Squatting is among the most basic of human movements. It is the compound lift that strengthens the entire body; it is king of the iron jungle. Squatting properly and frequently strengthens the core, spine, and legs. Squatting properly with heavy weight decreases your chance of injury inside and outside the gym. If you want to resist the natural aging process to the best of your abilities, squat heavy, and squat often. Squatting builds strength, muscle, bone density, tendon strength, muscular endurance, flexibility, balance, and joint function. All of these positive effects will be covered in this week’s article.
There are countless books written on the squat, and I won’t attempt to encapsulate everything there is to know about the movement in today’s post. This isn’t a book, but it’s a gateway post. We’re focusing on getting you into a better position. Soon, you’ll be bulletproof.
Technique rules as king over position. Squatting ass-to-grass is cool, but not if you’re in a unstable or unsafe position. Range of motion is limited by your body’s ability to stay tight and organized. By developing core strength, you will improve range of motion and mobility, especially under load.
Most people cannot squat deep because of at least one of three issues – lack of mobility, lack of stability, or lack of technique. I will be talking about all three, so stick around. Still there? Okay, good. Let’s move on.
For clarity, let’s call mobility the ability to move a certain way or into a certain position. Examples include hitting the splits, a deep squat, or a solid front rack position. To increase your mobility, start by targeting the tight area with a foam roller, lacrosse ball, or some other torture device. Attempt to break up the tissue by directly hitting the area with said torture device.
There is certainly a mobility/stability relationship. We won’t examine in detail today, but you must remember that the two are inherently connected. The more stable you become, the more mobility you will gain. A long muscle is a strong muscle, and vice versa. Your brain will allow you greater ranges of motion if it trusts you in those positions, which is to say you need stability. If you have too much mobility in a certain area, you probably need more stability. Excessive mobility without stability increases the risk of injury to that joint. Common examples of this hyper-mobility include double-jointedness or a past of competitive gymnastics.
Don’t expect your mobility to permanently increase in the 15-minute warmup during class. Like anything, serious change takes serious time, and requires legitimate effort. You need to spend multiple minutes in each pose multiple times a week to see changes. Lowers your blood pressure, too. All in all, you should be able to sit in a deep squat for 10+ minutes without pain or discomfort without a warmup.
Next week, I’ll detail several methods for mobility, so I’ll only summarize them here. My favorite is The Limber 11 by Joe DeFranco. All you need is a foam roller, a lacrosse ball, and good attitude. Mostly a good attitude. You can also look into MobilityWOD by Kelly Starrett.
Remember, mobility is the ability to move into a certain position. Stability, then, is the ability to resist a certain movement. This would be keeping your back flat during a heavy deadlift. Without stability, your spine falls out your back and onto the gym floor behind you. Gross. Stability is generated through the core. In general, stability works its way from internal to external fairly well. This is to say someone with a strong, stable core is more likely to have stable shoulders than someone who has a weaker core.
Stability in the core is generated from squats, holds, planks, and carries. Remember, the core muscles are not designed to move, they are designed to resist movement. This is why sit-ups are not programmed often and are generally avoided. Planks are better. If your core was designed to flex and extend, you would have two long hamstring muscles running up and down your torso, not a six-pack. Therefore, the six-pack is not generated through sit-ups, but through planks.
The rectus abdominis (six-pack) is not alone in creating stability – there are a host of others. This includes the obliques and the serratus anterior. To be strong, you have to train these muscles. More planks, more deadbugs, more farmers carries. More than you think. You need to train you core to resist movement under load, like a squat. Even when you’re warming up, you should treat the empty bar like it’s 200kgs. To increase your major lifts, you need more stability, and less time training your major lifts. With a few weeks notice, you could add 10% to you back squat without squatting once.
There are people who squat a lot of weight. More than you think. They move incredibly well, even the bigger dudes. They are incredibly stable because they’ve spent years under this load without serious injury. Their technique is flawless. Every rep looks the same, whether its 45 pounds or 1,000 pounds. Without tremendous amounts of core strength, these feats would not be possible.
Again, there are entire books dedicated to the craft of the barbell back squat, so this will be summative in nature. I’ll break down the squat into a several steps below.
In this position, feet are shoulder-width apart, toes pointed very slightly out. The barbell rests on the upper traps, which are squeezed together. To ensure this, make sure your hands are close to your shoulders and elbows are directly underneath the bar. From here, take a breath of air in through your lower belly, and brace hard.
One hinges by sending the hips backwards without bending the knees. This is a slight movement, but ensures the bar remains directly over the midfoot. Your hinge and depth will be dependent on your strength and mobility. In the image above, the hinge is the middle picture.
The descent is all about CONTROL. You decide the speed of your descent, not the bar. Drop straight down into the bottom position without sacrificing back position or core stability.
You are in the hole. Here, your belly should be rock solid, and the bar sits over the midfoot. Weight is in the heels. You are totally unsure if you can actually get this weight back up. Now is the time to push. By flexing every muscle you have, drive the bar straight upwards.
Once you pass the sticking point, breath out aggressively and tighten up your core even more. Breathing out creates power from the diaphragm, allowing you to finish the lift with POWER. Much like rowing, the hips and shoulders rise at the same time. Think about breaking the bar over your back; this cue increases your tension on the bar. If you have issues with your hips shooting up first, try some box squats.
Don’t even dream of thinking about dreaming about cashing in on the finish and taking it easy. During the ascent, you were focused on bringing the bar upwards. Now FINISH. Drive your hips forward by squeezing your glutes as hard as possible, like a kettlebell swing. The finish position is completed when your ankles, knees, hips, and shoulders are lined up. Done.
Below, I’ve linked some resources to help establish your base and improve your positions.
To move big weight, you need to be powerful. To be powerful, you need to be stable. More planks, deadbugs, more lunges. If you want to get stronger, find me in the gym, and let’s talk about it.
Next week, we’ll talk about more detailed mobility tools to get you squatting more weight more powerfully. Until then . . .