Squatting is one of my favorite things to do. When I was powerlifting this was the one day of the week I would never ever miss. A strong squat carries over to everything else being stronger. There are big deadlifters that are built to deadlift, but couldn’t squat their way out of a paper bag. The squat is one of the lifts that many people hate. That is why powerlifting federations offer Deadlift Only and Bench Only competitions …… for those who “can’t” squat. They never offer Squat Only competitions because those who can squat well can also do everything else.
As a Strength Coach and Personal Trainer at Tucson Strength I want to always teach our clients how to do things correctly regardless if they ever want to step on a competitive platform. The squat has a lot going on and it is highly individualized. Everyone will have a different stance and foot position (unless you are a Starting Strength sycophant that thinks everyone has to turn the toes way out and bring the hips up first). The bar position also can vary from person to person. The squat requires a tremendous amount of upper back strength which also demands good thoracic mobility (especially for low bar). Optimal rib and trunk position, requisite shoulder, hip, and ankle mobility, and the ability to coordinate all these factors with increasing load on the back all come into play with the squat. One key component of the squat that I see neglected too often is the focus on having the proper upper back tension and engagement with the bar.
Before the bar is even lifted off the rack the back must be tight and fully engaged. If you un-rack the bar and then try and get tight you are way too late to the party. If you are in low bar position the shoulder blades must be squeezed together and pulled down towards the hips. If you are practicing high bar position, shoulder blades must be down and lats and armpits must be fully contracted. Regardless of the bar position, I always imagine wedging my body underneath the bar and pulling my body up into the bar. Once that bar feels like it is part of my body I don’t lose that tension throughout the movement. Many people find the tension at the top, but then take a deep breath and lose it. Some hold the tension in the upper back on the way down but lose it on way up.
You will hear me scream at Tucson Barbell Club much of the time to STAY TIGHT!! I believe I heard Dave Tate say something like “If you think you are as tight as you can get, you aren’t, GET TIGHTER!” This is something I have in my head any time I am under the bar. A tight back will make heavy weights feel lighter. Here are some really important factors in mastering this part of squatting.
A) Make sure your pecs aren’t locked up. If your pecs are too tight they are going to pull your shoulders forward and you are going to have to have to work extra hard to keep your back in the right position. I have seen many lifters with crappy squats because of ridiculously knotted up pecs. Soft tissue work, massage and aggressive stretching is a must to fix this.
B) Once your chest is mobilized make sure you are including regular back work in your strength work. Back work doesn’t have to be heavy. Moderate weight and higher reps focusing on squeezing the back and shoulder blades is highly effective. I see way too many people load up the bar or cable row or lat pull downs and do crappy/forced reps. Focus on getting those shoulder blades down and back and holding the squeeze. This will carry over way more than just putting a ton of weight on the bar and jerking the weight to your body.
C) Practice staying tight and owning the bar position with ALL of your warmup sets. Treat your warm up sets like they are your heavy sets. I witness lifters all the time sloppily un-racking 135lbs and just bouncing up and down with the weight. This laziness will carry over to your heavy weights when it matters. The more you practice this the easier it will come together for you. This video here is a prime example of what not to do on the squat. If you watch his upper back it is completely uninvolved in the squat from the beginning. He has brief moment of tension right before he un-racks the bar and you can see his back engaged, then he lets it all go. His back traps are pretty impressive, but there is no activation or enough engagement going on in his upper back to lift this weight. He probably gets away with this on lighter loads, but as the saying goes “It’s all easy until it gets heavy.”
If you’re looking for help getting stronger, improving your technique, or you’d like to meet with one of our instructors for a free consultation, please give us a call at (520)445-6800 today and we’ll be happy to help.