Rest assured, no bodybuilkder has conquered every idiosyncratic malady that puts the kibosh on heavy lift attempts. The squat, with all its moving parts, presents us grand opportunities to give those maladies power over our performance. But by identifying, and rectifying, a few, common squat problems we can overcome our faults and squat like a monster.
Focusing on the Quads
Legendary athlete and trainer Dan John has a great anecdote about folks that say squatting hurts their knees. I'm paraphrasing, but it goes something like this:
That might hurt your knees, but whatever you're doing isn't a squat.
These illegitimate, pain-causing movements are the traps we fall into when we focus on the exercise categorization minutiae of "this is a quad exercise" or "this is a glute exercise." We expound this thought process to joints (knee dominant, hip dominant, etc).
Reality, of course, dictates that our muscles work in certain proportions to move our joints in certain proportions based on what lift we're attempting. That's not news, sports fan. But it doesn't mean that this narrow frame of mind dictates our training process. When thinking thoughts such as "the squat is a quad exercise," we pigeon-hole ourselves into poor exercise performance. The hips, the trunk, the feet, the entire body is important for demonstrating the powerful piston that is the squat. So, rather than thinking of the squat in terms of body parts engaged, think about what's necessary to squat well. This prevents us from bastardizing form and disproportionately applying stress to our joints.
Here are some simple cues that improve squat performance:
- Sit back
- Spread the floor (during descent and ascent)
- Drive into the bar
Poor Anterior Core Strength
I detest ab-wielding frat bros as much as the next serious lifter, but that's not to say the abs don't deserve due training diligence, especially for improved squat performance.
I'm not suggesting a reversion to the lifting Stone Age of sit-ups and plate side bends, or any degree of shirt-hoisted ab selfies, but addressing our anterior core by means of a few simple inputs can overhaul a devastatingly poor squat.
for a chance to win
We've talked about the squat in terms of the entire body. All the moving and non-moving parts must be coordinated for success. The interaction between the anterior core and the hips is vital for squatting multiple plates.
Movement starts with stability. The more we convince the brain that the spine is stable and safe, the more juice it sends to our wheels. One of the best spinal safety negotiators is a strong anterior core. A rigid, stable set of abs secures the spine in the upright position while telling the brain, ‘don't worry, guy, all's good down here.' So, if we have our anterior core up to snuff, the brain offers more strength
and movement to the hips and lower-extremity.
What's the solution? Train the abs with anti-extension movements. These are barbell and physioball rollouts, anti-extension presses and the like. These "anti" movements train mid-section rigidity that translates to improved squat performance.
My favorite anterior core combo pairs the front squat with straps with physioball rollouts in the plank position. Don't shy away from loading the front squats. Keep them heavy in the three to six rep range. Hit five to eight rollouts between sets.
This combo challenges the anterior core while directly training it to hold strong while squatting. It's great as a main exercise combo used in preparation for future back squatting, and it works well in an assistance training role.
I grew up in a gym that sacramentally boasted spinal hyperextension as a rite of passage. Powerlifting in the late 90's and early 00's was all about the arch, baby. I'm sure in many factions it still is. Presently, however, I never cue a client to arch during any lift, least of all during the squat.
Why would I type such blasphemous poppycock in respect to my youthful gym baptism? Well, because the teachings were a farce. A hard arch is a spinal health nightmare that's also detrimental to squat performance.
Not arched, not rounded. That's the spinal position that bolsters squat performance. It's this position that allows a strong anterior core engagement, a hard lat brace and a tension-securing belly breath. This stability and tension trifecta makes still the spine so that the brain bids you godspeed and lets you squat to your heart's content.
A hard lumbar arch, however, undermines anterior core engagement and diminishes our ability to belly breath, two of the three big catalysts for achieving strong positioning that sends strength to the hips and legs. So, rather than earning solid movement from the hips we end up getting more range of motion from the back. This isn't good for strength or training longevity.
Rather than arching, make your spine as long as possible. Then, solidify this position with a strong belly breath, lots of lat tension and a hard ab brace.
Lack of Individualization:
You're Doing the Wrong Squat
Here comes an italicized reality check:
Not everyone should train the same squat.
We're composed of the same parts but in different proportions. Long torso, short limbs, short torso, long limbs -- it's a conglomeration of fun house mirror projections. Layered within our odd proportions are idiosyncrasies like bone structure incongruences, congenital joint laxity, congenital stiffness, movement ineptitudes and former injuries. When we simultaneously consider all of this information, a story is revealed that's unique to each individual lifter. Examine the plot and a realization occurs: it's silly to think we should all be doing the same squat at the same time for the same reasons.
for a chance to win
Consider the case of a fellow with an excessively immobile thoracic spine. It's so rigid, it's like a breadstick. The traditional barbell squat asks our thoracic spine to maintain sufficient extension throughout the movement. This fellow that doesn't have that extension is cumulatively wrecking himself every time he loads a barbell on his back. Not only does his form suffer, lessening the squat's effectiveness, but the lack of T-spine movement displaces stress inefficiently throughout his frame. Not good.
Rather than force a fairy tale, let's approach the situation with realism. The barbell squat isn't a good fit, but maybe squat variations that don't require the same degree of thoracic extension are. Enter the front squat with straps and the safety squat bar. These variations are trained just as hard and produce ruthless strength
Our T-spine gent is gym mates with a guy that rests his hips upon two disproportionately long femurs. Unfortunately, stiff hip capsules accompany his long femurs, and his squat looks more like a good morning that dares to drop the butt. With long femurs and unique hips, it might be that this guy should abandon squatting and move on with his life. But where there's a will there's a way. Let's find him a solution.
The solution appears in the form of an anteriorly loaded high box squat: perhaps a goblet, maybe a front-racked barbell. We could even utilize two racked kettlebells. The loading depends on how strong the guy is and what he's trying to achieve. The important things to consider are that the anterior load teaches him to stay upright and the box teaches him to sit back.
Allowing a squat that's slightly above parallel decreases the amount the hips must rotate, preventing a form decline as the squatee sinks deeper. The guy doesn't have the movement pre-requisites to go deeper, there's no point in taking him there. But learning to sit back, as the box squat teaches, provides the opportunity to use the hips as effectively as possible. The anterior load, while keeping him upright, also creates the ab/hip communication we discussed earlier.
But how do you know if a squat is right for you? Monitor your recovery.
If you feel like you got hit by the 5 P.M. to Grand Central, with aberrant soreness in weird places all over your body after every squat session, you're probably employing a squat that's doing more harm than good. But if you feel the typical squat training soreness in the quads, hams, and glutes, you're in your wheelhouse.
[Side note: If you compete or are planning to compete in the squat, then you obviously need to barbell squat. That's not to say, however, that you shouldn't use other squat variations until you have the raw materials to barbell squat well.]
Not Utilizing Your Upper Body
Tension creation is squat performance's main amigo. The problem is many lifters fall short of full tension utilization. If I've seen it once, I've seen it a thousand times. A well-intentioned squat enthusiast simply rests the bar across their wet noodle of an upper-back without a second thought to create a pillar worthy of supporting heavy iron. They descend, they attempt to ascend, and they fail. Envision a folded lawn chair.
Why? They didn't use tension to secure the load or their effort.
Upper-back tension creates a secure resting place for a heavy barbell. It holds the thoracic spine in a solid, neutral position, preventing a barbell-sponsored spinal rounding. This tension also works in concert with anterior core tension to keep the torso upright as gravity is thwarted. In both cases, setting upper-body tension keeps the load in a good position to be moved by the hips and legs. Otherwise the distance between the weight and the factions working to move it is too great and a successful return to the upright, standing position is impossible.
for a chance to win
Beyond load security, upper-body tension is important for full-body irradiation. Irradiation is strength's messenger. It says that our muscles are coordinated toward achieving the same end and that neurological force should be sent in droves. Most lifters only consider this at the other end of the bodily chain. They drive their knees out to tighten their hips and legs; they attempt to brace their core.
But our upper-body makes direct contact with the load. Harnessing upper-body tension closes the chain into the barbell and gives our nervous system cause to export strength.
For a traditional barbell squat, make your spine long and set your anterior core, torque your elbows under the bar as you drive your upper-back into it. Then tighten your lats by squeezing the bar as hard as you can and "pulling" it into your back.
Apply tension to the front squat with straps by squeezing the straps as hard as possible while keeping your upper-arms parallel with the ground and squeezing your elbows together.
If it's the safety squat bar you fancy, hold the yokes parallel to the ground throughout the movement while you attempt to squeeze the handles together.
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Overcoming Your Erring Ways
A little awareness goes a long way. Frame your squat thinking with the problems we discussed: make sure you're approaching the squat in full-body terms, build rigid abs and avoid overarching. Use the squat that's right for your frame and lock in the movement with aggressive upper-body tension. Apply these five fixes when needed and you'll take your squat to new levels of productivity.