Thursday, August 22, 2013

Squats Part 2 General Mechanics

This is the Second Part of a series on Squats, the first part can be found here:

Squats Part 1
Squats Part 3

Any feedback or questions would be greatly appreciated.

Starting Squats? 

A proper squat can be done weighted or unweighted.  Often starting out body weight is plenty(See Air Squat below).  It can be done for cardio/metabiloc load with a weight, pipe or loaded bar.  Several different types of bars are available from "training bars' typically 25-35 lbs to the full Olympic Bar at 45 lbs.  The key is not to add too much load until the mechanics are clearly understood and the correct movement patterns are firmly ingrained.  Always try to maintain strict form before adding weight. When a weight is used and form starts to fall apart, it is too heavy - take some off. 

In a proper squat:

The hip passes below the level of the knee.  Ideally an "Ass to grass" position is achieved with the bottom of the pelvis as close to the ground as mobility will allow.

80% of the squats I see on the gym floor are not proper squats at all, they can best be described as 1/4 squats 1/3 squats.  People seem to like partial squats because they allow for more weight, seemingly very impressive.  If the weights are too heavy to do a full squat or the mobility is too restricted to get to a full squat position the weights should be deloaded until the full squat position can be achieved.

Starting foot position should be just outside shoulder width.  I say starting position because later and you become more skilled you may vary your foot position to achieve different results.  You'll see many advanced lifters spreading their feet much wider and you may see some bodybuilders or other types of lifters positioning them much closer together.  None of these is wrong, they are just going for different effects.  The  best beginning position is roughly slightly more than should width apart.

Most coaches(see for example Rippetoe "Starting Strength) recommend orienting the feet outward 15-30 degrees. This often helps people who have limited range of motion open up the hip capsules in order to achieve a low bottom position.  The idea is to drop your torso through your hip.  Knees and hip work together.  It is analogous to sitting, hips and knees work together, rear end is back. This foot position seems to work very well for beginners when coached to add external rotation and knees tracing the shoelaces.  When I first started squatting toes out to approx. 30 degrees was the only way I could achieve full depth.

There is controversy with respect to foot position.  Kelly Starrett in Becoming a Supple Leopard advocates a toes straight forward with torque generated by external rotation to keep the knees outward.

The common coaching cue "Screw your feet to the ground" is the analogy for obtaining external rotation.  (we will talk much more about external rotation in a future post).  I have been experimenting with this foot positioning and less foot angle while focusing on external rotation and it does seem to be working well, however I still maintain a roughly 15 degree angle in the feet.

The majority of lifters I see turn the feet out when they squat, this is how I learned. Gray Cook, Movement: Functional Movement Systems: Screening, Assessment, Corrective Strategies  also thinks that when you do loaded squats, feet should be turned out.  I am continuing to think through this positioning and apply it in the gym, I will continue to post on my results.

For more on this see:

Proper Foot Position in the Squat, Greg Everett
Squats: Toes Forward or Toes Out?, Tabata Times
“Hip torque”, toe angle, and squatting, 70's Big
If you have an opinion on this issue please comment, argue or otherwise let me know what you think!
The take away from this is that typically, to get into the proper bottom position beginners need some angle on the foot.  As mobility improves in approaching the bottom position the angle may be decreased.   The important thing in all of this is KNEES OUT, they need to track your shoe laces.  

The back remains rigid.  Depending on the particular squat the torso is inclined FROM THE HIPS, NOT by curving the back.  This will be discussed in more detail below, for example in the front squat the torso is vertical, while in the low bar back squat the torso is inclined, but the back is always rigid, the inclination comes from the hips.  See below for descriptions of each squat variation.

The weight of the body and the bar should be balanced, and move in a path on the midline(center of mass) of the body.  Coaches often cue "Heels" it's a way to get athletes more balanced on their feet and drive more through the heels of the foot than the ball of the foot. This is due to the tendency of most beginning trainees to have their weight too far forward and often for the heel to rise.  The weight needs to be distributed through the heels.  The bar should travel on a path that looks like a slot from the back 1/3 of the shoelaces see Rippetoe "Starting Strength Chapter 1.  Being completely on the heels is not the goal, but the focus is to drive from the heels and the ball of the foot with 2/3 of the drive coming from the heels.  Another common cue is to have the trainees think about almost being able to raise their toes.  So it is useful to remember to drive from the heels.


The shins remain vertical(or as vertical as possible, due to mobility there may be some forward inclination in the bottom position).  With this positioning the knees do not extend beyond the toes.

The hips should be back as if  sitting on a chair, the hips and knees should move in conjunction, not separately, not one after the other but both same time.  Often a box or chair is introduced as a starting cue until the movement and range of motion are coordinated through both the hips and the knees.

Knees are out.  They should flex in a line running through the center of the shoelaces.  The knees should not track inward (internal rotation) this places a shearing force on the ACL and MCL (Anterior cruciate ligament, medial collateral cruciate ligament) which is very, very bad.  This should be the number one thing to be avoided along with a rounded back by all trainees.

Legs should be anchored to the floor in external rotation ( Much more on this to follow in a subsequent post).

Head and neck should be in a neutral position in line with the spine.

All types of squats share the following common mechanics:

  • maintaining a rigid spine
  • knees out
  • knees follow the line of you shoe laces
  • shoulders and hip should move and the spine should stay put
  • legs should be in external rotation (Much more on this in a future post)

The single biggest problem most people have with a squat is hip mobility.


If you have problems Going full depth,  find a range of motion that you can do and work to increase that range.   Don't worry too much about weight at this point,  working on increasing range of motion with body weight, PVC pipe,  or an empty bar is plenty to start. 

Work to slowly increase depth.

At this point in this post I am simply going to introduce each of the more common squat forms.  I will discuss the mechanics of each in a separate post for each.

Types of squat

This meant to be a simple introduction to the various types of legitimate squats. There are many, many more specialized types of squats, all of which have legitimacy for various purposes.  The question is not what type of squat is best but rather what is the best squat style for the lifter's goals. That being said this assumes good technique.  Flat out bad technique will get you hurt, it is just a matter of time.  If your at all unsure of your technique or the types of squats you should be doing, get yourself a good coach, at least until you understand the basics of good technique and have chosen a style appropriate for your goals.


This is simply an unweighted squat.  All of the above principles apply with the back remaining relatively vertical.  Arms are often swung forward during the downward movement to help provide a counter balance.  A more difficult variation of this movement is to try the air squat with arms held over head.  This places a large demand on core stabilization and balance.

Even though this is a simple movement, when done for reps, multiple reps, say 10-20 over multiple sets it can become quite metabolically/ aerobically grueling.  Don't underestimate them and air squats are a great place to start, and a great way to perfect your technique.  They also serve as a great warm up on heavy squat days.

Goblet Squat
Often this is the next progression from the air squat.  Typically done with a kettlebell, however kettlebells are by no means required to say missile can be achieved with a standard dumbbell
This is simply a Front Squat variation, with the load travelling in a straight line slot over the back 1/3 on the shoelaces. The kettlebell is held as close to the mid line of the body and the back tends toward vertical.

Both the air squat and the goblet squat will covered in the next post of this series as they form a logical progression before the ability requirements of the bar are introduced. 

 Back Squat
Back Squat (also known as high bar back squat).   This is what I think of as the most common squat variation. If I ask someone with basic training to squat I will typically get some form or approximation of this squat.

When people first to learn to squat with weight this is typically what they are taught.  the countless participants in Body Pump (TM) at many local gyms are typically doing the high bar back squat. 

The mechanics of the high bar back squat primarily cause much of the work to be developed in the quads.  There is nothing wrong with this movement when the quads and secondarily the glutes are the focus of development.  

The Back Squat or High Bar Back Squat will be covered in much more detail later in this series,
Please send any questions you may have on the High Bar Back Squat and I will try to answer them in that post.

Front Squat
This is typically the second most common squat variation. This variation is required movement in Olympic lifting.  The clean the snatch all require the ability to achieve full depth squats in order to  lift the maximum amount of weight

The Front Squat will be covered in much more detail later in this series.
Please send any questions you may have on the Front Squat and I will try to answer them in that post.


Low Bar Back Squat
This is typically the least most common squat variation but may be the best for certain classes of trainees.  It is involves potentially the most muscle mass, and includes the hamstrings to a greater degree than the other forms.

The Low Bar Back Squat will be covered in much more detail later in this series.
Please send any questions you may have on the Low Bar Back Squat and I will try to answer them in that post.


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