Here’s a little story for you, that initiated today’s blog post. A few Sundays ago I went to my commercial gym to lift. While I go to Cressey Performance once a week, twice a week I am expected to lift on my own, following a program created for me by my coach. I go every Sunday, and I’m used to the usual crowd of men doing all manner of upper body exercises (think bicep curls, bench press and shoulder presses), not always with very good form. I don’t know what day is “leg day,” but it’s not Sunday.
There is the occasional woman lifting, unfortunately none of whom have got the memo that you need to pick up a dumbbell that weighs more than 10 lbs. So imagine my surprise when a few weeks ago I saw a woman approach the squat rack (I will discuss the difference between the squat rack and the Smith machine in a bit…for now, suffice it to say that the squat rack is where you should be squatting). A little part of me was saying “yeah, you go girl.” I was even more impressed when the woman placed a 45 lb plate on either side of the bar. Wow, she hadn’t even done a warm-up set and she was going to squat 135 lbs. ~ not bad, not bad at all. Unfortunately my excitement came to an abrupt end when she actually began to squat…umm, what is she doing? Isn’t she actually going to squat?! She went down about 1/4 of the way, came back up without locking out her hips at the top, then repeated a few more times…huge disappointment. Unfortunately it got worse, as she proceeded to add weight to the bar and do it again…and then just for kicks, she added weight one more time and did it again. FAIL!
So as you might guess, today we are going to talk about how to actually squat (like your ass depends on it, because it does). There are a host of squat variations, some of them better than others. But let’s start at the very beginning with your basic bodyweight squat. Everyone should start here ~ in fact, we all did ~ look at the baby below. This is a very natural position to be in…until we start sitting at our desks, in the car & in front of the TV and we lose all of our mobility. So when you first start squatting, start here, bodyweight only. If you can’t do a decent bodyweight squat then you have no business adding any weight. Below is a quick demo of a decent bodyweight squat. Feet should be hip width apart, hips go back, knees stay behind your toes, chest is up and you squat to parallel. That means the top of your thighs are parallel to the floor. As you push back to a stand, you should drive through your heels.
While this is a good squat, there’s no harm in squatting even deeper ~ it is not bad for your knees. Keep in mind that your knees should not collapse inward ~ think about driving those knees out. If you struggle with this it can help to put a light band around the outside of the thighs, just above the knees. This gives you a cue, something to feel to push against. For many people this is all they need to correct the collapse.
If you are having trouble with the depth, you may need to spend some time with a foam roller to work out some of the knots that are restricting your flexibility. Working on hip mobility is also going to go a long way to allowing you to squat deep (I talked about hip mobility here). Improving your core strength will also help with squat depth as there is a stability component to a good squat. A useful technique to help you work on your squat depth is to squat to a box (this is not the same as a box squat ~ for a great video discussing the difference see my coach Tony’s blog “Box Squat vs. Squat TO Box”). Here you are going to use a box (or a set of risers at the gym) to give you a cue as to how deep you need to be. You are going to tap the box as you sit back, and then push right back up. In a squat to box, you are not pausing or spending any time on the box.
Once you have a good bodyweight squat it is now time to pick up some weight. I like the goblet squat as it reinforces good “chest up” technique. It also really brings the core into play as you hold that dumbbell or kettlebell in front of you. Make sure you keep the kettlebell or dumbbell close to your chest. If using a dumbbell, cup it in your hands. If you start to drop your chest too much, you are going to lose that dumbbell, which is why a goblet squat is good for beginners (and still good for more experienced lifters too). This is a nice video because it shows a goblet squat using both a kettlebell and a dumbbell.
The final method of squatting I want to talk about is using the squat rack. You do not want to be squatting in the smith machine ~ even though it might seem safer, it restricts the movement of the bar, and hence your movement.
Plus you are not learning to control that bar in space, which uses a lot of core. Use the squat rack. The bar on a squat rack weighs 45 lbs…so this is not a place for a beginner to start. You need to have a decent amount of strength to squat to depth with a 45 lb bar. There are many methods of squatting with a bar, but most people probably think first (and maybe only) of back squats. This is where the bar rests along the back of your shoulders. If you choose to do back squats, make sure the bar is resting down on the top of your back, not on your neck. Pull down & slightly back with your arms to engage those lats that will help support that weight. While back squats are probably the most popular method of barbell squat, it does put more pressure on your spine and some strength coaches have moved away from them. They also put strain on your shoulder (due to the way you are holding the bar), which is less than ideal.
Another method of barbell squatting is the front squat. The front squat erases some of the spinal compression of the back squat and eliminates the shoulder strain, but I will be the first to admit they are not popular. I do primarily front squats, but I don’t love them (because they are hard). Like the goblet squat, they force you to keep your chest up, otherwise you will dump the bar. There are two different grips for a front squat. The “correct” grip is shown here:
Elbows must be up (as shown). This position can be difficult for many people to achieve, so an alternate grip (still acceptable ~ this is the one I use) is with crossed arms (elbows still need to be up throughout the squat):
So there is my short tutorial on squatting. Start with bodyweight until you have the form down ~ use a box to help you get to depth. From there, progress to some goblet squats, and when you have built up enough strength, move over to the squat rack and give front squats a try. It’s okay to start with just the bar. I will be much more impressed by a full squat to depth with just the bar than by the 135 lb quarter squats I saw in my gym. I will leave you with a short video clip of Jen Comas Keck, one of the Girls Gone Strong, doing some front squats.