The sound of heavy iron being moved through space is unmistakable. It shouldn’t be audible but there it is. You just know. Especially at the end. That clanging, the sound of the lifter finally being unshackled from the barbell’s gravity.
I was familiar with this sound when I trained in more “hardcore” facilities. Where you were never quite sure the weight on the bar and tetanus was always a possibility. Where there were none of those fancy Playskool looking weights and the only music choice was System of a Down or Korn.
Despite my description those places taught me a lot. There is no substitute as a lifter for being around people who are bigger and stronger than you. Sure, there are a few good strength coaches who look like Keebler elves but I’m gonna take the advice of the Viking-lookin-motherfucker in the corner squatting 600lbs for reps every damn day.
From hardcore to normcore
Today, I train at the Y. The Young Men’s Christian Association. In North Brooklyn. Instead of the sound of heavy iron being slung around I hear the sound of 25lb dumbbells being thrown to the floor (in what I can only imagine as disgust at their inability to bench them more than 3 times). I also usually end up spending quite a lot of time unracking weights from machines and barbells before I go to use them.
I’m not sure where all the 300+ pound powerlifters are that require all of this weight because I have never seen anyone in that place with over 140lbs of lean muscle. The only 45s anyone there has any business slingin are made of vinyl.
Look, I don’t work there. I just go in with my headphones on, hit my session, and head out. I’m not there to make friends or train anyone else. I don’t feel an obligation to overstep my bounds and give anyone any unsolicited feedback. As long as no one is getting hurt, not my problem.
There is one kid, though, that I desperately want to help. He is in there every day, busting his ass, doing everything he knows to try to improve. He’s got the belt, the gloves, the wrist wraps. He is probably 5’10 and can’t weigh more than 145 soaking wet.
I know that kid. I was that kid. So there is part of me that feels a responsibility to reach out. Why? Because everything he has been taught is wrong.
I watch him waste hours on isolation work, partial bench reps, shitty quarter squats, and overloading the leg press to move it 4”. He loves this shit and I want him to keep loving it. If he doesn’t start growing soon, though, he won’t last long. If I only had one hour to him to keep going, we would squat.
The cure to what ails you.
I was lucky. I had guys around that taught me about how to build muscle and to get stronger. Usually, their advice boiled down to “You need to eat more. And squat”. Want bigger legs? Squat. Want bigger arms? Squat. Want a bigger dick? Sorry, no lift for that. But if you squat more you won’t care. Ok, that’s not true, but you get the point. Over time I learned to decipher their conversation and figure out that there actually was some method to their insanity.
The first thing I learned about squatting was how to do it properly. You see, I didn’t squat. At least not right. It scared me to death and made my knees hurt. I just wanted bigger arms. If I did squat it was to about 8” above parallel. So they taught me what a proper squat looked like. Now, I know that some internet lifter is going to tell you that if your ass is not touching your calves in a high bar position with your feet at hip width facing straight forward it’s not a squat. Well, that’s usually the same person who has been “working on form” with 135lbs for the last 3 years. Ignore that dipshit.
Everyone’s squat will look different. When starting out, much of the way you squat is dependent upon anatomical differences and mobility issues. If you have limited ankle dorsiflexion and limited internal rotation of the hip you will probably benefit from a wider, toes out squat. This will also likely limit the depth at which you can squat, especially under light or no load. It also may require a lower bar position to keep the weight over center of mass. Conversely, if you have very mobile ankles and sufficient internal rotation you may be able to employ a toes forward, knee forward, ass to grass, high bar squat.
If you are interested in the mechanical limitations of differing pelvic, hip, and femur structures and how that influences your squat I recommend reading The Real Reason Why People Must Squat Differently by Ryan DeBell.
So, in the grand scheme of things, what does this mean? Pretty much nothing for most people. Find out which squat is most comfortable for you and do that.
What about bodyweight squats?
If you are a beginner and have never really spent any time with a professional, I always recommend starting with goblet squats. Why not bodyweight? The main reason is that many beginners will need at least some external load to allow them to squat to depth. They also will have problems with proprioception, or knowing where their bodies are in space. The dumbbell or kettlebell in the goblet position reinforces a vertical torso and and is a counterbalance to the weight distribution being further back than most people are comfortable with.
Another beginning variation that I love is the double kettlebell front rack squat. The weight is going to be greater because you need to use two weights so it might be best to work on the goblet squat first. The advantage of the double kettlebell version is twofold. First, the position requires even more upper back strength and maintenance of upright position than the goblet squat. Second, the position of the weight makes breathing more difficult due to the load distributed across the chest. This teaches better breath support and control, both qualities necessary for success in further progressions.
Once you feel proficient with the goblet squat (or double kettlebell front rack squat) progression to a proper back squat is appropriate. I never rush this process, as much progress can be made in the regressions with both heavier weights as well as increases in mobility. Improving these qualities will only enhance the mechanics of the barbell squat.
To the bar
While there are some external cues that I feel are important, I think sometimes the barbell squat is “overcoached”. I generally find this with less experienced coaches/trainers who were taught in a very specific methodology and haven’t seen enough variance. Invariably “butt back” “chest up” “weight in the heels” “knees out” will be all that is heard. While these are fine in general, they tend to confuse the lifter by providing overcompensation for problems that may not exist.
“Butt back” is generally used to illustrate the movement of sitting back. I assume this comes from instructing the box squat and the attempt to maintain a vertical shin angle like you would see in a wide stance, equipped squat. There are two problems with this: is if the lifter has a higher bar position and closer stance they will end up folded over as the bar moves too far over their forefoot. Second is that many lifters hear that and do their best porn star impression. Head down ass up, that’s not the way we like to… squat. Anterior pelvic tilt is a big problem in a large number of people lifting so anything that cues them into it is a no-no.
“Chest up” is another cue I hear ad nauseaum. The general idea is good in that most times a vertical torso is preferred. Except when it’s not. Someone with a wider stance, lower bar position squat is going to have more forward lean based on the mechanics required. So when they hear chest up the first inclination is to excessively arch the back which leads back to porno ass, err anterior pelvic tilt.
Feet. Everyone loves talking about feet. Big feet. Little feet. Hairy toes. Soak in the visual. Now, when talking about the squat (and often the deadlift), I often hear the cue “weight in the heels”. When someone is coming up on their toes, by all means I will have them put weight in their heels.
When initiating the squat, however, this can be a misguided cue. In order to maximize stability we want even distribution between three points of the foot: the heel, the big toe, and the fifth metatarsal. If we have someone start with the weight in the heels we immediately lose two of our three points of contact. Not good.
Instead, think of screwing the feet into the ground. Imagine it is like there are two large screws going through the top of your feet and screwing to the outside. So, clockwise on your right foot and counterclockwise on your left. Not only will this create three point contact with the foot and ground it also encourages external rotation of the hip which leads to tension in the glutes. All good things for a structurally sound squat.
Last, many lifters will have some slight valgus movement at the bottom of their squat. As long as the knees return to proper alignment, tracking over toes, there is no need to “push the knees out”. They are already in the right place.
To me, the most important thing for a lifter to learn is proper breath support and bracing. Whenever someone is planning to put any significant load on their spine my first concern is for stability. In order to assure a neutral spine and pelvic position I will usually cue “abs on, ribs down” or a variation thereof. From there I will instruct them to take a big breath while holding their spinal position. After that, the most important part is upper back tension so I command them to break the bar over their back. Once proper tension is created I simply have them sit down and come back up.
Depending upon the lifters faults through the squat I may alter some cues. I may also change the bar position to better suit their personal anatomy. These are all things that I would use to optimize their squat for competition or for sport performance. If they are just recreational lifters, I will most likely just have them squat within their comfort zone and make small adjustments. If you utilize the tips above and properly progress the squat over time, you will be well prepared for a lifetime of big squats.