– authored by Katja Lariola
So I happened to say the magic words “What in my opinion makes women squat with a bad form is BodyPump” to my coach and that led me to write about the very topic… Be careful with what you say around him, people! But let me introduce myself before I get all excited and start saying things I will later regret. That tends to happen when I get excited – this article itself is a proof of that, haha. I’m kidding. I enjoy writing and I was very honored to be asked to write for Brute Force Strength! Though I really did not see it coming when I said what I said…
Who Am I?
In addition to being Ken’s Finnish trainee with nothing to say and a sense of humor of high quality (haha), I work as a Personal Trainer in a commercial gym chain. Being a powerlifter and a commercial gym PT is not the most typical combo, at least not in Finland, but I like teaching the main lifts to “ordinary” people, help them with their goals, and make their training effective, simple and safe. And I help them get stronger if that’s what they want, of course.
Of all the lifts, I love squats the most. It’s maybe not my best lift in kgs (or lbs) but it’s what I enjoy the most. Squatting makes me feel strong and empowered! If I were asked to choose one thing to do at the gym, it would be squats. Consequently, as a PT, I make almost everybody squat… Wanna build muscles? Let’s squat! Wanna lose weight? Let’s squat! Wanna get stronger? Let’s squat! Wanna improve your mobility? Let’s squat! Wanna do functional training? Let’s squat! Wanna improve your overall health? I’m sure you can guess the answer to that… Ok, Ok, I have had clients who have wanted, for example, to bench press with me. We haven’t squatted… And the type, intensity and volume of the exercise vary, too, of course.
The typical member I meet at the gym is a woman, 30-50 years old, no experience at the gym but loves group fitness classes. Oh boy they love their classes! Not that there’s anything wrong with that but typically they think that they don’t need resistance training for anything because of them. Yes, they have almost all done strength training when I ask them (I believe everybody needs some strength training and you can learn Finnish and read an article I wrote about it recently in my own blog – Life Worth Lifting)… They have taken BodyPump classes.
These women I work with have learned to squat in BodyPump classes, too. Or should I say they have not learned to squat in the BodyPump classes? Many of them say they have experienced knee pain. When I see them squat, their technique is bad. However, I believe Ken is working on an article about knee pain, so I won’t go there more profoundly. But I would go as far as to say that it’s because of BodyPump that their squats look terrible. They have taught themselves a wrong way to do it there.
Before going any further, I should probably explain what BodyPump is. Many of you have probably heard the term and have a general idea but to make sure we’re talking about the same thing, I will tell you about the concept. When we get to the critique part, and we will get there, you will notice that most of it could be said about any type of group fitness class and about any technical lift, or about just not having squatted ever. The problems are not unique to squat or to Bodypump. But BodyPump has been what I have come across the most.
Before continuing, I also want to add that I don’t intend to bash BodyPump. I will question some things they say about BodyPump’s benefits but I do think it can be fun (if you like that sort of things, I don’t) and it’s a way to get people moving – and that’s a huge thing nowadays when the rate of obesity and other health problems is alarming! For that I’m grateful.
What Is BodyPump?
According to the Les Mills site (http://www.lesmills.com/), BodyPump is a weight-based group-fitness program. Classes are 60 minutes long and contain eight separate muscle-group specific songs or tracks: warm up, squats, chest, back, triceps, biceps, lunges, shoulders, core and cool down. BodyPump classes use both compound and isolation-based exercises and in addition to squats, deadlifts and presses are used. Participants choose their weights based on the exercise and their personal goals but they are performed using plates, barbells, dumbbells and an aerobic step. The classes are exactly the same all over the world, wherever you go the program is the same and not modified by the instructor. The focus is on muscle endurance using several repetitions.
And what are the claims I mentioned they make on their site? I know, this might seem like I’m getting sidetracked and more about BodyPump itself than squats and BodyPump. However, this is an article about BodyPump, too, and I do want to say a few words about that. I’m sure you BodyPumpers out there think when reading this that maybe I won’t learn to squat but I will get the other benefits… Nope, you won’t. So let me tell you what the claims are and how they are not working.
“Build strength, get lean & toned, work all major muscles. Get lifting with BODYPUMP™ and you’ll tone and shape your entire body, without adding bulky muscles. This full-body workout will burn calories, increase core strength and improve bone health. This program is based on THE REP EFFECT. THE REP EFFECT throws traditional thinking about lifting heavy weights on its head. It is a proven formula that exhausts muscles using light weights, while performing high repetitions – this is the secret to developing lean, athletic muscle. Choreography in each area is specifically targeted so you’ll burn fat, burn more calories and achieve more meaningful fat loss and muscle fatigue to build strength without building bulk. In a typical BODYPUMP™ class you’ll perform 800 reps in a single group workout. That’s more than four times the amount a person can achieve when training alone.”
I did promise to question them, didn’t I? Yes, you will burn calories and work all your muscles, that is true. But lifting heavy weights with proper technique would be more effective for building strength! Or have you heard of a strength athlete using only the rep effect? As they said, focus is on muscle endurance. And that is probably why I don’t find it fun – with my attention span SO MANY REPS is boring… But fortunately we are all different! Lifting heavy weights is more effective for shaping your body, increasing core strength and improving bone health (I won’t go there now, otherwise this will become too long of an article, but as I said before: you can learn Finnish and read about in my own blog – it’s all in the Why Everybody Needs Strength article).
Getting lean, on the other hand, is mainly about your diet. If you want to lose fat, you need to pay attention to what you put in your mouth. It’s as simple as that, although finding the best diet for you might not be a simple task. Develop lean, athletic muscles and not adding bulky muscles? Let’s get this straight: all muscles are lean. That’s what they are: muscle, not fat. If you look bulky, however, it’s often about fat on top of the muscles, not the muscles themselves, or about your how you see yourself. Unfortunately it is not uncommon to have a distorted body image.
The shape of your muscles is genetically determined, too. They have a certain origin and a certain insertion. You might be able to affect their length a bit but you can’t change those facts or grow longer bones. So you can’t get significantly longer muscles with a certain type of exercise. Not Yoga, not BodyPump. Furthermore, quantity does not override quality. Doing 800 reps or four times the amount you can do on your own is somewhat pointless in my opinion. Do quality workouts aimed at your goal, and if training alone is a problem, get yourself a good trainer.
Why Does BodyPump Make Women Squat with a Bad Form?
As I said in the beginning, the problems are not BodyPump-specific or exercise-specific and they are not gender-specific, either. It just reflects my experiences: I have met many women who have done BodyPump classes and do not know how to squat.
The main problem is that there are so many people in the class. If you have 50 people doing the class and the squat song lasts 5 minutes, you cannot possibly teach everyone how to squat or go correct their form. The instructor is supposed to show the participants what to do, too, and as far as I know, getting off the stage is limited in the BodyPump concept. So basically what you can do is try to get an eye contact and tell the participant to keep their heels on the ground (or whatever it is you want to tell them). All the instructors do not have enough knowledge to correct people, either, but that can be said about trainers and coaches, too. And there are good instructors, too!
As the lifts are performed to music, some reps are really fast. When you squat to every beat (fortunately you don’t do that throughout the whole song), the movement might not be controlled anymore. You are just going up and down and sweating and hoping for the track to end. Technique is not what you have in mind anymore and quite likely your core will get loose, too.
Furthermore, when a trainer/coach works with people and sees them lift, they can spot weaknesses that need to be addressed. It might be related to muscle strength and they might have to work on posterior chain or core (although squatting is a good cure for that, too: you can get better at squatting by squatting). In BodyPump classes it is not possible because of the concept: the instructor is not allowed to change anything. In group fitness classes in general it is not possible because of the amount of people. You cannot address one person’s individual issues while the 49 remaining participants have different needs.
Sometimes the attitude is also a bit towards “thank god these weights are so light that participants won’t really hurt themselves”. And in a class like this, where you can’t teach and correct, the weights do need to be light and in that sense I think the rep effect is a good one to use. Though bad form even with light weights can lead to injuries or at least to back or knee pain. In addition to that, once you learn to do something, it is difficult to change the pattern. So trying out heavier weights at the gym with that form might lead to an injury even if it doesn’t happen in the class. This can be said about anyone who doesn’t know what they are doing, though, whether they have taken any group fitness classes in their life or not.
What Are the Most Common Problems I Have Encountered?
And to finish this short and compact article off, I’ll summarize briefly (yeah right) the most common squat problems I have encountered. However, this is not a comprehensive list; it doesn’t cover all the problems and certainly doesn’t apply to everyone. It doesn’t give definite answers, either. They are not the only ways to start correcting. So even though I will name a few things I often do with my clients, it’s not all we do. It always depends on the person and their problems and weaknesses, and they are often more complicated. We probably need to fix more than just one thing. And I won’t even go to muscular weaknesses or mobility issues! So this is just a quick overview and I will only talk about basic technical aspects.
First, when we get to squatting with a barbell, I need to teach people how to unrack and rack. That’s not where we usually start, though; many of them cannot handle the 20kg bar yet, so we use lighter bars/ kettlebells/ dumbbells or do bodyweight or assisted squats. But when we get there, if I let them just try it out without showing them first, they quite often lift the bar from the rack with their hands, press it up and then put it down to their shoulders. Similarly, racking starts with a version of a behind the neck press. That’s what they have done in BodyPump classes with those light weights. There are no racks or squat cages there. However, it can get dangerous with heavier weights! And as legs are stronger than arms, especially when it comes to women, you cannot even use a heavy enough weight for really working your legs if you need to press it up first. But that is a more advanced problem, when the squatting technique is good enough for adding more weight. Myself I cannot press overhead even half of the weight I can squat.
The second problem is the placement of the bar. It is often on their neck, pressing the spine and vertebrae. Maybe that wasn’t a problem with lighter weights, but having heavy weights on your spine will hurt you for sure. The next issue is that people believe the right stance is a narrow one, toes pointed directly forward. While it may work for some, many of the people I have squatted with have not had the mobility for that. So when I tell them to widen their stance a bit and turn their toes a bit outwards, I hear the ‘this is not how they told us to do it in the BodyPump classes!’ comment. The surprise is even bigger when I tell them to push their knees out. However, when I ask them ‘Did it hurt your knees now?’, the answer is usually ‘No’. And that is a surprised ‘No’, too!
It is also common to lift heels up from the floor and lean forward, or to be afraid of going low, even if strength and mobility would allow that. The range of motion is very short. What I have found effective is doing front squats and box squats. Front squats are kind of self-corrective and prevent leaning to a certain extent. It is easier to find the pattern with front than back squats. When people shift their weight forward, box squats help, too, as people need to hit the box behind them. If it is about a mental block, about being afraid of falling down onto the floor, or about not finding the depth, box squats are beneficial again. The box is there to catch you, though it’s rarely needed, and tell you the correct depth. These are not the only reasons to use box squats or front squats, so if you see people doing them, don’t expect they have above mentioned problems. They are effective exercises on their own, too.
So, in a nutshell, what I wanted to say with this article is that if you don’t know how to squat but squat anyways, you won’t get the benefits and may injure yourself. While BodyPump can get you up from the couch, it is not the best way to strength train, tone, get leaner or build muscle. And it is definitely not the best place to learn to lift! Quite the opposite, if you do it wrong, the instructor cannot really correct you. They cannot help you to address your weaknesses. You will quite likely learn it wrong. That is why in my opinion BodyPump makes women squat with a bad form.
It’s like the old question ‘How many times a week should I train?’ If your way of training is bad, the less you do it the better. Learn to lift and definitely learn to squat but do it with a good PT or coach! Then, when you know what you are doing, you can do BodyPump every now and then if you want to work on endurance.
In addition to being a Personal Trainer, Katja is an up and coming Elite Raw Powerlifter in Finland. She holds regional records and has won the Southern Finland Regional Championships. She has placed 4th in Finnish National Championships.
Why use resistance bands with your squats?
Accommodating resistance with bands or chains can help you make considerable strength gains. As you complete the concentric portion of your lift (come back up), your leverage improves making the lift easier. Your body’s mechanically advantage allows you to handle more weight at the top of the lift than you can in the hole. Both chains and bands increase in resistance as you near the top where you hit the stronger region of your lift. Although chains add a considerable cool factor – they look cool, they sound cool, and they are just all around cool – band tension increases at a considerably faster rate as you pass the sticking point and approach lockout. Chains increase in weight linearly as more chain is lifted from the floor.
Bands add a great deal of instability to the bar. Controlling the weight takes considerably more effort than walking out a regular squat bar. The effort required to control the weight forces you to strengthen your stabilizing muscles and will help develop greater core stability.
Who should do banded squats?
The more appropriate question is who should not do banded squats? Banded lifts are not for beginners. You should have a solid strength foundation, good control of the weight throughout the full range of motion, and sound technique before attempting banded squats. If you don’t have great technique and control, adding the instability created by the bands can increase your probability of injury. Until you have mastered them, stick with the basic lifts.
Banded squats, a quick walkthrough
- Setting up your bands:
- Best case, you have a squat rack with pegs built for bands. You can adjust the amount of tension created by the bands by adjusting the length of the bands you use in the setup.
- If you don’t have band pegs on your squat rack, using dumbbells is an easy way to set up your bands, although adjusting the band length used in the setup isn’t quite as simple. A couple pointers for using dumbbells: make sure the weight of your dumbbells is greater than the tension the bands create at the top of the lift; set a small weight plate in front of and behind the dumbbells to keep them from rolling.
- Squat Setup:Setting up for the squat is much like setting up for a normal squat with two major differences.
- As soon as the bar comes out of the rack, the bands are going to pull you backwards. Instead of unracking with both feet directly under the bar, start with one foot slightly back so you can brace yourself and keep the bands from pulling you back (see video) below.
- It is critical to set up so the bar is directly in line with the point the bands are anchored. If you set up ahead of or behind the anchor point, the bands will pull you forward or back, out of your groove. A trick I just picked up is to draw a chalk line on the floor aligned with your band anchor to help you position yourself correctly.
Follow the steps for a proper squat setup. Because of the instability created by bands, a solid setup is even more important when squatting with them.
- Squatting with bands
- The eccentric portion for banded squats is technically no different than a normal squat. It’s even more important with bands to remain very tight to prevent the bands from pulling you out of the proper bar path. If you do find the bands pulling you out of the proper path, check to make sure that you are aligned with the anchor points.
- As the graphic above indicates, the band tension will be low at the bottom end of the squat, and will increase rapidly. It’s important to drive explosively out of the hole and build enough momentum to help you move past the sticking point and lock your squat out as band tension increases.
- As you get to your sticking point, the bar may slow, and come to a near stop. Keep driving with all your power to overcome the tension – this will train you to grind through the tough lifts.
Whether you’re an equipped or raw lifter, whether you compete or just like being big, bad and strong, used correctly resistance bands can help you build new levels of strength.
Note: Gauging the tension added by bands is not an exact science. EliteFTS has, however, provided band calibrations you can use as a reference point.
The problem: Many strength trainers spend hours, maybe weeks, researching the perfect workout or trying out the latest lifting fad. More experienced lifters focus their effort honing in the technique for their squat, deadlift and bench press. Far too many, however, miss one of the most fundamental aspects to lifting big weights – perfecting the setup.
The solution: Neglecting your setup is a huge mistake. A proper setup leads to stronger lifts. The setup is the one point in the lift you have the time (and your wits) to enable you to do everything perfectly every single time. To set up correctly your entire body needs to be tight before the bar even comes out of the rack or off the floor.
How does a tight setup aid your lift?
- Efficiency: An improper setup leaves you expending more energy than necessary before even starting to lift.
- Stability: A tight set up allows you to control the weight easily, giving you greater stability with which to start your lift.
- The Weight Feels Light: Setting up tightly gives you a mechanical advantage. The weight feels much lighter coming out of the rack, or off the floor. Although it doesn’t matter how heavy it feels, the lighter the weight feels, the more confidently you will attack your lifts.
Squat Setup: The idea for this article came up while watching one of my lifters setting up to squat. Before unracking the weight she dropped down slightly, and then slammed up into the bar. Extra movements like this do not help with the lift and by doing so she loosened up before lifting the bar.
Keeping your body tight allows you to transfer all of your power from your legs doing the work directly to the bar on your shoulders and eliminates energy leaks. Done right, the bar feels lighter and moves more easily, wastes less energy, and mentally prepares you for your lift.
- Hand Position: Bringing your hands in closer to your shoulders on the bar increases the tightness of your upper back. Bring them in as closely as your flexibility allows, while still enabling you to drive your elbows forward under the bar as you lift the weight.
- Bar Position: Bring the bar down from on top of your traps (high bar position) to the shelf between the base of your traps and your delts.
- Tight Back: Once you have your grip on the bar, and have positioned the bar on your back, squeeze your shoulder blades together to contract your lats and tighten your upper back.
- Big Air: Take a large breath of air into your lungs, and tighten your core. This will create intra-abdominal pressure, providing stability to your spine.
What is Big Air?
When I get under the bar very very tightly it feels like my body is a loaded spring. Let it go and it drives the bar up easily out of the rack, even with a loaded down bar. For more tips on your squat setup, read ‘A Perfect Setup Leads to a Bigger Squat’.
Setting up your squat
Bench Press Setup: You’ve seen a lot of guys do it, hell I used to this before I knew what I was doing: before unracking the weight, he pulls his body up off the bench and as his shoulders come back down onto the bench he unracks the weight. This is probably the worst thing you can do to prepare for your bench press. Before unracking the weight you want to have your body in the perfect position and completely tight. There is no way to properly set up with a moving target!
- Shoulder Position: Place your shoulders on the bench and squeeze your shoulder blades together tightly. Think about trying to squeeze a quarter between your shoulder blades and holding it there throughout your full set.
- Leg Drive: Place your feet under your knees with your toes pointed slightly outward. Push through the balls of your feet driving your hips towards your shoulders. This will push your lower back into a slight arch, and it will tighten your entire body from your toes through your traps. Maintain your leg drive throughout all reps in your set.
Note: If you have lower back issues, consult your doctor before benching with an ‘arch’.
- Lock Your Elbows: Squeeze the bar tightly, and try to lock your elbows before unracking the bar. You want to be able to bring the bar straight out over your chest, instead of lifting the bar up then bringing it out. This works best when you have a bench with adjustable height. With the perfect rack height you can nearly lock your elbows before coming out of the rack. Your spotter should have to just bump the bar up slightly, then help you guide the weight straight out, at which point you’re already locked out and ready to begin your first repetition.
Deadlift Setup: Deadlift setups are the trickiest. I watch deadlifters squat down to the bar loosening their entire upper body, and then jerk up as hard as they can to pull their new PR. Let’s look at this approach – loose upper back, heavy weight, jerking the bar with all their strength. Let’s say you’re going to tow your friend’s car out of the ditch with your Chevy. Do you connect the chains between the vehicles leaving 30’ of slack, then floor it getting your truck up to speed before the chain tightens and jerks the bumper off your friend’s car? My first thought is usually ‘well they won’t be wasting space in my gym too long’.
A proper deadlift starts with a tight upper body and a smooth, strong, steady pull:
- Big Air: Take a deep breath into your lungs and tighten your core. This will create intra-abdominal pressure which stabilizes your spine. This is best done before you drop your hips down into the starting position. Once you drop your hips you will be unable to pack your lungs full of air.
- Tight Back: Squeeze your shoulder blades together tightening your back. As opposed to your bench press technique, where you try and pinch a quarter between them, try and tuck your shoulder blades down into your back pockets. This will reduce the shortening effect on your arms while still allowing you to tighten your upper back (shorter arms equals a longer range of motion).
- Pull the Slack out of the Bar: Pull upward on the bar before starting your deadlift eliminating any slack between you and the bar. You should have a smooth, strong pull when you start your deadlift, and not jerk the bar upwards.
- Don’t Squat to the Bar: Rock back bringing your hips down and your head and chest up. Keep your back tight and upward tension on the bar as you rock back, dropping your hips to the starting position. Don’t squat down to the bar letting your knees drift forward over the bar and loosening your back and arms.
A tight setup on the deadlift allows you to transfer all of your pulling power directly from your legs to the bar. It allows you to turn your upper body into a solid lever, minimizing energy leaks as you begin your pull.
I probably frustrate many of my lifters. When squatting I’ll make them rerack and start over several times before they even take their first repetition, but the setup is that important. A proper setup can easily be the difference between a missed lift and a new personal record.
A perfect squat setup can be the difference between a successful lift and a failed lift. As a powerlifter, I train to make this portion of the squat as efficient as possible. These powerlifting techniques can help any strength trainer not just powerlifters, take advantage of them.
Don’t rush it. There is no excuse for your setup to not be perfect on every set you do from your first warm-up to your last working set. You have more control over the setup than you do over the actual lift. You have time to think about what you are doing every step of the way. Take advantage of this fact, and make it perfect every time.
- Hand placement: Hand placement is of course somewhat dependent upon your flexibility, but the closer you bring your hands in, the tighter you will be able to keep your upper back, providing more support to the bar.
- Bar placement: Bar placement can be affected by a number of factors (muscles targeted, individual body proportions, upper body flexibility). Generally speaking, however, placing it across the back of the delts versus on top of the traps allows you to generate the greater power.
- Foot placement: Place your feet under the bar in a standard conventional deadlift stance (approximately hip width apart, toes pointed forward); this will give you the most stability as you lift the bar out of the rack.
- Breathing: Take a deep breath and tighten your core before unracking the bar (Squat Breathing Technique). This creates a very solid, stable core and allows you to support the weight of the bar. Continue to hold your breath until you have walked the bar out.
- Rotate your hips under the bar: Keeping your back flat, shift your hips forward by rotating at the bar and your shoulders – do not flex your lumbar spine to push your hips forward.
- Unrack the bar: Lift the bar straight up using your legs, primarily your quads; if you have not properly rotated your hips under the bar, this looks like a good morning, making the bar feel much heavier.
- Walk the bar out:
- After unracking, pause briefly allowing the bar to settle briefly before stepping back.
- Watch your feet as you walk out so that you can place them exactly where you want them.
- Your first step should be straight back. This will allow you to clear the rack so that you don’t bump it on the way out. It should be a short step, your toe should not move much farther back than the heel of your other foot.
- Move your other foot back into your squatting position.
- Shift your first foot straight out into your squatting position.
- Practice this walkout to minimize shifting and shuffling once you’ve walked out.
- Let the bar settle briefly again, begin breathing again and your are ready to squat.
Practice these steps from your very first warm-ups, and make them automatic. Done right, the correct setup can make the weight feel much lighter, giving you greater confidence in your lift!
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 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.