From Tony Gentilcore
Today’s guest post comes courtesy of fellow Cressey Sports Performance coach, Tony Bonvechio (AKA: the other Tony). He’s got some excellent pointers on squat technique and how you can go about improving squat depth without mention of a single mobility exercise.
I didn’t like hip-hop music until I met Tony Gentilcore. I’m more of a heavy metal guy, but when TG handles DJ duties during staff lift, I can’t help but get amped up to the sounds of the 90’s Hip Hop or Dirty South Pandora stations.
Note From TG: Tribe Called Quest Radio. You’re welcome.
So when Ludacris poses the esoteric question, “How low can you go?” during a heavy squat workout, it gets me thinking how I can get my clients to safely improve their squat depth.
TG is right when he says not everyone should (or needs to) squat as low as possible. But outside of our baseball players at CSP, I deal primarily with powerlifters who need to squat below parallel in competition. If they can’t get low enough, their squats won’t count, so we prioritize hitting depth in training.
When we combine deep squats with heavy loads and we know not everyone can hit depth (defined as the hip joint passing below the top of the knee joint) easily, how do we get there in the best position possible.
Well, you could stretch, foam roll and mobilize every joint head to toe. Or you could just learn how to squat.
The second option is my favorite. In my experience, nine times out of 10, a person’s inability to squat to depth is NOT a mobility issue but rather a squat strategy issue. Simply picking the right squat accessory exercises to hammer home an optimal squat pattern will almost always improve depth and strength. Here are my three favorite squat exercises to help you drop it low and crush heavy weights.
Squatting: Upright vs. Hip Hinge
First, here’s a harsh reality: an upright squat will always be the most mechanically efficient squat. If you’re pointing your nipples at the floor to use “hip drive,” you’ll never maximize the contribution of your legs and abs. There’s a reason every 1,000-pound squatter (raw or geared) stays almost perfectly vertical through their torso instead of leaning forward.
Are YOU gonna tell Malanichev to lean forward with 1,036 pounds on his back? Didn’t think so.
Here’s what happens far too often when people try to squat: they puff their chest up (thoracic extension), which pulls the ribcage up. They take a big breath, which is entirely ineffective because you can’t get good intra-abdominal pressure with a poor rib cage position. Then, they push their butt back as they squat down (lumbar extension, anterior pelvic tilt and hip flexion simultaneously).
Like a seesaw, as one side drops (the chest), the other side must go up to maintain balance (the hips). Not surprisingly, you can’t hip depth if your hips are shooting up and back to keep you from falling forward.
This scenario also effectively minimizes the space the head of the femur has to glide in the hip socket while limiting the contribution from your anterior core to keep your torso upright. What happens? Your hips get stuck so you fall forward to try to get lower. All bad news if you want to squat low and heavy safely.
That said, the optimal squat pattern is going to have an upright torso, knees out and slightly forward of the toes and the hips between the knees. This is much preferred to leaning forward with a vertical shin and over-arched lower back if greater depth is desired.
Here’s how to dial in that optimal pattern:
1. Front Squats
Front squats can cure your depth woes by teaching you to sit straight down between your knees instead of sitting behind your knees. You simply can’t sit back and dump your pelvis forward or you’ll dump the bar, so you internalize proper positioning. Carry this same strategy over to your back squat and you’ll be in business.
That’s why we use so many front squat variations at CSP. It immediately dials in a solid ribcage position and forces you to stabilize with your anterior core instead of your lumbar extensors.
I’ve lost count of the number of athletes who get stuck above parallel with a back squat or body weight squat but can magically sit their butt to their heels with a front squat. Kind of throws the mobility excuse out the window, huh?
By learning to keep the ribs down, chest up and knees out, you create proper alignment for nailing a deep squat. If you struggle with depth, try front squatting for a few weeks before returning to the back squat and I’m confident your depth will improve.
2. High-Bar Pause Squats
Also called Olympic squats because of their popularity with weightlifters, high-bar squats bridge the gap between front squats and a powerlifting-style back squat.
A low-bar position (i.e. holding the bar across the rear deltoids instead of the traps) has ruined many a squatter’s depth. You might be able to handle more weight because it keeps the bar closer to your hips, but it doesn’t matter one bit if you can’t hip depth because it pitches you forward too much.
Switching to a slightly higher bar position has helped many of my lifters get lower. Similar to the front squat, it lets you stay more upright so you can lock the ribcage down and stabilize with your abs instead of your lower back.
Adding a brief pause at the bottom position builds confidence in the hole, which eliminates much of the fear associated with squatting low. This also forces the lifter to initiate the reversal by staying tall and driving the knees out.
Try high-bar pause squats as your second exercise on a squat day. Pause anywhere from 1 to 5 seconds and do sets of 3-8 reps. You can pause at the lowest position, right below parallel, or even on the way back up to target specific sticking points.
Note From TG: These suck donkey balls. You’ll hate life, but they work. Get it done.
3. Squat to Pins
Not to be confused with an Anderson squat where the bar starts on the pins, squatting to the pins hammers home the same technique points as a front squat but is even more sinister and unforgiving.
By lowering the bar to the pins and pausing, you’ll have virtually no room for error in torso position. If you sit back and lean forward, you’ll immediately get stuck as you try to squat back up. Only by staying tall, driving the knees out and keeping the bar over the mid-foot will you be able to stand up.
Few exercises build control and confidence like squatting to the pins. These not only cured my falling-forward problem, but also eliminated my knee cave issues by forcing me to spread the floor and keep tension in my hips.
Cues to Cure Your Squat Woes
Remember these useful cues as you practice these squat variations:
- “Belt buckle toward your chin” – This prevents unlocking the pelvis as you sit down.
- “Take all the air out of the room” – This stabilizes your spine by filling your belly and lower back with air.
- “Bend the bar around your traps” – This locks in the lats to help you tay upright.
- “Spread the floor apart” – This tenses up your hips and glutes to keep your knees out.
Notice there’s not a single instance of “chest up” or “sit back” on that list. Ditch these antiquated strategies for the ones above and you’ll be hitting depth more consistently while getting stronger.