3 Tips for a Better Squat
Before we dive into this article, let me be the first to say that squatting is anything but easy. Not only is the exercise itself physically challenging, the technical execution can be daunting for those who are still learning the lift.
One of my goals as a coach is to not only educate but simplify and make sense of technical cues that will enable someone to perform better. The following tips you’ll learn are the ones I believe can dramatically enhance technique, without adding too much extra “fluff” to what is already considered by many a complex lift.
Let’s get to it.
Upper Back Tightness
You may be aware that the squat is a compound movement – which simply means it is a movement that involves multiple muscle groups – but do you know what role your upper back musculature plays in the lift?
One of the most common mistakes I see with beginners is that they struggle with creating upper body tension, and that starts with proper positioning of the hands on the bar, and proper placement of the bar on the upper back.
For someone with adequate shoulder mobility, the general rule tends to be that keeping your hands closer to your shoulders will result in greater stability and upper back tightness. This is due to the inevitable bunching up of your upper back musculature as you retract your shoulder blades together, which helps create a shelf for the bar to comfortably sit on. Depending on your style of squatting (high vs. low bar), that means the bar will either be resting on your traps or on your rear-delts.
As for the elbows, I generally recommend keeping them close together towards the midline of your body – this will assist in engaging your lats which also helps with enhanced stability. If you are someone who tends to let the chest cave in during a squat, this cue might be particularly useful for you.
Note that stability should not come at the expense of comfort. If you experience wrist or shoulder pain, move your hands out farther. Similarly, you can have your elbows pointed slightly upwards if that’s what works for you. Smaller lifters or low-bar squatters may also find that keeping the elbows up will prevent the bar from rolling down their back.
You can grip the bar with a full grip (thumb around bar) or use a false grip where the thumb goes over the bar with your other fingers. The latter may alleviate wrist discomfort in some low-bar squatters, as it decreases the demands of wrist flexibility.
Regardless of your choice, gripping the bar with forceful intent will help create full-body tension. This is a very important step that is often skipped altogether. Before you step under the bar, forcefully grip it as if you were trying to break it in half. You will immediately feel your lats tense up, which in turn will lead you to a stronger, solid squat.
Bracing is one of those cues that sound relatively simple in theory, but most new lifters have a hard time putting into practice. Contrary to the good old “breathe in as you lower the weight, exhale on the way up”, creating and maintaining intra-abdominal pressure is key to squatting heavier weights.
There are two components to proper bracing: diaphragmatic breathing, and contraction of the abs.
The first step is to breathe deep into your stomach, as opposed to breathing into your chest. The goal here is to create a lateral and forward expansion of the abdominal cavity – you are literally trying to fill up your torso with as much air as possible. This will assist in creating core and back rigidity, which is essential if you’re planning on adding weights to the bar!
One of the ways to check if you’re doing this properly is to place one hand on your stomach, and the other hand on your chest. As you take a breath in, see which hand rises the most. This may take some practice but in time you’ll be taking full breaths into your belly effortlessly.
The second step is to lock that breath in and to forcefully contract the abdominals. We’re not talking about crunches here, so picture bracing as if you were ready to receive a hard punch to the stomach.
Now, once you’ve got your tank full of air, you don’t want to let any of that air out until you have completed a rep. That means exhaling on the way up is futile, as that will immensely decrease the intra-abdominal pressure you just worked so hard to create. Instead, you can either hold your breath until you’re at the top or slowly and forcefully exhale out through a closed glottis – as per the Valsalva maneuver.
Weight Distribution Over the Foot
Last but not least, pay attention to your feet! More specifically, how your weight is balanced over each foot.
One of the purposes of proper weight distribution is to enhance movement efficiency. That means you will be pushing big weights in the safest and most efficient path. You will also be activating all the key muscles that play a role in shooting your squat out of the hole. And that’s what we all want, right?
The easiest way to describe how to optimally “grab” the floor with your feet is to visualize each foot as a tripod, with your big toe, little toe and heel acting as anchors. By doing so, you are activating the supportive arches of your foot and creating an even weight distribution over the entire foot. This is a great cue I’ve picked up from Chad Wesley Smith of Juggernaut Training Systems, and it has dramatically improved my squat (and my clients’) since implementing it.
This method also allows you to screw your feet into the ground. which might be helpful if your knees tend to cave in under heavy loads, something known as knee valgus. While cues such as ‘push your knees out’ may work momentarily, you want to be able to address the root of the problem from the ground up. The corkscrew technique forces you to engage the muscles responsible for opening up the hips, which not only solves the valgus problem but can also enhance your kinesthetic awareness (the awareness of your body’s position) during the lift.
Squatting can be hard, but it can also be mastered with effort and consistency. And while there are many ways to skin a cat, some ways are far more productive than others.
In order to get better at something, we must understand why and how to make changes. I hope the above tips will be helpful to you and allow you to keep moving confidently towards your strength goals.