If you follow the strength training forums you’ll find frequent discussions on bar placement on your back: High Bar or Low Bar. Little attention is spent, however, on getting the bar centered on your back. Watching a team mate set up off center, and having to reset twice because the bar was off balance in tonight’s squat session drove the point home.
The setup is the most crucial part of your squat. Do it correctly and you are likely to nail your lift. Mess it up and you burn energy unnecessarily, give your head the chance to tell your body ”damn this is heavy!’, and give your spotter a chance to earn his keep. Getting the bar centered on your back can be done in three simple steps:
- Make sure your hands are evenly placed on the bar; use the edges of the knurling and the rings on the bar to make sure they are perfectly even.
- Make eye contact with the knurling in the middle of the bar, and make sure you are directly centered on it.
- Keep your eyes on the knurling as you duck under the bar, remain square to the bar and make sure you duck straight under it.
Once you’re under the bar, be careful not to change your hand or back position on the bar as you settle in for your lift.
This step is often (nearly always?) overlooked, and quite often getting the bar set up evenly is either through sheer luck, or spotter assistance. Follow these three simple steps, and improve your setup.
For a full description of squat setup, check out Squat Technique in our Brute Force Book of Techniques!
While training the other day I was distracted by a guy attempting to give birth…or so it appeared from the sounds he was making. I paused to check out how much weight he was squatting, it surely must have been impressive, right? Alas, the squat rack was empty! On further investigation I found that instead of Lamaze, he was bicep curling mighty 25lb dumbbells.
A week later I encountered him again, and he commented that you can’t get strong if you’re not making a lot of noise. I really didn’t have the energy to correct him – that it’s the faces you make that are important, but it does bring me to my subject. Beyond annoying the lifter’s in the gym, and drawing attention to lifts that should remain hidden in obscurity, the only thing all that noise is doing for you is reducing the amount of weight you can lift. Breathing correctly during your sets will make a significant difference in the weight you lift, and quite frankly a loaded down bar speaks for itself.
Although proper breathing technique has a positive impact on most, if not all of your lifts, I’m going to discuss the squat. Proper breathing technique helps increase your core stability which:
- Transitions power from your legs doing the work to your upper body supporting the weight (see the figure below)
- Reduces your chances of injury, by stabilizing your spine
- Take a deep breath into your lungs, allow your diaphragm to press down into your abdomen
- Brace your core, as you would if you were about to get punched in the stomach, by simultaneously tightening your abdominals and obliques
- Continue holding your breath through the eccentric portion of the lift (descent), and begin exhaling slowly as you pass the mid-point in the concentric (ascent) portion, complete exhaling as you lock the lift out
How Does this Add Weight to Your Bar
The bar rests on the supporting structure of your shoulder girdle, rib cage and back musculature. Your power is driven up from the floor through your legs, which consist of over 50% of the muscle mass in your body. The transition point between these stable structures is your core (abdominals, obliques, and erector spinae). The most well defined six-pack will likely not be as stable as these two opposing forces.
- Filling your lungs with air, and bracing your abdomen creates intra-abdominal pressure which stabilizes your spine
- A solid, stable core allows you to keep your chest up throughout the lift, preventing excessive leaning
- Screaming for attention at the bottom of your squat releases the air from your lungs in an uncontrolled manner, loosening your core, and allowing your mid-section to crumple (no, your belt does not prevent this from happening)
There are safety considerations you need to take into account when squatting heavy.
- As my spotters can tell you, holding your breath for an extended period of time deprives your body of oxygen (during a period of extreme exertion) and creates a risk of blacking out
- This technique can create a significant increase in your blood pressure
Squatting effectively is much more than stepping under the bar, bending your knees and straightening them again. Proper breathing, for example, stabilizes your core, reducing your tendency to lean or crumple at the bottom of the lift. Screaming loudly during the lift reduces your core stability.
Try lifting with good breathing technique. The plates will stack on more quickly and you will find your lifts much more stable.
Jesse Irizarry. “Freakish Strength With Proper Core Training.” Testosterone Nation. 3/2/12. 4/7/12 <http://www.t-nation.com/free_online_article/most_recent/freakish_strength_with_proper_core_training>
Having had a chance to assess a couple of lifts, and overall pretty happy with my skills at identifying problems I asked me to look at one of my own lifts:
As you can tell by the five big guys catching me at the end of the video, this lift ranks a solid ‘Crappy’ on the ‘Crappy to Great’ scale. I would actually rate it below crappy if there were a lower rating, because in addition to the lift being completed by the spotters, it was a bit high. So at what point did this lift become a group effort?
Setting Up: The setup was actually very solid and well executed.
- Feet placed directly under the bar and under my hips
- Hips under the bar and leg drive used to lift the bar out of the rack
- Three quick, stable steps back into the lifting position
Referring back to what has been dubbed ‘Gack’s Fancy Foot Diagram’, it looks like my setup was perfect, doesn’t it? What you don’t see is my feet. If you watch me setup today, after the walkout you will see me pause to turn my toes outward – I did not do that in this squat.
Eccentric/Descent: The squat actually continues to look good nearly through the entire eccentric portion of the lift:
- Very good speed on the descent – weight is controlled, but descent is fast enough to hit the hole and rebound back out
- Knees stay out during the descent
- Catastrophe: As I transition from eccentric to concentric (ie stop going down, try to go up), my knees buckle inward; this forces my hips backwards which results in five very big guys assisting with the concentric portion of the lift – and three red lights from the referees
Concentric/Ascent: Assistance of the spotters in the concentric portion of the lift in competition is never a good thing.
Lessons Learned: After returning from the competition my powerlifting coach, Kevin Stewart, went to work fixing my balance problems. The fix: turn your toes out. As I’ve mentioned in other reviews, by turning your toes out, you’re better able to keep your knees out during the lift, which lets you sink into the hole more easily, and complete your squat with less people picking you up out of said hole.
The fix has worked. Since that competition in 2009, I have not lost a single squat due to issues with my balance coming out of the hole.
JO: Hey Ken, appreciated the pointers last time on the DL. When/if you have time could you look at my squat? This one is 405 REALLY happy with first rep. Will send another at 365lbs, I feel the form is better. I am on a bit of a high today, I was pretty happy with these last sets. As I said, due to a year of crossfit “air squats” I was pretty happy getting 405. Seriously, I have done 3 weeks of leg press to get used to heavy leg workouts and yesterday was my first real squat day in over a year.
I know I step back too far, and I think my head dips.
Your squats actually look better than your deadlifts. They are very sound. On the ‘Crappy to Great Scale’, they are a solid ‘Ok’. I would give you a ‘Good’, but they are slightly high, and I don’t care if everything else is perfect, I’m not giving a Good to a high squat. We’ll get to that though.
Before you step under the bar…
Let’s start with your shoes. They look like standard runners, right? When you hit about 315lbs the heels start compressing, which can really screw with your stability. If you’re not competing, you don’t need an expensive pair of squat shoes (although I absolutely love mine), but you do need to replace the runners. Some options:
- Squat without shoes – better than using runners, but you won’t have any ankle or foot support.
- Wrestling shoes or Converse ‘Chucks’ – descent stability, and flat soles that won’t compress. Chucks are probably the better choice, as wrestling shoes have a very narrow sole that will give you less stability. They’re also a bit less expensive.
- Hiking boots – I used to really like squatting in boots. Your heels are a bit higher, great ankle support, and just plain solid. When you plant your foot, it is planted. They’re not, however, legal in competition.
You rush your setup. As soon as the bar comes out of the rack, you’re running back to squat. A good setup positions you for a great squat.
Pointers on setting up:
- You do have proper bar placement for heavy squats. It’s resting on your delts, not your traps, which is a good position for power.
- I would prefer the rack height slightly lower. That can be difficult, depending on the type of rack you have because the next position down is likely too low. I like the rack set up where the bar comes in about halfway between the nipples and top of the pecs when you step up to the bar. You may see if the gym has any extra floor mats (solid flooring mats, not something that will compress under your weight), to bring you up another inch or so.
- Before lifting out of the rack, drive your hips forward so they are directly underneath the bar. This allows you to use all leg drive to unrack the bar, reducing lower back work, and makes the bar feel considerably lighter coming out of the rack.
- Slow your setup down, control it coming out of the rack, just as you do your reps:
- Take a deep breath into your chest, drive your hips forward and raise the bar straight up. Lock out before stepping back.
- Take one short step straight back, next foot moves back even with the first and out to the side, toes pointed out. First foot moves straight out, and toes point out (two step walkout is slightly different).
- Lock back out, and take small breaths until you’re ready to begin the first rep.
- I would recommend a slightly narrower stance – 1-2″. Although ‘’wide stance’ is commonly considered a powerlifting stance, I don’t necessarily recommend a wide stance in most cases. I think you’ll get more power out of your glutes and hams by bringing your stance in a bit. Wide stance make sense in certain situations:
- If you’re squatting in federations that allow heavy lifting duty gear and use of monolift, the shorter range of motion can lead to bigger numbers.
- If you have proportionately long thighs, a narrower stance will force your hips to shift farther backwards, and cause you to lean. A wider stance can alleviate this.
- You do point your toes out – which is good. This allows your knees to track outward, making it much easier to drop below parallel.
- You’re not completely locked out before starting your first rep. You’re leaning slightly forward, and your knees aren’t locked out.
Your squats doo look pretty strong, only a couple of minor things I saw:
You lean forward slightly. It’s not too bad, but this will make hitting depth harder. A couple things that may help you reduce your lean:
- Keep your head up. I didn’t notice an exaggerated head dip, but your body will follow your eyes – if you are looking down you will have a greater tendency to lean. Squatting in front of a mirror can exacerbate the problem. The motion in the mirror draws your attention, making it more difficult to keep your head up.
- Breathing – since your spotter makes the comment ‘take that breath and hold it’ I assume your breathing isn’t perfect. Breathe in deeply before starting your descent, and hold it until you’re on your way back up. I like to begin exhaling in a controlled fashion once I’ve passed the ‘sticking point’. Breath control can be very important for stability. Keeping your chest full of air and your abs tight can give you upper body stability and reduce your tendency to lean.
- When I see high squats and leaning, I watch the knees. If you allow them to cave inward, your hips shift backwards. This forces you to lean in compensation and miss depth. Your knees look like they stay out through the reps – which is good.
Squat is slightly high
- Depth isn’t too bad, but about 1-2″ above parallel. You have plenty of strength at a good weight – don’t be afraid to sink they weight. Fixing the leaning mentioned above will make hitting depth much easier.
All in all, a very OK squats at a pretty heavy weight. I looked at the 365lb squats as well. Although the lighter squats were executed more explosively, your 405lb squats were just as solid as your 365lb squats. I don’t really have additional comments on the other video.
Recommendations for next week:
- Fix all the setup issues I mentioned. You should be able to do that perfectly on every set – you have the time to think about everything you do during setup.
- Set up so you’re not looking at the mirror while you squat.
- Bring your feet in 2″. Watch your feet as you walk out, and place them just slightly wider than shoulder width.
- Control your breathing throughout each rep of each set.
- Pick a spot on the ceiling, and keep your head up, eyes on that spot throughout each rep of every set.
For more information, here is a complete walk through of (power) squatting technique.
If you have a lift you’d like reviewed, leave a comment with a link to a video of your lift.
I was at the gym a while back, and a guy there was asking me questions about bench pressing. I had questions of my own – so naturally the subject of leg workouts came up. ‘I don’t squat because of my knees and back’, he says. I’m obligated to ask… ‘What’s wrong with your knees and back?’ ‘Nothing,’ he replies, ‘my uncle, who’s a powerlifting bodybuilder said squats are bad for them’.
How do you argue with a powerlifting bodybuilder uncle? Now I’m not going to tell you why you need to work your legs, which, for the record consist of over 50% of the total muscle mass in your body. If you’re happy covering your sticks up in your sweats, while casually distracting onlookers with the biceps you shower with hours of bicep curl attention, then this article is not for you.
If, however, you’d like to wear a pair of shorts occasionally, then let’s do this right!
- Balance: Too many leg workouts are actually quad workouts thinly disguised with the token leg curl exercise thrown in at the end. An effective leg training plan balances your quad training with your posterior chain work.
- Emphasize Compound Exercises: Particularly for novices, the majority of your leg training (70-80%) should consist of compound lifts*.
*A compound lift is an exercise that uses multiple muscle groups to complete the work, as opposed to isolation lifts which isolate an individual muscle (example: the squat is a compound exercise that works the entire lower body strenuously, whereas leg curls isolate the hamstrings).
- Focus on Technique: Performing your exercise with proper technique minimizes your risk of injury, and maximizes the effectiveness of the exercise.
Putting it all Together
An effective leg training program doesn’t have to be complicated. Three ‘simple’ exercises will leave you hobbling out of the gym feeling completely wasted – that is the goal, right?
- Squat: Performed properly, squats anchor an effective leg workout. A proper set of squats hammers every muscle in your lower body, taxes your core, and strains your central nervous system. To do them right, you need to take them all the way into the hole. Above parallel, the squat over-emphasizes your quads. You need to drop your hips below parallel to get maximum activation of your glutes.
Squatting at the IPF World Championships
- Leg Press: Leg presses let you push some serious weight to isolate the lower body muscles you’ve already exhausted under the squat bar. When done right, your quads will be on fire at the end of each set. If they’re not on fire, keep on repping. As with the squats, leg presses need to be completed with the full range of motion – bring that platform down until your knees are pressing into your chest.
- Stiff-Leg Deadlift: Stiff-leg deadlifts, or romanian deadlifts are, in my humble but correct opinion, the best exercise there is for your posterior chain. They will help you build powerful glutes and hamstrings. To hit the hamstrings hard, keep your knees completely straight and slowly stretch down as far as possible before snapping it back up powerfully.
If you still feel the need to hit the machines to isolate your quads or hamstrings after the big three, it’s likely you’re doing something wrong…
Exercise Technique: Here are some simple pointers to make sure you’re performing these key lifts properly:
I was at the gym yesterday and watched a kid doing box squats. For the box, although the gym has a full set of plyo boxes, he was using a flat bench and doing touch and goes. Now unless you’re about seven feet tall, a bench is likely too high for box squats. In this case, his squats ended about three inches above parallel when he hit the bench.
There are actually several reasons to add box squats to your strength training, and your technique will differ slightly for each. When considering whether to use box squats in your training routine, you need to understand the purpose, and select the right technique.
- Learning to squat: If you’ve never squatted before, performing box squats can help you get comfortable sitting into your squat. To squat properly, you need to learn to sit into it just like you would sit into a chair. Using a box can give you a sense of security as you learn to sit back into the squat. When using the box squat to learn squat technique you should use little or no weight, and concentrate on controlling your descent so you land on the box lightly. Come to a full rest on the box before standing back up. Once you’re comfortable sitting into your squat you can move on to normal squats and work on loading up the bar.
- Touch and Go: The touch and go is used to help ‘find depth’. This form of box squats helps you find proper squat depth (thigh is below parallel). You do not come to full rest on the box when performing touch and goes. Descend until you feel the box then immediately drive back up. Once your comfortable hitting depth remove the box perform normal squats.
- Full Box Squats: Full box squats are a tool that can help build explosive power out of the bottom. When performing full box squats, descend until you come to a full rest on the box then drive explosively up off the box. Avoid leaning forward to begin the ascent as this can reduce the emphasis on your glutes and hams. As opposed to touch and goes full box squats can be used at any time as an alternative to normal squats. They are a great training tool to create strength at the bottom of your squat and build explosiveness out of the hole.
General Tips for Box Squats:
- Use a box that is the right height for appropriate squat depth. Do you really need a box to tell you your squats are high? I’ll help with that: “your squats are high”. Now suck it up and drop your squats into the hole.
- Never anticipate the box. Don’t squat to sit onto the box. Keep descending with proper squat technique until you hit the box then drive back up. If you are slightly surprised by hitting the box then you’re doing it right.
- Land lightly on the box. Descend in a controlled manner and land lightly on the box. Plopping down hard on the box with a loaded bar on your back is a sure way to end your lifting career.
- Unless you’re doing full box squats, once your squatting issue is resolved, move on to regular squats.
If you’re using the box squat because it’s in the latest edition of the Spartacus Leg Mauling training program, step back and assess why you’re using the box. If it’s a fit with your training goals, select the appropriate method and a box that will drop you into the hole.