Prior to the turn of the century, the overhead squat was primarily used by competitive weightlifters. Olympic weightlifting coaches use the overhead squat as a teaching progression for novice athletes. The overhead squat is used to strengthen the bottom position of a barbell snatch.
Since the recent boom in CrossFit, the use of the overhead squat has become more wide spread. It has been transformed into a staple exercise for training for many sports and has even been used in competition.
In order to perform this lift correctly, an athlete must have a high level of coordination, balance and mobility.
Bar or PVC Pipe?
For inexperienced athletes or young children first learning to overhead squat, a barbell may be too heavy. For this reason, a lightweight PVC pipe or a broomstick can be used in place.
To find a proper grip with a PVC pipe that has no markings, try this simple method. Stand tall and pull your elbows out to the side. Your arms should end up in a 90-degree “L” position. Measure the distance between your right and left hand. Now mark that distance on the PVC pipe. Place your index finger on this line when grasping the pipe during the overhead squat.
When transitioning to the bar, athletes will usually take their grip a few inches from the end of the bar. This will be the same grip taken for the barbell snatch lift. Athletes with longer arms may need to take a grip almost to the end of the barbell, near the collars. Those with shorter arms may only need to place their grip around the outer notch of the bar.
The Set Up
To start, hold the barbell on your upper back. This will be the same starting position as the high-bar back squat. After un-racking the barbell properly, the weight will need to be hoisted to the overhead position. This can be done in a number of ways depending on the amount of weight on the barbell and the individual preference of the lifter.
When first learning how to perform the overhead squat most coaches will teach a simple push-press to hoist the barbell to the overhead position. Once the weight increases to a significant load, a push-jerk or split-jerk is recommended for experienced weightlifters.
To start the push-press, pull the your elbows underneath the bar. This will place your arms in an efficient position to drive the barbell upwards. The hands should be at a snatch-grip width.
Next, take and hold a large breath. Brace your core muscles as if about to receive a punch to the stomach. Stabilizing the core through proper breathing and bracing allows your body to generate tremendous power for the rest of the lift. The dip & drive movement is then used to push the barbell overhead.
Drop your hips straight down a few inches while keeping your torso in a vertical position. A cue that is often used to maintain this straight dip is to imagine the feeling of your back sliding down a wall. If the hips drive backwards during the dip it will cause the chest to push forward. This will set you up to push the barbell forward into a bad overhead position.
During the controlled dip, the knees should be kept in proper alignment with the feet. This will allow for an efficient transfer of power from the legs to the arms during the push. If the knees collapse inwards on the dip, you will limit the potential upward driving power you can create with your legs.
After the dip is performed, push the barbell straight up by extending the hips, knees, and ankles in a powerful motion. The barbell should end up in a stable overhead position just over the back of your neck.
Here’s a great demonstration of the dip and drive movement to position the bar into an overhead position from Catalyst Athletics.
Your head can be pushed forward slightly to allow for this stable position. Be careful not to push the head too far forward! This will cause the chest to lean forward excessively and throw you off balance.
To keep the barbell overhead in a firm position the elbows should be completely locked out. You will have a difficult time keeping the barbell from wavering around if the elbows are not completely straight.
In this overhead position, the barbell should rest in the center of the palm. The wrists should be slightly extended. This is a position of stability that will not cause too much stress to the wrist joint. Do NOT try and keep a neutral straight wrist during an overhead squat!
Make sure to gaze straight forward or slightly upward. This will place the neck in a neutral position and limit any unwanted stresses. Looking upwards excessively or down towards your feet can throw you off balance.
Once you have stabilized the bar overhead, it’s time to start the descent. Push your hips back slightly to engage the posterior chain. As you begin your squat, think about sitting your hips onto your heels. This cue helps limit a large hip hinge that can throw you off balance. Control the descent to full depth.
The bar should always remain aligned over the middle of your foot for balance and stability. Proper technique is critical as a missed lift can lead to injury. If at any time the lift becomes unstable, push the bar forward or backwards and dump the bar to the ground. Both are completely safe alternatives for missing a weight. I recommend using bumper plates whenever doing overhead squats. Be aware of your surroundings.
The knees should be allowed to translate forward over the toes at the deepest part of this squat. This will allow you to maintain the desired vertical trunk position to keep the bar overhead.
The hips and chest should rise at the same rate during the ascent of the squat. If the hips rise fast and the chest stays forward, the barbell will drift towards your toes likely causing you to drop the weight.
Once you’ve come to a stable standing position, slowly control the bar down to the “shelf” position on your upper back. Letting the bar drop too quickly can lead to serious injury to the neck. If the weight is heavy, a slight dip can lessen the intensity of receiving the bar.
Overhead Squat Sequence
Establish a safe starting position. The barbell should be resting on the upper traps (as with the high-bar back squat) with the elbows pulled under the barbell.
Create a rigid trunk by taking a big breath and holding it tight. (Verbal cue: big breath & core tight).
Use a controlled dip & drive to push the bar into an overhead position (Verbal cue: slide your back down a wall and drive upwards with power)
Stabilize the barbell (Verbal cue: drive your hands to the ceiling & lock your elbows out).
Use a slight hip hinge to engage the posterior chain.
Remain balanced by keeping the bar positioned over the mid-foot the entire squat.
The single leg pistol squat is a difficult movement for many people to perform. It requires a good amount of ankle/hip mobility, a ton of body coordination and excellence balance. Often athletes work tirelessly on perfecting this movement and still struggle with it. No matter how hard they try, they just can’t seem to perform a full pistol correctly.
I want to share with you today a simple 6-step progression to perfecting this movement. The process is simple. It starts by breaking down the full pistol into small pieces. Piece-by-piece we can use this process to craft the full pistol.
The first thing you need to learn how to do is hinge from the hips. The box touch down is a great way to learn this movement. Start by standing on a small box or weighted plate (usually 2-4 inches in height). Before you begin the squat, drive your hip backwards and bring your chest forward. This movement engages the powerhouse to your body (the posterior chain). Your bodyweight should feel completely balanced over the middle of your foot.
Once the hip hinge is complete, begin to squat until the heel of your free leg taps the ground. After you have made contact, return to the start position. Make sure your knee stays in direct alignment with your toes during the entire movement. It should not rotate or collapse inwards whatsoever.
During a small short distance touch down, your shin should remain fairly vertical. When performing a full pistol, the shin will eventually angle forward. Even though the distance for a touch down is small, you can still feel the glutes and quads engaging quite a bit.
As the movement becomes easier to perform, increase the difficulty by making the height of the box progressively higher. As the box height grows the movement will become more difficult to complete with good technique.
Make sure the knee does not start to move forward until the bottom of the squat. The longer you can wait to keep the knee from moving toward your toes, the better.
Eventually you will reach a touch down height of 12-14 inches. If you are able to achieve a touchdown of this depth, you are actually close to a full pistol! Doing a 12-14 inch touchdown will allow you to explore the deep depths of a single leg squat. For many of you, this stage will take the most time to master. This part takes practice. Lots of practice.
Step 5 is practicing the pistol squat on a box. Your free leg is allowed to dip below the stance foot. When in the bottom of the squat, work on raising the free leg as high as possible.
You finally made it. This is the last step of the pistol squat progression. You’re ready to try the pistol on the ground (with no box or plates).
In order to perform a full depth pistol, the knee must eventually drive forward. For many people, the knee will even pass the toes. This is why adequate ankle mobility is needed for this movement. While the knee does move forward, make sure to ALWAYS start your descent by moving the hips backwards.
Some people will have an issue with their free leg cramping while trying to hold it elevated. If this is you, bend your knee on the beginning portion of the squat. Doing so takes the pressure off the quadriceps and limits cramping. As you descend into the squat, straighten your leg until you reach the bottom position with the desired full pistol.
Too often coaches and medical experts over complicate pistol squat progressions. Learning a movement does not need to be extremely difficult. All you have to do is break down the full movement into its most basic elements. Each step is an essential ingredient to mastering the full pistol.
Unfortunately, some people will never be able to achieve a full pistol due to bony abnormalities or joint mal-alignment. With that said you can still work on single leg squats by performing the touch downs on a high box (8-12 inches).
I hope this simple step-by-step guide helped you achieve your first pistol squat.
During a recent Squat University seminar, I was approached by an athlete who wondered why I had asked everyone to show me his or her squat with their toes straightforward. This was definitely not the first time I’ve been asked this question. There’s a lot of controversy in the fitness world today when it comes to recommended foot position during the squat. Some experts say our feet should be straightforward all the time. Others advocate the toes should turn out at an angle. So who is correct?
This is actually a trick question. The answer is both. Let me explain.
Argument for Toes Forward
The squat is a movement first and an exercise second. When I screen a new athlete, I want to see their ability to squat with shoes off and toes facing forward. My goal is to assess their MOVEMENT. This method allows me to see any weak links with the athlete.
Squatting with your feet straightforward is more difficult than with the toes pointed slightly outward. I don’t think many would argue with that notion. However, that is the point of the screen.
In order to squat to full depth with the toes straightforward, an athlete must have adequate ankle and hip mobility and sufficient pelvic/core control. They must also have acceptable coordination and balance. By turning the toes out at an angle, it allows a majority of people to achieve a full depth squat with a more upright chest position. There will always be a few individuals who are simply unable to get into a deep squat position due to abnormal anatomical reasons. Some people are born with genetic abnormalities. With that said, most athletes should be able to reach ass to grass with a squat.
The bodyweight squat sets the movement foundation for other athletic actions such as jumping and landing. Many knee injuries occur when you land with your foot pointing out and with the knee caving in. Players who have to jump and cut will tear their ACL when the knee caves in and rotates. My goal is for athletes to land and jump with good mechanics therefore decreasing their lack of season-ending injuries.
Argument for Toes Out
As soon as you pick up a barbell, the squat now becomes an exercise. For this reason, there are slight changes in the movement pattern that are more “sport specific”. This includes turning the toes out slightly. Doing so creates a mechanical advantage for the squat. Not only does it give us a slightly wider base of support, but it does not challenge our pelvic control and mobility to the fullest extent (1).
This is why some athletes can squat deeper when they turn their toes out. By externally rotating the hips we can usually achieve a deeper and better-looking squat.
When our hips externally rotate, the adductor muscles on the inside of our legs are lengthened. As we squat these muscles are put in a better position to produce force (length-tension relationship). This simply means the adductors are turned on and recruited to a greater degree during the squat if you turn your toes out slightly (2). The adductor magnus specifically has been shown to help produce hip extension (the action of standing up from a squat) (4). More help from the adductors means a stronger and more efficient way to move the barbell.
Turning the toes out, however, only changes the activation of the adductor muscle group. The glutes and quads (the main movers in the squat) are not significantly activated to a greater extent (3). Research has shown that turning the toes out more than 30-degree is less effective (2). For this reason, you should perform barbell squats with your feet turned out anywhere from 10-30 degrees. Always use a position that is most comfortable for your body. Remember, no two squats will look exactly the same. It’s normal and expected for you and your friend to have different squat stances while lifting the barbell.
The argument is simple. I believe we should have the capability to perform a bodyweight squat with the toes relatively straightforward. If you cannot, more than likely there are some things you need to work on. I recommend turning your toes out when you squat with a barbell for optimal performance.
This is the difference between training and screening. Screening should point out and illuminate limitations in how we move. Training should reinforce and strengthen our current movement capabilities. When coaching athletes, it’s your job to know the difference between screening and training.
Until next time,
**If you haven’t ordered your 4th of July SquatU shirt yet, they are still available! Sale ends this Sunday, June 19th!
1) Movement: Functional Movement Systems: Screening, Assessment, and Corrective Strategies.Gray Cook, editor. On Target Publications: Santa Cruz, California, U.S.A.2010
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.
I was recently working with a weightlifter that was trying to get over some nagging knee pain. During our session I had her perform a few sets of heavy back squats so I could watch her technique. Before she would approach the bar, I noticed she would take the weightlifting belt hanging around her waist and fasten it as tightly as she could. It was as if she was donning an 18th century corset just before she attempted the back squat.
As she finished I asked her, “Has anyone taught you how to use a weightlifting belt before?” With a perplexed look across her face she countered my question with one of her own, “Don’t you just wear it really tight?”
The weightlifting belt is one of the most common training accessories. Walk around any gym in the world and you’re bound to see a few people wearing one. What I’ve come to find is that a large majority of athletes and coaches are using belts incorrectly.
Why Use a Belt?
Athletes who regularly wear a belt will cite that its helps them lift with better technique and keep their back safe. I’ve talked with many who swear by the weightlifting belt and will use it for their entire workout. While others will only use it during maximum attempts.
I’ve talked with some athletes, however, who never wear a belt. They often claim that their core stability and back strength is good enough to lift without one.
So who is right? Does a belt really provide that much additional help when performing squats? And if so, does it need to be used all the time or just with maximum attempts?
A weightlifting belt provides additional stability for your lower back (3). It does so by aiding your core muscles. If you remember back to our lecture article on correct breathing mechanics during the squat, you would recall that creating stability in your lower back is all about breathing and bracing.
When we get under a heavy barbell, we need to take a big breath and brace our trunk muscles so that the weight on the bar does not bend us in two. Doing so amplifies the pressure inside our abdominal cavity. If you breathe correctly during a heavy squat you will feel your stomach rise and fall. Not your chest.
Essentially the volume of the body’s intra-abdominal cavity will increase when we take a big breath. If we couple this expansion in our core by bracing our muscles, the pressure inside the abdominal cavity grows because the volume can no longer expand. This is how intra-abdominal pressure (IAP) is created. The belt is just another “layer” that halts the expansion of our abdominal cavity thereby increasing IAP even more.
Think of your abdominal cavity like a balloon. As you blow air into the balloon, it expands. If you place some light stretchy tape around the balloon and try to blow air into it again, it won’t expand as much. The tape acts like the muscles that surround our core. Because the balloon can no longer expand in size, the pressure inside the balloon goes up.
However, what if you now place some hard duct tape around the balloon and try to blow air into it again. By restricting the expansion of the balloon to a greater degree than with the stretchy tape alone, the pressure inside the balloon rises even more! This is what happens when we wear a belt.
The belt does not replace our core muscles, but rather it acts as another restraint. A belt combined with a correctly braced core is more stable than no belt. Research has shown IAP values can increase anywhere from 20-40% when wearing a belt during a heavy squat (1).
How to Use a Belt
In order to properly use a belt, you must breathe “into the belt”. If you only wear it tightly around your waist, you miss out on the potential of the brace. Always think about expanding your stomach into the belt and then bracing against it.
Researchers have shown that athletes who wear a belt correctly tend to lift heavier weights with more explosive power. They are also able to maintain their trunk stiffness for more reps during higher rep maximum lifts like an 8 RM attempt (1,2).
When to Wear Your Belt
While it is clear that wearing a weightlifting belt can contribute to more stability in your low back during barbell squatting, its benefits need to be taken with some caution. While wearing a belt can be very helpful on heavy lifts, the long-term use of a belt on ALL lifts can have some harmful effects.
By using a belt ALL the time, the body naturally starts to rely on the passive support the belt supplies. You’re essentially weakening your core by relying on the belt as a crutch. Therefore, learning how to brace and create stability on your own with lighter weight should be the first priority of all lifters.
Our goal as a coach is to always ensure our athletes are safe and lifting with the best technique possible. A belt can help facilitate this. Some athletes will not use a belt, even with maximum attempts. That’s okay, as long as they maintain good technique. However, if you are going to use a belt you should know how to use one correctly. I recommend practicing with a lighter weight with the belt on, making sure you’re using correct breathing/bracing. Therefore, when you do attempt a heavy squat it will be second nature.
If you have a weightlifting belt, I caution you to use it sparingly. I often will keep mine in my gym bag until my heaviest or most intense training lifts.
In past weeks we have discussed how to perfect the high-bar back squat and the front squat. It is now time to talk about the low-bar back squat. Athletes competing in the sport of powerlifting typically use this variation as it allows them to lift more weight.
The Lift Off
Taking the barbell out of the rack correctly is the first step to any successful squat. Just like the high-bar back squat and front squat, the bar should be set at around chest height. A general rule of thumb is to set the bar lower compared to higher. The worst situation is when you have to tip toe up just to get the bar on and off.
Next, we need to position the barbell correctly on the back. Pull yourself under the bar and trap it tight against the back of your shoulders. By pulling your shoulder blades together a ‘shelf’ will appear through the contraction of the mid-back muscles. The barbell should be positioned on this shelf. This will end up being 2-3 inches lower than where the bar is held during the high-bar back squat. If you have never done the low-bar back squat, this may feel uncomfortable and unusual.
The width of the grip you use on the barbell should be based on comfort. Most powerlifters are seen using a wide grip on the bar (around the notches). However, this isn’t an absolute everyone must follow. Taking a standard grip on the barbell (just outside shoulder width) can be used with a low-bar squat. That being said, you must have sufficient upper body mobility to do so. Taking too narrow of a grip when you are lacking flexibility in the chest/shoulders can lead to increased stress on the elbow joint.
It’s now time to un-rack the bar. Position yourself under the bar with your feet evenly spaced (around shoulder width apart). Take a big breath while bracing your core. Never attempt to casually lift the bar out of the rack. If you want to lift heavy weight you must create massive stability prior to even moving the bar. This starts by taking a big breath and bracing your core muscles.
Once you are ready, lift the bar off the rack by driving upwards with your hips. Take a few short steps backwards out of the rack. Always step back out of the rack.Stepping forward means you must re-rack the weight after your set by going backwards. This can be very dangerous (especially if you are fatigued and lifting heavy weight) as you will not be able to clearly see the rack hooks to safely set the bar down.
Once the weight on your back comes to a rest, its time to establish a solid foundation for your squat. A neutral arch position allows the foot to remain stable and support the rest of our body just like the base layer for a ‘house of cards.’ Always ensure you’re in complete control of your body and the weight has stopped moving. Now you are ready to squat.
The stance you take during any squat should allow you to remain balanced and reach full depth. Athletes who compete in powerlifting will often use a wider stance when using the low-bar technique. The degree of toe-out angle will vary based on an individual’s anatomy and mobility. A general recommendation is to point the toes out slightly (between 10-20 degrees).
The next step is to squeeze your glutes and drive your knees in line with your feet. By doing this, external rotation torque is generated at the hip joint. This primes the lower body to move with perfect technique.
Some coaches will use the cue to ‘drive the knees wide’. This cue works great for a number of athletes, especially those whose knees collapse inwards during the squat. For others, it can lead the athlete to become unbalanced. Therefore, it must be used on an individual basis. Driving the knees too far to the outside can cause the foot to turn on its side. This is like a tripod trying to remain in balance on only two of the three points. Whatever cue you use, make sure the entire foot stays in contact with the ground and the knee tracks in-line with the toes.
Take another big breath ‘into your stomach’ and brace your core like your going to receive a punch to the stomach. This bracing mechanism increases your intra-abdominal pressure (IAP) and stabilizes your lower back (2,3). When our core is properly engaged and rigid, we can then squat massive weight while keeping our spine safe.
The last step is to engage the posterior chain (glutes & hamstrings). This happens with a proper hip hinge. Push your hips backwards slightly and bring your chest forward. Once the hips are engaged, start your squat. Always descend in a controlled manner. Don’t think about stopping at a certain depth. Just squat.
The Bottom Position
In order to squat tremendous weight efficiently, you must remain balanced. In order to do this, the bar must track over the middle of our foot during the entire squat. The weighted barbell acts as our body’s center of gravity. Stability will be lost if the bar moves forward toward the toes or backward toward the heel.
While no two squats will look exactly the same, you still have to line the bar over the middle of the foot. To keep the bar (which is now positioned lower on the back) centered over the mid-foot, the chest is going to be inclined over the knees more so than the other squat techniques. Depending on the physical make-up of an athlete (height, weight, leg length, etc) the amount of trunk inclination is going to vary. Some athletes will have a more upright torso while others will be very inclined.
In the book Starting Strength Mark Rippetoe explains that most balance problems in the low-bar squat are usually due to a back angle that is too vertical (1). If you feel off balance with your squat, make sure you are sitting your hips back enough and allowing your chest to lean forward.
The bottom position of this squat will not require the knees to move forward too much. The low-bar squat inherently places more load on the posterior chain (hamstrings and glutes) when compared to the front squat and high-bar squat.
You don’t need to have amazing ankle mobility to perfect the low-bar squat. This is why powerlifters will often wear a flat sole shoe like the classic Chuck Taylors compared to a weightlifting shoe with a raised heel.
The ascent of the squat is all about hip drive. From the bottom of the squat the hips should be driven straight up. In order to keep the bar from tracking towards the toes, make sure to also drive the chest up at the same time. Failure to do so will cause the hips to rise excessively and the torso to remain forward. Doing so will often cause the bar to track toward the toes. This position places harmful forces on the low-back and can easily lead to injury.
Elite powerlifters at times will at times use a forceful transition in their bottom position. This is NOT a bounce. It is a skilled maneuver that can allow an athlete to lift more weight by using the body’s own reflexes (stretch shortening cycle). Technique is imperative if this powerful move is to be attempted. Alignment of the knees must be maintained and the chest should never collapse. If performed correctly the rebound will feel like a spring releasing, propelling you upwards with tremendous power.
A forceful transition should always be learned under the direct supervision of an experienced coach. If performed incorrectly it can easily lead to technique breakdown and eventual injury. Never rush or try to bounce out of the bottom of a squat. This is a quick way to injure yourself.
Pin the barbell tightly against the ‘shelf’ of your mid back, just below your shoulder muscles (posterior deltoids).
Establish a stable tripod foot.
Generate external rotation torque at the hips (Verbal cue: squeeze your glutes)
Create a rigid trunk by taking a big breath and holding it tight. (Verbal cue: big breath & core tight)
Hip hinge to engage the posterior-chain. (Verbal cue: hips back)
Remain balanced by keeping the bar over the mid-foot during the entire squat.
Use hip drive to stand up from the bottom position. (Verbal cue: drive the hips and chest up).
Why is front squatting more difficult than back squatting when using the same weight? Is the low-bar back squat better for your knees than the high-bar variation? These are all common questions some of us have. In order to answer these questions we have to look behind the curtain of movement and understand the science of squatting.
If you’re a car person, you probably want to know exactly how your engine works. You’ve probably read articles describing the differences between the Chevy Corvette and the Ford Mustang. You understand how horsepower and torque production is different between a turbocharged V6 engine versus a standard V8.
This is your introduction class for the mechanics of the body. We will discuss the differences in torque generations between the squat techniques and what that means for your training. As a word of caution, this article can be a little difficult to comprehend. However, we will do our best to teach these concepts as simply as possible. Welcome to Squat Biomechanics 101.
Squat Biomechanics 101
The term biomechanics simply refers to the study of forces and how they act on the human body. Biomechanics is the science of breaking down the way we move.
When sport scientists analyze athletes, they often investigate the different forces that are produced during movement. Torque is one of the different parameters that are studied. Torque is the force that causes rotation around a joint.
To explain what torque is and how it affects our body I like to use a simple illustration that I first learned in my college physics class. Many strength and conditioning professionals have used similar examples in their teachings. In particular Mark Rippitoe’s work in his book Starting Strength along with the research from professor Andrew Fry are two great examples that are worth reading (2,3).
Try holding a dumbbell in front of yourself at shoulder height. Do you feel the weight of the dumbbell trying to pull your arm down? What you’re feeling is the force of gravity. It always pulls straight down. As gravity pulls down on the dumbbell, it causes a rotational force at the shoulder joint. This force is torque. The muscles of the shoulder must then be activated to overcome this force in order to hold the weight from moving.
In order to calculate how much torque is generated at the shoulder we need to know a few things. First we need to find the length of the persons arm holding the weight. This length between the point of rotation (the shoulder in this case) and the line of force acting upon that joint (the pull of gravity) creates what we call a lever arm.
You can also think of the lever arm as a wrench turning a bolt. When the wrench is pulled down it creates the rotational force torque that turns the bolt.
Lets take a trip back to physics class and discover how we can calculate this rotational force at a joint. A simple equation to write down is:
You’ll notice the word moment arm in the equation instead of lever arm. The moment arm is the perpendicular distance from the start of the lever arm (joint axis) to the vertical force of gravity. It always runs at 90°. For this reason, it will change in length based on the angle the lever arm is held.
In our example the arm is being held straight out in front of the body. This means the arm is already perpendicular to the vertical force of gravity. For this reason the length of our arm (lever arm) will be the exact length of the moment arm. Lets assume your arm is about 75 cm in length (roughly 30 inches). Yes, most mathematical equations also use the metric system.
In order to calculate torque we also need to know how much force is acting on the lever arm. Let’s assume the dumbbell weighs 10 lbs, now convert that 10 lbs to 44.5 Newtons (the unit for force). To get 44.5 Newtons you must convert 10 lbs to 4.54 kg. This is then multiplied by 9.8 m/s2 (standard gravity acceleration) to end up with 44.5 Newtons. A heavier weight would therefore lead to more Newton’s of force.
The equation for torque at the shoulder would look something like this.
This means the muscles of our shoulder need to overcome 33.4 Nm of force (roughly 24.6 foot-pounds of force) to lift the 10-pound weight past the extended position straight out from the body.
You may be asking yourself, “What happens if I raise my arm to a different position?” If we raise the dumbbell above our shoulder joint, we change the length of the moment arm. This is because the arm is no longer perpendicular to the vertical force of gravity. While the length of our arm (the lever) is still the same, the moment arm is now shorter than when our arm was extended straight in front of us.
This decrease in moment arm length changes the torque placed on the shoulder joint. Lets assume we lifted the arm to an angle of 130°. Because we don’t know the new moment arm length, we need to use trigonometry to calculate this distance. The equation for torque at the shoulder would look something like this.
When the arm is raised to the higher position, the moment arm becomes shorter. The dumbbell is creating less torque to the shoulder joint. This is why it’s easier to hold the dumbbell close to your chest rather than straight out in front of you.
Another easy way to understand this concept is to perform a slow forward punch with the dumbbell. Is it harder or easier to hold the dumbbell away from your body? Obviously the weight is easier to hold when it’s close to your body! That’s because the moment arm (from weight to shoulder joint) is shorter in this position. A small moment arm generates less torque on a joint when lifting a weight.
Mechanics of the Squat
When we look at the squat, there are typically three main areas we look at:
The knee joint
The hip joint
The low back
There are two things we need to know when trying to calculate the forces at these joints during the squat. First we need to know the position or angle of the joints. To measure torque, a ‘freeze frame’ or snapshot of the moving body is often taken. This allows us to calculate how much torque is being generated at a specific moment in time. This is called a static model (2).
While the static model for determining joint torques isn’t perfect, most experts suggest it still yields results within 10% of true torque values (3).
When the squat is paused in a certain position, we can then measure the angle of the joints. The back angle is formed by imaginary connection between the trunk and the floor. The hip angle is formed by the position of the back and the thigh. The knee angle is formed by the thigh and the position of the lower leg.
Breakout Tip: The knee angle is measured at the point of rotation (knee joint). When the leg is straight the knee is in 0° of flexion. As the knee moves into a flexed position (like when we squat) the angle increases. This is why a deep squat position will be recorded as a knee angle of >120° instead of 60°.
Next, we need to measure the length of the lever arms. These distances will change based on the anatomy of the athlete and what kind of barbell squat technique they are performing.
During the squat, gravity pulls down on the barbell just as it did with the dumbbell from our previous illustration. Gravity is often represented as a vertical line drawn through the middle of the barbell. This vertical line then runs through the body and divides the thigh.
During the squat the barbell should track vertically over the middle of an athletes foot. We can use this imaginary line to represent the vertical pull of gravity.
The distance from this vertical line to the center of the joint becomes a lever. Just like the wrench turning the bolt, the length of the lever arm can help us determine the length of the moment arm (1). The longer the moment arm, the more torque that will be generated at that joint during the squat.
Often sport scientists will analyze the squat at a parallel squat position (hip crease in line with the knee) (2,4). At this position (just like the athlete holding the dumbbell directly in front of the body) the lever arm and moment arm will be the same length.
High-Bar Back Squat Analysis (225 lbs)
Lets say we have an athlete squat 225 lbs (102 kg) with a high-bar back squat technique. This technique places the bar on top of the shoulders and upper trapezius muscles near the base of the neck. It is commonly used by weightlifters as it closely mimics the positions used in the competition lifts of the snatch and clean.
At the parallel position of this squat we can “freeze frame” the movement. For this illustration lets say the knee ends up at an angle of 125° and the angle the hip is 55°. The back angle would also be 55°. Since we are assuming a parallel thigh position to the floor, the hip angle and back angle will be the same.
In order to simplify this analysis (and save ourselves some difficult trigonometry) we’re going to measure the moment arms. Assume the knee moment arm in this high-bar back squat is 7.5 inches long (or .19 meters for mathematical purposes) and the hip moment arm that is 10.5 inches long (or .27 meters). Remember the moment arm length is the perpendicular distance from the joint to the vertical line of gravity that runs through the middle of the leg. This means the overall thigh length is 18 inches long (hip lever arm + knee lever arm = full thigh length).
For the purposes of this analysis, the low back will be represented as the connection of the spine to the pelvis. For this reason the moment arm will be the distance from this point to the vertical line of gravity. Because this axis of rotation is relatively close to the hip joint, the back lever arm will be the exact same distance as the hip lever arm (1)
In order to do this calculation we also need to figure in the weight of the barbell so we know how much force is pulling down. The weight of 225 lbs is equal to 1000.85 Newton’s of force. We can now plug these numbers into our mathematical equation to determine torque.
Low-Bar Back Squat Analysis (225 lbs)
What if this same athlete now squatted 225 lbs with a different technique? Lets assume this athlete is now lifting with a low-bar back squat technique. This variation uses a bar position that is 2-3 inches lower on the back than the high-bar back squat technique. The bar commonly rests in the middle of the shoulder blade. Powerlifters commonly use it as it enables them to lift heavier weights (5). In order to maintain balance (bar positioned over the middle of the foot) the chest must learn forward to a greater degree (6).
Doing so does two things to the mechanical levers of the body. First, the forward lean of the trunk drives the hips backwards. This lengthens the hip and back moment arm. It also shortens the knee moment arm.
Lets assume the knee moment arm is now 5.5 inches (.14 meters) compared to the 7.5 inches during the high-bar technique. This would obviously lengthen the hip moment arm from 10.5 inches to 12.5 inches (.32 meters)
At the parallel “freeze-frame” position we see this lifter assuming slightly different position:
Knee angle of 120° (larger or more open than the high-bar technique)
Hip and back angle of 40° (a smaller or more closed angle than the high-bar technique due to the more inclined chest position)
Front Squat Analysis (225 lbs)
Lets now look at the front squat. The front squat loads the joints differently than the previous two techniques. This is because the bar is held on the chest. This will require a more vertical trunk position in order to keep the bar positioned over the middle of the foot and allow the body to remain in balance. This lift is also used often by weightlifters as the movement closely mimics the clean movement.
The hips and knees will inevitably be pushed forward in order to maintain balance because the trunk must be held in a more upright position. If you tried to front squat and push your hips back too far, the bar will likely roll of your chest and end up on the ground.
Lets assume the athlete’s knee moment arm length is now 8.5 inches (.22 meters). This is longer than the high-bar back squat. This is a common change as the knee frequently translates a bit further forward in the front squat in order to remain in balance. This longer knee moment arm then creates a shorter hip moment arm, now measured at 9.5 inches (.24 meters).
If we “freeze-frame” the front squat in the parallel thigh position, we see a few differences compared to the other squats.
Knee angle of 130° (smaller or more closed compared to both back squat techniques due to the more forward knee position)
Hip and back angles of 75° (larger or more open compared to the back squat techniques due to the more upright chest position)
Comparative Analysis (225 lbs)
In this article we assessed an athlete lifting a barbell loaded to 225lbs (102 kg) with three squat technique variations. After calculating torque at the same depth across all three squats we are able to see a few interesting things:
The front squat placed the most amount of torque on the knee joint (220.2 Nm) followed closely by the high-bar back squat (190.2 Nm) and then by the low-bar back squat (140.1 Nm). This means the front squat placed roughly 15% more torque on the knees than the high-bar squat and 57% more than the low-bar squat.
The front squat placed less torque on the hip and lower back (240.2 Nm at the lumbar/pelvis connection) compared to both back squat techniques (high-bar 270 Nm and low-bar 320.3 Nm). This means the front squat placed 12% less torque on the hip than the high-bar back squat and 25% less than the low-bar back squat.
If an athlete lifts the same weight with all three squat techniques, we can assume the front squat will be the most difficult to perform. According to this analysis, the low-bar back squat would be the easiest and most efficient way to lift the 225 lbs. The low-bar back squat is the most mechanically efficient technique. It all comes down to leverage. Mechanically, our bodies can squat more weight when the moment arm is longest at the hips (5).
Many experienced lifters will agree that it’s easier to lift more weight with the back squat technique when compared to the front squat. Also, when watching a powerlifting meet, almost all of the lifters will use a low-bar back squat to compete and not the high-bar squat.
Next week, we will take a more in-depth look on torque and the 3 different squat techniques.
While the back squat is often labeled as the “king of all exercises”, the front squat usually follows close behind. Like many of the other barbell lifts, it is often performed incorrectly. In order to efficiently develop muscular strength and safely enhance athletic power, good technique is a must.
The Lift Off
The first step in performing a perfect front squat begins at the rack. To start, the bar needs to be set at shoulder height. Inexperienced athletes will often place the bar too high in the rack. This requires the athlete to over-extend in order to un-rack the bar. While many can get away with this early on, it can be dangerous when attempting to squat a heavy weight.
The next step is to position the bar properly on your chest. Start by gripping the bar at shoulder width. For weightlifters and crossfitters, this will also be the same grip you use to perform the barbell clean movement. From this position we want to pull ourselves under the bar while at the same time pushing our chest through the ceiling. The elbows should be lifted together to the highest possible position
If done correctly this will create a ‘shelf’ for the bar to sit comfortably on top of the shoulders and chest. Doing so will also increase the rigidity of your upper back. This will help you maintain an upright trunk position throughout the entire lift. Leaving the elbows in low position can lead to a rounded upper back. This greatly increases the odds of dropping the weight as it gets heavy. You will also place your body at risk for injury.
Mobility issues at the shoulder and/or thoracic spine (upper back) may cause the lifter to not be able to reach the high elbow position. It’s acceptable to leave the fingers in contact with the bar and have an open palm to reach the high elbow position.
This allows the weight to stay balanced on top of the shoulders. Athletes who are new to the front squat will often try to maintain a grip on the bar when they don’t have the appropriate mobility. Over time this can place unwanted stress on the wrist and elbows. It can also lead to pain and eventual injury when attempting to lift heavy weight.
It’s now time to un-rack the barbell. Position yourself under the bar with your feet evenly spaced around shoulder width. Take a big breath while bracing your core. Extend your hips and knees at the same time (with even pressure between both legs) and stand up with the bar.
Filling your lungs with air and bracing your core before you lift the barbell out of the rack is essential, especially when attempting to squat heavy weight. With this big breath and bracing technique, this can make the heavy weight feel lighter when the bar is on your chest. Stabilizing the core with a big breath will allow you to lift massive weights without breaking in half.
Just like the high-bar back squat, the front squat will also use a straightforward or slightly upward eye gaze. This will keep harmful forces from being placed on your neck during the lift.
With the bar secured properly on your shoulders, take three steps backwards in a slow and steady manner. Set your feet in a comfortable and stable position. Foot placement should mimic the same position used during the high-bar back squat. The feet may be pointed slightly outward and the stance should be at a comfortable width. Each athlete will have a slightly different stance width based on his or her individual anatomy and level of mobility.
Prior to initiating the descent of the squat, establish a proper foundation with your feet. Ensuring the feet are in a tripod position gives our body the stable platform it needs to move with good technique.
Next, squeeze the glutes in order to bring your knees into good alignment with the toes. Stabilize your back by taking a breath “into the stomach” and bracing the core muscles.
In order to perform a proper hip hinge during the front squat, the hips will only push back slightly. This allows you to engage the powerhouse of your body (the glutes of the posterior chain). By hinging the hips back slightly, the bar also remains over the mid-foot. This allows the body to remain in balance. The amount of backward movement will however be less than the back squat.
It’s a misconception that with the front squat, the knees need to move first. This misconception will lead the athlete to potentially overload the knee joint and capsize their potential to lift heavy weight.
Here’s an example of a great looking front squat by Clarence Kennedy.
The Bottom Position
The bottom position of the front squat will closely mimic that of the high-bar back squat. The torso will remain fairly vertical in order to keep the bar on the shoulders.
The depth of the front squat will be based on the specific requirements of an athlete’s sport choice and goals. An athlete competing in football or baseball for example will only need to descend to a parallel position. This means the hip crease will be parallel to the knee joint.
For those training in the sport of weightlifting or competitive crossfit, the hips should descend to the greatest depth possible. This will allow these athletes to develop the strength needed to meet the demands of their chosen sport where the clean and snatch are often taken in a deep squat position.
This deep squat position will eventually cause the knees to translate forward over the toes. As we have discussed in prior articles, the body can handle the stresses of this forward knee position as long as two requirements are met. First, the knees must not move forward prematurely into this position. Second, proper training programming must be used to allow for proper recovery.
We need to be more concerned with WHEN the knees move forward in the squat and not IF.
Video Consideration: Evan uses are more forward trunk lean than the earlier front squat video in this article. This is natural for his anatomy and mobility. The goal is to have the most upright trunk possible while still performing a proper hip hinge and keeping the bar over the mid foot.
Once we have established a stable bottom position it is time to begin the ascent. The ascent is all about driving with the hips and keeping the torso in a good upright position. Often inexperienced athletes will let their back round during this portion of the lift.
Often coaches will use the cue to keep the elbows up during the ascent. This can be a good cue to a point. We also need to cue the athlete to drive their chest upwards. A good front squat requires both high elbows and an upright trunk. Failing to cue both can lead to a rounded upper back and eventual injury.
Front Squat Sequence
Position the bar securely on your chest and shoulders with your elbows high.
Establish a stable tripod foot.
Generate external rotation torque at the hips (Verbal cue: squeeze your glutes)
Create a rigid trunk by taking a big breath and holding it tight. (Verbal cue: big breath & core tight)
Slightly hip hinge to engage the posterior-chain. Keep the trunk in a vertical position. (Verbal cue: push the hips back only a bit)
Remain balanced by keeping the bar over the mid-foot during the entire squat.
Stand straight up from the bottom position while maintaining an upright chest position with the elbows raised high.
As coaches we often have a standard set-up for teaching the barbell squat. Toes should point out slightly, feet should be placed at shoulder width and everyone should squat below parallel. Unfortunately this doesn’t always work. No two people will squat exactly the same way. There is no “one size fits all” approach to squatting.
Before we start, it should be said that this is not the first time this subject has been discussed in depth. Dr. Ryan DeBell of The Movement Fix wrote a great article previously that discussed how hip anatomy can easily differ between people. At Squat U we are trying to complete a comprehensive guide to squatting. Some of you have read Dr. Debell’s article, however many of you have not. Omitting our take on hip anatomy would be a disservice to people who want to learn more about squatting.
There are two main factors that dictate how well we squat.
Mobility – the pliability of our soft tissues (muscles and fascia) and how it affects how we move. When our tissues become stiff or shortened, they can hinder our ability to move well. This is one of the reasons why sitting for 8+ hours a day is so harmful to the body.
Anatomy – the way our bones are formed and aligned. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that you have a different bone structure than your best friend (or anyone else for that manner).
We have previously addressed hip mobility in one of our past articles. By addressing stiff tissues we can easily improve our technique. For this reason, “mobility” has been has become a popular buzzword in recent years.
However for some individuals, they just can’t seem to perfect the ass-to-grass squat or achieve a flawless pistol squat no matter how hard they try. For some people, no amount of mobility work will change their squatting mechanics. When an athlete has a problem with their squat due to their anatomy, they will always be fighting an upward battle. This will be apparent when we have a closer look at the hip joint.
The hip is basic ball-and-socket joint. The end of our thigh bone (femur) is shaped like a small ball. It fits within the “socket” (acetabulum) of our hips.
Individual Differences (Hip Socket)
However, not everyone fits this “textbook” bone structure. Variations in the way our hips are formed will impact how we move, especially with the squat.
In 2001, a group of researchers from Japan took a close look at the hip joint. While a large majority had “normal” hip sockets, close to 40% of those examined did not (1). Let’s take a look at a few photos that show how dramatic these differences can be.
In this photo you can see two totally different socket shapes. The socket of the left hip points forward and has a sharp angle. On the right, the socket opens laterally and has a curved shape. According to research, there are actually 4 distinct shapes the socket can take (1).
Now take a look at the hips from the front. With this view, you can see again a dramatic difference in the alignment of the sockets. The hip on the left has the sockets pointing forward meanwhile the hip on the right opens more laterally. This difference alone will have a significant impact on how a person squats.
Individual Differences (Femur Shape)
Some people also have variations in the way their femurs are shaped. For example, some of us have femurs that are twisted forward or backward. This will affect the alignment of the femur in the hip joint. A more angled femur (right) is called an anteverted hip. A flattened angle (left) gives us a retroverted hip (2).
What is anteversion?
In order for a femur with an excessive angle to fit correctly inside the hip socket, the rest of the thigh must be rotated inwards. For this reason, athletes who have this type of hip will appear as if they have an excessive amount of internal rotation and a little amount of external rotation.
While some athletes with anteversion will show the classic “pigeon toes” alignment, this isn’t always the case. In order to keep their toes from pointing inwards the lower leg bones (tibia) will often adapt. The tibia will form an outward twist to compensate for the inward twist of the femur. The body adapts and tries to keep the feet pointing forward when possible.
For this reason, it is very hard to know if someone has a natural twist in their bones by just looking at them. Forcing an athlete to conform to the ‘ideal’ squat technique when they have this type of anatomy can be disastrous. If an athlete reports feeling uncomfortable with their squat stance no matter how much mobility work they do, they should be screened to see if their anatomy is preventing their progress.
How to Screen
Checking the hips often starts by assessing the amount of rotation available at the joint. With an athlete on their back it is easy to see how much internal rotation (foot moving away from the body) and external rotation (foot moving toward the body) an athlete has.
While this is a great way to assess possible mobility restrictions, it doesn’t give us a great idea of what’s going on with our bony anatomy. If there was a large difference in the amount of internal vs external rotation on the same leg we need to assess what’s going on inside the hip joint. To screen the anatomy of our hip we need to use Craig’s Test.
Start with the athlete lying on their stomach with their knees bent at 90°. Take your hand and feel for the where the notch of the femur (greater trochanter) is located. With your other hand, begin rotating the athlete’s lower leg in and out. As you rotate the leg you’ll begin to notice the notch of the femur becomes more and less prominent against your hand. Stop moving the lower leg when you find this position to be most prominent.
Ideal or ‘normal’ anatomy will leave the lower leg pointing only slightly away from the body (within 15° from a vertical position). If the athlete has their lower leg now positioned at a large angle, they have a possible anteverted hip. This method of assessing hip anatomy has been shown in research to be extremely reliable (even better than taking an X-ray) (3).
If you have a positive Craig’s test you may be asking yourself, “What does that mean for my training?” Individual differences in anatomy like this will affect both foot angle and width of your squatting stance.
Some athletes can naturally squat with a wide stance. Others (especially those with hip anteversion) will have to squat with a narrow stance. Some athletes will be able to squat with their toes straightforward and others will have to turn their toes out at an angle in order to reach full depth.
An athlete’s stance should be dictated therefore by comfort. They need to feel stable with whatever stance they take and they should not have a pain. Athletes who try to conform to a squat stance that is not right for their hips will feel a hard blocking sensation or a pinching pain in their hips that is unrelieved with mobility work. This is your body telling you to move differently. Listen to it.
If you have excellent squat form, congratulations. However, if you struggle to perform a squat with perfect technique (even after hours upon hours of mobility work) it may not be your fault. Some of us are born with the ideal skeleton for deep squats. Some of us are not. Just because anatomy may not be on your side doesn’t mean you should just hang up your weightlifting shoes and quit trying all together. You only need to understand what works for your body and make the right adjustments in order to reach your potential and stay pain free,
The high-bar back squat is typically one of the first barbell exercises young athletes are taught today. By perfecting technique an athlete has the potential to lift bigger weights with less risk for injury.
It doesn’t matter how hard you push. It doesn’t matter how well the training plan is written. Any flaws in their technique will limit their maximum potential.
The Lift Off
The first part of successful barbell squats at the rack. The bar should be set around chest height. Setting the bar too high or too low can force a lifter to put themselves in a dangerous position in order to un-rack and re-rack the weighted barbell.
The next step is to get the bar into the correct position on your back. Pull yourself under the bar and trap it tight against your tops of your shoulders and back of your neck. By pulling your shoulder blades together a ‘shelf’ will appear through the contraction of the upper back muscles. The bar should be positioned on top of this shelf.
The type of grip taken on the bar will be a personal choice. Some will hook their thumb under the bar while others will keep it on top of the bar (monkey grip). Regardless of the way you decide to grip the bar, a neutral wrist alignment is ideal. The straightforward wrist allows the weight of the bar to be safely secured on the back without placing too much pressure on the elbows.
It’s now time to un-rack the bar. Position yourself under the bar with your feet evenly spaced around shoulder width. Take a big breath while bracing your core. Extend your hips and knees at the same time (with even pressure between both legs) and stand up with the bar.
Often athletes try to un-rack the bar with their feet staggered. With lighter weight on the barbell it is easy to get away with this move. However, as soon as the weight increases to high levels, un-racking the barbell in this manner can be dangerous.
It is also common to see athletes try un-rack the bar without a braced core. Without bracing your core, it’s difficult to organize and create appropriate stability needed to complete the lift. Case in point, you don’t see many 900 lb squats where the athlete un-racks the weight in a casual manner. The tremendous weight of the bar would instantly crush the athlete.
The descent of the barbell squat follows the same principles of the bodyweight squat with two small changes: foot placement and breathing mechanics. Now that an athlete is squatting with a barbell they may turn their toes out slightly. This allows the athlete to squat deeper while maintaining stability.
Barbell squatting also requires proper breathing mechanics. By harnessing the power of the breath an athlete will lock their lower back into a good stable position. This allows for more weight to be lifted without risk of injury to the spine.
After un-racking the bar properly, take three slow steps backwards and establish your squat stance. The width of this stance should be comfortable and allow for full range of motion. For this reason, every athlete will have a slight difference in stance width.
Next, the ‘tripod’ foot needs to be engaged. All three points of the foot need to be in equal contact with the ground. If done properly, the foot will move into a full arched position. This allows the foot to remain stable and support the rest of our body just like the base layer for a ‘house of cards.’
The next step is to create external rotation torque at the hips. By squeezing your glutes, torque is generated at the hip joint and the knees are brought into correct alignment with the toes. Next, take another big breath ‘into your stomach’ and brace your core like Mike Tyson is going to punch you.
The last step is to engage the posterior chain (glutes & hamstrings). This happens with a proper hip hinge. Push your hips backwards slightly and bring your chest forward. Once the hips are engaged, start your squat. Don’t think about going to a certain depth. Just squat.
The Bottom Position
In order to produce efficient strength and power during the squat we must remain balanced. This requires our center of gravity to stay directly over the middle of our foot. During the bodyweight squat our center of gravity was located near the middle of our stomach. Depending on the physical make-up of an athlete (height, weight, leg length, etc) this location may change slightly.
In order to stay balanced during the bodyweight squat the torso has to be inclined over the knees. During the barbell squat however, the bar now becomes our center of gravity. Due to the position of the weight during the high-bar back squat, a more upright torso position will be used.
This technique change will cause the knees to eventually move forward past the toes in order to reach full depth. This shift balances the load between the quads and glutes. It also requires an athlete to have adequate ankle mobility. For this reason, athletes with stiff ankles can often show perfect squat technique with no weight but will struggle during the high-bar variation.
The high-bar back squat is usually performed to a greater depth than the low-bar version (commonly used by powerlifters). In the competitive sport of weightlifting (i.e. snatch and clean & jerk) the weight is often caught in a very deep squat. The high-bar technique therefore translates well into the sport of weightlifting and crossfit.
That being said, not all athletes are training to compete in the sport of weightlifting. For this reason, the barbell squat does not always need to be taken ass-to-grass. Depth of a barbell squat will be specific to the demands of the sport an athlete participates in. Every athlete should be able to hit at least parallel depth. This means the crease of the hip will be parallel with the knee joint.
The ascent of the squat is all about hip drive. From the bottom of the squat the hips should be driven up while the shins are pulled to a vertical position.
Elite weightlifters at times will use a forceful transition in their bottom position. This is a skilled maneuver that can allow an athlete to lift more weight. Technique is imperative if this powerful move is to be attempted. Alignment of the knees must be maintained. If performed correctly the rebound will feel like a spring releasing, propelling you upwards with tremendous power.
The torso must also be maintained in a stable position during this part of the lift. Often inexperienced athletes will let their back collapse and round forward. If an athlete tries to forcefully bounce out of the bottom position without proper control, they risk losing stability at the low back. When this happens harmful forces are instantly placed on the vulnerable structures of the back.
A forceful transition should always be learned under the direct supervision of an experienced coach. If performed incorrectly it can easily lead to technique breakdown and eventual injury.
Pin the barbell tightly against the ‘shelf’ of your upper back.
Establish a stable tripod foot.
Generate external rotation torque at the hips (Verbal cue: squeeze your glutes)
Create a rigid trunk by taking a big breath and holding it tight. (Verbal cue: big breath & core tight)
Hip hinge to engage the posterior-chain. (Verbal cue: hips back)
Remain balanced by keeping the bar over the mid-foot during the entire squat.
Use hip drive to stand up from the bottom position. (Verbal cue: drive the hips up and pull the shins back to vertical).