Let me start by repeating something I learned a number of years ago from Dave Tate of EliteFTS.com, because it gives perspective to the topic of this post:
A successful squat (or any lift) is a function of 3 things:
(3) Mental attitude
One way to view that is, if you miss a lift, the cause is attributable to one or more of those aspects of your lifting.
(Notice that strength is only one of three.)
The other way to interpret that is to acknowledge that in order to lift to your potential, you need to dial in all three.
This post will focus on technique since it's foundational to lifting big, and I think it's fair to say that it's an oft-overlooked way to add pounds to your squat practically overnight.
Improve your squat technique, and you will lift more weight (and help prevent injury!)... Plain and simple. So, without further ado...
First, The Setup:
(Hey guys: don't underestimate the importance of a proper setup. I broke this out separately because the setup is key for teeing up a big lift.
A missed lift is very often preceded by a botched setup.)
1. Approach the Bar (From Behind It), Grab and Duck Under It
I've seen many squatters back into the bar (including my training partner, despite regular reminders). Trivial as it might sound, doing this doesn't allow you to visually center the bar on your back.
Instead, approach the bar from behind and grab it with your hands as close together as you can comfortably maintain once under the bar.
A relatively close grip allows you to get your shoulders back, create a shelf for the bar, and maintain your tightness throughout the lift. It also helps you keep your elbows down (see step 2) and the weight over your heels.
Then duck under the bar and position it on your upper back (high or low depending on your preference), on the "shelf" you created by pulling in your hands, and your shoulder blades back.
2. Elbows DOWN, Not Back
For whatever reason, many lifters tend to keep their elbows back when squatting.
This can be problematic because having your elbows back produces the tendency for the weight to tip forward, which can not only cause injury (should you find yourself folded over with your head between your ankles), but also doesn't allow you to maintain the proper upright position during the lift.
Keeping your elbows DOWN will help avert the aforementioned catastrophe while positioning you properly for a big squat.
3. Position Yourself for the Un-rack (Feet Slightly Wider Than Shoulder Width)
(Note that this step assumes you're squatting in a power rack (like most lifters), requiring a walk-out, rather than using a monolift.
If squatting in a monolift, take into account your not having to walk the weight out when reading through the next few steps.)
Your feet should be at least slightly wider than shoulder width apart.
Some trainers would say to assume your lifting stance at this time, but in my experience with the walk-out, I un-rack the weight more naturally with a bit narrower stance than the very wide lifting stance I'll assume after walking out the weight.
4. Get TIGHT (Shoulders and Abdominals)
This is critically important.
Before un-racking the weight, you need to stabilize your core and upper back to prepare your body for the load. This prevents injury AND supports a big lift.
Bracing your abdominals is the most critical (it protects the spine from compression and enables proper power transfer for a stronger squat), and most lifters do it wrong.
Inhale into your belly, NOT your chest, to properly brace your abs (sometimes referred to as the Valsalva Maneuver).
A tip I've used over the years to achieve this is to wear a weight belt one notch loose, and expand your belly as you're inhaling until it makes contact with, and even produces tension against, your weight belt.
While this may seem a bit silly, it's an excellent tool for gauging whether you've appropriately stabilized your core, and trust me, it will also improve your lift. Next, make sure your:
(1) shoulders are back (revisit Step 1),
(2) upper back is tight;
(3) low back is arched; and
(4) chest is up.
As noted above, this keeps the weight from tipping forward and properly over the heels.
(At this time, I also "pack my neck," which isn't easy to articulate but you can think of it as compressing or shortening your neck and locking your head into position, which will align your eyes forward. Often the cue is to look up, but actually looking straight ahead or even slightly down is better for most lifters.)
5. Un-rack the Weight, Step Back with One Leg, Then Other Leg
Now, un-rack the weight using your HIPS (performing a slight hip hinge), not your legs as is a common practice, and be careful not to hit the J cups as you do so.
Hitting the supports will push the weight forward (1st mistake) and possibly cause you to lose your stability and tightness (2nd mistake).
After lifting the weight out of the rack, step back with one leg, then the other as you assume your stance.
6. Assume as Wide a Stance as Possible
Almost certainly, I will get negative feedback about this, but I don't care -- I'm going to plug it anyway.
Most lifters aren't doing themselves any favors with their narrow, bodybuilding-style squats. Even if you're a bodybuilder, you want to primarily use your hamstrings, glutes, hips and back when squatting, not your quads.
Rest assured, your quads will grow with a big, wide stance squat.
Additionally, a wide stance will reduce the distance the bar travels to complete the lift, and will properly place more stress on the posterior chain.
7. Look Straight Ahead
This is simple, and I alluded to it above: don't look starkly down at the floor (which will cause the weight to lean forward), and don't look at the ceiling (which will cause the weight to drift back).
Look straight ahead or slightly down (neck aligned with spine).
8. Regain Your Tightness
Now, occasionally, un-racking will sacrifice some of the tightness you achieved before getting the bar out of the J cups.
As such, you'll need to re-up the air in your belly (remember the belly against the belt technique) and tightness in your abdominals and back.
Now, The Lift:
9. Lower the Weight By Sitting Back
I'm a big fan of the box squat.
One of the many lessons learned from box squatting is how to lower the weight in a free squat. Rather than lowering the weight with the knees (and torso tilted forward) as many narrow-stance squatters, you should, by contrast, lower the weight by breaking with the hips first, and sit back.
(Think of the squat as simply a hip hinge.) Imagine yourself sitting back on the toilet as you lower the weight, feeling the stretch in your hamstrings (which will eventually produce a powerful stretch reflex as you drive the weight up out of the hole).
10. Knees Out
Your knees should NOT move forward during the lift, but instead track OUT, in the same direction as your feet (which should slightly point out to allow hip flexibility, but not so far out that you lose stability).
The knees, ankles, hips and shoulders should approximate a straight line for the most mechanical advantage. Forcing your knees out and pushing against the sides of your shoes will help achieve that.
11. Hit Depth
The definition of "depth" will vary depending on your objectives, and there's no single correct depth.
There are times when below parallel is desired, parallel or above parallel. Even competitive powerlifters who are required to hit a certain depth outlined by the rules of their federation will often train to varying depths (particularly in box squatting) to train through multiple ranges of motion.
12. Head and Shoulders Back
Once you've hit bottom, it's time to drive the weight up out of the hole.
Before engaging your glutes and hamstrings, a helpful cue is to drive your head and shoulders back "into the bar," once again looking straight ahead if your neck is no longer "packed."
This will ensure that the bar stays in the proper path for squatting.
13. Explode with the Glutes, Driving Hips Up
Explode out of the bottom with the glutes, driving the hips up.
Remember to maintain your tightness (particularly abdominal and upper back), push out on your knees and feet as if "spreading the floor," keep the elbows down and shoulder blades together.
Note: When squatting, as with the deadlift, you don't want to wear shoes with cushioned midsoles. Instead, you'll typically want flat, thin soles.
Because the squat and deadlift require power transfer from your feet to your hips, and cushioned midsoles can interrupt the power transfer.
Also, cushioned midsoles reduce ankle dorsiflexion. The reduced range of motion will eventually lead to knee, hip and low back pain.
And finally, training barefoot or with flat midsoles will increase ankle stability strength over time.
So, what shoes do I recommend?
Classic Chuck Taylors, wrestling shoes or powerlifting shoes (the latter are significantly more expensive than the first two options).
Probably seems like a lot of steps, right?
It's really not, and fortunately, repetition creates ingrained patterns so that after a time, you'll do everything almost automatically or using a couple simple cues.
If you're relatively new to the squat or to proper technique, I urge you to run through the above steps EVERY TIME, particularly the setup, so that over time it becomes ingrained.
Stay tuned, as I'll follow this post in the coming days with a VIDEO to illustrate what I described above!