I know jack and squat. And jack just left town

Posted on February 27, 2011. Filed under: Exercise | Tags: , , , , |

I know, I need to work on my titles.

Any way, today we are discussing the squat.  A universal exercise with a variety of benefits.

Now some will say squats are bad for your knees.  I respectfully disagree.  Bad squats are bad for your knees, or squats done in bad form are bad for your knees.  Squats done in proper form with proper mechanics are fine.  Today we are going to touch on the proper form.  Going over the proper mechanics would be a bit longer than would be appropriate at this time.  Not to mention, since I am not an orthopedist or knee specialist it would be in bad taste to try to cover every detail.  That said, a few things to be aware of if squats are causing you pain that I have learned from experience and colleagues.  Outside of course, the existence of pre-existing knee issues:

1)  Soft tissue problems: Tight or overactive hip flexor muscles and/or tensor fascia lata (TFL)   Anterior/lateral knee pain can also be caused by the glute medius or maximus pulling on the IT band. The IT band transmits forces from the glutes to the patellar tendon.

2)      Tight ankles: It can cause an anterior (forward) weight shift during squatting and lunging activities, resulting in the knees over the toes and the knees folding inward (valgus) positions.

3)      Weak glutes: The glutes are responsible for hip extension, abduction, and external rotation. When squatting, they help resist femoral adduction and internal rotation (knee valgus) and decrease anterior shear forces on the knee.

4)      Poor core: Lack of control through the core area will increase forces at the anterior knee during squatting, lunges, and deadlifts. Excessive lumbar lordosis (possibly the result of weak glutes) will limit the ability to sit back into the squat, thus creating an forward weight shift and quad dominant movement. It will also increase the possibility of back pain.

All these things and more should be discussed with a health professional.  For now, we will focus on doing a squat correctly.

Biases up front, I prefer the deadlift over squats more often in programming, especially when dealing with heavy weight.  Regardless of the amount of weight you use, there are things to keep in mind when squatting.  And since there are over 20 variations of squats I will stick to the basic fundamentals of a proper squat as it should apply to everyone.  As time goes on we will elaborate on variations.

1) Head center, hands even

If you are lifting with a bar, the center of the bar, and the center of your head should be aligned.  Your hands should be even and in the same place every time you squat.  Regardless of weight your hand position will effect leverage, and you want the weight to be square and even on your shoulders.  This is helped if the bar has measured rings on it.  If not, start from the collar end of the bar and get your bearings.  If you are doing just your body weight I recommend lacing your hands behind your head (prisoner style).  Obviously, this is limited by the flexibility in your wrists/forearms, anterior deltoids and pecs.  So do the best you can.

2) Back Together, Chest Up, Low Back Tight

This is an extremely important point to remember. Not only will it help your squatting form, but it’ll also aid in keeping your low back healthy.  Once you have your hands in a good position, think of pulling your shoulder blades back and together,  stick your chest out and up. I call it “thinking super hero.”  Think about it, Superman, Wonder Woman, Mighty Mouse, it’s always that same chest out, strong and proud posture.  Not only will this help you keep your chest up throughout the set, it’ll help you set a nice arch in your lower back.  Once you lift the bar off that rack, or begin your squat with your body weight or dumbbells, this stays locked.  Yes, you will be bending from the hips.  But this posture should stay unchanged.

3) Focus on a Spot

Find a spot on the wall slightly above eye level and focus on it throughout your set. If you’re facing a mirror, it’s going to really tempt you to look down. And the fact is that your body tends to follow your eyes. By looking down at the ground you increase the chance of your head and chest coming down, thereby caving over, ruining the set and hurting yourself. If you can’t fight temptation, squat facing away from the mirror and keep your eyes up to ensure success.

4) Comfortable Stance

Set your feet with a comfortable stance. Those with longer legs and shorter torsos, like myself, will probably prefer a slightly wider stance.  While those with shorter legs and longer torsos are usually more comfortable with a narrower stance. Find something that suits you and stick with it.  Establish this position before you take the bar out of the rack, or if no weight than obviously before you squat

Toe position is something that can be argued with regards to pointing the toes straight forward or out slightly. Usually those with a closer stance prefer pointing the toes straight forward, while those with a wider stance like the toe out more. When you squat with a very wide stance and point the toes forward, it’ll be very hard to go deep with the weight.

While you may not realize the importance of having the proper stance on light warm-up sets, it’s extremely important to develop the right habits from the start. The weight should be balanced over the mid-foot or slightly towards the heel.  You want to feel a bit of pressure on the outside of your foot/shoe.  I usually cue sitting back on the heels to clients, as they usually have a habit of letting their knees drop forward and coming up on their toes.  You can get away with this in body weight squatting, but not in the locked position needed for regular barbell squatting.  Keep in mind that if you get the weight too far towards the heel you’ll fall over backwards and if the weight gets shifted towards your toes you’ll get rounded over. Neither is beneficial to lifting weights or your general health.

5) Sit Back, Knees Out

To squat properly, you need to sit back. To sit back, you need to have strong glutes and hamstrings.

If you’re weak in that area, you need to focus on glute-ham raises, Romanian deadlifts, good mornings, reverse hypers, full squats, and basically any other exercise which works to develop the posterior chain. If your technique is poor, box squats are an excellent exercise to teach you the proper motor pattern as well as developing the posterior chain.

As you’re sitting back, you also need to draw your knees out. This helps to activate the muscles of the hips. If your knees are collapsing in on squats, you really need to focus on getting this right.  There are various things you can do, but I advise talking with a health professional to address what is best for you.

Bend your knees and slowly pull your hips back and down like there is a chair three feet behind you.  Keep going until your legs are parallel to the floor or slightly lower.  If you can’t get parallel, lighten the weight or get rid of it till you can.  It never ceases to amaze me when I see someone obviously new to weight lifting, being instructed to squat with weight on their back when they are first learning how to squat.  Body weight before external weight whenever possible.

Now in closing who should use the squat?


Ladies if you want to lift that rear, light squats
If you want to create a rear, moderate/heavy squats
Guys who want to gain size, heavy squats
Guys who need to balance the body, yeah I’m talking about you in the tight tank top and long pants!  who are you fooling?

Now granted you can get solid leg development just from a leg press.  But for the benefit of overall  health, a squat should be somewhere in your workout program.

Best health,

Coach W


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