The barbell back squat is widely regarded as the ultimate and essential exercise for building strength, power and mass throughout the entire body by anyone with even a basic appreciation of lifting.
I cannot emphasise enough just how important this movement is, I would never have been able to compete amongst the strongest men in the country without building a monstrous squat. Here I will cover some tips and techniques to help you get the most from your squat.
Addressing some common problems is the first thing I will look at with the majority of my athletes, as simply strengthening your technique will often substantially increase your gains.
Knees caving in while squatting, particularly in the concentric phase:
This is one of the most common things I see with lifters, and it is usually a very simple and easy fix. Mostly this happens due to either a weakness or poor activation of gluteus medius, or a tightness of the hip flexors. The glute med is largely responsible for external rotation of the femur (thigh bone) which keeps your knees from adducting (that is moving inwards). By strengthening the glute med, or by improving it’s activation this will help keep your mechanics effective and the movement safe. The best way to get your glutes firing effectively is to simply go through some warm up drills that require your glutes to work properly, such as clams, clam walks with a resistance band just above the knee, or lying lateral leg raises and circle patterns. In order to strengthen them, make sure you are including Bulgarian split squats, glute ham raises or Romanian deadlifts regularly. If tight hip flexors are preventing your glutes from working effectively, some targeted foam rolling before lifting should ‘switch them off’ enabling the antagonist group (in this case the glutes) to work through a full range.
Not squatting to full depth:
This infuriates me! For two reasons, firstly it is potentially dangerous, and secondly because it is ineffective training!
A lot of people are under the impression that it is dangerous to squat to full depth and that it is bad for the knees. Wrong! There is a bucketload of research proving that in fact squatting to partial depth is far more hazardous to the knees than full depth, on account of the fact that your quads will provide the braking force in a partial squat, putting almost the entire load through your quads and the associated tendons at the knee. Squatting to full depth will bring the glutes, hamstrings and hip complex into the mix with the quads far more, safely spreading the load and allowing you to exert a lot more force into the movement, ultimately leading to a bigger squat.
So, what is a full depth squat? Simple really, a full range of motion, that is to say squatting as low as possible while maintaining optimum neutral spine position and foot stability. Ideally this means your hamstrings will be on your calves. If they’re not, you need to work on your mobility and flexibility!
Not breathing correctly when squatting:
It always amazes me the number of people who pay no attention to how they breathe when they lift, and with the squat in particular. In order to squat effectively you need to be paying close attention to how you use your midsection. In order to exert the most amount of force in the squat you need to be executing the valasalva manoeuvre, which sounds complicated but is in fact something you will already be able to do. It is basically attempting to breathe out against a closed airway. Think about clearing your ears after they ‘pop’, by taking a deep breath, closing your mouth and throat and attempting to push the air out. This will increase the intra abdominal pressure and is useful in our case for supporting the spine from the anterior side and allowing you to channel more force through the hips. I recommend taking a deep breath at the top of the squat, holding it while you descend, all the time pushing your belly out and maintaining spinal position, then while squatting up keep squeezing your midsection, and activating the valsalva manoeuvre before breathing out at the top of the squat. This technique takes a little getting used to if you have not tried it before and may make you feel a little odd, so ensure you take a couple of good deep inhalations between reps to ensure you get plenty of oxygen to those muscles!
Craning your head upwards:
We are constantly told to maintain a neutral spine when lifting. It is important to remember though that a neutral spine includes the cervical portion. The human spine has evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to be critically positioned. What this means is that focussing on that neutral position is critical to safe lifting. Most people are at least partially aware of this and control their pelvic rotation to manipulate their lumbar curve and their shoulder blades to manipulate their thoracic curve, however plenty of people forget about one of the most important areas of spinal positioning, the cervical spine, the neck. Plenty of coaches use the cue ‘look up’ when squatting to encourage lifters to forcefully extend the squat. However looking up with your head will change the position of the cervical spine, ultimately leading to a compromised positioning of the thoracic spine, which can lead to compromised positioning of the lumbar spine, either of which can lead to injury. If you find looking up helps you to get out of the hole in the squat, look up with your eyes only, do not tilt your head, as you should keep your head and neck in neutral throughout the movement.
Not squatting enough:
One thing I hear a lot is how people aren’t getting the improvements in technique or strength that they would like in the squat, and indeed many other lifts. My first question is always ‘how often do you squat?’ The answer usually is once a week, and often once a fortnight. The simple fact of the matter is that if you want to effectively acquire a complex, multi joint movement pattern such as the squat then you will need to perform hundreds, thousands of repetitions. A few sets of ten reps once a week just isn’t going to cut it if you want to focus on getting your squat numbers up. For example I usually squat in each and every one of my strength sessions, meaning I can sometimes squat up to 5 times a week. Most lifters will be unable to achieve this, as they won’t have years of conditioning the squat pattern at this frequency, but it’s certainly within the reach of most to squat twice a week and recover effectively. Generally I would look to include one heavy squat session and one lighter, but high volume, squat session per week in these instances.
So there you have it, five big tips for a big squat! I hope this insight will help you build a monster squat of your own, and the legs to go with it!
Dave is a strength and conditioning coach at the University of Birmingham, runs his own business for group and individual training, and is a successful strength athlete in his own right. Before recent retirement through injury Dave qualified for and competed in the England’s Strongest Man Final in 2011 and 2012, along with numerous national level competition performances and podium finishes. Standing 188cm tall at 130kg bodyweight he boasted such lifts as a 325kg deadlift, 290kg squat and 180kg bench press. He can be contacted via his website, GorillaPT.com or @TheGorillaPT