How to Barbell Squat
The barbell squat is one of the most beneficial lifts you can do. It helps build explosive power, is great for athletic performance and builds tons of muscle. The lift is rather complex compared to other lifts, so mastering it can be a bit tricky. So let’s take a look at the barbell squat and hit on some key points with form and mechanics.
The Set Up
During the set up, make sure your core is braced, shoulder blades are retracted, and everything is tight and ridged. Having a tight core and a good set up is often neglected by novice lifters, but it is a facet of the lift that cannot be under estimated. Think of your set up for the barbell squat (or any lift for that matter) as the foundation of the lift. If the foundation is weak, the lift will crumble …. and so will your back. Everything needs to be tight! I can’t emphasize that point enough.
The bar placement on the barbell squat will be a bit different for everyone. I suggest placing the bar wherever your feel comfortable as you first begin barbell squatting. Generally most people will feel the most comfortable with the bar placed right above their scapula and on their tight and retracted traps. Just be careful placing the bar too high on the neck. This can cause form issues and injury.
Eventually you will want to work both a high and low bar squat.
The high bar squat will force you into a more upright position. The low bar squat will allow for more forward lean on the squat. Most strong lifters utilize the low bar squat as you can generate more power with that type of bar positioning. The one concern with the low bar squat for novice lifters is the fact that it places much more emphasis on the upper body to stabilize and hold the weight. Most novice lifters just don’t have the strength to do this.
So again, I suggest placing the bar wherever it feels the most comfortable to start and as you advance you can play around with the bar placement.
Generally speaking you want your feet just outside of hip width. Everyone will have a slightly different stance width, so play with it until you find the position that is the most comfortable for you. Turning your feet out slightly will also help you with the lift. This will make it easier to keep your knees from caving in. The angle at which you turn your feet will also vary. I personally do not turn them out very much, but a lifting partner of mine enjoys a large degree of turn at his feet. It all is preference, but be aware that the more you turn your feet outward the greater emphasis on the recruitment of the hip adductors. This isn’t a bad thing, just something to keep in mind and be aware of.
Engage the Glutes
Many people have a hard time engaging the glutes on this lift. This problem is easy to spot because these people start the movement by pushing their knees forward, rather than pushing their hips back or straight down. The first movement in the barbell squat has to be in the hip area. Pushing forward at the knee will cause four major problems.
- It will cause a drastic angle at the ankle which in turn will cause your heels to pop up and shift the resistance onto your toes
- You will no longer will be able to push through your heels because they are in the air
- You will put extra stress on the knee joint and possibly cause injury
- It will limit overall muscle recruitment as the glutes can’t assist as you stand. Your glutes are big… use em!
If you have a difficult time engaging your glutes, try doing some glute bridges before and after you squat.
If you find that you engage your glutes and begin with proper hip movement, yet your heels still pop up it is easy to conclude that you have tight calves. Ankle mobility exercises and a simple calf stretch are your friend!
Both of these issues are outlined in the squat tutorial videos below, so if you suffer from either of the above I highly suggest checking out the tutorial videos below.
A lot of people have the misconception that squatting deep is bad for your knees. This isn’t true. In fact, squatting shallow is way worse for your knees as it places most of the load on the quads and puts most of the stress on the knee joint. Squatting deep allows you to focus a majority of the resistance on your glutes and hips. This is ideal. Squatting until your thighs are parallel to the floor or slightly lower is a decent visual cue. You can also use the powerlifting standard that the hip crease has to be below the top of the knee. (Shown to the left)
Squatting deep also allows for a better stretch reflex. A stretch reflex occurs when a muscle is quickly stretched. Our bodies have a defense mechanism that causes muscle to quickly contract when a forceful and strong stretch stimulus is applied. If this did not occur our muscles would tear right off the bone. Here is a practical example. Think of a track athlete jumping over a hurdle during a race. Their front leg comes up with intense force and their hamstring stretches with equal force. To stop that muscle from tearing, the body will quickly contract the hamstring to counteract the forceful elongation. We can use this to our advantage in movements like the squat and bench press to get stronger contractions and inevitably better results. Yup, it’s science.
The Upper Body
The upper body often gets neglected because this is a lower body lift. A lot of people simply don’t think about it, but it is an integral part of barbell squatting success. The cue I often like to use is “big chest”. This describes pushing your chest forward. I know others who use the cue, “Show your boobs off.” This is similar to how a cougar might stand while at the dance club during a night out on the prowl. I tend to take the more PC approach in this instance, but whatever floats your boat.
If you find your chest caving in, you may want to try narrowing the width of your grip on the bar. The wider you grab the bar, the more your chest is stretched and the more difficult it will be to have a “big chest,” or stick your chest out. Another benefit to narrowing your grip is the fact that the muscle of the back will naturally contract. This will make it even easier to ensure you are retracting your shoulder blades and have a solid set up to begin the movement.
This is more of an advanced tip, so if you are a beginner focus on the basic form FIRST and then worry about speed.
But for those of you who advance past the beginner stage, I want you to think FAST! You want to fire out of the hole (bottom portion of the movement) during a squat. This will help take advantage of that stretch reflex we discussed earlier. Speed off the bottom will also allow for maximal muscle recruitment and will sky rocket your squat numbers.
Sounds good right!?! I thought so.
For a tutorial on how to barbell squat properly check out the video I created for the Shaping Yourself 5×5 Program.
If you are not ready to barbell squat and really need to begin learning the movement from a body weight perspective, this is the progression for you. This video is from the Foundation Home Workout Program.
To add to the tips in the two previous videos, I want to include this stretch as part of the protocol for helping you reach the proper depth on your squat. This is an important stretch and will help your hip mobility and glute function.
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