Struggling with your Squat?
5 Tips to Improve Your Squat
The squat can be a beautiful thing when executed in the right fashion. The symbolism of the movement itself - having a weight on your shoulders and standing up defying gravity’s will. Many lifters, both casual and competitive, perform the movement, but very few have mastered it. Building a great squat is not complicated, but it is far from simple. A great deal of nuance must be considered once the basics are mastered. It takes far more than a strong set of legs to develop a noteworthy squat. Let’s review 5 tips to solidify position and maximize performance.
Rooting into the floor
Why do we care about the foot? Well, for starters, the foot is base of support for the body and our connection with the floor. It also one of the most highly concentrated areas of sensory nerve endings in the body, behind only the genitals and the hands. When engaged and acting on the ground, the foot is greatly responsible for movement and function up the kinetic chain. Without proper foot function, movement faults can be soon to follow, commonly seen in the ankle, knee, hip and low back, but not uncommonly in the shoulders as well – we move as a system and everything is connected.
Proper rooting begins by creating the largest surface area possible and splaying the toes. We want to create a “tripod” with the big toe, pinky toe and heel and visualize gripping the floor like a monkey and twisting it underneath us. This is accompanied by a strong activation about the hip and active external rotation. This external rotation should not be conflated with rolling onto the outside of the foot, which would weaken the connection with the floor.
This process of rooting stabilizes the foot with a strong arch and allows us to recruit the most musculature possible upstream through the concept of irradiation. Irradiation can be conceptualized as creating whole body tension. Sherrington’s Law of Irradiation states: “A muscle working hard recruits the neighbouring muscles, and if they are already part of the action, it amplifies their strength. The neural impulses emitted by the contracting muscle reach other muscles and ‘turn them on’ as an electric current starts a motor.”
“Package Deal” bracing
Once we have a connection with the ground and are firmly rooted through the feet, we need to drive our focus towards creating a strong and stable brace. This involved centration of the pelvis and ribcage and creation of internal pressure around the spine. The erectors, lats, abdominal musculature and the glute/hip complex all must be fully leveraged to create the strongest brace possible. Force is transferred from the ground through the core into the barbell, so we cannot afford any laxity within the system that could potentially limit the amount of weight we can load on the barbell.
When executing the brace, we want to conceptualize it with a top down approach starting with a strong nasal inhalation. Breathing through the nose helps to recruit the diaphragm and pelvic floor to a greater degree. This musculature makes up the top and bottom of the abdominopelvic cavity. Once we take our big breath, we want to pull the head tall and chin back to achieve a relatively neutral head position. We want to drive the elbows down to lock in the lats. We then squeeze the glutes and quads to eliminate any anterior or posterior pelvic tilt. Finally, we want to lock in the brace by contracting the abdominal musculature to create 360 degrees of pressure around the spine. This all happens as a “package deal.” That is to say, that the step-wise process of solidifying the abdominal brace happens together while the breath is being taken.
Hips first – Hinge vs. Anterior Pelvic Tilt (APT)
Now that we have established our brace, we are ready to begin the squat. All squats done for the purpose of lifting the most amount of weight should start with a hip hinge. While this often gets conflated in discussion, the hip hinge is essential for the loading sequence of the musculature responsible for hip extension to finish the squat. Often coaches will avoid the hinge because it is challenging to teach. This is due to the fact that the default for most lifters is to resort to an anterior pelvic tilt (APT).
The difference between a hinge and an APT is the relationship between the ribs and pelvic. In a hinge, the ribs and pelvis maintain their stacked positioning. When the lifter defaults to APT, the anterior aspect of the pelvis moves away from the ribcage and we increase compression and sheer through the spine. If we visualize a bucket of water in the pelvis, a hinge would not spill the water, while an APT would pour water out of the front of the pelvis. When in APT, the musculature of the hip complex cannot be leveraged appropriately to stabilize the pelvis during the movement, resulting in loss of tension and compensation patterns up and down stream.
As mentioned previously, the hinge is essential for eccentrically loading the musculature responsible for hip extension. When loading a movement, what gets loaded first, gets loaded most and we want to load from largest to smallest. If we don’t load a muscle eccentrically, it cannot be used to its potential on the concentric. We hinge to maximize tension in the musculature of the posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings, and adductor complex). These muscles, whom are also responsible for tracking of the knee joint, control the eccentric of the squat. If we fail to load them appropriately, the eccentric load falls solely on the quads, which are weak in comparison. The eccentric loading of the squat reverses the order of the concentric loading: Hip flexion 🡪 Knee flexion 🡪 Knee extension 🡪 Hip extension
Hinging properly and loading the posterior chain also resolves many common movement faults we see on the concentric. How you start is how you finish, so if you start out of position, bad positions tend to follow. Hinging ensures we maintain a stable pelvis by leveraging both the anterior oblique sling of the adductors and obliques, as well as the posterior oblique sling of the lats and glutes. It allows us to maximize tension through the whole system. Faults such as knee valgus, or the hips shooting up out of the bottom are typically resolved through improvement in hinge mechanics.
“Pay attention to the tension. The tension is your teacher.”- Jay Nera.
“Puppet on a string”
As we execute the squat, we want to maintain a vertical bar path throughout. This path should more or less be centered on the midfoot of the lifter. In order to do that, we need to resist the force of the barbell driving forward. An inability to maintain this positioning is typically the result of a fault with the intent of the head position and the resulting breakdown in upper back positioning. The upper back, which so happens to be the attachment point of the barbell to the body, responds directly to the intent of the head. A neutral and retracted head position tends to results in a stable upper back. Changes to this positioning tend to have a direct impact of foot pressure and consequently changes to the bar path.
Cueing the lifter to maintain a tall posture like a “puppet on a string” will usually result in a neutral head position and a stable midfoot pressure. If the bar stays over the midfoot, the hips remain as close to the vertical bar path as possible which also reduces sheer force on the low back. This cue should allow the lifter to conceptualize the crown of their head being pulled to the ceiling, rather than a cue like “head up,” or “chest up” which tend to result in an extension posture and loss of pelvic position.
Last, but certainly not least, once we are in an optimal position, we can focus on force production. This is mentioned last because if we’re not in good position, the application of force is relatively useless. The concept of compensatory acceleration was popularized by Dr. Fred Hatfield aka. “Dr. Squat.” He looked at creating maximal force on a loaded barbell in terms of physics.
Force = Mass * Acceleration
If we focus on maximal acceleration, we can produce maximal force against a submaximal load. Maximal force also drives motor unit recruitment. This concept allowed him to build world class strength, while lifting submaximal weights. Essentially, he lifted light weights as if they were his one rep max.
Compensatory acceleration training also leverages the stretch/shortening cycle of the muscles under load. During the eccentric of the lift, we store mechanical potential energy within the muscle fibers. When executing the squat with a stable base of support, locked-in brace and a proper hinge, we maximize tension within the muscular system. This energy is released with maximal intent when initiating the concentric. This is the final piece of the squat puzzle. We optimize position, then execute violently.
Building a strong squat starts from the ground up with a stable connection through the foot. Using a package-deal bracing strategy, we stack the ribs and pelvis and create 360-degree pressure around the spine. We begin the movement with a hinge at the hips and load in reverse order from the concentric. We create maximal tension within the system. As we descend, we maintain a tall posture and even foot pressure to keep the bar over the mid-foot. Once we hit the bottom with good positions, we aim to accelerate the load with maximal intent to drive force production. If you master these concepts, you’ll no doubt be on your way to building a squat that’ll turn people’s heads.