|By: Nassim Jebran|
It’s happened to us all at one point in our lifting careers; you get aches, pains and you don’t lift as much as you would like to and put yourself in a position where there is a serious risk for injury all by doing one thing: Squatting. I am a huge believer in the power of the squat; it is, hands down, the best exercise for taking the fish fins you call legs and turning them into solid tree trunks. The problem is that most people do not know what they are doing. In this article, I will discuss come common squat problems that any lifter may encounter.
1. Starting Off With a Back Squat
Granted, the back squat is the most common squat people do. When a person begins squatting they usually start with the back squat. Here is the issue; most beginners don’t have the correct motor patterns, flexibility and know how to be able to back squat. Here is a series of progressions that I recommend:
- Bodyweight squat with hands on your head. This will give you a light weight that will be easy for any skill level to start with. I recommend placing your hands on the back of your head because it forces you to arch your back, mimicking a real squat.
- Upon mastering the bodyweight squat while holding a 10 pound plate straight out in front of you. This is not about how heavy you can go; holding 10 pounds in front of your body creates a movement arm about your body that forces you to contract your abs. This is crucial if you want to squat heavy; a strong core creates a stable body helping you control the weight.
- Next is the Goblet Squat. Grab a dumbbell and hold it close to your chest. This will allow you to use a heavier weight while still forcing you to contract your core.
- Upon graduation of Goblet Squats you are ready to use a barbell. Front squats allow the lifter to reach a suitable depth without the low back rounding. First, set the bar on your shoulders and hold your hands out in front of your body. Now press the palms of your hands together so you feel your shoulders come forward and your chest contract. keeping your shoulders still release your palms so they are about shoulder width apart. You have just created a shelf using the anterior shoulders; the bar will rest here. You will be able to front squat with your hands out in front without the bar falling off. There are 3 positions for your hands: Crossed over the bar, clean grip and clean grip using straps.
Front squatting yet? If you are, you’re ready to back squat. This leads me into my next point:
2. Incorrect Set-up When Back Squatting
Setting up and getting ready to squat is just as important as actually squatting. There is a method to follow to make sure when you step out to squat you are in the most optimal position to generate the most force.
- Bar Height: Most commercial gyms have squat racks with pre-determined heights to set the bar. Since these are set by the manufacturer, they are meant to meet the masses but there will always be an exception. If you are the exception put the bar lower rather than higher. This could be an ego hit for some men; you are not as tall as you thought you are. The bar should stand about an inch below your shoulder and at the lowest an inch above your nipples.
- Hand position: First, make sure the bar is centered in the rack then grab the bar about a hand width wider that shoulder width. I am going to assume that you have warmed up your shoulders, don’t have any shoulder issues and know to make sure your hands are equal distance away from centre. If your shoulders are not flexible enough to get under the bar you can move your hands a bit wider. You DO NOT want to place your hands at either end of the collars. When the hands are closer together this forces the back to contract and keep tight while you squat.
- Once your hands are set swing your back under the bar. The hand placement will guarantee the bar to be centred on your back. For the beginner, I recommend starting with a high bar squat (Olympic Style) where the bar will rest on your upper traps, NOT your shoulders. After you are comfortable with high bar, you can experiment with low bar (Powerlifting Style). NOTE: DO NOT wrap a towel around the bar – this causes instability; if the bar hurts your shoulders you are not setting up properly. If it hurts your traps you will get used to it eventually.
- With the bar set nicely on your traps place your feet slightly wider then shoulder width. Keep your feet in line do not put them in a lunge position. Toes slightly pointed out at about 15 degrees. Contract your abs and have an arch in your back. Take a deep breath and push up with your hips. Take 2 steps back. At first, you may take more steps to get into your ideal squatting position but you want to minimize that. After a bit of practice, you should be able to get to that position in 2 steps. If you take more you are wasting energy that can be used to squat.
- Breathing techniques: When you breathe during a squat you want to breathe into your stomach. Your chest should not expand and your shoulders will not rise. This will help you use a weightlifting belt to its full capacity when the time arises.
3. Incorrect Footwear
Take your Nike Shox, high heels or crocs, put them back in your gym bag and save them for another occasion. We’re talking about squatting here, not a fashion show. A strong squat requires your entire body to work together everything from head position to feet placement. To support any weight you require a strong base. Something as simple as footwear can drastically effect how your body feels and how you squat. Most beginner lifters own one pair of shoes they work out in – good chances they are running shoes or a cross trainer. This is good for cardio and most lifting; but when it comes to squatting you are setting yourself up for disaster.
Running shoes are built with a soft rubber sole (sometimes a gel substance) the purpose of the soft sole is to disperse the weight to the outside of your feet reducing the impact on the heel. This is great for running because the constant impact of running will cause pain in your heels. When squatting, you want the weight to be centered over your heels. This puts your body in an optimum position to generate the most force. Since running shoes disperse the weight to the outside of the foot, your knees have to compensate and become unstable. Most people who tell you squatting hurts the knees, likely wear incorrect footwear.
So what shoes should you wear to squat? The main feature you look for in a shoe should be a flat thin sole. Common shoes used are Converse Chuck Taylors, Vibrams 5 fingers and plain bare foot. On occasion you will see someone elevate their heels by placing a couple plates under them. Elevating your heels allows you to get deeper into the squat without rounding your low back; try this experiment do a bodyweight squat with your heels flat on the floor – note where your back rounds. Now go very high on your tippy toes and squat down – you will notice you can get deeper with elevated heels. Weightlifting shoes are built with an elevated heel for this reason; they also have a hard sole to act as a continuation of the floor.
This is by far the biggest problem that people have. There are many causes for this; the biggest issue is ego. Who hasn’t seen somebody in the gym doing quarter rep range, only to finish and collapse on the floor- pretending that they’re tired. Save the acting for the theater, use proper depth and earn the right to collapse on the floor.
When the weight feels heavy, your range of motion may decrease. Be honest with yourself, you are not impressing anyone squatting above parallel and you are only cheating yourself. So, how deep should you go? You want your squat to break parallel without your back rounding; if you can go lower great. If you can’t, that is fine too but make sure you are breaking parallel. If your back rounds before parallel there are 2 main culprits:
- You are not engaging your core – read issue number 1 to fix that
- You have very tight hamstrings and hips
In general, most men can start squatting 135 pounds and women can start with 75 pounds (if you can’t, adjust the weight so you can feel the bar tugging down on you). I find feeling weight on your back helps engage your back and core muscles. If you can’t break parallel yet, that’s okay. Go as deep as you can with the above weights and work on going deeper each session. Only ADD weight to the bar after you can squat the minimum weight to depth without rounding your back. Everyone has a smart phone now days, so remember this:
- There is no reason for you not to record your squat.
- There may be a group of people behind you laughing at your quarter squats and uploading a video of them to YouTube.
Be critical when you watch yourself it will help you stay strong and healthy for a long time.
Nassim Jebran is a strength enthusiast who started lifting at 17. By utilizing his extreme work ethic and determination, he went from a starting weight of 135lbs. to 190lbs. He now regularly squats in the 400s and deadlifts in the 500s. In 2012, Nassim will start competing in Strongman competitions. In addition to all this, Nassim has an unrelenting thirst for knowledge; obtaining a degree in Engineering and is constantly experimenting with new lifting techniques and programs. Strength is his passion and we are happy to have him aboard Strong-Athlete.com.