5 Tips to Enhance Your Squat
The squat. For some it’s the king of lifts for others it’s an exercise that is avoided for a variety of reasons, or excuses. In this article we have put together some tips to make your squat more safe and effective.
Tip 1: Safety
Safety is of paramount importance in the squat; having a loaded barbell on your back is a situation where little mistakes can become costly injuries. The first safety priority is the equipment: a quality bar and either a squat rack or power cage are essential for complete safety. Squat stands are of course an option, but being safe with these often requires 2 spotters skilled and strong enough to assist if you miss a lift.
Make sure the guards on the rack or cage are set to the right height for your squat depth - a few inches lower than the bar when you are in your bottom position - and then in the event of a miss you can safely lower the bar to the support of the guards.
The set up to your squat is also an important safety consideration. You should practice and repeat your un-rack (taking the bar off the hooks) walk out (setting your feet in stance) and re-rack with an unloaded bar so that when it comes to working sets your safety habits are second nature.
Tip 2: Depth
In order to get the most activation of the major muscles used in the squat (quadriceps, glutes and hamstrings) it is necessary to squat to parallel (Chandler et al, 2014). In powerlifting this is called hitting depth and not doing so is called partial squatting or squatting high. Squatting all the way down to the full extent of hip flexion and knee flexion as is seen in Olympic lifting is absolutely acceptable, however this requires a high level of mobility - and for most individuals specialist weight lifting shoes. For general training this may not be necessary, particularly with heavy weights.
The risk is that partial squatting will encourage the use of heavy loads potentially early in training, this brings with it a higher risk of injury. Correct depth in the squat often means a more modest loading at first but offers the safest and most effective use for exercise progression. In order to check you are hitting depth it may be useful to video some reps of your squat and evaluate the range of motion.
Alternatively get a personal trainer to assess your squat depth.
Tip 3: Correct bar path
Bar path relates to the trajectory the bar travels in the eccentric and concentric phases of the lift. To be as efficient as possible the path taken by the bar should be as close to line of gravity (straight to the ground) as possible and minimise sway (deviation from this line). For the squat exercise to remain efficient and the bar in balance the bar path will need to line up over the mid foot (Lambert et al, 2012).
Try to focus on keeping the weight of the bar over the mid foot throughout the lift. By focusing on this it will eliminate a multitude of form errors in itself. If you can get some video footage of yourself doing the lift side on, this can help identify if you are indeed in balance by tracing the bar path in the sagittal plane.
Maintaining good spinal position in the squat is vitally important. Excessive rounding of the upper or lower back carries the risk of intervertebral disc injury. However, many confuse this with keeping bolt upright throughout the lift and this is not the case. The torso should incline forward as the bar is lowered into the bottom position; this is described as “the hole”. The important factor is that this forward torso lean should come from movement at the hip joint not the spine.
The key to maintaining good spinal alignment is to stay tight in the upper back and braced in the abdominal muscles. To achieve this, don’t just focus on balancing the bar but supporting it with tight upper back muscles particularly the trapezius and rhomboids. To keep the abs tight either utilise the Valsalva manoeuvre (breath held and abs braced) during the lift or exhale after the major effort in the ascent (Chandler et al, 2014). To ensure the torso leans forward at the hip joint, focus on a good bar path keeping the bar over the mid foot and sitting the hips back as you lower into the hole.
Tip 5: Hip drive
We often think of the squat as a quadriceps exercise and it is true that the quadriceps are heavily involved in the movement. However at the bottom of the squat (the hole) with the thighs parallel to the floor it is the large muscles of the hips that initiate the ascent of the lift (Rippetoe & Kilgore, 2007). This is why the squat is such an excellent posterior chain exercise.
In order to get the most hip drive out of the hole you need to do two things: you need to sit your hips back as you descend from the top position and you need to learn to feel for the stretch reflex that this creates as you get to parallel. The stretch reflex is caused by the muscles of the hamstrings, adductors and glutes lengthening under load. This allows you to generate the initial force in the ascent of the lift in much the same way as pre-loading before a vertical jump.
Making the most of hip drive will also help avoid at least one common error in the squat of shooting the knees too far forwards and overloading the knee joint. Some forward knee travel is necessary to keep the bar balanced over the mid foot but too much may cause issues. This will vary from person to person due to body type. By concentrating on hip drive and correct depth you will generally find the correct balance for your body type.
We hope these tips help you in improving your squat and reaching your fitness goals.
Chandler, J, McMillan, J, Kibler, W, Richards, D. (2014). Safety of the Squat Exercise.
Clark, D, Lambert, M, Hunter, A . (2012). Muscle Activation In The Loaded Free Barbell Squat: A Brief Review. Journal of strength and conditioning research. 26 (4), 1169 - 1178
Rippetoe, M, Kilgore, L, . (2007). The Squat. In: Stef Bradford, Ph.D. Starting Strength. USA: The Aasgaard Company. 9 - 63.
Written by James Gregory