I will write a series of articles on powerlifting, and my take on the lifts and methods to get stronger in the three movements : The Squat, The Bench Press and the Deadlift.
I know i know… there have been thousands of articles written on this topic, and that is still probably not enough. What I will attempt to do in this article is define what a squat is, what you should do with squatting, the tips and tricks to perform it safely.
What Is A squat :
A squat is a flexion of both hips and both the knee at the same time allowing your hips to sink below your knee. There are therefore multiple ways to perform it. Wide stance, close stance, knees pushed forward, hips push backward, knees in… and in the midst of all of that there is your unique squat that allows you to put as much weight as possible on your back, bend at the hips and knees and sink you hips below your knees.
If anyone tells you there is only one width, or technique to squat, try out their technique and then make your own decision. I think it’s silly to refuse to listen to anyone before you have tried what they are proposing. It may sometimes be completely stupid, but you would be surprised at how many people will just stick to what they were told and make no progress whatsoever. I have been that person….
We are all different. We have different leg lengths, torso lengths, different tendon and ligament insertions, different muscle compositions, strengths and weaknesses. All of those factors mean that there is one squat out there that is yours, and your mission is to go out and find it. However, as you correct your muscles imbalances, as you correct your flexibility issues, as you heal your wounds, you may think you have discovered your squat, and discover you were just using a “crutch-squat” instead of YOUR squat.
To add on to the complexity of the matter, you can also add equipment. Squat shoes will push your knees further forward, knee wraps will prevent you bending your knees very far, squat suits will make you use different muscle groups. There are millions of different squats out there.
Why Squat :
You might wonder why you should squat. Depending on your goals the answer is different.
If you want to be strong :
The squat is one of the three main functional movements. It will bring strength to your hamstrings, your quads, your glutes, your spinal erectors, basically everything from your lower chest to your toes.
If you want to lose weight :
The squat moves the biggest muscles in your body. If you squat enough and take care of what you eat, you will never have to be scared of being fat ever again. Squat twice a week. Once heavy for a few reps, once lighter and for lots of reps. It is a calorie burner.
If you want to run faster:
And that is either sprinting or long distance running. Strong leg muscles will help your speed and your endurance.
If you want to be better at your sport :
Unless you are an arm wrestler or a chess player, having a strong leg foundation will help you in in your sport. Different squats will help you in different ways, but that is a whole other topic. But if you aren’t squatting, you aren’t digging deep enough into your potential
How to find your squat :
Assess your flexibility :
The first question to ask yourself is “do I have optimal range of motion”. For the squat this means « can you sink your hips below your knees while keeping a straight spine”. If you can do that with no pain, you have enough range of motion. If you have too much pain during, or the days that follow a squat session in the same systematic muscle groups, then you probably have a mobility issue.
Try them all :
I used to think that to squat Big I just had to find the squat I was the strongest in, and do that every week while I packed the weight on linearly. Bad idea. What that will do is reinforce the muscle groups that are put under the most tension while doing nothing for the lagging muscle groups that hold your squat back. Once you get to your muscles discrepancy max, you will injure yourself. The muscle imbalance will displace a vertebrae or joint out of whack, or your weak muscle will simply tear, and you’ll be wondering what happened.
You need to work on a wide variety of squats ; Box Squats, Front Squats, Ass To Grass Squats, Cyclist Squats, Sumo Squats, Feet Together squats….
Each of these works harder on some one or more different muscles, and your strengths and weaknesses in these different squats will help you :
Find where you are weak
Strengthen that weakness
Increase your range of motion
Increase you optimal squat
There are however, a few rules that should be followed to make sure you perform your squat as safely and comfortably as possible
How to perform a squat :
1) The Set Up
Set the squat holds slightly below your shoulders. You don’t want to be standing on your toes to un-rack a bar, or to have to re-rack it. You are just asking to drop the bar, make it wobble, add unnecessary discomfort, and injure yourself.
To set the safeties, squat down until your hips are under your knees, and see where your shoulders are.
The safeties should be about 2 inches under that, no more. This will give you confidence when attempting the squat. You should test the safeties by leaning forward and laying the bar on the safeties.
2) The Sequence
Grab the bar tight : this means several things. You want to feel you are holding the bar really tight against you. As if you were pulling it in. Hopefully your shoulders will allow this, if they don’t you are going to lose some strength. It also means you want to hold it tight in your hands. Squeezing the bar tight in your hands. So stand an arms length away from the bar, grab about a hands width outside shoulder width, grab it with your thumb wrapped around the bar, duck under the bar and set it on your traps. Look at something about 6 feet in front of you and keep looking at it.
Get under the bar : Step forward, and duck your head under the bar while still holding onto it. Place your feet directly under the bar shoulder width. Not too far apart because when you’ll have to step back, the bar will sway too much. Your legs should be slightly bent at this point, otherwise the bar was set up too high.
Brace yourself : This might be a new concept to you. Your spine is flexible. However, to squat, your torso has to become rigid so you don’t break in half. To do so you have to tighten up your abs before you lift the bar. Your therefore bring your chest down, flex your abs, and breath deep into you abdomen. You should feel the pressure build up when you have take the breath. Keep that tightness. And don’t breathe before I tell you to.
Stand up straight : push against the bar to un-rack it. This is when you should realise if the bar is even across your back. It MUST be.
->If it is UNEVEN, put the bar back, and reset it.
->If it is EVEN, take a step back. This step back should be done with confidence, energy, but not rushed. If the bar shakes or wobbles you are either not braced tight enough or you have jerked your step back too much. Next step back with the other foot. Your feet are now parallel. You then take a side step with one foot, then a side step with the other. You should be in position to squat. Now you can take a few breaths, but keep your abs tight. (4 step sequence underneath)
->The feet should be pointing out slightly. You can read as much as you want about torque and how it will help your squat but all the champions squat with feet pointed out. There must be a reason for that. If your feet aren’t in a comfortable, or symmetrical position turn them in the correct position. If you don’t know what that is yet, go for slightly pointed out. If your feet aren’t spread out wide enough, shuffle them slowly to the correct width. You should feel the weight of your body and the bar evenly distributed on the soles of your feet. They are your most important cue, so pay attention to them.
You’re all set to squat. Tighten your abs hard, take one deep breath to increase intra-abdominal pressure, then hold.
Push your hips back first, then start bending at the knees IN THE SAME DIRECTION YOUR FEET ARE POINTING IN. Which means slightly out. You should feel the bar is going straight down. If the bar is going backwards or forward, you will feel it in your feet. The pressure will be either in the front of your feet or the back. If you feel pressure on the front of your feet push your hips back, if you feel pressure in your heel, push your knees forward.
Once you are “In the hole”, which is the lowest position of your squat, and your hips are under your knees, imagine you are pushing against the bar to go up, and pushing out with your feet. Yes OUT, this will activate the right muscle groups . This is when your groan. It will increase your intra-abdominal pressure and help you stand up.
Once you are standing straight, let the air out, and take another deep breath to start the whole process from « Push your hips back” agin if you have another rep to do.
Once you are done, take a confident step forward so that the bar hits the railings, then lower the bar from that position so it sets safely onto the squat holds.
What If I can’t get back up?
Sometimes things don’t go as planned. So If you can’t stand back up, just sink lower, or lean forward in the bottom squat position and let the bar fall onto the safeties as you have done to start with. Please Please Please squat IN a squat rack WITH safeties on. And if you can’t don’t go to failure. Injury is no joke and can set you back YEARS.
Take some time to test how to drop the bar onto the safeties. Squat down, and either squat lower of fall forward to see how it feels. This will actually help you lift HEAVIER as you will have more confidence to try for heavier weights. It will also help you try harder, and your progress will thank you.
Everyone should squat. And everyone should squat at least their own bodyweight on barbell below parallel. This is an investment in your future, as leg strength has been should to be directly correlated to independence and longevity.