The basic technique of the squat consists in placing a loaded barbell
across the shoulders, then bending at the hips and knees, descending
into the bottom position, "the hole," and returning to an erect
position. We will examine the squat from the deck up.
Stance. This varies from individual to individual, but one thing is
necessary for all who wish progress: you must keep your feet flat on
the deck at all times. The center of gravity may be maintained over
the center of the foot, but it is generally best to push through the
heels. This will help in maintaining bar position and help eliminate a
small degree of forward lean. To achieve this, some people find it
necessary to curls the toes upward while squatting, forcing their
heels flat. The feet should be placed at least shoulder width apart,
and some individuals may best utilize a stance nearly twice shoulder
width. The narrower stance tends to place more direct emphasis on the
quads, and creates a longer path for the bar to travel. The wider
stance (often called "sumo") tends to be favored by many powerlifters,
although some have enjoyed great success with a relatively narrow
stance. The sumo stance place more emphasis on the adductors and
hamstrings. As a rule of thumb, lifters with longer legs will need a
wider stance than shorter individuals. However, there are exceptions.
A wider stance will tend to recruit both the adductors and buttocks to
a greater degree than a narrow stance.1
The shins should be a close to vertical as possible throughout the
entire movement. This lessens the opening of the knee joint, and
reduces the shearing force as well. By reducing the workload that the
knee joint is required to handle, more of the work is accomplished by
the larger muscles around the hip joint. For powerlifters, this
decreases the distance one must travel with the bar, as the further
the knee moves forward, the lower the hips must descend to break
There are several schools of thought on squat depth. Many misinformed
individuals caution against squatting below parallel, stating that
this is hazardous to the knees. Nothing could be further from the
truth.2 Stopping at or above parallel places direct stress on the
knees, whereas a deep squat will transfer the load to the hips,3
which are capable of handling a greater amount of force than the knees
should ever be exposed to. Studies have shown that the squat produces
lower peak tibeo-femoral (stress at the knee joint) compressive force
than both the leg press and the leg
extension.4 For functional strength, one should descend as deeply as
possible, and under control. (yes, certain individuals can squat in a
ballistic manner, but they are the exception rather than the rule).
The further a lifter descends, the more the hamstrings are recruited,
and proper squatting displays nearly twice the hamstring involvement
of the leg press or leg extension.5,6 and as one of the functions
of the hamstring is to protect the patella tendon (the primary tendon
involved in knee extension) during knee extension through a concurrent
firing process, the greatest degree of hamstring recruitment should
provide the greatest degree of protection to the knee joint.7 When
one is a powerlifter, the top surface of the legs at the hip joint
must descend to a point below the top surface of the legs at the knee
Knee injuries are one of the most commonly stated problems that come
from squatting, however, this is usually stated by those who do not
know how to squat. A properly performed squat will appropriately load
the knee joint, which improves congruity by increasing the compressive
forces at the knee joint.8,9 which improves stability, protecting
the knee against shear forces. As part of a long-term exercise
program, the squat, like other exercises, will lead to increased
collagen turnover and hypertrophy of ligaments.10,11 At least one
study has shown that international caliber weightlifters and
powerlifters experience less clinical or symptomatic arthritis.12
Other critics of the squat have stated that it decreases the stability
of the knees, yet nothing could be further from the truth. Studies
have shown that the squat will increase knee stability by reducing
joint laxity, as well as decrease anterior-posterior laxity and
translation.13,14 The squat is, in fact, being used as a rehabilitation exercise
for many types of knee injuries, including ACL repair.15
One of the most, if not the most critical factor in squatting is
spinal position. It is incredibly important not to round the back.
This can lead to problems with the lower back, and upper back as well.
The back should be arched, and the scapulae retracted, to avoid
injury. This position must be maintained throughout the entire lift,
as rounding on the way up is even more common than rounding on the way
down, and people who make this mistake are the ones who perpetuate the
"squats are bad for your back" myth. Furthermore, spinal position is
essential to maintaining a proper combined center of gravity (CCOG).
The farther one leans forward or, even worse, rounds the back, the
more strain the erectors are forced to bear, and the less the
abdominals can contribute to the lift. To say nothing of the fact that
the greater the lean, the greater the shearing force placed on the
vertebrae. Proper spinal alignment will assist in ensuring that the
majority of the force the spine must bear is compressive in nature, as
it should be. Another reason for descending below parallel is that the
sacrum undergoes a process known as nutation (it tilts forward,
relative to the two ilia on either side of it). At only 90 degrees of
knee flexion, the sacrum is still tilted backward, which inhibits
proper firing of the erectors and gluteus maximus and minimus. Going
through a full range of motion completes the rotation of the sacrum
and allows maximal muscular recruitment.
"Squats are bad for your back" is yet another cry of the weak of both
leg and spirit. While an improperly performed squat can cause
problems, so can improperly performed barbell curl, yet many of the
people who use the squat rack only to curl do not seem to have a
problem strengthening their elbow flexors. While the squat can be
hazardous to the back among the untrained who often incline the torso
to an unsafe degree, as well as round the back, skilled athletes have
been shown to minimize trunk segment torques by maintaining a more
erect posture.16 It has been positively shown that maintaining an
upright torso during the squatting motion reduces both spinal
compression and shear forces.17 Several studies have shown that
weightlifters experience not only less back injury and pain that many
other athletes, but often even less than inactive individuals, which
clearly displays that a proper weight training program, which includes
squatting, is beneficial in avoiding injury.18,19
The placement of the bar is another very important consideration when
squatting. If one places the bar high on the traps, more emphasis will
be placed on the quads, and a low bar squat recruits more of the lower
back and hamstrings, by virtue of back extension, simply because the
lower the bar is placed, the greater the degree of forward lean. Even
when high bar squatting, the bar should NEVER be placed on the neck.
This is far more stress than the cervical vertebrae should be forced
to bear. When a powerlifter squats with a low bar position, the bar
should be placed no lower than three centimeters below the top of the
anterior deltoids. For other lifters, comfort and flexibility will go
a long way towards determining bar positioning. When gripping the bar,
at first it is best to place your hands as close together as possible,
to maintain tension in the upper back, and to avoid any chance of the
bar slipping. As a general rule, the lower you place the bar, the
wider your hands will have to be. Anything placed between the bar and
the lifter, such as a pad or towel, decreases the force of friction
and increases the chance of the bar slipping. It is to avoid injuries
that this practice is banned in competition. Also, this will
artificially raise the lifter's CCOG, which makes it harder to balance
under a heavy load.
Look slightly upward when squatting, to avoid rounding the upper back.
The movement should be initiated from the hips, by pushing the glutes
back, not down. This will assist in keeping the shins vertical. On the
way down, keep the torso as close to vertical as possible, continue to
push the hips back, and push the knees out to the sides, avoiding the
tendency to allow them to collapse inward. The manner in which the
lifter descends will greatly influence the manner in which the ascent
is made. When the necessary depth is achieved, begin ascending by
pushing the head back, and continue to concentrate on pushing the
One of the most common mistakes made while squatting, or performing
any exercise for that matter, is improper breathing. At first, the
lifter should inhale on the way down, and exhale on the way up. Many
advanced lifters will take several large breaths, hold it all in on
the way down, and then exhale forcefully at their sticking point on
the way up. This technique, known as the "Partial Valsalva," requires
practice like any other.
There are many other types of squats, but all of them are secondary to
the squat itself, which is appropriately termed the "King of
The front squat is performed in a similar manner, but the bar is held
in the clean position, across the anterior deltoids, not the
clavicles. The hands should be slightly wider than shoulder width, and
the elbows should be elevated as much as possible. The bar is
maintained as high as possible by elevating the elbows. This allows
the lifter to maintain a more upright posture, and increases the
emphasis on the glutes, while lessening the involvement of the lower
back. This exercise may allow a lifter who lacks the flexibility
required to perform a full squat achieve a reasonable depth while
improving flexibility. The front squat will place far more emphasis on
the quadriceps muscles and less recruitment of the hamstrings takes
place.7,20 When comparing the squat to other exercises, it is important to
note that the squat causes less compressive force to the knee joint,
and greater hamstring activation, than both the leg press and the leg
Another popular type of squatting exercise is the split squat
("lunge"). In this type of squat, the legs are placed at approximately
shoulder width, but one foot is out in front of the athlete and one is
placed to the rear, as if a lifter has just completed the jerk portion
of the clean and jerk. The athlete descends by bending the front leg
until the knee is slightly forward of the toes. The shin of the front
leg should be ten degrees past perpendicular to the floor. It is
important to maintain an upright posture when doing so. As when
squatting, co-activation of the hamstring serves to protect the knee
joint during flexion,22 which is very important as often a greater
degree of flexion will occurring when performing the split squat.
Certain misinformed and so-called "personal trainers" will have people
squat in a smith machine, which is, quite simply, an idea both hideous
and destructive. This is often done under the misguided "squat this
way until you are strong enough to perform a regular squat" premise.
Even if one overlooks the obvious fact that it is better to learn to
do something right than build bad habits from the start, there are
numerous other factors to be considered. The smith machine stabilizes
the bar for the lifter, which does not teach the skill of balancing
the bar, balance being important to any athlete, as well as the fact
that free weight squatting strengthens the synergists which goes a
long way to preventing injuries. A chain is only as strong as its
weakest link, and the smith machine leaves far too many weak links. To
say nothing of the fact that free weights provide a greater transfer
of functional strength than machines.23 Furthermore, the bar moves
straight up and down, and very few people squat in this manner, which
means that the smith machine does not fit a lifters optimal strength
curve.24 The smith
machine also requires that the lifter either squats with his torso
much closer to vertical than would be done with a real squat, which
mechanically decreases the involvement of both the spinal erectors and
the hamstrings. While this would be fine if it was done by the lifters
muscular control, when the smith machine does this it is
disadvantageous to the lifter by virtue of decreasing the ability of
the hamstrings to protect the knee joint. Another mistake made, aside
from simply using it in the first place, is allow the knees to drift
forward over the toes, the chance of which is increased by the smith
machine. As was previously mentioned, this greatly increases the
shearing force on the knees. This from a device touted by the ignorant
There is a great debate about the use of belts when squatting, some
sources insist that you must wear one, while others state quite the
opposite. It is worth noting that there are plusses and minuses to
wearing one. Using a proper belt while squatting can serve to increase
(IAP) which will serve to stabilize the spinal column, reducing
compressive forces acting upon the spine and reducing back muscle
forces.25 However, muscle activity of the trunk appears to be
significantly reduced when using a weight belt, which can lead to the
muscles of the trunk receiving a less than optimal stimulus when using
a belt.26 Other proponents of belt use have shown that the use of a
properly designed power belt may improve a lifter's explosive power by
increasing the speed of the movement without compromising the joint
range of motion or overall lifting technique.27
There are numerous methods of utilizing the squat in any athletešs
training program. While a variety of rep and set ranges are optimal
for a bodybuilder who wishes to maximize hypertrophy, an athlete's
must carefully plan a training program to meet their goals. Even
though squatting will lead to gains in size, strength, and jumping
ability, the more specific the program, the greater the results. When
an untrained subject begins lifting, numerous programs produce gains
in practically all areas, but this changes rapidly, with limited
progress being made unless something is altered.28
To utilize the squat to gain in size is both simple and complex.
Individuals will respond to a variety of rep ranges in different
manners based on fiber type, training history, biomechanics, injuries,
etc. Bodybuilders, who are concerned exclusively with gains in size,
should squat heavy, as fast-twitch muscle fibers have the greatest
potential for hypertrophy. However, sarcoplasmic hypertrophy (growth
of muscle tissue outside of the sarcoplasmic reticulum) will
contribute to overall muscular size, and is obtained by training with
lighter weights and higher reps. Rate of training is once again an
individual decision, but as a general rule, the greater the volume of
training, including time under tension (TUT) per workout, the longer
one must wait before recovery is optimized, allowing super
compensation to take place. A word of caution about performing higher
repetitions while squatting: As the set progresses, the degree of
forward lean increases. While this is desirable to increase the stress
on the hamstrings, it takes the emphasis off of the quadriceps, as
well as increases the risk of injury.29
An athlete wishing to improve his vertical jump should not only squat,
but perform a variety of assistance work specific to both improving
squatting strength as well as specifically improving jumping skill. As
jumping requires a great expenditure of force in a minimal amount of
time, exercises such as squatting should be performed to increase
muscle power, as muscle cross-sectional area significantly correlates
to force output.30 When wishing to increase one's power through
squatting to assist in the vertical jump, one must train to generate a
high degree of force.31,32,33 This is done by squatting a dynamic
manner, where one is attempting to generate a large amount of power
while using sub maximal weights. This has been shown to provide a great
training stimulus for improving the vertical jump.34 A program
consisting of a session once-weekly heavy squatting, ballistic
lifting, and plyometric training, with each being performed during a
separate workout, should provide maximal stimulus while allowing
maximal recovery and supercompensation.35,36
When training to improve onešs overall squatting ability, expressed as
a one-repetition maximum (1rm), once again a variety of programs may
be utilized. The most common is a simple periodized program where,
over time, the training weight is increased and the number of
repetitions decreases. This sort of program is utilized by both
Weightlifters and Powerlifters alike. A sample periodized program is
included in Appendix B. Some sources state that you must train to
failure, while others state that one should train until form begins to
break down, leaving a small reserve of strength but reducing the risk
of injury. It should be stated that there is no evidence that
indicates training to failure produces a greater training stimulus
than traditional volume training.
Far and away the most complicated, and controversial training program
is the conjugate training method. Using this method one trains to
develop maximal acceleration in the squat during one workout, and in
another workout (72 hours later) generate maximum intensity in a
similar exercise to the squat. This is based on an incredibly lengthy
study by A. S. Prelepin, one of the greatest sports physiologists of
the former Soviet Union.37 This method also uses the practice of
compensatory acceleration, where an athlete attempts to generate as
much force as possible, by not only generating maximal acceleration,
but by continuing to attempt to increase acceleration as the lifteršs
leverage improves. The addition of chains or bands can increase the
workload as well as force the athlete to work harder to accelerate the
bar. Utilizing this system, the squat is trained for low repetitions
(2) but a high number of sets (10 12), with training intensities
being 50 70% of the athletešs 1rm. Rest periods are short (45 75
seconds), and the squats are often performed on a box, which breaks up
the eccentric-concentric chain, and inhibits the stretch reflex,
forcing the athlete to generate the initial acceleration out of the
bottom of the lift without the benefit of the elasticity of the muscle
During the second workout, an exercise which taxes the muscles
recruited when squatting, but not an actual squat, is performed for
very low repetitions (1-3, usually one). The goal on this day is to
improve neuromuscular coordination by increased motor unit recruiting,
increased rate coding, and motor unit synchronization. This allows the
athlete to continue to generate maximal intensity week after week, but
by rotating exercises regularly optimal performance is maintained. For
one micro cycle, a squat-like exercise is performed, such as a box
squat, rack squat, or front squat is performed, then the athlete
switches to a different type of exercise, such as good mornings,
performed standing, seated, from the rack, etc. for another micro
then switches exercises again, often to a pulling type exercise such
as deadlifts with a variety of stances, from pins, from a platform, or
any number of other variations. Once again, chains or bands may be
added to increase the workload. A sample training program is included
in Appendix B, and a variety of maximal effort exercises can be found
in Appendix C.
Assistance work for the squat is of the utmost importance. The primary
muscles which contribute to the squat, in no particular order, are the
quadriceps, hamstrings, hip flexors/extensors, abdominals, and spinal
erectors. When an athlete fails to rise from the bottom of a squat, it
is important to note that not all of the muscles are failing
simultaneously. Rather, a specific muscle will fail, and the key to
progress is identifying the weakness, then strengthening it. A partial
list of assistance exercises is provided in Appendix D. While it is
impossible to simply state that if x happens when squatting, it is
muscle y that is causing the problem, some general guidelines follow.
If a lifter fails to rise from the bottom of a squat, it generally
indicates either a weakness in the hip flexors and extensors, or a
lack of acceleration due to inhibition of the golgi tendon organ (no
stretch reflex train with lighter weight and learn to accelerate if
this is the case). If an athlete has a tendency to lean forward and
dump the bar overhead, it generally indicates either weak hamstrings
or erectors. If an athlete has trouble stabilizing the bar, or
maintaining an upright posture, it is often due to a weakness in the
The above factors assume that proper technique is being maintained. If
this is not the case, no amount of specific work will overcome this
problem. Drop the weight and concentrate on improving skill, which is
far more important than training the ego, and less likely to lead to
Safety is the key issue when squatting, or performing any lift. With a
few simple precautions, practically anyone may learn to squat, and do
so quite effectively. The rewards are well worth the effort. Squat
heavy, squat often, and above all, squat safely.
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