It’s almost a proven fact that nobody out there likes Mondays. Therefore, I’m going to start dedicating my Mondays to things that irk me in the gym. I don’t think I have a bigger pet peeve than people who load up a bar with, say, 225 pounds then proceed to “squat”. If your definition of a squat is an anterior pelvic tilt, where your hips are collapsing in after every rep, then so be it. You’re probably the guy that needs a weight belt, gloves, and the infamous “p” pad to get your sets in. (We won’t go into details on what the p stands for)
Since I’ve started lifting, I’ve always had problems with my lower back. I remember how it first started too, I was a moron. I hated deadlifts. I absolutely hated deadlifts. One day we were pulling from a trap bar, the set was 225 for 4. Rather than “spreading the floor” with my feet to pull the weight up, which is the way I’ve been taught most recently, I tried to jerk the weight up. I felt a tweak in one of my lumbar vertebrae and it was a nagging injury for years to come. Anyway, enough about me, this is just an example of how easy it is to blow your back out, luckily for me I’ve been able to work around it and prevent my spine problems from getting worse.
Before we can correct our squats, we have to understand why we squat to begin with. First thing’s first, stability from the ground up is the key reason as to why we squat. Without strength from our lower half, how can we possibly produce power with our upper half? Baseball is a key example, both pitching and hitting are initiated through our lower extremities, followed by our hips (which provide the most explosive and raw power) and finish through our upper extremities. Squats (executed properly) are crucial for most athletes. For others, they produce more risk than reward, but that’s a topic for another day.
If you’re not the typical athlete and are just looking to get in shape, squats are a great weapon to have in your arsenal. When done properly, squats activate many of the muscles in the human body. Because of this, squats will actually (believe it or not) improve your other lifts in the gym. They also activate key hormones to build muscle, specifically testosterone and growth hormone (GH). These hormones improve growth in the total body, which explains why squats will benefit your upper body as well as your lower half, obviously.
Squats bring out the mental toughness in you as well as physical strength. How can you complain about this?
So now we understand the concepts of why we squat…now we have to understand how we squat.
The most common teaching mistake made with the squat is to “sit” during the eccentric phase. No, no, no, no, no. You do not sit when squatting, you sit when you’re taking a dump.
When we squat properly, rather than “sitting”, we spread the groin. I was taught to “spread the floor” with my feet as I would decelerate down. By doing this, I focused on spreading outwards instead of straight down. This allowed me to clear my hips without worrying about them collapsing in on the concentric phase of the squat.
Another key factor we must focus on while squatting is preventing excessive lumbar extension. In simpler terms, we cannot allow our lower back to arch while we squat. This occurs from an anterior pelvic tilt. Like a domino effect, an anterior pelvic tilt is the effect of having a weak core. In order to correct this, we must build core strength. By this, I don’t mean banging out sets of crunches, which actually does more harm then good. We must train our core (abdominals, obliques, erector spinae muscles, longissimus, the list goes on). To do this, we have to train in the different planes of movement (sagittal, frontal, and transverse planes).
Below is a video that will get your core functioning properly with execution of these exercises.
Now, we have to figure out which type of squat is best for you. Personally, the front squat is my go to weapon. It forces me to activate my core because the bar is now stationed on the anterior part of my body. Because of this, there is a slight pelvic tilt that will allow me to stand up straight without the weight falling over (or falling into lumbar flexion). By this point, my core will be firing and I haven’t even started the exercise! Now lets see what happens after I get out of this isometric position in the front squat…
- Before beginning the eccentric phase, I have to make sure my neck consistently stays packed and I try to pull my “scaps to my shins”. While doing this, I activate my latissimus dorsi, aka my lats.
- I also breath through my nose to fill my brace up with air. This will allow me to stay strong as I descend without losing any stability.
- With the eccentric contraction, I make sure I am spreading the floor with my feet rather than sitting into the squat.
- Once my hip flexors tell me to stop, I stop. If I try to get any lower, chances are my form at the very bottom is gonna be brutal. This can’t be happening with heavy weights if I want to keep a healthy back.
- With the concentric phase, I push back through my heels while continuing to spread the floor. This will allow me to keep my hips in a good position as I come back to my starting position.
- As I come back to the top, I have to make sure I don’t go into lumbar extension “round my back”. This is prevented by keeping my core nice and tight throughout the whole exercise. If you still see this occurring, you need to work on your core strength!
Here’s an example of crappy squat form, from yours truly just a couple of months ago.
In this video, I neglected a packed neck, didn’t stabilize my core before every rep, and got as deep as I possibly could which caused my back to round. Do not follow this as a model squat. This is not what you want to achieve unless you want back pain, then by all means go for it.
Instead, we want this (front squat example)
Your turn. Go out there, clean your form up and tear the weight room apart.