Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Tips for a better squat (from a mediocre squatter)

If I were asked what is the single measure I recommend the whole humanity adopts to improve their lives, I would answer without hesitation (and only half jokingly) “squat”. Not meaning I do not give a damn about the question, but to assert squatting as frequently as possible, with as much weight on their backs as possible, is the one measure that is going to provide a bigger bang for their (collective) buck, the one that with a minimal amount of time and with a lesser degree of uncertainty is going to have the bigger positive impact in their health, their well-being, their self confidence, their overall outlook on life, their happiness and  their ability to achieve any other goal they set for themselves. From the Kalahari desert to the Upper West Side of New York, from Tunguska to Usuhaia, everybody should be squatting until they can go down and then up again with at least double their bodyweight on their backs, regardless of age, gender, faith or sexual preference. Even if they never get there (I myself am not squatting yet that famed 2xBW, but I’m getting tantalizingly close by the year) the journey is well worth the effort, and their lives will get markedly better just for trying. I dare to say that before setting a UBI (Universal Basic Income), which would only change the lives of a fraction of humanity and whose results are still uncertain, I would have everybody squatting regularly, as I have zero doubts that would improve their lives faster and more deeply.

Easy for me to say, you may argue, as I have been squatting more or less regularly for a good part of the last thirty years (albeit with some considerable stretches lacking any resistance training), but for the vast majority of human beings the prospect of loading a bar with weighted plates, putting that bar across their backs to crouch down and then stand back again seems daunting, even threatening. It is to that majority (people with no lifting background, or very little, and most of it taken from instructors at commercial gyms) that I’m directing these post or series of posts, as I intend to cover quite some ground here, although going through the basics can occasionally be beneficial even for more experienced lifters. So before going to the tips for improving the movement, we will start by describing it, and its main variants.

As the name implies, the movement we are talking about consists in squatting; according to our old friend Merriam-Webster “to bend your knees and lower your body so you are close to your heels or sitting on your heels” (a funny definition come to think about it… how would it be possible not to be close to your own heels? I think I’ve been pretty close to mine since I was born, and I hope to stay so since I die, regardless of how much I crouch). Its first documented usage was in the XV century, coming from the Middle English squatten (crush, crouch in hiding), which as so many English words comes in turn from the French esquatir or escuater, originated in the Latin coactire (to squeeze, interesting etymology we will probably exploit later on). As befits such ancient term, squatting is one of the human body basic patterns of movement, and most traditional societies use it as the main form of resting. The comparatively modern custom of resting in a very high platform (what we call a “chair”) is, evolutionary speaking, a very recent invention, and during most of our species’ history whenever we didn’t have anything in particular to do that required standing upright, we just crouched down and stayed there for whatever duration, something most people in Western societies have sadly lost the ability to do. Being such a common feature of our existence for such a long time, it stands to reason we have evolved many specific adaptations to get in and out of such position. Indeed,  almost all the main muscles of the body get involved in the act of squatting and standing, either contracting and relaxing or just staying contracted (isometric activity) to keep balance and maintain the right angles between the different limbs. This can be easily ascertained by just practicing it a couple of time, and as any practiced squatter would tell you, after a heavy set you feel the exertion in all your body, from the plantar flexors of the feet to the eyelids.

For reasons I’ll not get into (as I intuit this series is going to be already very long without going into such detail) skeletal muscles respond to their frequent use by getting stronger and improving their ability to withstand further exertion. That means that just squatting and standing up again is a wonderful exercise for strengthening almost all of the muscles of the body, with the potential to improve all the capabilities that demand the involvement of such muscles. That is, everything physical we humans do that require a body, from standing up to moving grocery bags, from sleeping (yup, that heavily depends on your physical condition too) to making love (of course) is liable to be done more efficiently, more pleasurably, with less exertion and more mastery, just by squatting more. For the 80 year old granny as much as for the 20 year old jock. For the underweight anorexic housewife as much as for the overweight middle aged salesman with a heart condition. It doesn’t matter at what level you start, squatting is going to improve your life, and it will improve it in direct proportion to the effort you devote to it. So even if your very first squat is done with no added weight at all, and for just one rep because you get too winded after that one, and with partial depth because you are too stiff to go any deeper, that squat has already had some benefit for you (a very small one, I’m not going to tell you doing the equivalent of going for a dump once every other month is going to turn you into a Navy SEAL). There is a slight catch, though. I mentioned you will reap the benefits in proportion to the effort you put, but for that to happen, you have to continuously increase that effort. The first isolated partial squat already helps you, but if all you keep doing are single partial squats every now and then its beneficial effect will very quickly wear out, and you won’t see much improvement. At some point you need to either try to go a bit deeper, or add a second squat after the first. And a little later you either go deeper still, or you add a third rep… You probably see where this is going. Squatting is great, but it is a never ending journey. With time will come proficiency, and with proficiency a vast landscape opens up about how to keep improving (you can play with the total amount of reps, the weight, the speed at which you move, the rest between sets, different variants of the exercise, etc.) But as every journey, be it never ending or not, it starts with the first step, and that is what we are going to talk about here.

In what follows we will concern ourselves mainly with the variants done with a barbell, a wondrous contraption that allows for minutely calibrated increments in its weight, as those increments will facilitate immeasurably the progression that as we said before has to occur for the exercise to continue delivering all of its positive effects. That doesn’t mean you can not squat with any other implement, from a sand bag to your spouse (I have used my patient wife as makeshift resistance in a pinch, and convicts are forced to resort to that alternative more frequently, although manipulating their weight so it constantly increases in a gradual manner can get tricky), but to learn the basics there is just no alternative, regarding convenience and safety, to the barbell. There are three main classes of barbell squats, in two of them the bar rests behind the neck (on the back, hence their denomination of “back squats”) and in the other it rests in front of the neck, on the deltoid muscles (predictably called “front squat”). In addition to those there is an almost limitless number of variations (overhead squat, goblet squat, zercher squat, belt squat, split squats, dumbbell squats, jump squats…) with which we will not occupy ourselves for the time being. The two variants of the back squat we will be dealing with are distinguished by the position of the bar. In the first one, the bar rests on the back deltoids and medium trapezius muscles, roughly at the same height than the spine of the scapulas, and we will refer to it as “low bar” back squat, or for short, LBBS. In the second one the bar rests a few inches higher, in the upper trapezius, so it is known as “high bar” back squat, from now on HBBS. The apparently minimal difference notwithstanding, countless gallons of ink have been spilled extolling the virtues and vices of one kind against the other (and the discussion, unbelievable as it may sound to novices, can get pretty ugly, and indeed it has many times), and as a matter of fact the physiological differences of using one style instead of the other can be significant. A little schematic drawing can help us understand why:

Simplifying things a bit, we may say that the momentum in the two main joints (knees and hips) can be significantly different in each variant. Momentum for a circular movement is defined as the product between the force W (made basically by the barbell, directed vertically downwards, and that for the whole movement has to stay as close as possible to the center of the foot so we do not loose balance) and the perpendicular distance between where the force is applied and the center of the circle that bounds the movement (in this case the joint). In the LBBS the horizontal distance between the knee and the bar (L2) is short, so there is relatively low momentum at the knee, while the horizontal distance between the hip and the bar (L1) is substantially greater, so there is a quite high momentum at the hip. This is the reason why most people can squat the most with this style, as the muscles involved to overcome the momentum at the hip (the hip extensors) are some of the strongest muscles of the body (hamstrings and gluteus).

On the other hand side, in the HBBS we have to keep a more upright position, so the hip does not travel so far backwards. That shortens the lever arm at the hip (the horizontal distance between the hip and the bar, L1, is smaller), but it lengthens the one at the knee (L2). This kind of squat is thus more demanding of the knee extensors (the quadriceps), which is a comparatively weaker muscle in most people than the ones in the powerful posterior chain, and that explains why most people can squat high bar substantially less than what they can low bar squat. However, it has a significant advantage over the LBBS, especially for people training with minimal equipment: if you train heavier and heavier you will get closer and closer to your limits, and sooner or later you may find yourself in a position where you have gone down with more weight in your back than what you can stand up with. If you have spotters or are squatting within a power rack (we will talk about those later on) you trust in them to take off part of the weight and thus complete the lift (or just leave the bar in the rack safety pins). But if you are all alone with no rack, a limit LBBS is a tricky proposition, as you find yourself in a position where you can only fold under the bar like an old newspaper, and you end up under a heavy bar with no way out, while a similarly limit HBBS allows you to, with very little practice, just throw the bar slightly backwards while with a little jump forward you get out of harm’s  way effortlessly. So if you plan to squat alone and do not have access to a rack, HBBS may be the more recommendable way to go.

Finally, the front squat has many of the features of the HBBS, only more so (as the position is more upright the lever arm is even shorter at the hip and may be even longer at the knee, depending on flexibility). It has the added limiting factor of depending on the upper back muscles contracting hard enough, long enough to support the bar, and that further reduces the amount of weight it can be used. It is great for improving the flexibility of both the upper and the lower body, and specially it does wonders for the posture of the upper back, but for programming purposes it is best considered as an accessory movement, of special importance for those willing to pursue Olympic weightlifting.

Once we have settled on the type of squat that may be best suited for our particular needs (we'll tell a bit more about that when we get to the tips), it’s time to get to work. Starting with the empty bar, and after accommodating it in the chosen position, we should get a big breath in, unlock the hips first, then immediately unlock the knees and lower the hip as much as we can (which, especially at the beginning, should be much lower than what you originally thought), trying to keep the bar in a trajectory as vertical as possible and over a point halfway between the ball of the feet and the heel. Once down there we should change direction and go back to the starting position, and once we have safely achieved it (and both knees and hip are firmly locked again) we can let the air go, and put the bar back to the supporting structure we took it off from (or go for a second rep). Only when we have mastered the movement with the empty bar, and we feel confident enough we are ready for more challenging weights should we start loading it, as gradually as our circumstances recommend (again, we’ll deal with this a bit more in detail later on). But before moving on to bigger weights we have to ingrain a number of rules that will ensure we lift safely and that every move contributes to a better, more capable body, and not to an injured one:

·         The lower back stays “flat” with a neutral lordotic curve, neither in hyperlordosis nor in extension –something that can be difficult to achieve at first, especially if we have shortened or overly tight hamstrings due to spending too many hours seated, so it is advisable to have somebody check it for you (or to videotape it until we have a reliable proprioception of how it should “feel” like). The back tends to round more markedly when you are in the bottom position (known as the infamous "butt wink"), so that's the point you want to have checked with extra attention.
·         Knees track toes (femur stays parallel to feet), so the weight inside the knee is uniformly distributed (no internal rotation causing differential stress in the meniscus). When going up, knees do not "cave in" (do not move towards each other).
·         Heels down, stay firmly planted in the floor during all the move (that keeps the weight evenly distributed between the balls of the feet and the heels, a useful cue can be to wiggle the toes before each rep to ensure we are not leaning too far forward)
·         Bar supported firmly on traps/ delts –not wrists, and no strain is conducted to elbows
·         Chest out (both to help support the bar on the back, and to avoid excessive rounding of thoracic spine and cervical vertebrae)

With these you would have all the bases covered to start squatting safely and productively. In the next post about this subject I will cover the equipment needed and I hope to be able to provide the tips I promised on the title.


  1. Thanks. Good to get some uses of the High Bar squat, as so far I have only read Rippetoe's Starting Strength and it only covers the Low Bar.

    I started out really struggling with grip flexibility, and needed a really wide grip. Over the course of the last six months I have been able to narrow it, but struggle to keep my wrists straight even if lifting elbows...

    I did read about Shoulder Dislocations, and tried once, but without much success or persistence.

  2. Hi Rob. Bent wrists are not necessarily a (big) problem, especially if you manage to keep the elbows up so the weight of the bar does not rest on them. The role of the wrist is to transmit force horizontally, so the bar stays pressed against the rear deltoids, and that it can do safely even with a slight bend. The litmus test is to be able to do high rep sets without pain or discomfort afterwards. If it hurts, it was indeed too bent.
    Dislocates are truly effective to improve the overall mobility of the shoulder girdle, and I can not recommend them too much. All you need is a broomstick and less than a minute per session to perform 10-15. I have grown used to doing them after bench pressing (and sometimes also before), and I think they make my shoulders more stable and my pecs less tight: I used to have some aches in my right pec –the stronger one, so it probably bore more of the load unconsciously, probably for going for too heavy weights too fast, and they have disappeared since I do the dislocates more regularly…
    btw, I still owe you that post on how I got back to lifting when I was close to 40 YO... it's right now in the back burner, but hope to get to it this month (I may finish first one on the deadlift, as I'm finding a lot of education is needed on that one out there, we'll see)

  3. Thanks, I will try the high rep sets - generally I don't find it uncomfortable and do keep the weight on my back instead of into wrists.

    I dug up a long piece of doweling from the loft last night to re-try the dislocates.

    I liked your squat II and III articles too - and will comment shortly. Speaking of which, where on earth do you find the time to write so often and comprehensively. I think I need to move to Spain! ;-)

  4. Hah, hah, you got me with that one! I once said I was unfocused, as instead of writing endlessly verbose blog posts I should be doing the work I'm paid for and finishing my dissertation (which has been for months trapped in an Achiles & tortoise loop). Maybe I'm rather focused on the wrong things, or cyclically focused in different things, and now is the turn of blogging mania...