The squat is one of the more complicated lifts in Strength Training.
The squat is one you most often see done wrong in the gym (if you see anyone doing it at all). This is a very big lift that makes you want to roll over and die while you’re doing it and makes you feel like the Hulk after you crush a heavy set. So lets go over some tips to help you squat better.
I’ve seen people get better at squatting in recent years, but for those who need some brushing up, we’ll go over some do’s and don’ts.
Common mistakes in the squat
There are two main errors people make when squatting.
- Not firing the muscles in the correct sequence.
- Not going low enough.
The first problem stems from one of two things, not having enough experience lifting or not being focused during the set. So you’re either a new lifter and you haven’t really learned the movement yet, or you are just going through the motions, letting the stronger muscles do the work while the weaker ones lag behind.
I touched on this in a previous post, “How to Crush Your Weight Lifting Sets.” I used the back squat as an example. If you don’t focus on your form, you’ll end up with your head down and your ass in the air. So let’s start there and learn how to squat better.
How to Back Squat Better
To make your form better in the back squat, you have to focus your mind on both driving your feet through the floor and your shoulders to the ceiling. These both need to happen at the same time, and the more weight you have on the bar, the more focus you’ll need. This is a compound lift; one that many consider to be the king of lifts, and it requires more effort than the leg press.
Just working on this is a great way to back squat better. However, lets see where else we can improve.
- The Setup
As you step under the bar, grip it as tight as you can, and I do mean tight. Try to leave your hand print in the knurling. This will excite the nervous system so you will have more strength. (That’s one of my favorite hacks you can use on almost any lift). Then, retract your shoulders, and let the bar sit on your traps. Unrack, step back, breathe and focus. Keep your elbows directly under the bar and your chin either neutral or slightly elevated (I like to go with elevated).
- The Execution
This is the important part; with intent, drop down to the bottom and drive back up. Like I said before, push your feet through the floor and your shoulders to the ceiling. You sort of push backwards against the bar to activate the lower back muscles so you can stand upright in one, fluid motion.
Try to keep your knees from collapsing in or bowing out. You have to find the stance that works best for you. I like to have my toes pointed slightly outward with my feet just slightly wider than shoulder width most of the time.
Your stance is very important in learning to squat better. Once you find the right stance, your squat will instantly improve.
As for the Valsalva maneuver (holding your breath during the lift), I probably disagree with most people. I don’t think it will help you squat better or do any lift better for that matter.
Maybe it’s because of my martial arts background, but I like to exhale during the concentric portion of the lift. I always feel stronger like that.
The Valsalva maneuver supposed to create pressure in the abdomen so you’re more stable. That’s always sounded like nonsense to me. You create a stable abdomen by bracing your abs. You don’t need to hold your breath to do that. It just seems so counter intuitive to hold your breath during exercise. Maybe it’s just me.
Once you understand the form, you can start to fix your depth. If you’re still not dropping all the way down, butt to heels, then you’re leaving SO MUCH strength on the table. Learning to go all the way down is not just learning to squat better, it’s learning to squat, period.
- The Depth of Your Strength
As for the safety concerns, it’s pretty well know now that the bottom of the squat is not bad for your knees. There is some conflicting research, but you should be able to ask anyone who’s started squatting low. You’ll find that knee pain actually decreases when going to the bottom of the squat. I can also attest that my knee pain went away once I started squatting all the way down.
Letting your knees go out past your toes just a little is also just fine. It happens every time you walk up some stairs or do step ups. The bottom of the squat gives you the most stimulus on the vastus medialis portion of the quads, which is good for your knee, particularly your ACL, as it helps pull the knee into proper alignment.
You may find it difficult to get into the bottom position. This is simply due to a lack of range of motion in your ankles. You can’t get your knees far enough forward. Having your tibias vertical with a load on your back means your center of gravity is behind you. So you feel like you’ll fall on your ass (and you will). You can make your ankles more flexible over time, but there are ways to get into the bottom of the squat today.
I’ve already talked about stance. Having your toes pointed slightly out will help you get all the way down. The other thing you’ll need to do is elevate your heels. That will allow your tibias to lean forward and keep your center of gravity over your feet where it belongs.
I recommend a good pair of weight lifting shoes to elevate your heels. You can find them on Amazon for a pretty good price. Try these:
You don’t have to spend a fortune, but you do get what you pay for. One of my toenails still doesn’t grow quite right. My big toe was injured a few years ago by the crease in a pair of off brand weight lifting shoes. Once I broke them in, they were fine. I still use them today, but if I could go back, I’d spend a little more. The Adidas ones are pretty popular.
If you don’t have it in the budget to spend $100 dollars on shoes, then tell your girlfriend to stop spending all your damn money. Just kidding ladies. You can get around this with another one of my favorite lifting hacks. Put a 10 lbs plate underneath each heel. That will do the trick for just about anybody.
Finally, you’ll need to lean forward slightly in the upper body as you go down. That’s also necessary to keeping your center of gravity centered in the bottom position.
Helpful Tips So You Can Front Squat Better
Not much more to say for the front squat that wasn’t said for the back squat. Getting comfortable with this simply takes time and practice. You don’t need to worry as much about falling backwards with this since the weight is in front of you, but I still like to wear my weight lifting shoes when I front squat.
Can I just say I hate the Janda position? I don’t know who thinks, “Jeez, this front squat is kind of choking me. Let me rest all this weight right on my front delts. I’m sure it won’t roll off to the floor.” Maybe that takes practice and getting used to, but if that’s the case, then you might as well use the real front squat. It always feels like the bar is going to fall off of my shoulders with the Janda. It’s easier to hold it in place with the traditional position.
It takes a little flexibility in the shoulders and wrists, but that comes quickly with persistence. Getting over the slight choking feeling is just a matter of nutting up. After a while, you won’t even feel it. Working on this position is key to helping you front squat better.
So that’s my advice for squatting. It’s not a strength training program if it doesn’t have some squats in it.
As always, thanks for reading.