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Along with the deadlift, the squat is one of the best compound exercises available to build strength and mass in an athlete. Unfortunately, just like the deadlift, it is an exercise performed incorrectly by so many gym goers.
I have seen personal trainers and fitness instructors not only perform the squat incorrectly, but also teach incorrect form to clients and gym members. This is both frustrating and dangerous.
The squat engages the core in much the same way as the deadlift does. The biomechanics of the body make the squat a very natural movement to perform. In fact many of us have the perfect form from a very, very young age.
The perfect squat balances the forces around the knee and hips. When you ask someone what muscles they are working, almost everyone will focus on the obvious leg muscles, particularly the quadriceps.
Of course the quads are stimulated during the squat, however on top of that the muscles of the lower back, the abdominals, the ribcage muscles (costals), upper back muscles such as the traps and rhomboids, glutes, hamstrings and even the shoulders and arms all take on some of the load when performing the squat.
The squat really is the only exercise available that allows direct training and progressive improvement of ‘hip-drive’. Hip-Drive is a complex movement that strengthens the muscles that make up the ‘Posterior Chain’, which include the muscles we mentioned above.
To perfect the correct technique of the squat, the movement should be introduced ‘without’ the bar. Problems that develop with technique tend to become exagerrated once the bar is introduced. For example, drop down into the squat position and with hands pressed together in a clap, elbows pushed into the inside the knees, push the knees out over the feet. This should form ther basis of your body position during the squat.
Below are 10 Steps to a Heavenly Squat!
THE SQUAT SET UP
1. Chest Up – Pushing the chest out & pulling the shoulders back will automatically create the platform for the bar. You can also tighten your upper-back better as a result.
2. Focal Point – By focusing upwards too much, the neck can become hyperextended, taking the spine out of neutral alignment. Looking upwards also inhibits the hips when driving from the bottom of the squat, leaving you weaker at the position where you need to be at your strongest. Focus on a point roughly 8-10 feet in front of you on the ground, not at the feet.
3. Bar Position – This is very much down to the individual & practice. Ideally, the bar needs to be low, below the bone at the top of your shoulder-blades and at the base of your traps – NOT ON YOUR SPINE! If the bar is too high, the back angle is increased vertically to allow the correct hip involvement.
4. Grip Width – A narrow grip makes it easier to tighten your upper-back, however this also comes down to shoulder flexibility too. I’ve trained plenty of people that just haven’t had the flexibility in the shoulder joint to go narrow. As long as long as the other areas are locked in, a wide grip is fine.
Wrist alignment – The correct grip keeps the hand (incl thumbs) above the bar and all of the weight of the bar on the back.
5. Tight Upper-back – Bring your shoulder-blades together. The elbows are lifted, causing the rear delts to contract. This creates a shelf in which the bar sits. Never should the bar be sitting on the top of the spine!
6. Foot Stance – Heels are shoulder-width apart, with feet angled outwards at around 35 degrees.
LOWERING THE BAR
7. Maintain Body Position – Taking a deep breath, which will help support the lower back, lower the hips, maintaining the arm, chest and neck angle.
The knees should train outwards over the feet, at the same angle. Don’t allow the knees to buckle inwards, this reduces the amount of quads available for the movement & points to weakness in the hamstrings.
8. Go Deep! – If the hips don’t go below the knee joint, it’s only a partial squat. If you can’t go deep, the weight is too heavy. Contrary to the thought that deep squats place extra stress on the knees & hips, it is partial squats that place higher tension on the knee joints. This is because you’re placing a shearing force on the knee, using more of the quads & not the stronger muscles of the posterior chain. If you walk away from a squat session with exhausted quads & your hamstrings and glutes haven’t done any work, your squat technique sucks!
RAISING THE BAR
9. The Bounce – People believe that the bounce at the bottom of the squat places stress on the knees. This is true. But only if the squat is not performed correctly! The bounce at the bottom causes lengthening of the hamstrings and adductors, causing a ‘stretch reflex’. The ‘Stretch Reflex’ causes the contraction of the hamstrings and glutes to be enhanced, which aids the hip drive. Obviously this bounce is controlled. Don’t just let gravity take the bar down & then try to fire it back up.
10. Maintain Body Position – As we mentioned in Step 7, push the knees outwards as you squat upwards. Lift with the hips, whilst maintaining the neutral alignment of the neck, chest up. Squeeze the glutes as you drive up. This will help drive up the bar, whilst also helping to protect the lower back.
If you have never squatted before, seek the instruction of a proper qualified Strength & Conditioning Coach.
Many personal trainers & fitness instructors out there are not suitably qualified to teach the art of the squat & as I said earlier, if bad habits are formed early, they will only be exasperated when the ba
r is heavier. It makes me wince when I see someone under a bar squatting & it is what can only be described as a full leg press, followed by a ‘Good Morning Lift’.
Of course there are further tips which will help someone further develop their squat, such as the Pad Test, Hip Pick Ups & Upper Back Bar Drive, but just like building a house, it’s important to build a solid foundation before you start building the patio & extension!