Brute Force Squat Review – Ken Gack

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

Gack's Fancy Foot Diagram

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.

Brute Force Strength Training Review – The Squat

Last week I took a look at a friend’s deadlifts (Jamie Orr, Red Deer, Canada). This week he sent me a video of his latest squat session:

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.

 Thanks, Jamie


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.

 Setting up…

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.

Brute Force Strength Training Review – The Deadlift

A friend of mine mentioned he’d taken a video of his deadlift, and was wondering how tight his form was. Although on a scale from CRAPPY to GREAT, the lift was between NOT BAD and OK, I passed on a few pointers that I thought might bump him up to GOOD. Since even OK is better than 90% of the deadlifters you see in the gym, I asked if I could share these insights with all of you.

JO: Nah, go ahead. Since it’s not TOTALLY bad [I did mention it was almost OK didn’t I?], I don’t mind, send me a link to blog.

JO Deadlift Video


ME: Ok, it actually doesn’t look bad [NOT BAD], your starting position is really good, your back is flat, and your hips are down right where they should be to start. I do have a few comments:

On the setup for your first rep, you camp out at the bottom before lifting. This is bad for a couple reasons. First of all the deadlift can be downright intimidating. If you take enough time to think about it, it will talk you out of the lift, particularly as the bar gets heavier. Don’t mess around with your deadlift. Get setup and pull (grip and rip). Secondly, you don’t have an eccentric component to the (first rep) of a deadlift. Use your setup as an eccentric, tightening your glutes and hams as you drop into position. To keep from loosening up once your hips drop in, start the pull as soon as you hit the bottom.

It’s somewhat hard to tell from the angle of the video, but it looks like your feet are too wide for a conventional deadlift, yet too narrow for sumo. If you’re pulling conventional, your feet should be inside hip width, and your hands at shoulder width, so your hands will never drag across your thighs. If you’re lifting sumo, go as wide as you can with your feet. I usually have my shins right at the rings on the bar (assuming it is a standard power bar). Your hands are also at shoulder width, inside your legs, they only should drag across your legs at the hip. Notice that regardless of the style, your arms should hang straight down to the bar and minimize contact with your legs. In the video it looks like your hands slide up your legs all the way from the floor to lock out – the worst possible scenario.

JO: I had a couple powerlifters taking the video and they were saying I need to get back on my heels a bit and something about using my hams more as I get past my knees.

ME: I’ve never heard it put quite like that (using my hams more as I get past my knees), but I can sort of see what they are talking about. Once the bar crosses your knees, it appears like you’re using all lower back to finish off the lift. You are starting out the lift OK to GOOD (hips don’t come up ahead of the bar), so after the bar passes the knees, try to think ‘hip thrust’. Drive the hips forward instead of pulling back with the lower back. You’ll get a lot more drive out of your hamstrings, and even more out of your glutes to finish it off.

Good mornings might be a great supplemental exercise to help you with this. When I do good mornings, it’s not just bending down at the waist and pulling back up with my lower back. I start by moving my hips straight back, and the bar descends as I do. On the way back up, I start the lift by pulling with my hamstrings and finish it by driving my hips forward powerfully – it’s a great supplemental exercise for developing a bigger pull.


JO: My hands are wide and perhaps my stance is too. But I don’t THINK my hands touch my legs at all, due to the wide grip.

ME: From the video it looked like your hands were right at your shins, albeit maybe right outside. I don’t know if you saw it, but here’s a blog post that touches on hand position during the deadlift:

As far as ‘back on the heels’, what I focus more on is ‘rocking back’ as I set up until my shoulders are at or behind the bar. In this lift you are in that position, but the bar is a bit too far forward before you start, and your knees end up in front of the bar once you are set up. Try bringing the bar back to where it’s over the center of your feet (probably an inch from your shins), then sit in/rock back until your shoulders are behind the bar – then you have no choice but to be over your heels.

I have one final comment. Notice how you squat down to the bar to set up and between each rep. This is the most common way of setting up for a deadlift, but I prefer a different approach. Instead of squatting to the bar, I bend at the waist to grab the bar. Once I have the bar, I tighten my upper back and pull the slack out between my body and the bar. I’m then completely tight and rock back, bringing my hips down and chest up, keeping tension on the bar. As my hips hit depth I PULL! This approach has a couple of advantages:

  • When squatting down to the bar, most lifters I watch loosen their upper back and arms. When rocking backward into the setup you keep tension on the bar and don’t loosen up your upper back
  • If you deadlift as shown in the video, I will guarantee that the second and subsequent reps are much easier than the first. This goes back to the fact that your first rep has no eccentric component. As a competitive powerlifter, I only have one rep in competition, so I try to treat every rep as the first one, creating an eccentric in the setup motion.

Hope this helps!

JO: Glad to know you didn’t laugh (or weep).

And I hope this review can help all of you move farther up the CRAPPYGREAT scale. If you have a lift you’d like me to review as well, feel free to contact me at

For more information on deadlift technique:

Deadlift Technique

Leg Training – Brute Force Style

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:


Adding Box Squats to your Strength Training

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.

    1. 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.
    2. 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.
    3. 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:

    1. 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.
    2. 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.
    3. 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.
  1. 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.

From the Ref’s Chair: The Deadlift

I’ve learned a lot about being a better lifter by refereeing powerlifting meets. From the Ref’s Chair is my attempt to pass on what I see so that you can improve your lifts. This post is from the 2011 Fife Power Company Powerlifting Holiday Classic. I witnessed some great lifting, highlighted by a 722lb raw pull. Hopefully some of these tips will help you lift even bigger next year!


Grip: I’ll dig into your grip on the bar in more detail in another article; however I wanted to touch on some of the mistakes I saw. If you can’t hold onto the bar, you can’t pull the weight. You should be taking every measure you can to improve your grip.

  • Thumbless grip: There is no reason to use a thumbless grip on the deadlift. If you can hold the bar thumbless, quite frankly you don’t have enough weight on the bar.
  • Chalk: I saw a lifter fastening his belt after he’d chalked his hands. By the time he approached the bar to pull, the chalk was on his singlet and his belt, but not on his hands. As cool as you look covered in blood, sweat and chalk, chalk on your attire does not help you hold onto the bar. Chalking your hands should be the last thing you do before stepping onto the platform.
  • Hand Placement – too wide: This one I see all the time – using an exceptionally wide grip on the bar. A wide grip creates two disadvantages for you. First, a wider grip shortens your arm span, meaning you start the pull closer to the floor. This increases the range of motion you must pull through, and puts you at a disadvantaged position to start the pull from. Secondly, you now have forces straining your grip in two directions – one straight down towards the floor, the second inward pulling your hands toward the neutral position. Whether you’re pulling sumo or conventional, your hands should hang straight down from your shoulders. This will lengthen your arm span to the bar to its maximum, and eliminate the horizontal force from straining your grip.

Gripping the bar too widely puts additional strain on your grip

Hand placement too wide


Correct hand placement

  • Hand Placement – too narrow: Not gripping the knurling. Unless you have an exceptionally small frame with narrow shoulders, you should try to grip the bar on the knurling.

Stance: Choose either a sumo stance or a conventional stance. I saw too many people taking a stance somewhere in between. There is no advantage to this. With an ‘in between’ stance you drag your hands across your legs through nearly the full range of motion, peeling your grip loose.

  • Conventional: Your feet should be close together and toes pointed forward. Unless you have an exceptionally wide frame, your legs should be inside the knurling. With your feet in this position, your arms can hang straight down from the shoulders, grip the knurling, and not drag across your body as you complete your pull. Your legs and clothing won’t catch on the knurling which would increase the friction, and thereby increase the difficulty of the pull.
  • Sumo: Although dependent on your build, a sumo stance is very wide, well outside shoulder width, with your toes pointed out. For my sumo setup, I place my feet so the 81cm rings in the knurling are at my shins. Your grip will be inside your legs, hang straight down from your shoulders, and optimally gripping the knurling. Your hand placement should be approximately the same for the sumo pull as for the conventional deadlift.

Setup: Don’t play around with the deadlift. A loaded bar sitting on the floor waiting for you to pull can be intimidating. If you take the time to think about it, your mind will talk you out of the lift. Grab the bar and pull – GRIP and RIP

  • Pausing at the Bottom: Once you grip the bar, and drop your hips to the starting position, pull immediately. Sitting at the bottom works against you in two ways. First, as mentioned, you start thinking about the lift. Your mind will try to tell you how heavy the weight is. Secondly, as you drop your hips into the starting position, you should try to tighten your glutes and hamstrings and use them to explode off the floor. If you’re pausing at the bottom you lose that tightness and any advantage you can get out of it (ever notice how the second rep of deadlifts is much easier than the first when deadlifting for reps…?).
  • Exhaling at the Bottom: Don’t exhale, grunt or scream as you start the pull. Losing the air from your chest will reduce your upper body stability. Try to hold the air in your chest until the bar passes your knees and then begin exhaling as you lock out.

If you would like a complete walkthrough of the conventional deadlift you can read my article on deadlifting technique.