SQUATS MADE SIMPLE
This article provides a detailed look at the squat, from setup to completion. We are aware that thousands of similar articles exist, with varied prescriptions for success. It is perhaps safe to conclude that there is no biomechanically perfect, and universally applicable, squat. Variables affecting performance include body dimensions (anthropometry), training experience, goals, age and numerous other factors. However, there are principles which serve as guidelines for the coach and athlete through the development process. We have written a broad, generally inclusive guide to squats, supported by our observation of thousands of athletes ranging from beginners to high level competitors. There’s something here for almost everyone.
The body is a series of levers. Levers increase application of force when properly positioned. Proper technique, or “good form” means the body’s levers are in the right places to turn raw strength into directed force production. Producing force is half the battle; the second half is delivering that force to the bar. Improved mobility and posture enhance force transmission, as does strengthening the muscles of torso. Force production and force transmission are the components of a successful squat. Maximizing force production and force transmission requires:
(1) Actually learning how to squat. Though less complex than the Olympic lifts, the squat is a highly technical movement. We discuss the squat in three stages: Setup, Un-Rack / Walkout, and Squat. Each stage has downstream consequences: weak setup will lead to an unstable walkout, which consumes energy and creates instability. Wasted energy means less force production, and instability reduces force transmission. A powerful setup and short, efficient walkout are essential to squatting big weight.
(2) Building your body to squat. Muscular imbalances affect the way you squat. For example, runners often have strong legs but weaker backs, which means they can produce more force than they can efficiently transmit to the bar. This often means inability to achieve optimal positons, which leads to compensatory movement patterns, exacerbating the muscular imbalances. You squat with the body you have. These imbalances and resultant movement patterns are often misdiagnosed as mobility issues.
In other words, you have to know what to do, and then build the body that can do it.
The single unit concept
The quads are the workhorse of the squat, acting as shock absorber on the descent and a big force-producer on the ascent as the knee extends. The hips and glutes are critical to force production below parallel, while the hamstrings and adductors enhance knee stability. A strong torso (back and abs) is required to transmit that force. Dozens of muscles work during a squat, but effective coordination is what turns big muscles into a big squat. You’re strongest when your body works as a single unit.
Most squat and general weightlifting problems arise because a muscle weakness or joint issue creates an imbalance. For example, when the hips and glutes are under-powered, the quads take on the extra load. Or, if the upper back cannot maintain correct positioning, the lower back will be additionally stressed. These are examples of when the body does not effectively function as a single unit. A combination of accessory work, mobility and technique drills eliminates imbalances and restores single-unit functionality. Let’s take a look at the squat.
The setup connects the body to the bar. A more stable connection enables greater force transmission. Setup should be the exact same every time, from warmup to a 1RM. All setup activities occur with the bar in the rack! Key setup ideas include:
Hands grab the bar on the same spot every time, with the center of the bar over the center of the spine. Hands should be equidistant from the center of the bar.
Head on a slight incline: 20 degrees or so. We know that many coaches teach a neutral head. We prefer a slight incline, because if a squat collapses, it’s usually from the head down. A slight incline is one more way to help keep the torso upright.
Lock the upper back. While underneath the bar, pull your elbows back and then down to engage the muscles of your upper back and stabilize the bar. It is common to see the elbows flare up and out during squats, especially on longer sets. This often indicates a tired upper back.
Lock the lower back. Push the tailbone out a bit, engaging the muscles of the lower back. This creates, and maintains, a slight lumbar curve at the bottom of the squat, preventing the butt from tucking under.
Flex your abs to pull down your rib cage and to stabilize the front of the torso. Abs should stay flexed throughout the entire set. This may be difficult at first.
At the conclusion of your setup, your entire torso should be locked in place. If you can’t lock the back then you’ll have lousy force transmission and won’t be able to squat big weight, no matter how strong your hips and legs are.
Setup Summary: Hands, Head, Upper Back, Lower Back, Abs
UNRACK, WALKOUT AND FOOT POSITIONING:
The Unrack / Walkout stage begins when you stand up with the bar, and ends when you are in a position to squat. The goals of this stage are to maintain stability from the setup, and to position your feet for maximum force production. Key ideas for the unrack and walkout:
Stand up on two legs. Staggered stances or one-leg unracking are unstable, so you’ll have to redo the setup without the assistance of the rack. Wasted energy.
Walkout should be 2-3 steps. Any longer wastes energy and increases risk of losing stability. No more seven step dance.
Position your feet without looking down. Looking down takes time and increases the likelihood that your upper back will lose tightness. With practice, squatting increases proprioception, the body’s ability to sense itself. This will be useful in every athletic activity.
Some notes on setting the feet:
Pointing the feet forward maximizes force production. Outward rotation helps with posture, which increases force transmission. There is a tradeoff; optimal foot positioning is athlete specific, though we discourage excessive outward rotation.
Weight should be distributed from the middle to the back half of your foot. This increases stability, which ensures that the extension of your hips and knees produces maximum force.
After your feet are set, apply moderate outward pressure with your feet. You’ll feel your hips and upper quads engage, providing extra stability and load-bearing on the descent and maximal glute engagement at the bottom of the squat. Integrating the hips, glutes and quads is imperative.
Unrack / Walkout Summary: Two legs, be quick, don’t look down, outward pressure.
TIME TO SQUAT
The widely accepted definition of a successful squat is “hips below knees.” This is useful for judging powerlifting meets, but less helpful elsewhere. Olympic lifts require getting into (and out of) a deep squat, very quickly. Other sports require force production through the entire range of motion of our joints. Therefore, we propose a new definition of a successful squat:
Minimal horizontal movement of the bar: Horizontal displacement indicates inability to move the bar vertically. The cause is usually an underlying muscular imbalance, like over-reliance on the quads or inadequate back strength. Your body can’t work as a single unit because something is missing.
Maximum range of motion: A deep squat, with the hips well below the knees, mirrors the demands of other sports. Squatting through a full range of motion also requires force production from a position of greatest mechanical disadvantage, which increases your force production everywhere. Want to snatch more? How about run faster, jump higher, throw harder? Squat deeper.
A word on anthropometry: Although you can improve your squat posture with mobility and flexibility work, anthropometry (limb and torso lengths) will substantially determine how much forward incline of your torso you experience in a squat. Athletes with shorter femurs will have less torso incline, which means the squat is more of a compressive load for them. Longer-femur athletes will see more shear loading. Therefore, if you have longer femurs, your chest will not be as vertical as an athlete with shorter femurs. Disadvantageous squat anthropometry is not an excuse for bad form or letting the bar travel horizontally. It simply means that athletes with longer femurs should spend additional time on back strengthening exercises.
Mechanics of the SquaT
The squat begins by pushing back the hips. Do this before the knees bend. This has several benefits: (1) The hip muscles engage before the quads, reducing the risk of excessive quad dominance (2) Reduced likelihood of instability compared to moving the hips and knees simultaneously (3) reinforces the positioning of your weight on the back half of your feet and (4) reinforces the lumbar curve of your lower back.
Next, begin bending your knees. Sustain the outward pressure on the feet and continue to sit back as you descend. The outward pressure on the feet prevents the knees from tracking inward and maintains the engagement of the hips and upper quads. If you lose this outward pressure, the hips will disengage and the quads will have even more work to do. Don’t force the knees out, just maintain outward pressure on your feet and the knees will track over the feet where they belong. Sitting back as well as down engages the glutes throughout the descent. Descend as deep as possible without losing stability or tightness.
Squat as fast as you can without any loss of control or stability. A rebound or “bounce” at the bottom is perfectly fine if you can maintain control / stay tight throughout. If the bar lurches or drifts forward at the bottom, you don’t have control. Slow down, lighten the weight if necessary, and regain control.
Squat summary: Hips back, bend knees, maintain outward foot pressure, sit back and down while staying tight.
Sounds simple. However, when a bunch of weight is added to the mix, things don’t always go as planned. The next section introduces our methodology of resolving issues in the squat.
Identifying and correcting flaws
We’ve developed a straightforward process to identify and correct squat problems:
Work up to heavy weight, usually around 85-90% 1RM or so. Some flaws only reveal themselves when heavy weight is on the bar.
Observe the squat from the side and note any horizontal movement of the bar: on the descent, at the bottom of the squat, or on the ascent. Some athletes will show horizontal movement in multiple phases.
After identifying horizontal displacement of the bar, watch the athlete closely on the next rep during the same phase of the squat to discern the cause of the horizontal movement.
The cause is either a technical flaw (easy fix) or an underlying muscle imbalance (longer-term fix). We’ve found it helpful to divide the squat into three parts for observing: descent, bottom of squat and ascent. This divide-and-conquer approach is helpful for zeroing in on particular difficulties. Too often, coaches seek a global fix: one cue that fixes everything. But often, a cue alone is not the answer.
Errors from the unrack and walkout will carry over to the descent. Thanks to gravity, almost no one ever “fails” a descent, but lots of issues emerge here:
Bottom of the Squat
The bottom of the squat refers to the change of direction. The greatest force is applied at the bottom of the squat, and therefore, the bottom of the squat is most likely to display movement flaws, for example:
The ascent is like a course you take pass / fail: too much horizontal movement and you’ll miss the rep. However, it is not uncommon to see some forward drift during the ascent at the “sticking point”. If the athlete can reach a position of mechanical advantage, even with some forward drift, they will finish the rep. Otherwise, the bar crashes to the ground.
Regardless of where the breakdown in the squats occur, the underlying issues are similar:
Inadequate back strength (upper, lower or both)
Inadequate general core and torso strength
Inadequate hip and glute strength and engagement in the squat
This should come as no surprise, as these are the muscles generally involved in force production and force transmission in the squat. (There’s a reason we called this “Squats Made Simple”). Fixing these issues requires targeted accessory work to strengthen these muscles. You cannot build a great squat through squats alone. Accessory work is exactly that: a collection of exercises intended to improve a primary lift. It never replaces the primary lift; don’t come to the gym on squat day and just do accessories.
Accessory exercises should generally be done at reduced weight for high reps. 3 sets of 10 reps is a useful guideline for these exercises. This level of volume and intensity will support hypertrophy and strength increases without excessive fatigue or detracting from your primary lift. This chart includes some common accessory lifts for different areas of the squat. We suggest choosing two exercises per targeted area and doing them twice a week.
Our approach provides clarity into the common problems that impair force production and force transmission. Observing horizontal displacement of the barbell enables coaches and athletes to identify movement patterns that are disrupting the single unit and causing imbalances. This allows for optimal selection of accessory work to correct these imbalances and optimize your squat. While we cannot diagnose every conceivable squat issue, we believe that there is something here that can help nearly everyone improve. Good luck and happy squatting.