For more information on the Squat, check out our “Squat and Clean & Jerk Clinic” happening at our new facility in Lewisville, NC, September 29th from 11am until 2pm. Check it out here:
The Most Incredible Exercise on Earth: The Squat
Yesterday I was reading through a few people’s take on the squat. I probably spent two hours reading through articles and research. There are entire social media sites and websites that are based around the squat. I am assuming because the squat is probably the most functional exercise on earth along with the deadlift.
Powerlifters squat because it’s a part of their sport. Weightlifters squat to get better at their sport. CrossFitters squat because it may be a part of their sport, and it definitely helps with their sport. Other athletes like football players and soccer players use the squat to get faster, jump higher, and to get more powerful.
Coach Crystal with a massive 155kg/341lb Low Bar Back Squat
Personally I squat now for movement, general strength, and muscle mass. All three of these are required for quality of life, as one gets older. I still like to be strong. Don’t get me wrong. I just squatted 650lb last year raw, so I like to be strong. I am just saying that strength isn’t the main concern anymore.
As you can see, squatting should be a primary movement no matter what you are doing, so that makes it a very important subject in the strength and conditioning world. It’s funny to me really because squatting came so easily to me. I never really sat down and thought about the biomechanics and physics of the movement until about five years ago. Even the way I taught the squat just came natural.
Coach Crystal Low Bar Squatting 155kg/341lb in Competition
After all of my studies, I still teach squatting the same way. Here’s the thing. There aren’t a lot of absolutes. Squatting is very individual, and the following points should be considered:
- What sport or purpose? Ex. Weightlifting, powerlifting, team sport, general strength, etc.
- Hip anatomy
- Femur and torso length
- Overall mobility
These are a few to consider right off the bat. I love what Greg Nuckols wrote in his ridiculously long article about the squat. You guys should check out his site www.strengththeory.com if you don’t already. He really breaks downs the mechanics, anatomy, and physics of the back squat. I love how Greg only uses research when he makes absolute statements. If there is no research to back up a claim, then Greg leaves it up to the reader and experience.
Here’s the problem. There are a lot of people that are making absolute statements about the back squat. Here are some absolute statements:
- Eyes up
- Eyes Straight ahead
- Eyes down
- Neutral spine
- Sit down
- Sit back
These are a few that I want to quickly address. Which is right? Which is wrong. The answer is that they are all wrong and all right. There is not concrete research on any of these that I can find. Now I am going to do more research on my own with a few of my PhD friends, so stand by for that. However as of now, there isn’t a lot out there, so I have to give a few of my observations.
First, with the eyes, I can say that I have witnessed people squatting big weight with their eyes up, down, and straight ahead, so it’s hard to say which is best. I watched the USAPL Raw Nationals, and I saw a lot of people squatting with eyes up and down. However it appeared that most of the medalists were eyes up. I will also say that most of the top squatters that I know are eyes slightly up, but that doesn’t make it right.
The reason that I prefer eyes out and slightly up is because my body tends to follow where I am looking. Most powerlifters have developed legs and hips strong enough to squat massive amounts of weight. Normally the squat is won or lost with the amount of torso lean especially out of the hole. If the butt shoots up without maintaining the relationship with the shoulders, the lifter get put in a bad position right away. When a lifter is thrown into a goodmorning type of squat, two things happen:
- You have now increased the hip flexor moment (Hip flexor moment = load x horizontal distance between the center of mass and the hip.)
- You have also increased the spinal flexor moment (Spinal Flexor Moment = the horizontal distance perpendicular to gravity between the bar and any intervertebral joint).
The goal is to avoid this position if possible. I think that it is easy to make a case for the back (spinal flexor moment) being the key to making a lift. The hip extensors and knee extensors work so well together to distribute weight to the strongest position, that it normally comes down to the back extensors to save the day. You can check out my book, “Squat Science” for more information.
If you can maintain a good angle for the hips and shoulders while looking down, then go for it. The argument for looking down is to maintain a neutral spine to recruit more fibers and reduce the risk of cervical spine injuries. To date I have never seen anyone hurt their neck squatting, and I don’t know of any research to support a claim either way (eyes up or down). With that being said, find something that works and go for it.
Now my favorite controversy of late is the sit down v sit back. I know powerlifters that sit back maintaining almost vertical shins. I also know powerlifters that sit down. The main difference is the joint that initiates the movements. The sitting back is initiated at the hip. Sitting down is initiated at the knees and hips simultaneously. There are pros and cons of each, so let’s take a look.
- Sitting back- When you initiate the movement at the hips by sitting back, you initiate the movement by engaging the hamstrings and glutes. The big thing with this type of movement is that your range of motion will be cut short, since those two muscles are mainly responsible for the range of motion in the squat. If you start to lengthen them earlier, you will obviously reach full ROM earlier.
That’s a good thing for powerlifters that only want to barely break parallel. The tightness will cause a stronger stretch-reflex action helping to propel the lifter upwards. However if you are a weightlifter, bodybuilder, or other athlete, this isn’t as good a thing.
The only two things that affect muscle hypertrophy during the squat are the load and the ROM. Full range of motion will recruit the most fibers, and it will also promote greater mobility. Mobility is key when it comes to weightlifting. Mobility is also key for someone like me who is focusing on general strength. Vertical leap and increases in speed have also been tied to fuller range of motion high bar squats, so if you play football, that’s the way to go.
Promoters of the sitting back style would also say that shearing forces of the knee are reduced with keeping the shins more vertical. However the studies would tell a different story. Basically the shearing forces on the low back and the knees are the same no matter the style.
- Sitting down- By initiating the movement at the knee and the hips, you will be able to sit as low as possible maintaining a more vertical back. For weightlifters it’s key to mimic the sport and promote the ROM required to perform the snatch and clean & jerk. You will lose that glute and hamstring tightness, so you won’t squat quite as much weight at least at first. However the strength gained from this type of squat will transfer over to sport much better.
242kg/533lb Back Squat by 15-year-old Morgan McCullough
Well there you have it. You have choices to make. There are pros and cons of each. At the end of the day it depends on your goals. Be careful of any coach that gives absolutes without concrete evidence to back up their claims. I wouldn’t even take their word for it if they were a doctor, strength coach, or world champion without evidence. This is advice that you should apply to all things in life.
For our folks at LEAN Fitness, here are a few things to consider based on your individual goals:
General Fitness- you will want to squat high bar, and you will want to sit slightly back, and then down immediately. Front Squats are also great for you, as they promote mobility and strengthen the back. Your goal for the squat should be to increase range of motion, add some lean muscle, and to strengthen the back, hips and legs. As your coach, I want you guys to feel better, get stronger for life, move better, and perform movements that promote fat loss. The squat does all of these
Athletic Performance- There’s a time and place for everything with you guys. If you perform a low bar back squat, you will strengthen the hips a bit more due to the inclined torso. If you perform high bar while sitting straight down, you will strengthen quads and maximize range of motion. If you front squat, you will make your back stronger. All of these things are important for sports.
One other thing that you should consider as sport athletes (football, basketball, soccer, baseball, etc), is that the back squat has direct correlation with decreased sprint times (running faster) and increased vertical leap more than any other exercise. So if you want to get faster and jump higher, you need to squat. No fancy piece of equipment will help these two things more that the back squat.
Olympic Weightlifters- the goal is to keep things as specific as possible. The goal is maximal range of motion regardless of how you squat. The goal is a vertical torso, while squatting as low as possible. I’m not saying that the low bar is 100% out of the equation, but if you low bar back squat, you should sit down versus back.
Powerlifters- you can use all three types of squatting (low bar, high bar, and front squat). Low Bar is your primary technique, since normally most people can squat the most weight with the low bar. Dropping the bar lower on the back will incline the torso putting the hips into flexion sooner helping you to reach maximal range of motion right below parallel giving you that stretch reflex at the perfect depth for maximal weight.
However, there are uses for high bar and low bar squatting in an accessory role. High Bar squatting is great for increasing quad strength because high bar allows for maximal range of motion in the quads. When it comes to hypertrophy (increased muscle size), range of motion is king. If your back is weak, the front squat is a great way to strengthen the back especially the spinal extensors.
15-year-old Morgan McCullough Front Squatting 210kg/462lb
We train all types of athletes at LEAN: LEANFit General Fitness, Mash Athletic Performance, Mash Mafia Olympic Weightlifting, Mash Mafia Powerlifting, and our incredible Youth Programs. The Squat is a movement that connects all of our people. That’s why I thought that you guys might be interested as to why we program the squat so often. When it comes to getting you flexible, strong, and lean, the back squat is king.
If you live anywhere near Lewisville, NC, we would love for you to visit. Email us at LeanFitnessSystems@gmail.com for a FREE Assessment or a FREE Week. Our goal is to make our community and healthier and stronger place to life.
We are hosting a Clean & Jerk and Back Squat Seminar right here at our new facility on Saturday, September 29th from 11am until 2pm. Check it out here at:
Coach Travis Mash
Head Weightlifting Coach
USA Weightlifting Senior International Coach