The squat is one of my favorite lifts/movements. It is arguably the most useful exercise in the gym and the foundation of building strength and power. I’m sure all of you have squatted numerous times throughout your lives and during your time with us at CFABQ, but I want to review the variations of the squat, why we do them, range of motion (you know who you are), and provide a few pointers.
The Air Squat
It all starts with the air squat. This is something a child can do so naturally, but for some of us, as time goes on, becomes challenging due to countless hours spent sitting. The air squat is the foundation upon which the back, front, and overhead squat are built upon. So let’s review from the bottom up: feet should be approximately shoulder width with toes pointed out at roughly a 30 degree angle; as you descend the knees should be pushing out and stay in-line with your feet; push your butt back; keep tension in your lower back to maintain your lumbar curve; weight should be evenly distributed across the feet; your hip crease should at least be below your knees at the bottom, but this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t squat lower if flexibility allows (the lower the better); as you ascend focus on driving/exploding upward and engaging the posterior muscles (glutes and hamstrings) and continue pushing those knees out; try to lift your chest up throughout the entire movement; and the movement is complete when you are standing tall with knees and hips fully extended. The most common faults I see fall in the realm of range of motion. During warm-up someone can perform a perfect air squat, but once we say 3-2-1…go for the WOD it becomes some unknown variation where full depth and extension are never to be heard from again. This phenomenon continues to puzzle me. Performing squats with poor range of motion is not only bad for your knees and hinders posterior change development and engagement, but I also see it as cheating. Now if you are still working on your flexibility and legitimately can’t perform a full range of motion squat, that’s a different story; keep working and you will get there. For the rest of you, never sacrifice full range of motion and/or quality movement for a better time or more reps.
The Back Squat
Everything from the air squat still applies with this lift, but now the movement will be performed with a barbell on the back/shoulders. There are 2 variations of the back squat (high bar and low bar), but I will only be talking about the high bar version here. The high bar version best translates to the Olympic lifts due to the positioning of the torso; therefore this is the version we mostly use. The low bar variation is used mostly by powerlifters and allows more weight to be lifted by angling the torso downward and moving the bar lower on the back. The back squat will begin by removing the barbell out of the rack, and this is where I want to provide a few pointers. Place your hands equidistant on the bar every time. The thumbs should be placed on top of the bar, not fully wrapped around it. This will allow you to keep your wrist in-line with your forearm and prevent you from trying to support any of the weight with your wrists/arms. Next, get both feet into your squat stance while the bar is still in the rack. Take a deep breath in and hold it, unrack the bar, step back just enough to clear the rack (you don’t need to take 12 steps backward), and actively pull the bar into your back/shoulders throughout the entire lift (this will help keep your chest up). A quick note on head positioning: keep a neutral head position throughout the lift; try imagining there is a tennis ball under your chin and you need to keep it pinned to your chest.
The Front Squat
We use the front squat because of its transference to the clean. Front squatting helps create the strength and confidence to stand up a heavy clean. With this being said, the front squat should always be performed using a clean grip and not with crossed arms, unless you truly have an injury that prevents the clean grip. A lot of people tell me front squats hurt their wrists and I’ve found that most of these people are trying to use their hands and wrists to support a significant amount of the weight, instead of allowing the bar to rest in the front rack position. Before unracking the bar, place your fingertips on the bar then rotate your elbows up and under the bar as far as you can and let the full weight of the bar rest on the front rack created by your shoulders. You should only need your fingertips to provide some stability to the bar. Now, because the bar is in front of you it is even more important to keep as vertical of a torso as possible. Keep your elbows up as high as possible, especially during your ascent.
The Overhead Squat
Just like we use the front squat because of its transference to the clean; we use the overhead squat because of its transference to the snatch. The overhead squat helps to build the strength and midline stability necessary to snatch effectively. This is another movement where a lot of people have issues with wrist pain, which again I feel is due to bar positioning. Don’t let the bar travel too far down your hand toward your fingertips, but instead try to keep it further towards the base of your thumb; this way the weight can be supported by a chain of joints (wrist, elbow, shoulder). The further the weight travels toward your fingertips, the more weight must be supported solely by the wrist joint. A few other pointers: once the bar is locked out overhead focus on externally rotating your shoulders (stop reading for a moment and try doing this by lifting your arm overhead and twisting your arm so your thumb is pointing behind you; that’s external rotation), focus on keeping a tight midline by trying to elevate your ribcage and actively pressing up on the bar during the entire lift.
Squatting is awesome and I hope you all enjoy it as much as I do (or at least respect the many benefits it provides). If you have any questions about squatting that I didn’t address here, please let me or one of the other coaches know and we will get an answer for you. Now, go squat something heavy or do 20 picture perfect air squats.