Whether you're a gritty powerlifter or an aspiring bodybuilder, you can always get better at this crucial exercise.
Jim Smith, C.P.P.S. for Muscle & Fitness 1 / 8
1. Practice Better Technique
Lots of guys have the basics of squatting down. But if you want to improve to an elite level, you'll need to dial in your technique first. If your technique is poor, don't add more weight—you'll just hurt yourself.
There are three simple cues to keep in mind when you squat: (1) chest up, (2) hips back, and (3) knees out. Most people squat straight down, instead of pushing their hips back into a hip-hinge pattern while driving their knees out, which forces them into a vertical and more quad-dominant squatting pattern. This type of squat requires great mobility at the upper back, hips and ankles and a strong core and upper back. If you can't squat with this kind of mobility or your movement is limited, you're more likely to fall forward when the weights gets heavier.
There are two drills to help you keep your chest up, push your hips back, and drive your knees out:
1. Wall squats: Face a wall with your feet about 6” away and squat down without hitting the wall, trying to go as deep as possible. This drill helps you focus on loading your posterior chain to a greater extent.
2. Goblet squats: Hold a dumbbell vertically on one end and squat down, keeping your chest out and driving your knees outward. Goblet squats help teach you proper positioning during the conventional squat pattern.
Try different bar positions on your back. If you have a higher bar position—right at the base of your neck—you'll need good mobility in your upper back, hips, and ankles to be able to keep your torso vertical during the squat. If you don’t have this mobility and you are weak, you'll tend to tip forward as you descend into the bottom of the squat. It's simple physics: The farther your hips are from the bar, the greater the torque applied to the hips.
On the other hand, if you have a lower bar position (around mid-trap) and a slightly wider stance (slightly wider than shoulder width), you'll decrease the distance from the bar to your hips (shorter moment arm), you'll have better leverage. This might allow you to stay more vertical when you squat if you have good core stability and enough hip mobility.
Play around with the bar position to find the one that works best for you.
If you have a weak core—comprising all the muscles surrounding your torso from the shoulders to the knees—then you'll be more likely to fall forward when you squat. You need a strong core to stay tight and keep your torso as straight as possible when you squat.
Setting the tension in the torso all starts with breathing. Before you begin the squat, you should take a full deep breath—expanding your abdomen and your chest—and hold it to set intra-abdominal pressure (IAP) to help neutralize your hips. Starting the squat movement with a better position at the hips and with good intra-abdominal pressure will be essential to moving through a great range of motion with a more vertical torso angle. After you complete one repetition, repeat this deep breath and hold before you hit the next rep. Treat each repetition in the set as its own single set. Instead of thinking of 10 reps, think about 10 single squats—and breathe accordingly.
To get better at squats and squat more weight, you need a strong upper back. Every strength program should include pull-ups, bent-over rows, seated rows, chin-ups, band pull-aparts, and face pulls. If your upper back is strong, you will be able to create more core stability and stay more upright while under the bar. Also, being strong enough to drive the elbows downward when squatting will keep your chest up—especially at the bottom of the squat—and keep you from falling forward.
If your grip on the bar is loose, then your arms, shoulders and upper back will be loose. You need to have a death grip on the bar to create tension across your entire upper body. The harder you grip the bar, the more tension you’ll have in your hands, forearms, biceps, shoulders, and upper back. This tension, along with a deep breath to set your intra-abdominal pressure, will create the core stability and tension you need to stay upright and safe when you squat.
If you have weak muscles in your hips—including your hamstrings, glutes and spinal erectors—you'll tend to fall forward and have your hips shoot upward when you come out of the hole at the bottom of a squat. Strengthening your hips with Romanian deadlifts, rack pulls, good-mornings, and kettlebell (or dumbbell) swings will improve your hip strength and flexibility.
Strengthening the hips, as far as the squat is concerned, comes down to hip extension. Powerful hip extension is a fundamental movement pattern that features in most compound strength training exercises in the gym. Most importantly, you need to keep your torso in a neutral (or straight) position to properly hinge your hips. That's key.
Here's a test: Can you maintain a straight back when you transition from hip flexion into hip extension? If not, you know what you have to do.
Some lifters squat with their heels on 10-lb plates because it helps them squat deeper and stay more upright, even though they have tight ankles. Ankle immobility or tightness is a major reason why most people can’t squat lower and through a full range of motion. (You can blame heavy workout shoes and sedentary lifestyles.)
Squatting with your heels on 10-lb plates is one way to overcome ankle immobility and help you squat with a more upright torso angle. Warming up barefoot (or in socks), performing various ankle mobility drills, and incorporating goblet squats are all great ways to increase ankle mobility and strengthen in new ranges of motion at the ankle.
Weightlifting shoes—those with a firm sole and elevated heel—can also change your squat immediately. Like the 10 lb plates, weightlifting shoes allow you to squat better and stay more upright, even when your ankle mobility isn’t that great.