“Nobody cares how much weight you can lift badly”. This is something I repeat to myself on a regular basis. Since I very first started weight training, I’ve been obsessed with a having a mammoth squat. The problem? I wasn’t very good at squatting. For the first few years of my training career I prioritised weight over form and ego over progress. This lead to stagnation, frustration and injury. My main issue with the squat was hip shooting up and turning the lift in to more of a back extension than leg based movement. If this has been your problem as well, this article will explain how to fix it.
I’m very lucky. I’ve been shit at a lot of things. I’ve gotten myself injured quite frequently and I’ve written a lot of programmes for myself to no avail. Doesn’t sound that fortunate does it? Well in fact, what may seem like a streak of bad luck has actually been extremely beneficial for me. Why? Because I’ve learnt from all of these mistakes, especially in the squat.
In the words of Gray Cook, “do not add strength to dysfunction”. I have my own version of this phrase which is “Don’t add volume to shite”. You could go to every single lifting seminar hosted by all the world leaders in strength and conditioning coaches; one unanimous thing they would all agree on is that technique trumps everything.
Now before we get in to the bulk of the article there are a few things you need to consider. Is the issue you have a with your squat a genuine weakness or is it through poor loading choices, ego and therefore bad form?
The Stripper Squat
The big 3, the holy trinity, the squat, bench press and deadlift. They can either be a beautifully executed work of art or a one way ticket to Snap City. For the bench press it’s the flared elbow half a lock out movement. With the deadlift it’s the rounded lower back, cat stretch pull. When it comes to the squat, most “bad formers” are guilty of barely hitting parallel and then turning the exercise in to a “Good Morning”.
I used to do this a lot, much to the amusement of my co-workers.
“I just have poor mobility”
“I’m not built for squatting”
“It’s acceptable when doing low bar squats”
These were all my common “reasons” for not doing the exercise properly. All it actually boiled down to was two factors; being weak and being impatient.
The squat is very different to the deadlift. I had a great discussion about this with both Brett Jones from Strong First and Wolfgang Unsold from YPSI Stuttgart. The way I see it, the squat is a lot more fluid whereas the deadlift is more mechanical. A mechanical lift can be broken down and worked on in specific commodities. A fluid movement needs practise and a lot of it. It doesn’t mean you can’t have the opposite approach for either lift, but it’s just a rule of thumb. If you want to get better at squatting; squat.
So what’s my reason for ensuring our squats don’t look like that of an elicit Miley Cyrus video? Well it’s that the chest down, ass up movement when done incorrectly is just plain unsafe. Forward lean squats don’t just look ugly, they put a considerable load through the lumber vertebrae. If your bracing is incorrect and you regularly have to rely on back extending the weight up, you will be increasing the likelihood of injury.
It also boils down to movement patterns. If you do something regularly enough, your brain registers it as normal. When your go to movement is a chest collapse once the weight gets heavy, you create a vicious cycle where the movement gets ingrained and compensatory muscles get stronger.
One thing I will definitely vouch for, is that everyones squat stance, depth and bar placement will be different. From observation, people will longer femurs will make themselves susceptible to a forward lean when adopting a high bar position. However, this doesn’t make it an excuse for bad form. In a situation like this, you have to ask yourself why it is that you’re squatting. If it’s for strength performance, you can build strength with lighter loads in the high bar and demonstrate strength with a low bar position.
You can learn more about this concept by download my top 10 tips on Squatting and Deadlifting here.
Correcting the movement – My Top 3 Exercise Variations
1. Long Pause Safety Bar Squat
The safety bar has an excellent transfer to remaining upright in the squat. There are however, two ways in which you can execute this movement that make the carry over very different. Increasing the proficiency, not the weight of this exercise will make you stronger. If you have to pull the bar in, engaging the lats and posterior chain more during the biting point of the exercise, then the weight is too heavy. All you are doing is re-iterating a movement pattern but with a different bar.
Elbows must be kept high so that the emphasis remains on the quads and abdominals. I’m a big fan of prolonged pauses at the bottom of a squat for two reasons. Firstly, it takes away all stored elasticity, so you can’t bounce out of the bottom of the movement and use momentum. Secondly, it helps improve your breathing patterns so that you remain properly braced throughout the entire exercise. In my opinion, one of the most common reasons people’s hips shoot up when coming out of the bottom of the squat is because they don’t know how to breathe and brace properly.
I would cycle using a belt for this exercise dependant on where you are in a programme. During early accumulation phases, beltless work is ideal as it means the loads will be lower by default. It also builds raw strength which carries over nicely to equip strength. This being said, belted squats can be incredibly useful as a cue if you drive your abs hard in to belt just before driving out of the bottom of the exercise.
2. Safety Bar Good Mornings
It may seem counter productive to practice the exact movement you’re trying to avoid. However, I’ve found a lot of success in using this exercise in conjunction with low bar squatting. Strengthening the posterior chain, especially through hip extension with the same bar placement, will help in maintaining position at the bottom of the movement. It also, although this isn’t really the objective, gives you a better chance of rescuing a lift if you happen to loose positioning at any point.
I’m a big fan of the phrase “Strengthen the lower back and strength radiates throughout the body”. This is very true and so there’s never any harm doing more lower back specific work to strengthen the squat. This would be especially true if you’re more of a hip dominant squatter. People who have to lean back a lot just to hit depth with require very strong glutes and hamstrings by default. Biomechanics will mean the quads will be less involved with the movement. That is why I would recommend doing this exercise along with number 3.
3. Cyclist Front Squats - 1 and a half reps
Cyclist simply means heels elevated and with a close stance. This increases range of motion at the ankle and so increases quad recruitment for the exercise. When it boils down to it, having strong legs is always going to help with squatting. Front squats are fantastic for this and this variation is excellent for building “out of the hole” strength.
When doing the 1 and a half reps, it’s important to not rely too not much on the stretch reflex and bounce out of the bottom. We’re looking to build strength and quality muscle contraction, not just increase numbers for the sake of it. Being honest and strict with this exercise will reap rewards in both knee stability and extension. You’ll build more powerful quads, but more specifically stronger Vastus Mediallis’. This is great for tracking of the knee and keeping it in the right alignment.
With the squat, don’t chase weight, chase perfection. This doesn’t mean being conservative with your intensities, it means doing the movement correctly and earning the right increase the weight. I’ve included all of these exercises in my next 12 week plan and will document all my improvements as I go along.