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How to Squat Cleaning Up the Squat

How to Squat Cleaning Up the Squat

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Cleaning up The squat

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“Now, you may have heard from some sissy wearing spandex that the box squat is dangerous. When someone talks about the dangers of box squatting, it’s apparent they simply don’t know how to perform the lift correctly.” Dave Tate

Barbell back squats are perhaps the best exercise for all around strength and size development. Like the deadlift, the back squat builds you from the ground up. Take a tip from the old timers who did nothing but squats, deadlifts, and overhead presses: these three lifts alone will make you a rampaging beast!

Unfortunately, the back squat is often met with bad press. Lifters complain of sore knees, bad backs, kinked necks, and even sore shoulders. I know a lot about this, as I am one of them. You read that right: I have blamed squats for my bad knees.

You see, I am one hardheaded son of a bitch. I like to do things MY WAY and when my way doesn’t pan out, I still do it MY WAY. Since I was 12 years old, I have always squatted high bar close stance Olympic style. The form was ingrained in my head and, I thought, it was the best way to squat for my leverages. Yes, I got stronger as the years rolled by. I never had any pain in my knees, or anywhere else. Granted, I only added at best 20-pounds a year to the lift, but I was still gaining. As I got older, I started to notice some pain in my left knee right where the patellar tendon attaches. I ignored it and kept training. As long as I warmed up and stretched, then used a light wrap, the pain was bearable. This went on for a few years. When the summer months would come and I would venture out into the fresh air for a bike ride or slow jog, the knee pain would intensify enough to make me stop squatting for a week or two.

The pain got worse, and the wraps got tighter. One day, while doing an easy 5 with 400, the pain was enough to stop me. I spent the next few days stumbling around, trying to walk on it. It hurt for nearly two straight weeks before it started feeling well enough to lift on it again. The decision had to be made: stop squatting, or change your form because that tendon is going to tear. It might tear tomorrow, it might tear next week, but either way, it is too painful to ignore.

Back to basics. A setback is crushing to the strength athlete. It tears at you mentally. Even worse then a setback is to realize that you have to make changes that will drastically reduce the amount of weight you can lift, in hopes that in the long run it will lengthen your career and add weight to your total. That is a tough pill to swallow. The ego needs to be compressed and placed into a box. And, if you can beat that little voice in the back of your head, then you can succeed. I am going to show you how.

Squat Form

It all starts with your form. As a close stance high bar squatter, I was placing a lot of undue stress on my knees from allowing them to come forward.

My high bar squat. From this angle, it is hard to see the knee drift.

Many people can handle this type of squatting without any knee trouble. Heck, look at all the successful Olympic lifters! If you can squat this way without pain, then by all means continue. However, if you are powerlifting it makes no sense to squat this way. By continuing to squat with this form, you are limiting the amount of weight you can move. How many successful squatters have used this form? I can think of 2 right of hand: Kirk Karwoski and Robert Wagner. How many successful squatters use a wide stance? I cant even count them all-but I will show a few as the article goes on.

This type of squatting uses the quads as the primary mover. That is great if your goal is to have big quads! If you want a big total though, you need to incorporate them muscles of the hips, glutes, hamstrings, and low back. Lets face it-the hips are a powerful ally in the squat war. Squatting this close does not take advantage of them.

Cleaning up the squat

The knee pain had signaled a time for change. I have experienced with my form in the past, but the huge drop in weight moved always made me go back to the close stance. The new pain, however, forced me to take another look at my past.

My first stop was www.elitefts.com where the big boys play. Dave Tate and Co. are some bad muthas when it comes to totaling big. They are the epitome of WIDE squatting. Elite Fitness has some of the very best articles on the net covering all aspects of strength. What I find to be particularly useful for my bruised ego are the squatting articles. I read and re-read them about 20 times. Each time I read them, I took a little more information and put it to work for me. I also tweaked some things along the way.

So what is good squat form? I think Quest Nutrition sponsors the greatest collection squat technicians in the WORLD. While scouring the net for squat pictures, I happened upon www.quest-nutrition.com. These guys are perfect squatters. As a matter of fact-that must be a criteria for getting Quest to sponsor you!

Not sure exactly who this is, but his form is impeccable. Straight back, wide stance, deep as hell, and a ton of weight.

Wade Hooper. Wade has won the IPF World’s, USAPL Nationals, and has a WPO title belt. Wade has done it all in IPF legal gear to boot. Wade knows SQUAT! Take a look at his feet-they are pointing almost completely forward.

Another man that needs no introduction, this is Mike Mastrean. A 198-pound Superman. Mike shows us perfect, ass-to-the-basement form each and every time he steps onto the platform. Mike has even been to my place of work for powerlifting meets.

As you can see, these fellas squat WIDE, but they don’t squat super wide. This is the happy medium that allows one to sink to USAPL depths and lift WPO weights. This, IMO, is the perfect squat stance.

Now that we know what it looks like, it is time to break it down into a step-by-step set of movements. You will need to practice it again and again. You will need to re-learn everything you know. And, if you are like me, you will need to take a few steps back in order to make a giant leap forward.

Part 1-Setting up to get down

(Authors Warning: You are about to see pictures of squat form. In order to emphasize proper form, I will have to wear my “John MacEnroe” shorts. If you have a weak stomach you may need a barf bag or some Pepto. You have been warned.)

First thing is first. Get under the damn bar! Get a bar position that is comfortable to you-most likely that will be somewhere between a high bar and a very low bar position. I tend to set mine just a tad lower then my traps. There is a little groove there that allows the bar to sit nicely.

My bar position. Sorry for the blurry picture!

After you get the bar set where you like it, it is time to position your hands. For people having trouble with their shoulders and biceps during a squat, I suggest you get used to having them out by the collars. This allows me to push against the collars and keep my upper back tight as seen in the above photo. I also eliminated the upper body compression by taking out my grip. With my bad shoulder, this has made squatting not as painful.

Set-up. Arching out and stepping back.

Once you are set under the bar, drive your head back into it, take a breath, and arch the bar out of the pins.

Sliding into position. Back is still tight, breath is held. This is a 2-3 step movement at best.

Don’t play around on the platform. Step back and set-up. The longer you fidget on the platform, the more it zaps your core strength. Practice the set-up until it becomes second nature and you don’t even need to look down for it.

Even while standing in the set-up, you should be driving out on your knees, which will cause tremendous pressure in your hips. You should also be spreading the floor apart with your feet and pushing out on the sides of your shoes, as seen above. Also, the back remains in a tight arch position. DO NOT get loose!

Once you are set-up, you are ready to start your descent into the hole. Take another deep breath of air into the belly and push it hard into your belt. Unlock the hips and sit BACK with the weight, keeping the back TIGHT. Again, you should be spreading the floor and pushing the knees out. Your weight should be more towards your heels as you lower.

Head up, hips back, knees out, spread the floor. Notice closely the belly full of air!


Side view of the same thing. Hips shooting back as I descend into the hole.


At this point there is a lot to concentrate on. Back is staying tight as you drive the knees out and spread the floor hard with the feet. Head is driven into the bar. Continue to sit back as far as you can before you unlock the knees to hit depth. You are still holding your breath. Get loose here, and you might as well kiss your squat good bye!

Continue to control yourself down into the hole. As you approach depth, you should feel like a compressed spring. Even with a light weight, I feel tremendous pressure building throughout my body.

In the hole and thinking one thing: EXPLODE BABY!

This is the bottom position. In order to get whites, I would need to go an inch or so lower. However, even with 225, I cannot reach depth. It takes a good 300 or more RAW to get my depth with this wide stance.

Study the form from the ground up. Feet are positioned well and you can tell I am pushing out on the sides of my feet and spreading the floor. Knees are opened and driving out. Belly is full of air and pushed into my belt (yes, there is a belt in there!). Back is tight and arched. Head is up and driving back into the bar. Eyes are to the sky. I am in the launch position awaiting the take off!

Let’s look at a quick comparison of me and Hooper:

NOT BAD!

From here, it all gets simple. Drive into the bar, blast out on the knees, spread the floor, and feel the hips, hams, and glutes drive you to lockout.

If you have a video camera-great. Use it to work on your form. If you don’t’ have a camera, get a competent and brutally honest spotter. They will help to dial in your form as you are actually squatting.

Driving to lockout. Reverse the descent, stay tight, and jam the gears!

As you can see, it is pretty damn simple. However, there are a number of things that can go wrong. Being the assistant coach of a powerlifting team, I get to see just about everything wrong you can do. For the sake of shortening this article, I will touch upon a few of the more prominent things that squatters do to shorten their careers.