Technical Model for the Back Squat
The squat is a staple of powerlifters, weightlifters, athletes and majority of the (strength training educated) general public. Its easy to regress or progess, it has derivatives that can be used for rehab, corrective exercise, strength training, and power training – bascially, as far as I’m concerned whoever you are and whatever sport or background you come from, if you want to get stronger, become more powerful, improve general function, and generally become more awesome (research proven!) you should be squatting in one form or another.
Traditional High Bar Back Squat – Technical Model
The following is the technical model (basically the key elements and some reasoning behind them) suggested by the UK Strength and Conditioning Association (UKSCA) and the strength and conditioning community in general.
- Un-racking the bar
– The racks/squat stands should be set so that the bar is at approximately arm pit height, this enables the lifter to maintain stability whilst un-racking the bar, and get tight underneath the bar before un-racking.
– The lifter should always un-rack the bar facing INTO the rack, this is so that, when re-racking the bar after the lift, they can see where they are going and re-rack safely.
– Grip width should be as close as shoulder mobility will allow, enabling the lifter to get tighter underneath the bar, allowing better force transmission from the floor to the bar.
– A claw grip should be used, where the thumb wraps around the bar. This is the safest way to grip the bar (yes, there are other ways and assuming there is a reason for it then I have no problem with it) and lets the lifter squeeze the bar with maximum strength – this activates the scapular stabilisers contributing to tightness, stability and force transmission.
– The bar should rest between vertebrae C5 and T1 (upper traps), this ensures the bar is now on the neck, and is low enough that, when squatting, the bar is in a straight vertical line above the midfoot without the lifter having to adopt a biomechanically inefficient/dangerous posture- again for optimal force transmission.
– Create a ‘meaty shelf’ out of the upper traps by raising the elbows up and back and retracting and depressing the scapular – this provides a comfortable place for the bar to rest and prevents any direct loading onto the vertebrae themselves
– Spine should remain neutral – with a thoracic (upper back) extension and a lordotic curve in the lumbar (lower back) region. Effectively – arse out, chest up. This protects the spine as it is the safest position for it to be in, especially under load.
– Brace the trunk/core – Take a deep breath and make yourself fat around the waistline whilst tensing your abs, obliques and lower back. This compresses the spine, protecting it by keeping it in a neutral position and increasing force transmission through ‘superstiffness’ (a term from Stuart McGill referring to the combined effect of the three layers of the trunk contracting at the same time).
– Perform a quarter squat (feet shoulder width) to unrack the bar and take several small steps backwards – you don’t want to be half a mile away from the rack after a hard set or one rep max!
- Start Position
– Maintain the initial position described above (neutral spine, grip, ‘meaty shelf’ and brace)
– In the starting position the lifter should also have the feet shoulder width apart (to open up the hips)
– The feet should be turn out by about 30 degrees (imagine five to one on a clock face) – this will open up the hips and create a ‘hole’ to sit into by externally rotating the femur in the acetabulum.
– Weight distribution should be over the middle of the foot
- The Descent
– Immediately before descent, the lifter should (and with heavy loads will probably do so unconsciously) perform the valsalva maneouvre – this entails taking a deep inhalation into the stomach then forcefully exhaling against a closed epiglottis (basically breathing out but not letting anything come out). This procedure increases intra-abdominal pressure, which in turn increase spine stability and stiffness (force transmission!) and can reduce blackout risk mid-lift. This can be risky in populations with heart conditions as it highly increases blood pressure initially, and the rapidly decreases it following the lift.
– To begin the descent the lifter should perform a simultaneous hip, knee and ankle triple flexion.
– The knees must track (stay in line with) over the toes throughout the entire lift – this enables the ground reaction force to travel in a straight line (efficiency!). If the knees roll inwards, an issue known as valgus, it can create torque at the knee joint resulting in injury and energy leakage.
– Hip, knee, ankle and big toe alignment must be maintained for the same reason as stated above, breaks in the chain result in energy leaks and decrease force transmission.
– The lifter should actively try to ‘push’ the floor apart with their feet – this activates the gluteus medius which is key in resisted the valgus forces at the knee.
– The trunk/upper body should remain close to vertical (force transmission)
– Throughout the descent the lifter bodyweight should move from the midfoot to the rear foot
- The Bottom Position
– Neutral spine, brace and valsalva must be maintained
– Anterior knee translation (knees going over toes) is fine, and beneficial in that it prevents trunk flexion. The only time this is bad is when the weight is NOT over the rear foot.
– Descent until at least parallel – where the crease of the hip is below the knee
– Do not allow tucking – this puts high loading on the sensitive structures of the spine. To avoid tucking, increase stance with, turn the toes out more, and focus on pushing the knees out more throughout the descent
- The Ascent
– Maintain neutral spine, the brace and the valsalva
– The lifter performs a rapid triple extension of the hips, knees and ankles with the intent to accelerate as fast as possible (although this may not appear fast under high loads)
– The lifter should lead with the chest to eliminate the risk of spinal flexion
– The lifter should drive/push through the heels – utlising the powerful posterior chain musculature
– Once again, the lifter should push the floor apart for gluteus medius activation
– At the top of the rep, the lifter can finish the valsalva maneuver by allowing exhalation, however the brace should be maintained until the bar is racked
– The lifters weight should move from the rear foot (heel) back to the mid foot during the ascent
- Re-racking the Bar
– Maintain neutral spine and the brace
– Taking short steps, the lifter should return to the rack, stopping when the bar contacts the supports of the rack
– They should perform a quarter squat to return the bar
– The lifter should maintain their grip until they have moved out from underneath the bar
Congratulations, you’ve just completed you’re first technically perfect back squat!
As you can tell, its not as simple as just putting a bar on your back and bending your knees, there are a lot of technical points (and I could have listed more, and then started on the variations of the squat) that you need to take into account to become completely efficient at the movement.
If you want to increase your squat maybe try the Smolov Routine (if you’re tough enough).