To begin, I would like to preface this article with a couple of particulars. First, for the purpose of this piece, we are referring mostly to the low bar squat. Most of the pointers could apply to just about any type of squat but the primary reference is to the squat with the barbell placed beneath the upper traps and across the rear delts. Second, no one is recommending that you should be thinking about 5 different things at once while a heavy bar sits on your back as you begin to perform a heavy rep or set. Its probably better to only have a couple things to focus on. Cues that are specific to you, that improve your execution, and distract you from the fact that you have a heavy weight on your back trying to staple you to the floor. All five of these tips may not apply to you and your specific training situation. Lastly, this checklist is NOT in order of most important to least important or most frequent mistake to less common. It is simply just a list of tips, so read, and consider which ones may apply to you.
The first advice is a contribution that relates to my personal experience as a lifter. As a coach I do not have a lot of clients that need this correction, and I do not see the issue brought up or discussed very often. The tip refers to head positioning in the squat. This is something that as a novice lifter, I never really considered. I would find my eye-gaze and try to make sure I kept it there through the whole rep, which fixes this issue for most lifters, but my head would still move. Because of my lack of attention to what my head was doing, I would have the hardest time keeping weight back in my hips. I would start my descent, reach my butt back the best I could, but no matter how hard I tried, right as I was about to drive my hips up out of the bottom, my knees would bounce forward and I would end up off balance forward. I could still complete the rep, but my knees hurt, and it was harder than it had to be. I finally reviewed my training videos and really dissected what the hell was going on. I was allowing my big head to stick out forward of my shoulders and even worse, as I hit depth and began driving up, I would allow it to drop even further down. I have a big head! And all that weight dropping forward over my toes as I started to stand up was making proper positioning impossible to maintain. I have since corrected this fatal error. My knees do not hurt as bad and my bottom position in the squat is much more stable. So, what to do? After un-racking the bar and setting your stance, take your breath, gently pull your ears back in line with your shoulders with your chin down. Do not jam your neck back aggressively as this could have undesired consequences. Keep your head there during the descent and then as you approach the bottom think about leading with your head back into the bar. This tip has done wonders for my squat progression.
I coach as a profession, but I also coach my wife for fun. Apparently, not a lot of couples can pull this off harmoniously, but so far, we have made it work and we have fun with it. My wife, Adelina, shares her training videos on social media for others to view. I always get a kick out of the thought that somebody is watching that video and hears a loud voice in the background yelling “tight armpits!” just before she begins unlocking her knees and hips. “Tight armpits” is a cue that helps a lot of lifters solve a couple of different problems. First, let’s identify what response we are looking for when we cue “tight armpits.” We want the back of your arm (triceps) to squeeze into the side of your torso, which is shoulder adduction. This causes all the musculature that are responsible for shoulder adduction on the posterior side of your body to contract and become rigid. Not only does this create a more stable shelf for the bar to sit on without moving, but it also helps the upper back to stay rigid enough to transfer the force being generated by your legs and hips all the way up to the bar in an efficient manner. Lastly, one of the biggest complaints you may see from someone struggling with their low bar squat is elbow pain. This is often because the lifter is supporting too much of the bar weight in his/her hands instead of the weight resting on their back. “Tight armpits” may help to relieve some of that tendinopathy by providing a more secure bar position on the back and not in the hands.
The importance of keeping a tight, sturdy, ridged midsection during the entire execution of the squat, cannot be overstated. From un-rack, through the squat, and back to the rack, the lifter should remain braced. The “brace” consists of a big breath of air held deep in your belly, isometric contractions of the trunk musculature (the abs, diaphragm, pelvic floor, obliques, and low-back muscles) pushing back hard into the internal pressure from the breath and out into the belt if you are wearing one.
Step 1: Get the bar into position on your back with a nice rigid upper back (tight armpits)
Step 2: Before un-racking, take a big breath and squeeze your midsection nice and tight (feel the belt get tighter)
Step 3: Remain tightly braced during your 2 or 3 step walk back
Step 4: Stance is set, keeping your upper back rigid, release the breath and retake it, contracting your midsection harder this time
Step 5: Keep air in tight and abs contracting hard throughout the entire squat
Repeat steps 4 & 5 until the set is complete
Slowing down the descent of the squat is something that I have found useful when correcting my own errors and especially when coaching beginners. I often communicate to my clients that “the harder they work on the way down, the easier it is to get back up.” While this may not be technically true, my point is, if you spend the energy keeping yourself braced tightly and holding your back as rigid as it can possibly get all the way down into the bottom, maintaining balance over mid-foot, the hard work is over and now you are in an optimal position to get back up. Don’t get me wrong, there are cases where you will see a strong lifter dive bomb into their knees and spring right back up out of the bottom of a heavy squat, but we don’t recommend that approach. Generally, when we have a lifter slow down their descent, an increase in positional awareness can occur. This makes it easier to coach through common technical errors and allows the lifter to feel the corrections happening in real time during the rep. Aside from using a slower descent to execute more precise movement patterns, it’s also necessary for hyper-flexible trainees to keep them from dive bombing into the hole. People who lack the stiffness and stability in their joints will tend to descend rapidly especially when a heavy load is introduced. If this is you or one of your clients a 3 count eccentric can be beneficial until sufficient strength and control can be demonstrated.
Maintaining balance over mid-foot is the master cue. I highly recommend you spend time feeling your weight perfectly centered, directly behind the balls of your feet, through the entire range of motion. Rock onto your toes, rock onto your heels, and then feel your weight come into balance somewhere between those two points. Next, use your controlled descent and observe your balance point throughout the whole movement. You shouldn’t be pushing through your heels, but you don’t want the heels to lift off the floor as you get forward onto your toes either. Do this for your first couple of weighted warm up sets to really drill it in. The reason why it’s considered the master cue is because a vast majority of the time, if you keep your balance perfectly over mid-foot for the whole movement, you will not commit any major movement errors.
The tips listed in this article could apply to anyone, from beginner all the way through advanced. Whether you are a coach or a self-reliant athlete, form degradation happens to everyone so if you or your client’s squat starts to look or feel off, maybe one of these 5 topics are the culprit.
Authored by Chase Ruhmann