“The squat is the single most useful exercise in the weight room, and our most valuable tool for building strength, power and size.” – Mark Rippetoe, Starting Strength Basic Barbell Training
“The squat is the foundation of the Olympic lifts as a position, a movement and a strength exercise.”
– Greg Everett, Olympic Weightlifting
PRINCIPLES OVER RULES
Rules by nature are rigid. Pursuing the ideal of total fitness means breaking rules and embarking on a lifetime quest for truth and excellence. Continually we attempt to separate fact from fiction, look for what’s tried and true, then employ the distilled elements to our benefit. With so much information out there, it’s easy to become confused. Thankfully common ground can be found in basic, fundamental, principles. Once we have established a thorough understanding, we can then develop the nuances of our own individual styles. We encourage you to test the following principles in your own workouts. Then decide what works and what doesn’t. One size definitely does not fit all and what works for some people won’t automatically work for you. Assuming you are healthy and cleared by your doctor to exercise, we sincerely hope the following information helps you on your quest.
NOTE: First read this entire article, practice each piece, then put all of the principles together. Test, evaluate, retest and with persistent exploration you too should be able to perform a pain free air squat. If you so choose, then move on to lifting more and more substantial amounts of weight.
Many in the wonderful world of fitness consider the squat the quintessential full body exercise and the most beneficial human movement in existence. Some even refer to the squat as the king of all exercises. So why then if we are talking about one of the best exercises in the world, does the squat get a bad rap? The most common complaint is the squat will injure the back and/or damage the knees. Additionally, for those who already suffer from back or knee issues the squat will highlight those problems in painful detail. If you have been advised to avoid or discontinue squats my condolences. Experience shows that most likely your knees or back are fine. Pain arises from incorrect use and often dissipates soon after you learn and practice proper technique.
MUSCLE RECRUITMENT OF THE POSTERIOR CHAIN
In our desk-bound, forward leaning society we neglect to fully utilize and activate the muscles, tendons and ligaments of the back of the body. These interlinked physical structures are collectively known as the posterior chain. Squatting well and often activates the chain and eliminates the neglect. The calves, hamstrings, glutes, and muscles of the lower back allow you stand, walk, sit up straight, have good posture and generate athletic power and strength. In the squat, the posterior chain muscles do most of the work. However they are supported in concert by nearly every other skeletal muscle in the body. The shoulders, upper back, chest and abdomen also play an essential role in moving the body up and down. When we squat correctly we use the whole body. As a result this movement gives an excellent return on our exercise investment.
UN-RACKING AND RE-RACKING
In order to execute a safe and successful barbell squat you must be precise with each phase of the movement. Set up the rack hooks so the bar lines up right across your chest. Then address the bar, finding the center by placing your hands at equidistant locations from the rings on the knurling. An average height male with moderate mobility will locate the pinky fingers on or inside the smooth rings. Next, step under the bar, maintaining a neutral spine and position the barbell across your back and shoulders.
In order to get a good grip on the bar as well as create a support base for lifting weight, we recommend locating the bar across the shoulders just below the spine of the scapula. Keep wrists straight and attempt to point your elbows back. This position will pin the bar to your back and create a shelf for the bar on your posterior delts. With a neutral spine and the middle of feet under the bar, take a deep breath and lift the bar off of the rack hooks. Take one step back from the rack with one foot then bring the other foot into position.
To re-rack the weight, perform the same procedure in reverse. It’s recommended to drill and practice the same routine every time you un-rack and re-rack the weight. Practice makes permanent and when the weight gets heavy you don’t want any surprises. The whole procedure goes as follows: step under the bar, prepare as if you were going to squat, lift the weight off of the rack hooks, take one step back with each foot, perform your set then step back into the rack and set the weight down. Always walk the bar to the hooks, do not lean forward or aim with your shoulders. Keep walking until you hit the rack. Trust the hooks will be there.
PRESSURIZE THE TORSO
In order to use the body as one unified force generating system the breath must get involved. So when we breathe, we breathe with the goal of aiding our movement. In practice that means we take a deep breath and then hold the breath throughout the entire repetition. Adding this internal pressure is nearly as important to completing a good rep as having a strong back and legs.
To move efficiently under load we first assume neutral spinal alignment. For many lifts this is the optimal shape for loading the body. Next we create stability around that posture. Breathing to pressurize the the internal cavities of the torso helps to stabilize the spine and provide leverage to lift. This additional stability protects the back from unnecessarily compression and/or shear forces. Last (and almost as an afterthought), we perform the lift.
The breathing technique is simple. Before initiating the downward phase of the movement take a deep breath and hold this pressure inside the chest and abdominal cavity. Complete the squat while holding the breath then exhale at the top as you complete the rep. After you fully exhale, take another deep breath and go for your next repetition. Feel free to take any additional breaths you need at the top and continue in this fashion until you complete the set. Then rerack the weight.
Place your feet just outside of hip width with your toes slightly turned out. There’s a lot of discussion regarding the correct amount of degrees to turn out the feet. What’s most important is to create a strong, stable, natural and comfortable position at both the top and the bottom of the squat. Your toes could be straight ahead or turned out as far as thirty degrees. The zero degree foot turn out is not necessarily wrong per se. However, most people turn out between ten and thirty degrees. Here is where personal preference, practice and comfort come together over time.
HIPS & BACK
The squat employs hip hinging and maximal knee bending. Initiate the movement by pushing the hips back. As soon as the hips start back the knees should begin to bend. Keep the thighs parallel to the feet and lower down to the bottom position. When done correctly it will appear as if the hips and knees move at the same time. However by slightly initiating with the hips one avoids translating forward, emphasizes proper spinal extension, keeps the weight balanced over the feet and sets us up to maintain trunk stability. Throughout the full range of motion keep the spine neutral and maintain the natural curve of the lower back. Supplemental exercises such as the arch or back extension should be prescribed to those individuals who have trouble holding their spine neutral and rigid as they perform the full squat.
The depth of a squat will be determined by each individual’s strength and flexibility. If the back is strong and the hips, knees and ankles are fairly mobile then one should expect to make it all the way down to the bottom position. The bottom position is all the way down. In this position the back of the thighs touch the back of the calves. Some call this the “ass to grass” squat. Without any weight on your back, go down and explore the bottom position. Mobility and form can be improved by spending time in the bottom position. Until you feel comfortable completing reps from the top to the bottom there is no reason to add weight.
FINDING THE BOUNCE
To protect the joints from hyper extension and damage the brain sends a signal to automatically contract a muscle when it reaches an end range. This contraction is called the stretch reflex. One can experience this phenomenon in the standing position by vigorously swinging the arms backwards. When the shoulders hit the end range the arms don’t just stop or drop limply at the sides. The arms literally spring back to the front. The same thing happens when you stay active as you approach the bottom position in the squat. Just as we use the breath, this protective built in springiness helps to perform the full squat correctly and safely. First practice with no weight while performing air squats. Once you can lower yourself with control in an air squat, hit the stretch reflex and rebound to the top you are ready to add some weight. Start with a barbell or training bar and practice the movement for 5-10 reps then scale up appropriately.