Written by Brittany Kohnke
The king of all exercises: the squat. What seems so easy for some can truly be a royal pain in the ass for others. Perfecting your squat technique takes an understanding of biomechanics and consistent refinement and practice. Working with a variety of athletes and being a competitor myself I found there are a few cues that can improve the squat from both a performance and injury prevention standpoint. Before I get into those cues, it is important to understand what type of squatter you are.
Generally, there are two camps of people. The people who have an upright, seemingly perfect squat form and those who resemble more of a folded over, good morning-type squatter. The Internet trolls may disagree with me here, but NEITHER is good or bad. The respective form is dependent on your individual leverages, strengths, and weaknesses so having an understanding of where you fall on this continuum will be important as you read through these cues.
The first type of squatter are those people as I mentioned who will remain relatively upright during the descent and ascent of the lift. These lifters have proportions (i.e. femur length compared to torso length) that are relatively balanced which allows them to squat deep and remain upright for most of the lift. Again, generally speaking, these people will have strong ass legs in comparison to their low back.
The second type of squatter are those who tend to look pitched forward at the bottom of the lift. These are the people with long femurs in relation to their torso, thus creating a squat that looks more like a good morning coming out the hole. Again, this isn’t a bad thing, we can’t change how our bodies are built, but it’s just a different “look” to the squat. People with this form typically have strong backs in comparison to their legs.
Regardless of where your squat falls, the following 4 cues can be used to un-f*ck your squat, particularly for raw lifters.
Cue 1: “Squeeze your elbows together”
The squat really starts in your set up. This often over-looked aspect by a lot of beginners is perhaps, in my opinion, the easiest and most impactful cue because if you’re not prepared from the start, your squat will go to shit real quick, regardless of how “perfect” it may be. Whether you are implementing the high or low bar set up, the idea of squeezing your elbows together remains. Your hands should be placed as close to your shoulders as your mobility will allow. Elbows should be pointing back behind you as you think about pulling them “together” or towards the spine. Again, this will look different on everyone, but the concept remains the same. Squeezing your elbows together will allow your upper back to create a “shelf” and secure the bar into place. This tightness will also help mitigate any discomfort caused by the bar while helping to implement cue #2.
Cue 2: “Drive your back into the bar”
As you’re coming out of the hole of the squat, there is a tendency for the chest to fall forward to some degree. Regardless if you’re in the short or long femur club, this pitch forward can mean the death of the lift. Once the bar strays from that magical center of gravity point (generally around the mid-foot), recovering can be very difficult if not dangerous. To help avoid or mitigate that, coaches will say “drive your back into the bar”. This cue has actually replaced the popular “chest up” as it helps keep the lifter in both spinal alignment and within the center of gravity path. You see, chest up creates extension, particularly in the lumber spine, which during the squat is the last thing we want happening. Thinking about pushing your upper back into the bar will automatically keep the chest up, but ensure the energy being created and moved stays in that center of gravity while keeping the spine neutral. Further, this cue can also help lifters think about driving their legs and using their back simultaneously (more on that concept in cue #3).
Cue 3: “Knees to the wall in front of you”
Wait a minute, did I really say your knees need to be forward in the squat? How can that be if we follow the infamous “weight in your heels” cue as we are coming out of the bottom of the squat? Hate to tell you, that cue is crap for most of us. The phrase “keep your weight in your heels” was actually coined for equipped powerlifters, but somehow it has been deemed appropriate for general squatting technique. A better way to look at it is to keep your weight distributed evenly throughout the foot (particularly in three points: the big toe, pinkie toe, and heal). As you ascend up you want to “keep your knees on the wall in front of you” as long as possible. Generally, coming out of the hole and for the next 3-6 inches is where a lot of lifters tend to “get stuck” or “buried”. There will be this tendency for the hips to shoot back, making the hamstrings and low back take the brunt of the load, leaving the quadriceps almost out of the whole equation. Even if you are a back-dominant squatter, this is not a good position to be in. To neglect not only the biggest, but the most advantageous muscles really limits the lifter’s potential and more importantly, puts them at risk for injury. Thinking about keeping the knees forward will help deter this shift back from occurring by keeping force production balanced and efficient. On a side note, this was the most impactful cue for myself as a lifter. I struggled for 2 years to break the 300lb mark, but once I was able to get my quads involved, PR’s were coming every meet thereafter.
Cue 4: “Stay strong in your legs”
Over the last few years, I started to see some trends amongst my athletes as I began coaching the squat more and more. Some of these trends would also show during my own training so I knew I had to figure out a way to combat some of these slight technical flaws to not only help my people but ascend me to the next level. “Stay strong in your legs” is a pretty broad way of saying be intentional in your reps by grounding your legs throughout the entire move. Let me explain.
Yes, the squat is technically a total body exercise. From maintaining upper back tightness, bracing your core the entire 360-degree circumference, and using your lower body to drive you up, there really isn’t a muscle not working or engaged at some point. Being intentional about each rep reinforces this, but particularly in the legs. From the start, the legs and glutes should flex as you stand waiting to perform the rep. This, in my opinion, and experience, creates a slight “activation” of the very muscles we want working when the weight is trying to hold us down. Then, during the descent, there should be a mind-body connection with the legs to help you control your descent. Whether you’re a dive bomb squatter or someone who is precise and calculated as you go down, the legs need to be very much involved and thought of. Finally, as you are in the hole and making your way up, you should be thinking of pushing your legs through the floor as your upper back drives into the bar. Staying strong in your legs allows all of that to happen; briefly letting this just “happen”, especially during sub-max and maximal efforts, again, limits potential and puts one at risk for injury.
Well there you have it, my top 4 cues raw lifters should live by! During your next squat session, give these a try and be sure to tell me what you think!
Brittany Kohnke is a 63kg USAPL powerlifter and coaches out of Phoenix, AZ.