Squatting 101

I’m happy that my last post “Deadlifting 101” got as much positive feedback as it did. For those of you who read it and could pull some ideas and information from it, I’m glad!

I got several requests after that article to do a squat tutorial. Since I had mentioned awhile back that I will do one, I will live up to my word. I will try to condense things and break them down as much as I can without you falling asleep in front of your screen, but the squat is a lot more technical than the conventional deadlift, and requires a little more explanation in order to completely grasp how the movement is supposed to be done.

So bear with me.

(PLEASE NOTE: While I understand the mechanics, how-to’s, and science behind a squat, I still have things to work on myself! It is hard, and if you’re not someone who “gets it” right away, don’t worry. It takes a lot of practice to remember the cues and have everything work together in a fluid motion. No lift is ever immaculate or perfect, and there are always technical flaws and things to be worked on. We are constantly learning. The important thing is that you know how it’s done so that you can correct problems when they turn up.)

THE SET-UP

First things first. If you’re one of the people who is in a rush to get under the bar and finish the lift, slow the fuck down. Rushing the set-up is the biggest problem a lot of people make. They will duck under the bar and lift it on their back within a second, which is when the grotesque chest dropping and upper back rounding occurs most frequently. Slowing things down and taking time to make sure you are very tight at the start will ensure that you stay protected and solid throughout the entire movement and look a little less like the hunchback of Notre Dame.

A lot of people don’t know how to set their hand width properly. They’re either way too wide, or not wide enough. I say that if you are not a very large person or don’t have a particularly muscular upper back, keep your grip width more narrow to create a shelf with your traps for the bar to rest on. If you are a much larger person, you can afford to have your arms a little wider. Unless you’re a 300 lb. super-heavyweight with a very muscular back (in which case you wouldn’t really be reading this tutorial), there is no reason to have your hands all the way at the end of the bar. It’s just silly and won’t help tighten your upper back if your back is not big enough for it. The best thing to do here is to play around with different hand widths before squatting your regular weights to see what distance makes your back the tightest.

A trick I learned recently from a fellow powerlifter is to set your hand width on the bar BEFORE getting under, so that when you dip down to get the bar on your upper back, everything is much tighter. I used to dip under the bar and set my hands after, but I found that doing it beforehand and not changing the position of your hands kept my back a lot tighter and made it easier to keep my chest up. Ladies, if you have long hair I suggest putting it in a bun or a braid kept to the side to make sure this is easier for you.

You’re going to want your upper back VERY tight. So tight in fact, that you could hold a pencil between your shoulder blades. You want your back to remain this tight throughout the entire set. As you tighten your back and get under the bar, raise your chest and make sure it is out and high. This is a huge priority, because it’s what will prevent you from doing a good-morning on the way out of the hole.

That's a tight back.

That's a tight back.

Don’t flare your elbows up behind you. Try to keep your elbows tucked under the bar as much as possible, and avoid bending your wrists. Remember, your hands are there to keep the bar in place, not to support the weight. Too much wrist bending can result in injury or tendinitis. If you have a problem keeping your wrists straight, wear wrist wraps to increase the pressure and keep them in line. I have to do this as well, and a lot of squatters also do this especially if they squat low-bar.

Bar placement depends on personal preference. I find that low bar squatting (bar on the rear delts) causes more forward lean,and involves more of the lower back, as well as putting a lot more emphasis on the glutes and hamstrings. It is harder to get very low in a squat with a low bar placement (though this is remedied by maintaining great hamstring/hip/glute flexibility). For a lot of people it helps them lift more weight, and it’s popular amongst powerlifters. A high bar placement is set at the top of the traps right below the neck, and is also referred to as an “Olympic style squat”. It helps you stay more upright and get lower, but a lot of people find that they squat less weight with an Olympic style than with a low bar style.

Then of course, there is always the in-between, where it isn’t quite low bar and not quite high bar. All in all, it’s really down to preference, and the only real WRONG bar placement that you can have is putting the bar too high up so that it’s resting on your neck and spine rather than your traps, which is just begging for injury. Find what suits you and your leverages and stick with it. Try not to go back and forth between low bar and high bar squats.

Moving on…

Get completely under the bar when you are setting up. Do not unrack it with one leg back and one leg forward (common error). Your neck and traps should be pushed back into the bar when you are setting up. You want to really keep it back in there and tight. Arch your back slightly, take a breath, and un-rack the bar. Let the weight settle COMPLETELY on your back before you walk back. Do not just unrack the bar and start walking back, or you will begin to come loose. Again, slow down.

After you have waited a second or two, you want to step back with as few steps as possible to make sure you remain tight and to conserve energy. The rule is 3 steps. Some beginners until they find a groove for their foot width will need a few more steps and some shifting to find their proper position, but this should be minimized as much as possible. Remember, use as few steps as you possibly can.

Foot width, like with the deadlift, is determined primarily by preference. While some people will choose to have a wider stance, some people will also prefer a much closer stance. What I don’t suggest for a raw lifter is to squat in a sumo stance. There is no real reason for this, and it will take too much of a toll on the hip flexors. It’s also much harder to get lower, and this is mainly a squat stance used by equipped powerlifters.

A general rule of thumb is to have your feet shoulder-width apart, with your toes pointed out slightly. The toes pointed will help take stress off the knees, and will also help you engage your hamstrings and glutes more so that you can get your hips through at the lock-out. The more narrow your stance, the more emphasis is placed on the quadriceps. Which is why I personally prefer something in between narrow and wider, so that I get a good balance of quad, hamstring, and adductor involvement. Stance takes experimenting to see what works best for you. Choose the stance that works best for your leverages and level of comfort (to a certain degree).

THE START

So now that you are in position with the weight on your back, it’s time to start the breathing. A lot of people neglect this part and will simply start dropping down into the squat. They don’t realize how important taking deep breaths and holding them before the descent is when it comes to staying tight throughout the rep.

The breath should always be taken deep into your stomach. Don’t breathe through the chest. Not only will the breath be shallow but it will be harder to hold, and your core will not be very tight. If you use a belt when squatting, you will want to take a deep breath and push out as hard as you can on the belt.

I prefer to take two quick breaths before finally taking in a really deep one and pushing against the belt. Remember that the entire time I am standing there, I am just as tight as I was when I first un-racked the bar. Never let your muscles relax while you are breathing.

THE DESCENT

After you have taken your breath in, hold it, push your abs into your belt very hard (or if you are not wearing a belt, just tighten your stomach). Push your neck and traps into the bar, arch your back, sit back, and go down.

You should set your point of focus the same as a deadlift. NEVER look completely down or in the mirror. Set your focus straight ahead and slightly down, or slightly up. Keep your head and neck in a neutral position and focus on one spot.

When you’re squatting, you have to push your knees out to the side as much as you can. As Dave Tate said, think of trying to spread the floor with your feet. Push against the side of your feet and open up. This is very important for proper hamstring and glute activation through out the movement.

You don’t want the squat to be a 2-3 part movement. As in, one part of your body goes down, and then the other, then the other, etc. Like the deadlift, it should be a fluid movement…down and up. Your knees and hips should be moving at pretty much the same rate.

Do not worry about knee travel unless your weight is coming onto your toes. If your knees are the first thing to come forward and you feel the weight shifting to the front of your body, it is because you are not sitting back enough, and you are transferring the load to your upper back and quadriceps, rather than your glutes and hamstrings.

Remember that the body will ALWAYS compensate for a weak muscle by supporting the weight with the stronger muscles. The body does not know what good form is, it only knows that there is a heavy ass weight resting on it, and it needs to lift it somehow. The key is training yourself to use certain muscles primarily. Your glutes and hamstrings can support a lot of weight if you train them to, and those are the muscles that most of the lifting should be done with.

Always break with your hips first, not your knees.

THE ASCENT:

Just like on the way down, you will want to keep your knees out. This will help you lock-out the weight better and will prevent that common sticking point mid-squat when you just can’t seem to get your hips through. Many times if I failed a squat mid-way, it was because I was not utilizing my hamstrings as much as I could have, and my knees were pointed forward which made it hard for me to get my hips through. So it’s important that you stay focused and remember to keep your knees out so that your hamstrings can be worked to their fullest capacity.

You will rise with your chest and head first. Imagine a string being attached from your chest to the ceiling, pulling it up. If you let your chest drop, that is when the bar rolls and the weight gets shifted to the front of your body rather than the back. If your chest is up, everything will stay tight, and will prevent forward lean.

Don’t raise your hips too fast, because this can also cause you to do a good-morning on the way up. Just like you descend in a uniform motion, you should come up in the same way. Drive your hips up to lock out the weight. You really have to squeeze your glutes very hard and force your hips forward. The lock out needs to be done with your hips, not your knees.

If you’re making a squat max attempt or near max attempt, I think it’s important to let out some air once/if you reach a sticking point on the squat, since your goal is not to pass out during the squat from holding your breath too long. Let out some air in a hiss when you hit that spot.

 

COMMON PROBLEMS AND HOW TO CORRECT THEM

  1. Butt “winking”. This is when you reach a certain point in the squat where your lower back rounds and “winks” at the bottom. This can be dangerous, and you can injure yourself badly if you’re not careful. It’s caused by a number of things, including (but not limited to) inflexibility, lower back weakness, loss of your arch during the movement, and loosening of the lower back during the movement. My suggestion to correct this problem is to incorporate more PC work such as good-mornings, SLDL’s, hyperextensions, rack pulls (below the knee), and lots of hip flexor/hamstring/glute stretching.
  2. Losing the arch. Pretty difficult one to overcome, and takes a lot of practice and concentration. You have to really be focused and know how it feels to keep the arch throughout the entire squat. Once you lose that arch, your back can get quite loose, which can cause the winking mentioned above, back rounding, and good-mornings out of the hole. You will need to strengthen your mid-back and lower-back muscles and also practice holding your arch for longer periods of time. Build your back with the assistance exercises mentioned above, as well as practicing your arch with lighter weights until you can build up to holding it completely when the weights get heavier.
  3. Bar rolling on back. This is caused by your upper back not being tight enough. If the bar is securely on your back, there would be no reason for the rolling.
  4. Knees caving in. This comes from mainly from a lack of hamstring and glute strength, and can be corrected with the proper assistance exercises. I recommend SLDL’s, good-mornings, GHR’s, hip thrusts, and wide-stance box squats. You also must concentrate on pushing your knees out throughout the whole movement, like I mentioned earlier. Mobility work and glute activation work is also important before beginning your squats.

 

QUICK TIPS:

  • Think of “bending the bar” over your back. This will cause immediate tightness and help you keep the bar in place on your upper back.
  • Do whatever it takes to help you get that weight up when it feels tough. Some people like to breathe out air with a hiss, while others let out a loud grunt. If it helps you lift it, then go for it. I don’t care, and most other people don’t care either. If they complain just throw them over your back and squat them for a clean set of 10.
  • Start out with mental cues. Think, “Head up, chest up, arch back, hips back, knees out..etc” if it helps you to remember. If you can’t think of all that at once, get someone to yell at you “hips back!” or “knees out!” to help you.
  • WEAR FLAT SHOES. I cannot stress this enough. Barefoot, even. Unless you have squatting shoes, which is just as good. Stop squatting in goddamn sneakers. Invest in a cheap pair of high-top Chuck Taylors/converse and squat in those.

Have fun, and remember to be patient with yourself. It takes time to master the technicalities of the movement. Always keep a learning attitude about you though, and remember that it is a work in progress. Don’t try to rush things or they get sloppy. Go at your own pace, and practice with lighter weight if you need to.

Also keep in mind that when performing a 1-rep max effort attempt on a squat, there are going to be more technical flaws than a weight you could do, say, for 3-5 repetitions. In the case of a competition, sometimes there are more errors in form simply due to the fact that the athlete is doing whatever he or she can to get the weight back up.

However in training, you should strive to keep your technique as clean as possible to prevent injury and ensure that you have a long life filled with many more days of squatting pain-free.

In training, 95% of the time it will be form over weight. You’re training your body, not your ego.

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23 thoughts on “Squatting 101

  1. Hey, that was a great post. If you don’t mind, I’d just like to add one little thing that I’ve found helps my clients a lot with squats. I’ve found that when cueing using the “head up/chest up” terms, what will often happen is that their knees will come way forward before they start gettin vertical. So I usually go with “head up/chest up while driving through the hips.” That usually helps them come up in one single movement like you said to above.

    Keep the stuff coming! That was a very well written post :D

  2. Another awesome post! This is why you need to blog more often ;)

    I do most of the things you mentioned already. It took me a long time to get my knees stabilised and pointing outwards, but after reading this post I’m now starting to think my stance may be too narrow. If I didn’t do legs yesterday I would run to the gym right now to experiment.

  3. Awesome post!! Squats are my favorite exercise and I’ve definitely improved my form and technique over the years. I’m honestly shocked I didn’t hurt myself at first because I had some horrible form going on. Now I can tell if I feel off as soon as I un rack the weight (rushing things!) so I just re rack and start over.
    This is a great how-to on squats and I’ll definitely be recommending it to any new to lifting friends! -Paula

  4. Oooh, this has a lot of great tips. My squat used to be piss-poor. Then for a few weeks we just did front squats, which somehow helped me correct my form. It stayed that way when I went back to back squatting. My form isn’t perfect but it’s definitely better than it used to be. Air squats helped me get more depth too…probably just because my hamstrings were way too tight XD.

    Thanks for the great tutorial!

  5. I’m ashamed to say that I do squat in sneakers. I’ve been thinking about picking up some Chucks, but I’m a little bit concerned about my flat-footedness. I wear inserts (nothing fancy, just those stupid Dr. Scholls things) at the recommendation of my doctor, and I’ve found that foot pain has diminished substantially since I started doing that. Wouldn’t the effectiveness of the Chucks be offset by sticking inserts in them? I’d be hesitant to train without them without consulting with a doctor, for sure.

  6. great article, that’s the first time I’ve seen someone write about the “butt wink” which I am having a hell of a time correcting! Thanks for the tips, I’m gonna start trying some of those assistance movements.
    ps first time poster, really enjoy you’re blog and pics, keep em’ coming.

    Saul

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  8. re: shoes. I’m planning to get some Chuck’s, and am wondering if you could clarify why you recommend high-tops vs the low cut or mid. Is there beneficial support with the high-tops, or would the low-cut possibly be better for allowing unrestricted range of motion?
    Thank you.

    First time poster. Very much enjoy your blog as it has been very motivational and educational.

    • I prefer high tops, personally, as I’ve found they add a little bit of ankle support with my squats. It’s a preference thing though, whatever is more comfortable for you. :D

      Thanks for stopping by!

  9. I’ve read and re-read the squat and deadlifting posts, and I’m so grateful! I’ve used everything! I’m currently trying to build back muscle after a horrible bout of Graves (hyperthyroidism) and it’s so easy to injure myself! Thank you again. Wonderful posts.

  10. Hi,
    I am just getting into powerlifting and am curious as to how old you are and how many years you have been training for??
    Fantastic posts by the way!

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  12. Wow, what a detailed post. I’m still quite a beginner so it’ll take some time to implement your techniques, but why are sneakers bad for squats?
    Also, I know you focused mostly on back squats, but is there anything that can be done for wrist pain on front squats?
    Thanks!

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  14. Linked here from your “so you want to get strong” post, which I linked to from “sweat like a pig”… this post was *astoundingly* helpful to me… it felt like a whole new lift when I was doing squats today as compared to last time. Phenomenal! Thank you! How about a “how to” on lunges?

  15. Hi,

    The article was great. It’s worth noting that for the olympic-style, high-bar squat, the knees break just before (maybe the same time as) the hips.

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  17. You must be really convinced that the symptoms are related to panic attack.
    It is very important to control your thoughts, because your strength, determination and ability to win over anxiety can
    only let you overcome it. This flawed or negative thinking is the rewult of an overactive and negative imagination taking hold of your daily life.

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