5 Steps for Learning the Squat

eirik-garnas-bodyweight-squat-organic-fitnessI’ve talked a lot about optimal squat and deadlift technique on this blog. Of these two, the squat is especially popular, and many consider it an essential part of a good resistance training program. The squat is usually trained more frequently than the deadlift, and it’s often the number one pick when the goal is to build strong and muscular legs. You don’t necessarily have to do the regular back squat, but doing some type of squatting movement, whether it’s the low-bar powerlifting-type squat, front squat, or box squat, is a good idea regardless of your training goals. The great thing about these exercises is that they involve the entire leg musculature, posterior chain, and abdominal muscles. However, sadly enough, most gym goers don’t get close to optimal results from squatting. Often it’s simply a matter of not putting enough weight on the bar and not focusing on progressive overload. Basically, a lot of people simply go to the gym and lift the same weights, for the same reps, every workout. Another major reason lifters fail to get the desired results from their squat training is poor technique. Many gym goers drift into a faulty movement pattern when squatting, thereby not only setting themselves up for poor workout results, but also increasing the chances of injuries and back and knee pain. In most of my previous articles on the squat I’ve focused on specific problems that lifters encounter and highlighted possible drills, exercises, and fixes that can be used to optimize squat technique. In this post I’m going to take a step back and give you a broad overview of a typical approach I use when teaching people the basic squat technique.

I would actually say that everyone can improve their squat form. For some, it’s just about fixing the “smaller” things, such as elbow position, head angle, and footwear, while for others, a complete do-over is necessary. More often than not, the ego has to go, and the load has to decrease significantly. This is especially true if you’re used to squatting well above parallel or have been performing quad dominant squats. However, I can promise you that if you take a step back, take control of your technique, remove 20 lbs from the bar, and then start focusing on progressive overload, you’ll soon surpass your previous strength level – And this time you’ll be doing it without pain and compensation patterns.

I want to emphasise that there are many possible ways to perform the squat. Some bodybuilders tend to do back squats with a narrow stance and very upright trunk position, thereby focusing on the quads, while a lot of powerlifters favor an extremely broad stance and a very horizontal back angle. As is so often the case with both training and nutrition, the answer for the vast majority of people falls somewhere in the middle of these two extreme ends of the spectrum. However, I’ve found that for most trainees, the powerlifting-type squat is closest to optimal. Why? The “excessive” knee flexion and quad dominance that characterizes a “bodybuilding squat” put a lot of stress on the knees and result in poor recruitment of the glutes and faulty weight distribution. That’s not to say you can’t perform the commonly seen high-bar, quad dominant squat, it’s just generally safer and more productive to focus on getting your hips back and pushing through your heels.

To avoid making this post too long I won’t delve into the specifics on each point, I’ll rather point you towards my more detailed articles on the various steps. It’s important to note that these exercises are not just for the novice lifter who’s never performed a squat before. Most intermediate – and even advanced – strength trainees can benefit from incorporating one or more of the steps below in their training program. The simple exercise I show in step 2 is especially effective for learning the bottom position of the squat, and it’s a good addition to a warm-up routine that is performed prior to strength training. I want to highlight the fact that this 5-step approach is far from a complete guide to good squatting technique, it’s simply an overview of the things I’ve found to be most important when learning this fundamental movement. 

1. Bodyweight squats

eirik-garnas-bodyweight-squat2-organic-fitness
Your technique in bodyweight squats (or barbell squats with no added weight) reveals a lot! Getting an experienced coach to evaluate your form is important (especially if you’re relatively new to strength training), as he/she can help you set up an individualized program that is perfect for you. For some people, nailing down good form requires a lot more than simply working on their squatting technique. Often, specific drills, strengthening of the posterior chain, and mobility work are necessary to really achieve a safe and effective squat. If this is the case for you, check out my articles titled the number one squat mistake, 5 steps for dealing with anterior pelvic tilt, the hip hinge: a key to glute development and good exercise technique, and/or how to build a great butt. Chances are you’ll find answers to your problems in those posts. However, for the majority, mastering the squat is simply about learning the basics, such as how to pinch the shoulders, how to keep the chest high, and how to get into a good bottom position. These folks can move right on to step 2.

2. Work on the bottom position

eirik garnas bottom position squat

Get into the bottom position of the squat, force the knees out with your arms/elbows, maintain a neutral spine (chest up!), and keep the weight on your heels.

When teaching clients the squat I’ve found that starting from the bottom up is often the best approach. A lot of people have poor glute strength and are used to bend down/perform squats by flexing their spine, pushing their knees forward, and/or keeping their trunk too vertical. These movement patterns are then transferred into the gym, and a common observation is that lifters drift into a squatting pattern that is characterized by excessive knee drift and poor weight distribution (e.g., the weight falling onto the toes). More often than not, the knees also cave in. This results in a lot of stress on the knee joints and lower back, and the glutes don’t get the beating they deserve – and need.

I’ve used the simple “exercise” above successfully for many years when teaching people the squat. It’s perhaps not that well-known, but it’s very popular among strength coaches such as Mark Rippetoe. The great thing about this exercise is that it teaches you some of the key things that are required for a good squat (e.g., pushing your knees out, getting your chest up, achieving good weight distribution).

Focus on the following:

  • Use your arms/elbows to push the knees out
  • Keep your chest high. If you’re struggling with excessive anterior pelvic tilt, make sure not to arch excessively. If your pelvic position is normal or slightly posteriorly tilted, arch is often a good cue to achieve a neutral spine.
  • Keep the load on your heels, but not so much that you’re out of balance.
  • Keep your head so your spine is in neutral – or look straight ahead.

3. Setting the shoulders

bar-position

Two different bar positions. A low-bar squat is characterized by a relatively horizontal back angle, and it’s more hip dominant than a high-bar squat.

eirik garnas scapular retraction squat
Regardless of whether you squat with a low or high bar position, maintaining upper back “tightness” is absolutely essential. Pinch the shoulder blades together and keep your chest high. A lot of lifters “forget” these things when they get fatigued, let their chest drop, and sometimes end up performing the squat like a good-morning. The key is to maintain the scapulae retracted during the entire lift! Individuals with upper crossed syndrome (UCS) usually have trouble with this step and have to work on treating UCS before they’ll be able to achieve optimal squat form.

4. Breathing – and other technical aspects

The squat is a technical movement that the vast majority of lifters never fully master. There are always some technical aspects you can work on. For relatively inexperienced lifters, breathing, weight distribution, and hip drive are some of the most important things to nail down when learning good squat technique. At this point I recommend focusing on breathing, as this is one of the key things you don’t learn from the other steps. Here’s a great video by Mark Rippetoe on breathing technique:

5. Box squats

eirik-garnas-organic-fitness-box-squat
If you have no problem performing bodyweight squats and quickly grasp how the movement pattern in the squat should look like, you can move on to regular back squats. However, in a lot of cases, the box squat is the preferred option. Why? Because the powerlifting-type box squat is a hip dominant exercise compared to the regular squat, a distinction that enhances its usefulness when learning good squat technique.

By starting out with the box squat instead of the regular squat you learn how to “sit back”, move your hips, and maximally recruit the glutes when lifting. Quad dominant squatting is very common among lifters, and the box squat will force them into a more hip dominant movement pattern. Essentially, just like some people wear + glasses when reading in an attempt to treat their shortsightedness, the box squat takes the hip action above what’s considered normal in the regular squat. Another benefit of the box squat is that if forces you to squat to a certain depth, thereby removing the possibility of cheating. Also, it takes the stretch reflex out of the exercise, and since a lot of beginners tend to “bounce” out of the bottom position when performing regular squats, this is a good thing when learning how to squat correctly. Finally, since you stop for 1-2 seconds on the box before driving up, it’s easier to control that your technique is in place and that you’re performing the concentric part of the lift by driving through the heels.

When performing box squats, a lot of lifters tend to “relax” at the bottom. Basically, “sitting back” like they would on a chair before exploding up. Generally, this is not the way I like to teach the box squat. Rather, I’ll have the trainee pause on the box without losing “tightness” and then instruct he/she to drive forcefully up through the heels. A very common mistake is to let the knees drift forward (excessively) when driving up from the box. To avoid this, lower the load and make sure you’re pushing the knees out and driving through the heels. Still having problems? Learn the hip hinge and strengthen the glutes.

What I’ve observed when training people is that after a couple of weeks of box squatting, their technique in the regular squat is usually significantly improved.

Move on to progressive overload in the back squat

After you master the box squat you can move on to regular barbell squats. When teaching someone the squat I’ll have him/her perform several sets with a barbell (no added weight). If he/she masters the technique, I’ll slowly increase the load until we reach a point where he/she can only perform 5-10 reps with good from. From there on, the focus should be on progressive overload. For beginners, this means adding weight to the bar every workout, while for intermediate-advanced lifters, the progress is slower. A common mistake is to increase the load too quickly, thereby losing control of your technique. This will only get worse if you keep adding excessive amounts of weight to the bar. You should go heavy, but not so heavy that you sacrifice form!

Comments

  1. Like the idea of teaching the squat from the bottom up. Always learn something when i read your blog. Good work buddy.

  2. Good article!

Trackbacks

  1. […] 5 Steps for Learning the Squat. I’ve talked a lot about optimal squat and deadlift technique on this blog. […]

  2. […] much, they give up – just like your quads and hamstrings do if you put too much weight on the squat […]

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