Squatting: Your Questions Answered

Doug_Hepburn_Squat

Hello world. I apologize this took so long to put together. It’s been a crazy week.

Originally I had written this and was in the process of getting ready to post it, but hadn’t saved my document. So I suffered the consequences and had to re-write it all, which admittedly I procrastinated on just a little…kind of like when you work for awhile on a project and have finally gotten it finished, you don’t really want to start all over again from scratch, if you catch my drift.

But anyway, I really wanted to do a follow-up post for my last Squatting 101 article. As I was thinking of different things to write about, I thought it might be a better idea to ask the readers what THEY would like to know about squats, and have their specific questions answered. I thought it might be a little more thorough, and I’m sure I’ll be back to follow up this post with anything else I missed in the future as well.

Enjoy, and hopefully you can benefit from the answers as well.

Q: Low bar or high bar?

A: This is ultimately a personal choice. Do I have a preference? Certainly. I will almost always choose a low bar position over a high bar. However, there is always a mid-bar position which is right in between both high and low bar, and I find it works well for most people. There is no shoulder/wrist pain complaints like a regular low bar placement might give, and you can still get the power that you would out of a low bar position, just that it will help you to stay a little more upright and you will have less of a forward lean.

All I can say is experiment with both. Low bar is uncomfortable at first, but once you get used to it you will be able to squat much higher weights, which is why it is a favorite amongst powerlifters. Eventually you will find your groove, just keep on trying different things and seeing what feels the most stable.

Q: What do you think about squatting with Smith Machine? Is it better to do it with dumbbells when you don’t have barbell available?

A: Forget Smith Machine squats. They have no place in a program, regardless of what you train for. The only thing I might use the Smith machine for is the occasional incline work for chest, but even then I haven’t used it in almost a year.

If there is no barbell available, then perform heavy single-leg work. Bulgarian split squats are excellent. Walking lunges are also great.

Q: Can you tell me about mobility/stretching specific to reaching proper depth on the squat? And some ideas for recovery as well.

A: Prior to squatting, ALWAYS begin with mobility work. I’m going to post a good video below for some hip mobility drills.

Other ones you can do are hip swings. You hold onto the bar or squat rack, and swing your leg high from front to back, for about 15 reps then switch sides. You want to keep the leg nice an loose and really open up and warm up the hip joints.

A good dynamic stretch prior to squatting would be to get into your squat stance, and then squat down as low as you can. From the position, use your elbows to force your knees out and get a good stretch in the groin area. Hold for a few seconds, raise the hips, and then come back down.

As for recovery, I love foam rolling lightly before training for a few minutes, and then again a couple of times per week. Pay special attention to your IT band, piriformis, hip flexors, and sartorius. These get the most wear and tear.

Sitting in the sauna for a few minutes is nice and relaxing too. You can also take contrast showers. They’re a bitch, but they feel great after. And of course, don’t neglect stretching after your lower body sessions.

Q: What are some stretches to help drop your ass straight down? I’m having hip issues maybe where the crease of the hips doesn’t like to go below the knees!

A: I haven’t personally seen you attempt to squat, so it’s hard to say what the issue is here. Most likely just tightness in the hip flexors, glutes, and hamstrings. Tight calves and ankles are also common issues. Make sure that you are doing mobility work before every lower body session, and stretching often.

Here are some good stretches for you to do a couple of times a week to increases flexibility and mobility:

 

Q: What are some deep squatting techniques?

A: Again, if you are having trouble reaching depth there could be a ton of issues at hand here. Perhaps you’re leaning too far forward, or coming onto the quads/knees rather than sitting back properly. The best way to tell is to take a video of yourself and see what’s going on. Are you sitting back properly, or dropping straight down? Do certain muscles feel tight when you are attempting to squat low, or does your lower back round?

Refer to the stretches and mobility work posted above, and keep in mind that the closer your stance is when squatting, the easier it is to reach depth. I’d suggest starting with a closer stance while building up, and then eventually determining a stance that is most comfortable with your leverages once you have gained some more flexibility. Remember to keep the toes pointed out, and to sit your ass back rather than straight down.

Q: What are some proper warm-up techniques?

A: Refer back to my videos posted about mobility work. Walking lunges and high knees in place are also excellent.

Q: I want to know how to progress- auxiliary exercises, and when to add more weight, and how much. For example, I’ve done a top set of 115×5 twice in two weeks, I feel like I should progress to more weight, but I’m scared. 115 is so hard, and I’m honestly never sure I’ll make the last 2 reps. And any tips for managing the fear?

A: I hate to be a parrot or to sound cliché. But “just do it”, is all I can say when it comes to overcoming fear. You have to find YOUR zone. That means blocking out everything going on around you, not thinking about the weight on the bar or how hard it is. Just connecting with your mind, telling yourself that you are going to do it, and just doing it. There is nothing to be afraid of. It’s when you’re afraid that you’re encouraging accidents!!

Of course, always make sure your form is on point, because there could be many reasons why you haven’t been progressing with the weight. But I have a feeling that you are holding yourself back from adding weight because you’re scared it’s going to be hard. And so what if it is? Just push it.

What I can suggest is moving it up to 120 and going for a set of 5. Even when it feels hard, you have to keep going. Unless something begins to hurt or starts feeling REALLY out of whack, then there is no reason to stop. Video your set to make sure you are reaching proper depth and that your form is okay. Depending on how the video turns out, you can then make an educated decision on whether to stay with that weight for awhile, or move it up.

Sometimes, all that is going on is our mind telling ourselves that we’re tired and that it’s hard, etc. The body is never tired if the mind is not tired!!

Q: When you don’t want or can’t squat very heavy-what about higher rep squatting for definition?

A: This makes not a lot of sense. Definition comes with more muscle and a lower body fat percentage. You have to overload the muscle if you want it to grow. And that means lifting heavy weights, and really pushing yourself. Especially with larger movements, keep the reps somewhat lower. I’d say if muscle gain was your only concern, still keep it to around 8 reps max. I do like doing some “widowmaker” sets from time to time, which is your 10RM done for 20 reps, but beyond that I believe that the optimal rep range for squats would be between 5 and 8. And those sets should still be hard to complete.

 

Q: I had a torn meniscus and I wonder if I should not be squatting because of it. But I love squats so that would be a drag.

A: This is a tricky question. I’m not a physician, so keep that in mind. How long ago did the injury occur? If it has been awhile and if you have been squatting without pain or discomfort so far, I should say you’re safe.

What I can suggest is to invest in a pair of knee sleeves, and start out very light (if you haven’t been squatting). If you’re going to squat make sure that you are definitely going below parallel, since anything parallel or above will put a lot of unneeded stress on your joints. The main thing you’ll want to watch is your form, and that you are keeping your knees out at ALL times during the squat, and not letting them cave or shoot forward.

I know a lot of people who have squatted when they had previously torn something in the knee. I wouldn’t suggest doing any kind of running though.

Q: How do you “feel” depth without using visual cues? And how do you breathe for a set of five?

A: Good questions!! “Feeling” depth took me a little while too. What I found helped was to do bodyweight squats to the right depth, and memorize the way you felt in that position. NEVER look at yourself in the mirror while squatting to check for depth. You have to take consistent videos and have people watch from the side to see where your hip crease is. Eventually with enough practice, you will get to that perfect depth. When in doubt, go lower.

As for breathing, you’ll want to think of it like this: when your car runs out of gas and you have to push it, what is your natural instinct before heaving? You take a big breath, hold it, and give it all you got. You have to do the same for each rep of squats. At the top, take a big breath and hold it. You may let out a little bit of air on the way up if you wish (this helps relieve some pressure so you don’t faint or anything, especially when wearing a belt), but never exhale all the way before you get to the top. After you lock-out, pause for a second, take another breath, and repeat.

Q: Could you touch a little bit on Front squats with clean grip techniques?

A: Certainly.

Front squats done properly with a clean grip require a good amount of shoulder and wrist flexibility. To prepare for front squats, do some shoulder mobility work and very light, short stretches for your shoulders and your chest. Shoulder rotations/dislocations are excellent prior to front squats.

You’ll want to keep stretching your wrists as well, either with your hand or the barbell. It will take some time before your muscles and especially tendons are used to being in this position, and it may hurt at first but you will get used to it.

With front squats, you want to make sure that the bar is resting on your DELTOIDS at all time. Not your wrists. You should work on your flexibility enough that you can get your elbows high enough to support the bar on your front deltoids rather than your wrists. You want to have the bar up high enough that it is nearly (but not actually) choking you.

Your fingers are there only to keep the bar in place. You are not doing any kind of supporting with your wrists, only stability.

This is an example of proper front squat form:

 

This is what NOT to do, and is an example of poor flexibility and technique:

 

Once you’ve un-racked the bar and allowed it to settle, take two steps back into a much closer than regular squat stance. Turn your toes out more (this is to help you get deeper, keep your knees out, and also get your hips through at the top).

Keep in mind that a front squat is NOT a back squat. NEVER sit back into a front squat. You want to sit straight down, and keep your knees out on the way up and down. Really force them out hard to make sure you are opening up the hips. When you rise, rise with your chest and elbows first. Your elbows must stay up at all times, otherwise the bar will roll and you will tip forward.

 

Q: I want to low bar squat but feel like I can’t get my arms into the right position. Maybe it’s a flexibility issue? Curious about different way(s) to properly position the bar.

A: As I mentioned earlier, the three different ways you can position the bar on your back is high bar, mid-bar, and low bar. You will have to experiment. Without knowing how you squat, it’s hard to say what the problem is. But with pretty much any squat, you will want to get your elbows under the bar as much as possible, and “bend the bar” over your back, so to speak. Elbows should not be flared up in the back (especially on the way up), and you should not try to purposely flare them.

Keep your grip relatively close, and work on shoulder flexibility. Especially if you are squatting low bar, this is important.

Q: I’m wondering about half squats for glute targeting. Also, I only have access to dumbbells. Any variations on ways to use them for squatting?

A: What I think of when I think “half squat”, is squatting down only to about parallel or slightly above. If this is the case, forget about it. If you want to do a half squat from a dead start those can be useful (i.e. barbell resting on bars and you training only the lockout position) though I can’t say they work wonders for the glutes.

If you want to do something good for your glutes, try some straight-leg deadlifts and hip thrusts. However, doing half squats will only put stress on your knee joints.

You can do a lot of great single-leg work with dumbbells. Think Bulgarian split squats, lunges, and step-ups.

Q: How do I explain to the guy at the gym that having your elbows pointing directly down at the floor so you get ‘push’ from your arms is wrong…? Or is it just a different method?

A:  Actually, this is one case where the guy at your gym was absolutely correct. Elbows should be pointed towards the floor, as I mentioned a few times in questions above. Flaring the elbows is unstable and will only cause the bar to roll and your chest to fall. Keeping the elbows underneath helps raise your chest and makes sure it stays raised.

Q: Should I squat with belt? Without? When if ok?

A: You can if you’d like. I always suggest going up as high as you can without a belt, and then using the belt only for heavier sets. Just keep in mind that you need to be stabilizing by pushing your abdominals out onto the belt to protect your lower back.

Q: I just want a simple routine to follow for focusing on building MASS that covers basics like how many reps/sets/and days a week are ideal. I know some of that depends on frequency and intensity, but you are a female who has achieved good results so I’d like to hear which method got you there.

A: The tricky thing about leg training is that every single person is going to get results with different methods. I know some women who built their legs just by running track and lifting only moderately heavy weights occasionally. And then I have known women who could only build their legs with higher repetitions and so forth.

What worked for me was an increase in frequency as well as intensity. When I talk about intensity, I am referring to weight percentages, not just how hard I’m working. The most reps for my larger lifts (aside from when I ran Smolov) was about 5. I also added in assistance work which never really went over 10 reps. Mostly 6-8. So I was training legs 2x per week with high volume and high intensity. However, I’ve found that certain muscles (such as the glutes) respond to a variety of different intensities as well as reps. So some days I will train it from 4-6, and other days I will do 10+ reps, and so on.

Seeing as I don’t have the means to assess your own individual needs, what I can give you is a basic idea of how to switch things up and put on some muscle (providing your diet is also set to achieve the same goal)

1)            Train legs 2x per week. Glutes can be trained 2-3x per week.

2)            Have a quad dominant and a hamstring dominant day.

3)            Keep your volume and intensity up (but slowly build the volume over a period of time)

4)            Train HEAVY.

5)            Keep most larger compound exercises between 5-6 reps, and everything else from 6-10 reps, drop sets, and widow-maker sets (10RM done for 20 reps) occasionally.

6)            Keep working sets between 3 and 5.

7)            Train 4x per week (upper/lower splits work well for most)

Remember: experimentation is KEY. You must try different things to see what really works for you. But this is a good base to build pretty much anyone off of.

Q: How do you get past your fear or putting more weight on the bar… I find that the heavier I squat the more I psyche myself out by thinking about how much weight that is. I try not to but I still do!!

A: There is no one way to get over it. But what I can say is that your mindset is crucial to the outcome! You have got to just block out whatever is on your mind. Don’t even look at the weight on the bar. The moment you start over-thinking it is when you get anxious, over-psyched, and you end up missing the lift.

Eventually, you have to look at every increment as easy stuff. You cannot be scared of the weight. You can either control the weight how you want, or let the weight control you. At the end of the day, it all comes down to how bad you want it. You want something really bad, you’ll do whatever it takes to get it. You have to get under the bar and not just lift the weight, but OWN it. That’s how we get stronger.

 

Q: Do you have some tips on the ‘drive up’? My form on the way down is apparently pretty good, but I’m told I don’t ‘drive up with my hams’ enough. The problem is when I start focusing that I do the whole thing too fast and then the squat is generally just messy.

A: Perfect sense, actually. Unfortunately, there is no easy way around this. You have to start focusing on it, otherwise the squat will continue to get messier and progress will stall. You don’t want to raise your hips too fast, otherwise your chest will drop. But at the same time you want to make sure that you are really squeezing the glutes and hamstrings to help power up the weight out of the hole. Glute activation prior to squatting is a must.

Mark Rippetoe was a fan of the eyes down, hips driving up first way of squatting, but I have never been a fan and have always found that to be inefficient. One thing that really helped me to activate my glutes and hamstrings in the squat and also learn how to power through to the top with the hips is to do wide-stance box squats, sitting back to the point where your knees are parallel to your shins, so that it debilitates your quads and puts them at a big disadvantage.

Now, these should not replace your regular squats, only add as a supplement.

The tendency is to rock forward off the box, which is how you know you are using more of your quads than your hamstrings and glutes. You want to power off with your glutes and hamstrings to bring you back to a standing position. This can even be done at home with just your bodyweight.

Here’s some good examples:

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I hope that clears things up for those who asked the questions as well as some of you wondering similar things. :) If you have any other questions feel free to drop me a comment.

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6 thoughts on “Squatting: Your Questions Answered

  1. One MOAR question: what to learn/teach first – back squat or front squat? I heard surpising succession from Jonathan Goodman: gobblet squat -> front squat -> back squat. What do you think?

  2. Great post. For the person stuck at 115, I’ve used the Madcow progression to get through a plateau, which meant going up five pounds but only hitting three reps, then dropping the weight for a set of eight reps; then the next week hitting the top weight for five reps. So it would be work up to 120×3, then do ~80×8, then a few days later work up to 120×5. You don’t want this or any other technique to be a crutch, though. Like Cookie Monster said, just go for it.

  3. wow this was SUUUCH a great post! i’m always looking to improve my squatting technique – currently i’ve been really working on front squats but i’m hoping to transition back to back squats soon! i think you should do the same but for deadlifts too!

  4. Regarding foot position during squat, would mind explaining the difference between keeping a more forward toe angle and keeping toes pointing outwards. I came across a lot of different explanations (usually: different toe angle works different muscles). Thanks!

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