Everybody knows that the title “The king of exercises” belongs to the good old back squat. Squats are the only exercise that allows you the direct training of the complex movement pattern known as the hip drive which means that it recruits all the muscles of the posterior chain ( hamstrings, the glutes, adductors (aka groin muscles) and trains them in an improvable way.
Anyone who tells you that barbell squats hurt your knees and destroy your lower back just show them pictures of babies when they squat down to play or to lift a weight.
The baby in this picture is in a very dangerous position that will ruin his knees and lower back if someone doesn’t get him out of that position (sarcasm inserted).
While squatting is a safe and natural movement, there are many things that you should know when you attempt to squat properly without taking any risks for your body.
While I’ve searched in virtually every corner of the humongous internet, there isn’t a single squat guide that covers everything you need to know and apply in case you want to have a flawless squat, so this guide should address that issue.
Common problems that should be addressed before we start the actual barbell squat.
How To Squat – What Squat Style Should I Chose ?
There are three primary squat “styles”:
- High Bar Squat – the bar is held on traps, the back is held more vertical and Olympic lifters using this aim for maximum depth ( ass to grass aka ATG )
- Low Bar Squat – the bar is held lower on the back just immediately under the bones that you feel at the top of the shoulder blades
- Geared Powerlifting Squat – unless you thought of entering a geared powerlifting competition, this isn’t for you
When practicing the squat, quad soreness occurs because they are the only knee extensor group while the hip extensors consist of three groups : the hamstrings, glutes, adductors.
The squat style that maximizes the use of all these muscles is the low-bar back squat.
Demonstration of someone who went from the Olympic style squat to the low bar squat which some nice weight increases.( from 440 lbs -> 500 lbs x5 ).
Balancing And Bar Position
If you didn’t knew already, the mid foot position is favored by your body in terms of balance, that’s why when you speak in terms of squatting, the bar weight should be kept in line with the middle of your foot all the time.
Why is that ?
Let’s do a little exercise:
If you stand up straight unloaded and you lean forward, you can feel your weight shifting to the balls of your feet, increased tension in your calves as your body tries to maintain balance so you don’t fall forward.
If you lean back, you can feel the shift of weight on your heels. If you lean back even further, your arms will automatically come in front of you to change the center of mass so you don’t keep falling back.
So as you can see, your body is in a constant struggle to maintain balance and it wants to settle in a position where the least amount of force is needed to maintain that position. (in our case, the normal weight on the mid foot position).
In all of the barbell exercises, except the bench press, this mid-foot balance point is a critical concept in the analysis of a great exercise technique.
The minimum barbell squat depth that you should try to achieve is parallel to the floor
Why’s that ?
Any squat that is not done to the required depth is a partial squat and a partial squat puts stress on the quadriceps and knees without properly stressing the adductors, glutes and hamstrings. When you do a proper squat (full squat) the groin muscles, hamstrings and glutes come under the load as the knees are shoved up, the back assumes the correct angle and the hips are pushed back on the way down for the hip drive to occur when you get back up.
How To Squat – A Proper Squat Technique Step By Step
The best foot position is a neutral foot position, keeping the heels about shoulder width apart and toes pointed out at 20-30 degrees.
A too wide stance will cause your adductors to reach the end of their extensibility too early and a too excessive narrowness will cause your thighs to bump against your belly so you won’t be able to reach the required depth.
Let’s do another exercise:
Assume the squat down position, put your elbows against your knees, keep the palms of your hands together, get your knees out.
In this position your feet are flat on the ground, your knees are out and in a parallel line with your feet just a little in front of your toes, you back should be flat and inclined to about 45 degree.
The way you come out of the bottom position is by driving your but straight up in the air. Drive your hips out of the bottom and everything should take care of itself if done as explained.
Eye And Neck Position
The neck position should be straight in line with your spine and you should look 4-5 feet ahead to a point. Keep it as a reference.
I can’t believe how many trainers advise their lifters to look up because that will “keep their chest up” OR “keep their spine straight” or don’t know what but looking up will put your cervical spine in overextension which is not a normal and safe position to keep your neck into.
Bar Position On Rack
Set the bar at about mid chest level and as a safety measure, put the rack safeties a little below your bottom squat level so in case you miss the rep you can set the weight down.
Grip On The Bar
It will vary depending on your shoulder flexibility, just take the width as you feel comfortable, as narrow as you can. The thumbs should be placed on top of the bar and the wrist should be kept in a straight line with your forearm.
Bar Placement On Your Back For A Proper Squat Technique
It should be under the bone you feel at the top of your shoulder blades. Secure the bar in place by lifting your chest and elbows up at the same time and it should be in place over the posterior deltoids.
Now that we have the minor details set up, let’s procede further:
Step By Step
1. Step under the bar, grip it, get it tight on your back, chest up, elbows up, squeeze your upper back to secure the bar, get that arch in your lower back and you are ready to unrack it.
2. Take the bar up
3. Take 1-2 steps back (don’t exaggerate here as you will only do more work in vain) AND don’t let your body to loosen up, keep it tight
4. Foot position as discussed (shoulder width and ~30 degrees out)
5. Get that focus point on the floor as discussed (4-5 feet in front of you)
6. Now it comes the best part: Keeping your body tight, the weight on the middle of your foot, take a big breath and hold it against your abs (valsava maneuver), begin squatting with the simple cue “push your hips backwards”. Squat controllably, don’t bend or drop too fast down.
NOTES: If you keep the bar in a vertical relationship with the middle of the foot, the back angle will be determined by the position of the bar on your back. Just try to imagine that vertical imaginary line that the bar path should go, keep your spine rigid and your knees,ankles,hips will do whatever it needs to be done in order to maintain the correct angles and bar path.
Also your body will do its best to solve every problem related to the squat so you won’t need to be coached by anyone. Pretty smart huh ?
Remember, full depth should be your goal everytime you squat so if you have a friend that checks your depth and he tells you that it’s not low enough, check your stance and make sure that it’s proper set up, not too wide or too narrow and your knees track your feet.
Shove your knees out !
7. Coming up from the bottom position is as important as going there in the first place. You should drive up with your hips and not with your chest and keeping this in mind is very important.
If you fail to drive out from the bottom with your hips and instead you use your chest, it will nullify your power out of the bottom because you are making your back angle too vertical.
Keep the weight on the middle of the foot and imagine you are pushing up with your hips straight up.
Breathing shouldn’t be overcomplicated because you will simply need to perform the valsalva maneuver which means that you will attempt to exhale against your closed airway.
Practically put, you will take a big breath in, tightening your core muscles.
8. When you reach the top again breath out before repeating the movement based on the chosen programming.
9. End the movement by racking the bar back, ensure that it’s properly set on the pins and step out from under the bar.
And this is how you do the barbell squat properly.
Because I always like to show people visual demonstrations, I have for you good examples and bad examples of a properly executed squat:
FIRST – BAD EXAMPLE (NEVER DO THIS!!!)
A short question for you:
Are there any form/technique improvements that this article gave you and what are those ?
In case you know someone that would benefit from this complex explanation of the squat, you can send that person this link.
If I helped you in any way to learn how to squat, please share,tweet and +1 this piece to help as many people as we can!
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