Along with the deadlift, the squat is one of the best compound exercises available to build strength and
mass in an athlete. Unfortunately, just like the deadlift, it is an exercise performed incorrectly by so many gym goers.
I have seen personal trainers and fitness instructors not only perform the squat incorrectly, but also teach incorrect form to clients and gym members. This is both frustrating and dangerous.
The squat engages the core in much the same way as the deadlift does. The biomechanics of the body make the squat a very natural movement to perform.
In fact many of us have the perfect form from a very, very young age.
Now before you go off to load a toddler up with a barbell and record them for research purposes (that will see you either reported to child services or worse…), there are plenty of physiological differences between babies and fully grown adults, so keep in mind your body’s own mobility and if necessary, have someone competent and qualified (ahem..) design you a programme if this is an issue for you.
The perfect squat balances the forces around the knee and hips. When you ask someone what muscles they are working, almost everyone will focus on the obvious leg muscles, particularly the quadriceps.
Of course the quads are stimulated during the squat, however on top of that the muscles of the lower back, the abdominals, the ribcage muscles (costals), upper back muscles such as the traps and rhomboids, glutes, hamstrings and even the shoulders and arms all take on some of the load when performing the squat.
The squat really is the only exercise available that allows direct training and progressive improvement of ‘hip-drive’.
Hip-Drive is a complex movement that strengthens the muscles that make up the ‘Posterior Chain‘, which include the muscles we mentioned above.
To perfect the correct technique of the squat, the movement should be introduced ‘without’ the bar. Problems that develop with technique tend to become exagerrated once the bar is introduced. For example, drop down into the squat position and with hands pressed together in a clap, elbows pushed into the inside the knees, push the knees out over the feet. This should form the basis of your body position during the squat.
Although many of the tips below are universal when it comes to the squat movement, mould the movement to your body shape and physical biomenchanics and if required, work on your mobility with a professional. I have seen many coaches try to alter a persons natural body position in order to fit them into the movement, when really it should be the other way round. If someone suffers from a lack of flexibility around the shoulder capsule, attempting to move their hands back to create a ‘shelf’ at the trap area may be extremely uncomfortable and may not actually produce the most optimal squat position ‘for that particular person’.
Better to tailor a movement to a person than the other way round.
The Squat Set Up
Chest Up – Pushing the chest out & pulling the shoulders back will automatically create the platform for the bar. You can also tighten your upper-back better as a result.
Focal Point – By focusing upwards, the neck is hyperextended. Looking upwards will also take the spine out of neutral alignment. Looking upwards also inhibits the hips when driving from the bottom of the squat. Focus on a point roughly 6 feet infront of you on the ground, not at the feet.
Bar Position – Put the bar low, below the bone at the top of your shoulder-blades and at the base of your traps – NOT on your spine. If the bar is too high, the back angle is increased vertically to allow the correct hip involvement.
Grip Width – A narrow grip makes it easier to tighten your upper-back.
Wrist alignment – The correct grip keeps the hand (incl thumbs) above the bar and all of the weight of the bar on the back.
Tight Upper-Back – Bring your shoulder-blades together. The elbows are lifted, causing the rear delts to contract. This creates a shelf in which the bar sits.
Foot Stance – Heels are shoulder-width apart, with feet angled outwards at around 35 degrees.
Lowering The Bar
Maintain Body Position – Taking a deep breath, which will help support the lower back, lower the hips, maintaining the arm, chest and neck angle.
The knees should train outwards over the feet, at the same angle. Don’t allow the knees to buckle inwards, this adds more tension to the quads & points to weakness in the hamstrings.
Go Deep (But not too deep…!) – If the hips don’t go below the knee joint, it’s only a partial squat. If you can’t go deep, the weights too heavy. Contrary to the thought that deep squats place extra stress on the knees & hips, it is partial squats that place higher shearing forces on the knee joints. However, don’t feel the need to go ‘Ass To Grass’. There is no added benefit to going any lower than 90-degrees at the hips.
Raising The Bar
Maintain Body Position – As we mentioned above, push the knees outwards as you squat upwards. Lift with the hips, whilst maintaining the neutral alignment of the neck, chest up. Squeeze the glutes as you drive up. This will help drive up the bar, whilst also helping to protect the lower back.
Try these tips out and see how you get on. Always seek professional advice when first starting with complex movements such as the squat & deadlift, and always start off light. You can progress your lifts much easier than you can take weight off after injuring yourself!