Below is an article all about the King of all Lifts, the Back Squat. The Back Squat is something that I program the most. If you are on the Mash Mafia Weightlifting Team, I program it to help increase the snatch and clean & jerk. If you are on the Eat & Lift What You Want, I program it no matter what your goals are. If you want to get lean, nothing recruits more fibers or affects the endocrine system in a more positive way than the Back Squat.
I talk more about the squat than any other lift even though I am a weightlifting coach. It just affects more people in the most ways. My mission is the affect the most lives that I can while on this earth. This blog and my programs are the ways that I affect the most people. That is why I decided to write this blog for you guys. I want you all to get better acquainted with the Back Squat.
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Common Squat Mistakes and Simple Fixes
The Squat is probably the most talked about exercise concerning the barbell. Talk to any CrossFit Coach, Strength Coach, Powerlifting Coach, Weightlifting Coach, fitness guru, or any regular personal trainer in a gym, and they are going to talk about the squat. They are going to talk about low bar, high bar, depth, and technique. Some are not going to use a barbell, and some crazy people are going to put you on a Bosu Ball. I always find this crazy because most people can’t squat their own bodyweight properly. So why put a person on a blown up balloon if they can’t perform the exercise on a stable floor? Who knows?
Anyway, rant is over! Today I am talking about the Back Squat. The Back Squat is the daddy of all lifts. It recruits the most fibers, which in turn gets the most bang for your buck. The two biggest factors in fiber recruitment are load and range of motion. The key is performing the exercise safely and efficiently.
1. Squatting has always been one of my favorite exercises. There is nothing like crawling under an 800+ Raw Back Squat, and taking it for a ride. For some people, the fear is what holds them back. When people get super strong, the amount of weight becomes a huge mental block. Some are afraid of potential accidents and injuries. When I was young, I was more afraid of mediocrity than any injury. The desire to become the strongest human on earth crowded my brain, so that thoughts of fear couldn’t creep in. Not to mention, Fear can injure someone much quicker than fearlessness.
The first step is to define a goal, and set a plan to reach that goal. Each plan will have a process. Let the process of the squat fill the mind. You don’t have to be a growling bear to squat a ton of weight. I have watched Greg Nuckols squat massive amounts of weight while laughing and talking the entire time, but you can guarantee that his brain was full of a process to squat the weight.
The process is the checklist that the brain uses as if it is on autopilot. The bar placement on the back, the walk out, foot placement, eye placement, back placement, initial movement, speed of descent, transition in the bottom, speed of ascent, and returning the weight to the rack should all be the same each and every rep. This should be the way that one approaches each barbell movement to avoid Fear creeping in the picture. You want the body to switch into autopilot.
2. The mistake that drives me crazy is people not hitting depth. Let’s define depth before we explain how to hit depth. In all the federations that I am familiar with, full depth is when the crease of the hip drops below the top of the knee. Here is the thing! If you have to ask, it was too high. That’s just all I have to say about it. Another thing is don’t tell me about camera angles. If the lift looks a mile high, then it was.
There are a couple of ways that I have worked on my comfort levels in what powerlifters call “the hole”. First, everyone that has performed one of my routines has performed pause squats. Pause squats will teach the body to recruit fibers in the hole that will assist with stability. Pause squats will basically get the athlete comfortable with the hole. I want all of my athletes to embrace the hole. Shoot, get more comfortable in the hole than you are with the rest of the squat. Do that and you will master the squat.
Once again, Greg Nuckols is the king of paused squats. That guy will literally sing songs in the bottom of a squat. I will give a lot of credit to Greg for opening my eyes to pause everything. Pause squats have also been my go to exercise because they seem to be easier on my knees and hips, and I can go to a maximal effort with a lesser load.
The other method that I continue to use to make my clients more comfortable with the bottom of the squat is “bottoms”. Bottoms are an exercise that I have used for over twenty years. My late friend, Michael Higgins, taught me this exercise when I was still at Appalachian State University. Basically you squat all the way down into the hole, and then come up half way and return back to the hole. You perform this half movement over and over for about 6-8 reps. I normally add this to the end of my normal Back Squat sets. It works like a charm!
3. Knee Valgus is a common error for a lot of younger athletes and a lot of women. Women struggle with this problem because of a steep angle between the hips and knees. The problem comes from a weakness in the abductors especially the glutes A simple fix is to put a mini-band around the knees while squatting. Pushing against the bands will do two things: strengthen the abductors and will teach the brain what is supposed to happen. A lot of mistakes in weightlifting are caused from a faulty movement pattern in the brain more times than a weakness or tightness. We just need more proper practice.
Knee valgus can also be overcome with direct glute work like band walks, barbell bridges with band around knees, and other types of abduction work. I recommend performing a few glute activation exercises before squatting, and then working the glutes harder after squatting. Brett Contreras is the man when it comes to glute activation, so I recommend checking him out.
4. A big mistake is the butt coming up before the chest out of the bottom. I see this mistake the most. When this happens, the majority of the weight is shifted to the low back. The weight distribution in the feet is shifted away from the heels and towards the toes. Both of these actions are detrimental to completing a heavy squat. There are a couple of ways to correct this mistake.
First, keep your eyes straight ahead and slightly up. Do this while physically tucking the shoulder blades together and down. These two actions will cause the mind to recruit more fibers in the posterior chain. All powerlifters will tell you that the limiting factor of most big squats is getting pushed over and onto the toes. When I was still competing at a world level, if I could keep my chest up, I could lift the weight. Only when I got pushed over, did I miss the lift. My legs were capable of squatting almost anything that I could support with my back.
The other way to ensure a proper posture out of the hole is pushing against the bar with your upper back while pushing the hips through and under the bar. The verbal cue “drive your chest into the bar” will cause a proper movement pattern. Once your hips are under the bar, the lift becomes a great deal easier.
5. When the back rounds or collapses, the lifter is put in a compromised position. A strong stable back is a key to a lot of barbell movements. If you look at any great strength athlete, you will notice a ton of development in their entire back. I recommend all types of carries for any solid strength program. Some of my favorite carry exercises are: overhead carries, front squat carries, zercher carries, farmer’s walks, and unilateral carries (both overhead and farmers walks).
The squat should be a major component of any solid strength program. It’s a primitive movement pattern that we should all fight tooth and nail to hang on to. The back squat is a huge indicator of improving the Olympic lifts, getting faster, jumping higher, and overall health. It’s weird but you will find that the safest way to squat will always be the way that allows you to lift the most weight. When the body is stable, it will blast those fibers. Taking a little extra time to squat more efficiently will pay off in the long run.