If I was forced to do a single exercise in the gym for the rest of my life it would have to be the squat. Notice how I’m not refering to it as the back squat, full squat or giving it any other prefix because there really is only one Squat. It is the single best movement you can do in the gym (or anywhere else for that matter). Period. There are endless variations: front squat, high bar, low bar, safety bar, dead-squat bar, dumbell, single leg, Bulgarian split, single leg Bulgarian deficit, this one and the other but:
“There is simply no other exercise, and certainly no machine, that provides the level of central nervous activity, improved balance and coordination, skeletal loading and bone density enhancement, muscular stimulation and growth, connective tissue stress and strength, psychological demand and toughness, and overall systemic conditioning than the correctly performed full squat.”
Still, aside from the Olympic lifts, the squat gas got to be the hardest movement to teach somebody how to do properly. An experienced and KNOWLEDGEABLE coach will probably do this in about 10 minutes, but if you undertake this on your own be prepared for a long journey. This route is not a bad option though, because if you are really interested in doing it properly you will learn a tremendous amount of useful information along the way. You should however watch out for the following – you can easily learn the incorrect movement pattern which will then become ingrained in your nervous system and very difficult to correct later on. “Scientiffic research showed that it takes a human being around 300-500 repetitions to ingrain a completely new movement pattern into your brain, while it takes 3000-5000 repetitions to correct a wrong one.” (-Eliott Hulse)
Accurate numbers don’t really matter, since they will be individual; not everyone has the same level of neuromuscular coordination but the general idea still applies. Some folks are more explosive (jump higher and quicker), some have better movement coordination (in basketball, soccer, baseball) while otheres are better grinders (deadlifts, strongman activities). It’s pure genetics and there’s not much you can do about it.
Some general form tips:
“If you have shoulder issues, choose a medium to wide grip.
If you have a short back, choose a medium to wide stance.
If you have a long torso, choose a medium stance (the longer the torso, the closer the stance).
If you have long legs and a long back, choose a close to medium stance.
If you have long legs and a short back, congratulations. You can squat any way you want.
If you’re using gear, obviously a wider stance is best as the gear supports the hips.”
MOST FREQUENT PROBLEMS WITH THE SQUAT
1. Incorrect neuromuscular activation patterns
When starting with the activity that is completely new to us we face two challenges:
Acquiring the speciffic knowledge required to do the activity and our ego.
The knowledge poses a challenge because there’s not a lot of it in gyms (at least not in these where I have trained). Sometimes, people are just not willing to share it. I suspect that it is much easier for the trainers to take the new guy through the machine circuit than teach them free weight compound movements. In order to teach someone how to squat properly, it is neccessary to have much knowledge of anatomy, physics and biomechanics and it is important to take every individuals specifics (leverages) and possible restrictions into the account as well. These types of coaches aren’t many to be found around, especially once you move into “300+ lbs moved” territory.
Egos of the athletes themselves (as well as coaches egos) are the other huge part of this problem equasion. “Everybody’s squatting 300 lbs so I must too!” Testosterone is an awesome anabolic hormone but it’s also a pretty f*** up stuff. This is where the “quarter-squat-I-see-a-torn-ACL-butt-wink-discus-hernia” zone begins. Let me stress this: THESE variations are not feasible, for proper squat variations return to the beginning of this article.
Getting back to the subtitle of this chapter – incorrect neuromuscular activation patterns. For the two reasons just described the athlete memorizes the wrong pathways of muscle activation and with each rep ingrains them even further into his nervous system.
SOLUTION: Take the weights off the bar, dump your ego and start from scratch. Ingrain those proper patterns into your mind and watch your form. When you fix your form, only then are you allowed to use weights again.
Another technique that will aid you in fixing your squat tremendously (NOT box squats but squats to a box):
2. “Butt wink” or “tail tuck”
Huge problem that is apparent with almost every novice with squatting is the so called “butt wink” or “tail tuck” in the low position of the squat.
Reasons for this can be any of the following factors or a combination of more than one:
PROBLEM: loss of the arch in the lumbal area; weak spinal erectors
SOLUTION: do hyperextensions, reverse hyperextensions
PROBLEM: insufficient flexibility of the hamstrings or weak hip flexors
SOLUTION: mobility work and stretching, proper warm up and activation routines before each training session
PROBLEM: not keeping the upper back tight and/or weakness in that area when initiating the movement; this causes the loss of proper arch in the lower back as well
SOLUTION: more attention during the set-up for squatting, strengthening the upper back
PROBLEM: weak torso stabilizing muscles (rectus abdominus, obliques, transversus abdominus, …), the dreaded “C” word (Core)
SOLUTION: the solution to this problem will be outlined in another article, the solution is NOT doing millions of crunches and situps (strengthening the rotational function of these muscles) but rather their isometric stabilization function
PROBLEM: wrong stance, too narrow stance; upper thigh hits the ASIS on the way down (anterior superior iliac spine, front top hip bone)
SOLUTION: wider stance, shove your knees out on the way down
3. Knees – ankle flexibility
Knees are always a sensitive issue when discussing the squats. Should the shins be vertical? Are they supposed to go forward over the toeline or not? What stance to use, toes outward, inward… These are the facts:
The deeper you squat, the more you will need to shove your knees out. In this case, in order to avoid shin rotation, your toes need to point a bit more outward. The narrower the stance and the deeper the squat, the more will your knees go toward your toes or even in front of them and the shin will not be able to stay vertical to the floor.
The more you do the powerlifting squat, the wider the stance you will use, the more will you shove your but backwards while descending, the higher will you end the squat and the more will you involve posterior chain in lifting the weight.
Just remember – the squat is not an isolation exercise and should not be treated as such. You have to shove your knees outward when squating, you must activate the adductors, glutes and hamstrings. It is a compound, whole body movement which stresses the whole body.
Closing checklist for proper squatting:
- shove your head and neck backwards “into” the bar, do not look up but somewhere in front of you and down
- pull on the bar with your hands firmly, fix it onto your traps
- put your palms on the bar in such a maner that your shoulders don’t hurt
- chest out (“grow tall!”)
- arch your lower back but don’t overdo it, your spine needs to curve naturally
- focus on your ass and back of your thighs, that will let you lift large weight (posterior chain activation, not just quads)
- breathe into your abdomen, not into your chest
- stay tight from your head to your toes, from the moment you un-rack the bar ’till you rack it back
- SLOWLY creep out of the rack, baby steps, just so that you clear the lowest pin in the bottom position
- “spread the floor” with your feet (you need to feel as if the weight is more on the outer edge of your foot than at the inner)
- break at the knees first, shove your butt back (think of the two way hinge – knees and hips)
- always start with your toes pointed a bit outward, not straight ahead, knees should track in the same direction as your toes
- it’s not the end of the world if your knees go a bit towards your toes (shins do not stay absolutely vertical) but the more they go over the toes, the more tension in the hamstrings and glutes you lose and less weight you will move