your knees out so they don’t shift forward
3. Maintain your back angle at the bottom of the squat – don’t allow your hips to shift up or back ahead of the bar. Allowing this uses up your rebound without driving the bar upward.
4. Finally, maintain a good bar path. Make sure you keep the bar moving straight down and back up directly over the center of your feet.
In case it hasn’t become obvious, the best way to create maximum rebound leveraging the stretch reflex…is to use good squat technique.
As a ref I joke a bit about giving red lights, but in all honesty I don’t like giving red lights. I’m not, however, going to give away lifts and penalize lifters who come to a meet properly prepared.
In a recent meet I gave out far too many red lights for squat depth and missed commands. Most of these were unnecessary if lifters had taken a couple simple steps to make sure they were platform ready.
All squats you perform in training need to be at legal competition depth. If you think they are close or second guess yourself, you’re squatting too high. In a perfect world you’d have a qualified ref from your federation watching your lifts in training and giving you real time feedback. Having an experienced powerlifter watch your lifts is a good option as well. If this is not possible, video your sets and watch them after each set.
Although your first meet can be nerve wracking, if you train for competition lifts you set yourself up to succeed. For every set and every rep, there should be a distinct stop after your set up before executing the first rep, and a distinct stop after each rep and before re-racking the weight. If you come to a complete stop at these points you’ll have cleaner training sets and you will never miss a command.
Note: for sets above 5 reps I recommend just motoring through the set but use the controlled stop before the first rep and after the last rep before racking.
In your final weeks of training as you are peaking, you should be performing all singles to competition form with commands.
Let’s give my red light thumb a break!!!