by Charles Poliquin Iron Magazine
Proper technique in any weight training exercise ensures you work the targeted muscles and reduces your risk of injury. This is why it is unadvisable to bounce the barbell off your chest during a bench press or round your back during a deadlift, even though these techniques may enable you to lift more weight. However, for the squat, what is considered optimal technique?
To answer this question, it’s important to acknowledge the exceptions to conventional squatting methods that occur in powerlifting and Olympic lifting.
In powerlifting competition the goal is to squat the most weight within the rules governing the competition. Variations in the depth that powerlifters must achieve to win the approval of the judges, as well as the type of supportive equipment allowed, will influence how many plates can be added to the bar.
Many powerlifters use exceptionally wide stance, place the bar low on the back, and lean forward. This style minimizes the involvement of the quadriceps, making the squat appear more like a good morning than a deep knee bend. If your goal is to excel at the sport of powerlifting, this is a style you may have to adopt – especially in the federations that are liberal in the use of assistive gear.
In the sport of Olympic-style weightlifting, a high-bar squat performed throughout a full range of motion has the most carryover to the classical lifts. Also, elite woman lifters often use their exceptional flexibility to help them lift heavier weights. In rising from the squat, these athletes often initiate the recovery from the low squat by buckling their knees to take advantage of the strength of their adductors and VMO to rise vertically, rather than shooting their hips back (a technique that fatigues the upper body and may cause the lifter to drop the bar forward).
Further, what many women weightlifters do as they continue to stand is to take advantage of their hip and knee mobility, pulling the knees inward and then pushing them outward in a zigzag pattern, to help them rise while maintaining a vertical posture. Although not recommended in conventional strength training literature, these methods are used successfully by many of the best weightlifters in the world.
Apart from these exceptions, if you are squatting for general athletic and physical fitness, you should perform squats without supportive equipment and throughout a full range of motion. If you don’t squat low enough, the focus goes primarily to the quads and minimizes the involvement of other muscle groups, especially the glutes. Further, because you can use considerably more weight with partial movements, you increase the stress on the lower back. The insufficient muscle recruitment associated with partial movements may even decrease knee stability by creating muscle imbalances.
Think about it. You wouldn’t do a standing biceps curl or overhead press, so why would you squat just halfway down? Weight training workouts should be designed to make you structurally balanced throughout a full range of motion, not stiffen you up like a zombie.
In addition to using a full range of motion, other squatting variables are universally accepted. For example, when you remove the barbell from the supports you should position yourself directly under the bar and lift straight up, rather than leaning forward and performing a back extension to help you remove the bar from the supports. To conserve energy you should shuffle your feet backwards, using just one step; when you are finished, you should carefully step forward until you are directly under the supports, and then squat down to return the bar to its resting position.
During the exercise, ensure that your quads contribute their share of the work by pointing your feet slightly outward and aligning your knees with your feet. Also, at no time during the squat should your back round in an attempt to lift more weight or complete another repetition. Rounding places extreme stress on the lower vertebrae of the back (L3, L4 and L5). Back off and live to fight another day!
Such general guidelines aside, is there a universal rule about how you should squat? In other words, should everyone squat the same? The short answer is no.
First, there are some medical conditions that make full squatting uncomfortable. The hip joint consists of a ball (femoral head) and a socket (acetabulum). Despite the best mobility training, genetic deformities in these structures may make deep squatting uncomfortable and conducive to injury. Conditions such as patellar tendonitis may also contraindicate full squatting, and spinal conditions such as spondylolisthesis (a type of instability of the vertebrae of the spine) may require modifications in conventional squatting technique.
Valgus feet is a condition in which the arches of the feet collapse, causing inward rotation of the tibia and femur (lower and upper thigh bones). If an athlete with a valgus foot squats and does not have a good arch support in their shoes, often what happens is the knees buckle inward, the heels lift and the lower back hyperextends. Weightlifting shoes, which usually have a 5/8-inch heel lift, help correct valgus feet by aligning the subtalar (a bone in the ankle) and talus (a bone in the foot) joints and enable the trainee to squat normally.
Such exceptions aside, mobility issues from a sedentary lifestyle or poor program design may be the reason some people avoid squats. If the cause is a mobility issue with the ankles and calves, stretching can help (along with weightlifting shoes). Also, body awareness may be an issue, especially among young athletes with no prior weight training experience. They may believe that to get out of a squat they have to buckle their knees and lean forward. To quickly resolve this problem it’s useful to have the lifter squat to a high box, and then slowly lower the box as they get a sense of where their body is in space. We’re not suggesting making box squats a regular part of training, although it is a popular exercise for powerlifters, but to use it as a tool to teach proper squatting technique.
Individual anatomy also influences squatting stance; in particular, the length of the femur. Those with relatively long femurs (compared to their tibias) often find it more comfortable to use a wider stance with more forward lean compared to lifters who have relatively short femurs.
Here’s the bottom line: Your bones orient in a specific manner that is unique to you, so if you use a squatting technique that aligns them differently, you may create adverse stress that could eventually result in an injury. Maybe you can squat like your training partners, maybe you can’t. You have to find what works best for you!