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Abstract Qualities of the Squat

Thank you to Shira Joudan for editing.

The squat has this weird place in powerlifting. It isn’t hated as much as the bench press but it’s notably more terrifying than the deadlift. Likely because you know exactly how heavy the weight is before you start the lift. Anyways, just like the Bench article (HERE), in this article we will go over common inefficiencies and ways to fix them.

We are going to work from bottom up as we look at the squat today starting with the feet and moving up the body to the head. We will also talk about some specific movement patterns and what you will want those to feel like.

“Take your time and get your feet”

I’ve probably said this a hundred times this year to my various athletes (you can become one here). One of the biggest things I see in the squat is a lack of getting the feet planted and “turned on”. Getting our feet planted allows us to get the rest of our parts moving properly. What this means is that having our feet planted and active to allow for external rotation and tension to be maintained. Keeping this tension allows for the posterior chain to stay in effective pushing position. Doing this will also help alleviate a lot of knee valgus. Lack of foot activation exacerbates any collapse through the knees that you often see. What this foot failure will look like is either the feet rolling inwards towards each other as the lifter ascends or the heels twisting into each other as the lifter hits depth.

So how do we fix this? The first part is getting our feet planted or rooted, meaning getting our foot arches pulled up and getting our big toe pushed down. Another way to think of this is to get on the outside of your feet, then push the ball of your feet down, and finally you clamp the toes to the ground and pull them back. If you are standing up and working through this, you should feel your quads flex slightly and some tension through the hamstrings and glutes. This should make hitting depth doing air squats more difficult as you should have more tension built up on the descent.

Now that our feet are planted we are going to activate them. Nothing crazy here, just making sure we are doing one of two main things. The first option is to spread the floor. To do this I mean almost like standing on a towel and trying to stretch it out. Stretch the towel as you go down and go up. This is actually a viable variation or accessory to do. Especially if you can do this barefoot to drill both cues at the same time. The other option we have is to screw our feet to the floor. To do this we will plant our feet. Push the toes down and then push the toe end of our foot outwards to the side. Your feet shouldn’t actually move but you will feel your legs light up with a tad more tension. Now ideally you would be able to do both cues at the same time but if one doesn’t “click” with you then just focus on nailing down the other.

It is very important to make sure you make a habit of not rushing this step. Really focus on building your walkout ritual around getting your feet planted well and efficiently. This is one of the first things I see disappear when people get hyped up for big lifts.

Taking the breath and bracing

So we’ve walked out our squat, gotten our feet set and are getting ready to descend. Now what? Firstly we need to make sure we are in a compact position. To do this we will focus on breathing into our belt and pushing the diaphragm down. Think about breathing and pushing that inhaled air down as far as you can. After this we will depress the scapula and pull the shoulders down. As we pull the shoulders down we are going to push the ribs down onto the deep inhale that you just took and held. Make sure you are pushing the ribs down 360° around your trunk and not just in the front. At this point we will push out 360° with our breath into the belt/trunk. You should feel quite squished together at this point and very upright, not bent forward.

Chest up is a bad cue

Ok so this is clickbait but its 2019 so you’re used to it. The problem I have with too many coaches who use the “chest up” cue is that there isn’t an adequate explanation of what it means. Too often I see athletes interpret the chest up cue as an active thoracic extension. This obviously creates a drop in abdominal tension which often causes the lifter to collapse in the hole. To fix this we will change “chest up” into a three part process:

  1. Firstly we will continue to work on getting into scapular retraction and depression. This does two things: compacts the trunk to shorten the lever arm and secondly allows the upper back to get locked and loaded with tension. As we take in our breath and lock in our brace, the shoulders are pulled down to lock the ribs onto the belt.

  2. After this, we will push the elbows down and forward to get external rotation on the shoulder and to get the lats activated. You can push forward with the elbows relatively hard. As shown below by 2017 M1 93kg world champion Brandon Summers. The video also shows a very active elbow movement, but you may find that just getting the elbows locked in a tension generating position at the beginning of the lift and keeping them there to be more efficient.

  3. The final step, and you can interchange the order of this cue and elbows forward, is to pull the bar down into your back. As you go through the squat you will generate tension from the elbows and pull the bar down simultaneously. This is your new ‘chest up’.

So what does failure to maintain this tension look like? Usually this will look like a dip forward right as the lifter starts to push out from the bottom of the squat. Most types of upper back rounding in the squat are a result of this as well.

Hip Hinge

As we initiate we want to make sure we don’t lose any of the tightness that we just generated during our setup. To do this we will get our hip hinge locked in to make sure we can stay in this good position on the descent. One of the things we want to make sure during the hip hinge is that we aren’t entering an anterior pelvic tilt as the hips shift back. This is to make sure we are maintaining a neutral spine and abdominal wall. Losing either will cause a tension leak at that will likely lead to some type of collapse during the movement.

So now what are we actually going to do? As we unrack the bar, get our brace and upper back set and initiate the descent we will start by shifting the hips backwards to put tension onto the glutes and hamstrings. At the same time we will be pulling the bar down and pulling the rib cage down towards the floor. Think of a rope pulling your pelvis straight back and a rope pulling your rib cage straight down. Hip hinge is shown excellently in the video below. If you are a lifter who tends to run out of depth as the lift gets heavier it’s quite likely that working on your hinge will help you hit depth better.

So to round everything off with a TL;DR

  1. Get feet planted and toes down.

  2. Spread the floor or twist the feet

  3. Breathe into the stomach and clamp the ribs down.

  4. Pull the shoulders down.

  5. Pull the elbows forward.

  6. Pull the bar down.

  7. Hinge at the hips and descend.

I hope everything in this article makes sense and that you find something useful out of this. If there is any questions feel free to get into contact with me.

Matt Goldsmith.

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