Often athletes assume that because they are capable of squatting tremendous weight that they are moving with good technique. However, this is not always the case.
Typically the best athletes in the sports of weightlifting, powerlifting and CrossFit move with amazing technique. This is no coincidence. Every day they work tirelessly to perfect the quality of their movement. This is how the best are able to lift tremendous weight AND have longevity in their athletic career.
As coaches, it is our duty to promote good technique at all costs. I constantly find myself preaching to young athletes that being strong doesn’t mean much if you can’t move well. Too often this advice falls on deaf ears. Time and time again I find pictures and videos blasted across social media every day of athletes trying to lift big weight with horrendous technique.
This is not acceptable. Today too many athletes and coaches are more concerned with getting names on the PR board. It’s time we change this.
The Technique Continuum
In order to curtail this current trend, coaches need a blueprint to understand what is acceptable technique. They also need to know what is a bad lift and when it could possibly harm their athletes. Unfortunately assessing movement is not always black and white. In reality, there is a big gray area that we need to discuss. To simplify this problem, I want to share with you a concept you can use that we call the technique continuum. When I examine an athlete’s technique, there are three distinct categories that I end up placing the quality of that movement into. The grouping ranges from optimal, acceptable, and dysfunctional.
Depending on how well an athlete moves will determine the next course of action by the coach. Either the athlete can continue lifting or the coach needs to step in and make a change.
Every time we touch the barbell, we should have the intention to move with perfect technique. The reason why weightlifting and powerlifting have such low injury rates compared to popular sports like football and soccer is because technique is such a high priority (1-3).
In order for a squat to be considered optimal these factors must be performed:
- Proper breathing/bracing mechanics
- Hips move first on the descent
- The entire back remains stable through the full movement
- The knees track in perfect alignment with the toes
- The hips and chest rise at the same rate during the ascent.
- The athlete remains in complete control of the barbell during the entire movement (no dive bombing)
- The bar maintains excellent alignment over the athletes mid-foot the entire squat.
- The athlete’s thigh should at least pass parallel during the descent.
Not everyone strives to lift with perfect technique. Even some professional weightlifters have small nuances in their movement that would not be considered optimal. This doesn’t mean they quit training and competing.
This category sets the parameters for the minimum acceptable standards for barbell squatting. Being able to meet these standards show that an athlete has a solid movement foundation. Technique in this category is good, but it’s not great.
While quality of movement in this group is not perfect, it isn’t to the point where the athlete needs to be stopped from lifting. The technique problems these athletes show are considered small and therefore do not place the athlete at risk for a traumatic injury. For this reason, they SHOULD continue to train and push heavy weight. That being said, they would benefit from coaching cues and possibly some corrective exercise to improve their quality of movement.
For example, one of the main factors that place an athlete in this category is a wavering knee. Ideally the knees should track up and down in the exact same path during the squat. However, the knees of some athletes waver slightly (often moving inward toward the toes) on the ascent of the squat. No matter how elite or strong an athlete is, I believe this technique could still be improved to give that athlete more potential.
As you can see with this video, the athlete shows very good technique overall. However, watch what happens at her knees. During the ascent, the knees waver inwards. While this isn’t a horrible technique error, it is not optimal from a mechanical standpoint.
Factors that would place an athlete’s movement into this category:
- The athlete fails to breathe/brace properly. Often these athletes will take several small breaths and fail to stabilize their lower back in the most optimal way. These athletes however still keep their back in a neutral position during the entire squat.
- The knees move first during the descent of the squat.
- The knees waver inwards on the ascent. This does not mean they collapse inward. They just do not track up and down in the exact same path during the squat.
- The athlete will drive out of the bottom of their squat without hip drive. Often the knees will stay forward too long instead of being pulled back to a vertical position as the athlete rises.
- The bar does not maintain great alignment over the mid-foot and often tends to move slightly towards the toes on the ascent.
Poor technique sets the athlete up for injury. Period. Coaches need to keep an eye out for this type of movement. An athlete moving this bad NEEDS to be stopped from further barbell squatting.
These athletes require a lot of coaching. This often means decreasing the weight on the bar until the movement quality improves. You don’t always need to stop training, but these athletes NEED to stop pushing heavy weight. This means working on technique with lighter weight while you use individualized corrective exercises to improve weak points in mobility and coordination.
One of the major faults I look for is the dreaded knee collapse. When an athlete is unable to control their knees during a squat, they often collapse inward. This movement is much more than the slight knee waver that from the previous category. When the knee passes the vertical line drawn from the hips to the feet, it is called a valgus collapse. Let me be clear, any athlete who shows an uncontrolled valgus collapse of their knees during a barbell squat (no matter how elite they are) is showing poor technique that is hurting their body.
There is no such thing as a beneficial knee collapse. A knee collapse will lead to harmful forces to the knee joint. This collapse is also mechanically inefficient. It’s a lose-lose situation.
Factors that place a movement into this category include
- The back becomes unstable and rounds. This places harmful stresses on the spine and can easily lead to injury (4).
- The bar tracks toward the toes, turning the squat into a RDL.
- The knees uncontrollably collapse inwards past the big toe.
As a coach, if you see someone lifting with poor technique, stop them. Work on fixing their technique. Until that athlete is able to show good technique, don’t load up the bar. Sometimes this even means removing the barbell and teaching the athlete how to air squat.
Continuing to lift heavy weight with bad technique reinforces that poor movement pattern. In his article “10 Movement Principles” physical therapist Gray Cook describes how training through bad technique affects the body.
What doesn’t kill you may make you stronger, but it can make you stronger in the wrong direction. If you’re squatting wrong and it’s not killing you, it can make your hip flexor spasm stronger. It can make your swayback worse. It can make your rounded shoulders harder to bring back. (5)
Lifting heavy weights poorly will make you stronger. However, it will make you stronger in the wrong way by reinforcing poor technique. It’s time to teach our athletes that it doesn’t matter how MUCH they can squat, if they can’t squat WELL. While technique perfection is something most of us will never achieve, we should always strive to attain it.
I hope this blueprint will help you decipher good squat technique from poor. Don’t sit back and lazily allow your athletes to push big weight with horrible technique. You’re responsible for your athletes health and performance.
Until next time,
- Faigenbaum AD, & Myer GD. Resistance training among young athletes: safety, efficacy and injury prevention effects. Br J Sports Med. 2010 Jan;44(1):56-63.
- Caine D, DiFiori J, Maffulli N. Physeal injuries in children’s and youth sports: reasons for concern? BJSM. March 2014;749-60
- Pierce K, Brewer C, Ramsey M, et al. Youth resistance training. Profess Strength Cond. 2008;10:9-23
- Potvin JR, McGill SM, & Norman RW. Trunk muscle and lumbar ligament contributions to dynamic lifts with varying degrees of trunk flexion. Spine. 1991; 16:1099-107
- Cook G. The 10 movement principles. An expansion on the principles section of the book, movement. Online. Retrieved on June 1st, 2016 from: http://graycook.com/pdfs/Gray%20Cook%2010%20Movement%20Principles.pdf