The squat is one of the staple movements in most, if not all workout plans. Whether you’re building all out power, building muscle mass or improving athletic performance, the squat is one of the big 3 that should be used.
Although the squat is such a popular exercise, it does come under a lot of scrutiny in how it could be performed. Every aspect of the squat is thrown into question, how deep should I go? Where do my hands need to be? How wide should my stance be? Where do I point my toes?
Let’s look at the answers!
Powerlifters etc may not find this article useful as you will have different methods to account for the big weights and competition regulations.
The warm up
Everyone has their own warm up routine when lifting. Most people will agree that you need to perform some sort of pulse raiser/cardio to get the blood pumping, followed by some static and dynamic stretches. I also like to sit in the bottom of my squat with a dumbbell or kettlebell held at my chest. These routines are great for activating the working muscles but what about your central nervous system?
The CNS is responsible for transmitting the message to your muscles that they need to contract and activate at the right time in the right way. If this is not firing on all cylinders it can lead to poor tracking in the patella, seriously affecting your squat. To warm up the CNS try doing 5-10 low box jumps, squatting down to parallel and activating your glutes, hamstrings and quads, then propel yourself on to the box.
If you don’t have access to a box or sturdy surface then some vertical jumps are just as effective.
DO YOU DARE?
Then try some hang cleans with just the bar. Start with the bar below the knee, triple extend to clean the bar and drop underneath it to a full front squat. Again, 5-10 of these, plus the jumps will ensure your CNS is activated.
There is also the core to consider. The core muscles need to be strong and activated all the way through the movements. To warm these up, try doing overloaded isometric front squat holds. Hold the bar with your max weight for 10-20 seconds, keeping your core tight throughout. This can also be done with a dumbbell or kettlebell in a goblet position.
The set up
Everyone will have an opinion on this again. I have seen both sides of the spectrum, from palms flat against the plates to hands narrow and inside the shoulders, but what is the optimum position?
Hands just outside the shoulders.
By putting your hands in this position it allows you to ‘pull’ the bar around your shoulders/back, achieving the optimum back position. This will also allow for your chest to be ‘pushed out’ and achieve a tight core all the way through the lift. Hands too wide can cause rounding of the upper back, drooping shoulders and a loose core.
Again we want the feet to be just past shoulder width apart with toes facing forwards as much as possible. The ability to do this will ultimately come down to your hip flexors which I will touch upon later. Toes too far out or too far in can cause poor tracking of the patella, causing knee issues and over/under development of the different areas of the quads and glutes.
The movement and depth
Here we go, the part that will throw up the most discussion topics and controversy. During the squat your weight wants to be through the centre of your feet. Too much weight forward can cause the knees to go past the toes and cause instability. Too much weight back can cause the feet to rotate at the heel.
As you start your squat, kick your backside out which will help with back position and keep the weight/bar central.
I find it helpful to do double pause squats during the first few sets to ensure that my knees and feet are tracking the correct way. Pause at the bottom and make adjustments (low weight of course) then pause half way back up and make more adjustments if needed.
DEPTH! The depth of your squat will depend on you. As a rule of thumb, parallel is ideal, knees at 90 degrees, activating the quads, hamstrings and glutes. Lower squats are good and will develop more muscles but most people will struggle to go past parallel. This is because of the hip flexor. If you have short hip flexors it will hinder your ability to squat past parallel. This can be improved doing hip flexor stretches regularly, and sitting in a goblet squat and holding the position. Start with feet wide but as you improve start to bring them narrow to you normal squat position.
I hear this nearly every day either in person or on social media, squats are bad for your knees!
Doing squats wrong can be bad for your knees.
Since adjusting my squats using the above pointers I have noticed huge improvements. I no longer get knee pain while squatting, I can go lower than I was before, the movement is smoother and I am noticing more quad and glutes development.
I hope you have found these tips useful. I would like to thank Lee Dubois and Ian Thistlewood at Structure sport and fitness Sheffield for putting on the session, allowing me to attend and letting me do this write up. If you’re ever in Sheffield I highly recommend looking them up for a session, great gym, great atmosphere.
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