It wasn’t until I took up powerlifting as a hobby/sport/crazy obsession this year that I really started to rebuild my squat. I had the basics covered: my body gave me a decent amount of stability and mobility that let me move through the pattern appropriately. But when I saw others around me leveraging a hell of a lot more weight than I could ever imagine lifting, I wondered if there was something more than raw strength at play. Was it the doughnuts? (I wish it were doughnuts).
You can see it as they prepare to squat. The folks at my powerlifting gym looked different than I did even before they got under the bar. And yes, those small details can make a big difference in our ability to not only lift more weight but feel better doing it. There are a billion resources to help you improve your squat mechanics. I won’t cover those here today. But just setting up effectively will make an improvement in your ability to squat.
I’m not a squat guru but making these changes has quickly improved my overall lift. And you don’t need to be participating in a strength sport to use these techniques! They can help anyone get a more powerful squat. Even grandmas. That’s right, badass grandmas who squat.
1. Know your stance.
Take time in your warm-up to play with foot position. There is no one correct way to position your legs in a squat. It’s more of a continuum of positions that work depending on your mobility and hip anatomy. Many, many people feel better when they turn their toes out just slightly. Some people move more easily with a wider stance, others narrower. If you take the time to groove that stance, you won’t have to think about it when you approach the bar (or the kettlebell or whatever you’re using for your squat variation).
2. Get your mind right.
Go into your happy place, or your zen place, or your asskicking place. For my own needs I prefer a zen/asskicking combo of self talk that says “f**k yeah, I’ve got this. I own the hell out of this weight.” But in a calm way, so I’m not so amped up that my heart races too much. I might be a weirdo, but hey, it works for me and many others. Every experienced lifter I’ve seen has used some kind of focusing technique before they approach the bar for their working sets.
2. Walk it out.
When you’re getting ready to go for a really heavy squat, the way you walk the bar out matters. A lot. Wasting energy on too many steps can kill your effort. Even if you’re not going for a huge lifting attempt you will have a better set if you take a little time to get your bar positioning set up well. For a high bar back squat, pull that bar right down into your delicious cushion of a trapezius muscle and pull your shoulders back to make a shelf. Awww yeah, sweet spot.
Some people squat with the bar lower. It doesn’t really matter for most of us: just get the bar into a good place. Most advice for hand placement directs us to keep our grip fairly narrow because it helps create stiffness. If you have shoulder issues, a medium to wide grip might feel better. Do what works for your body.
Grab the bar hard. From the moment you touch the bar, you are creating tension.
Finally, stand up and walk the bar out like you’re large and in charge instead of wobbling around without much thought. From the moment that the bar leaves the rack, you are ready to lift. No Gumby bodies.
3. Show me your t-shirt.
Puff your chest out a little, like you have swagger. This helps keep your spine from flexing. Some people like to think about arching their upper back a bit too. That way you end up getting your chest out and help set your back into a good position to squat.
4. Keep it tight.
Get tight get tight get tight! This is what I’ve heard yelled at me. At first I felt confused by this. What does this mean exactly? I didn’t yet understand what a big advantage tension can bring. I’m not talking about emotional tension. I mean bracing the abs and getting the lats tight.
Understanding and executing are two different things entirely. In the back squat, pulling the bar as if you were pulling it down to you will help activate your lats. This will give you more stability through your torso. That translates to a bigger squat that feels better.
As in any other movement, your abs need to come to the party too. You’ll brace them as if you were about to be punched in the stomach. Again, this creates stiffness that makes it easier to squat more powerfully. However, I brace just as I take my breath. Learning to set my air is the most dramatic change I made in my squat set up. Let’s take a look at that next.
Learning to take in and hold air for heavy squats was my biggest game changer. This is something that every serious strength athlete knows how to do but the average gym goer rarely practices. Take in a huge breath that expands your entire rib cage. Not a dainty breath – you need a big, POWERFUL breath.
Put your hands just above your waist and try to push them out. If you have a hard time doing this, lie down on the floor. This forces you to use your diaphragm instead of taking shallow breaths. Get comfortable with how that feels and then go back to try it before your squat.
As you take that big breath, do you notice how your ribs flare? Now lock it down as you brace those abs. Here’s what that looks like:
This is me practicing my breath for a set.
It’s go time. Reset between reps. When we lose our air during a squat, we lose our power. We bleed the capacity to generate force because we lose so much tightness. I blow out my air as I finish my rep. Then I reset and do it all again.
How to get started: if you haven’t been doing any of these things, don’t smash all of these cues into your head at once. That would hurt. Use warm-up sets to practice. Work on your breath for one. Think about your lats on another. In time, those new habits will become second nature. Squat smarter and improvement will come.