How to Conquer the Squat

Chris Manrodt
Are you just getting started in Powerlifting? Have you heard about lifting but aren't sure what it really is? Are you interested in playing a sport, but need to get bigger, stronger, or both to crack the starting line-up? This section of the Strength On-line Page is devoted to helping the beginner. A lot of the lifting information out there is written for folks who compete regularly in Powerlifting meets, or who have a several years of lifting experience. I will attempt to make this column humorous and interesting as I try to shed light on the basics of successful, injury free lifting.

        Have you read those articles calling the squat the “King of all Strength Exercises.” but find the squat to be an uncomfortable, troubling exercise? Has your coach told you to do squats, but you have stuck to leg presses instead? Do you look at the Powerlifting Meet schedule on this site, but only look for Push/Pull competitions? Does the idea of holding a heavy weight on your shoulders give you a queasy feeling? Let me share a little story with you:

        One day when I was about 13, I was sitting at home watching TV, when my father came running up the stairs huffing and puffing, and yelling for me. He told me to come down stairs with my mother and my brother, and he wanted us to bring the camera. My father had built a squat rack in our basement, and for many years he had been training down there, to get time to himself in our noisy house. On this day, my father was attempting a PR squat, and he wanted the moment preserved for posterity. My mother held the camera as my brother and I watched my dad hoist the weight off the rack. The intensity in his face was kind of scary, since I had only ever seen him like this when I had done something truly mischievous or stupid. But then he lowered himself with the weight, and then stood up slowly, making a loud, muffled scream through clenched teeth as he went. About halfway up, he leaned forward a little and started to tip. I saw the bar starting to drop, and then my brother yelled something. I grabbed one end of the bar. He grabbed the other, and we helped my dad put the weight back into the rack. 

        Up to that point, my father’s weight set had been just a big pile of junk that I stubbed my toe on, except for the little dumbbell, which was fun to smash matchbox cars with. One that day, that PR squat became a sort of “brass ring.” My father tried a couple times over the next couple years to get the weight, but never made it. To me, it was like the peak of Mt. Everest, the seemingly unattainable goal, off in the distance. Sometimes, late at night, I would sneak down to the basement, and carefully load the bar up to the exact weight that my father had bombed, just as it had been that day. Then I would stare at the bar, sometimes turning the plates, and sometimes even putting my shoulders underneath the weight. And every time, I would imagine myself making the lift. I was hooked, and needless to say, it didn’t take that long before I was putting up some weight on the squat.

        So, now that you have read about my childhood, what is my point? Well, in order to squat and squat well, there is one element that I found to be more important than anything else: RESPECT. Not like Aretha Franklin respect, but more like driving that Uhaul truck you rented to move out of your apartment. The squat is a difficult, technically challenging, and potentially dangerous lift. It can make you feel very awkward and humble just taking the weight out of the racks. Please let me be clear: I am not saying fear the squat, but I am saying respect the squat. If you respect it, and tame the beast in the racks, then you will be more than half way to a huge total. One cannot attain a Karwoski/Coan/Hatfield-type total without it. 

Here are some basic things that I have learned from 12 years of squatting.

Mental Aspects

        Squats are the most mentally challenging exercise that a powerlifter does. It requires tremendous intensity and focus. But at the same time, you must also be cognizant and aware. Unlike the deadlift, which can be more of a blind-rage-type of lift, the squat is more technical and requires complete concentration.

        For one thing, the squat is a pretty precarious position to put yourself in. It seems unnatural to many, and feels vulnerable to many more. My guess is that a significant portion of the population would be unable to do a single deep squat, even with no added weight. The motion requires strength in a lot of muscles. It requires flexibility, and it creates muscular tension at several joints, which may not be accustomed to the stress. 

        Plus, there are many who just look at the exercise and get psyched out. I have seen many guys at the gym climb under the bar in the rack, and as they unrack the weight and step back, you know that they are already defeated, just by the look on their face. They squat shallow, or they don’t even try. Or, they do a couple reps and put the weight back, not coming close to the goal they set, or making a set that they are capable of.

        Here is an extreme illustration: When was the last time you saw a guy do forced reps on the squat? Maybe you have, but compare that to the number of times you see bench press for forced reps. Also, how many people actually go to failure on free squats? It is a humbling feeling to have the weight come to rest on the rack pins when you fail a squat. Unlike the bench, deadlift, or many of the assistance lifts, it just feels so much worse to fail a squat. And the fear of failure has kept many from trying. (Before I get a bunch of e-mail on this point, let me clarify: I am not necessarily advocating forced reps or going to failure on the squat, or any other lift. I am just saying that the lift is so challenging, that pushing to the limits on the squat is rarely done, because a lifter is not mentally ready to make a lift.)

        The key to a big squat is first believing that you can make it, and secondly having the mental discipline to hold your form, even if the weight feels uncomfortable. 

The “Groove”

        The “groove” of the squat is critical, and is dependent on many muscles working together in the right order, to maintain the proper line of motion for the bar. If you let your body move too far forward, then too much stress is placed on the back, especially the lower lumbars. If you move too far backward, it becomes a leg lift and the leverage is lost. The delicate balance front-to-back is very important, and here’s the kicker: For many, that front-to-back balance changes as the weights increase. At one point in my training, I could easily get six reps at 315, but could not do a single rep at 345. The problem? I was just a little too far forward with that first rep, and I lost my groove. The extra weight had shifted the balance ever so slightly, but enough to really change my leverage advantage.

        Another big key to finding the right groove is foot placement. Many have written volumes here, but I will keep this simple. At the beginning, do a free squat without weight, with your hands out in front of you. Wherever your feet are, that is probably pretty close to the best balance for your weighted squats. This may change a little when the weights get heavier. But as a beginner, lets not get too far ahead of ourselves. 

The Ten Commandments of the Beginning Squatter

  • 1) Thou shalt warm-up before attempting heavier weight
  • 2) Thou shalt squat in a rack, if possible. I find this helps me overcome fear, and it can be safer than human spotters, who tend to get distracted by spandex, jog bras, and/or other sights in the lifting area.
  • 3) Thou shalt pay close attention to your form. Have an experienced lifter give feedback. Or, if there is no one around who knows how to powerlift, check out some of the images from Blakely Enterprises, and see how elite lifters squat. You can check yourself in the mirror. A couple pointers: Keep your head up, and keep your back arched. Don’t point your head straight up, but keep it up above straight ahead. Imagine how you would hold your head if you are looking at the top of a wall from the other side of the room. By keeping your head up throughout the movement, you will be more likely to arch your back properly. Keeping your back arched is critical for preventing injuries.
  • 4) Thou shalt squat to legal depth. Legal depth depends on the federation you would compete in, but even if you don’t plan on competing just yet, make sure that your hips go as low as your knees, such that your hips are parallel to the ground. You may be able to lift more weight in a partial squat, but you will only be stimulating half the muscles you could be, and you will not build a stronger base.
  • 5) Thou shalt use a belt when squatting heavy weight. For a beginner, a rule of thumb is that you should use a belt for any squat that is 1.25x bodyweight. As you get stronger, you may not need a belt for lifts below 1.5x or heavier, but at the start protect yourself. Also, thou shalt not trust your back to some froo-froo toner belt either. You should consider the investment of getting a real power belt. Inzer makes a very good belt, whichcan be easily ordered  with a phone call and at your door within days. 
  • 6) Thou shalt stick your butt straight back at the beginning of the squat. Do Not begin the movement by bending your knees first. This is a movement forward. You want to go backward, with your gluteus, and then come down. When sitting on a chair or a stool, do you begin by bending the knees? Think about it, and watch yourself and others. Most people will push their butts backward when they go to sit down.
  • 7) Thou shalt keep your knees in the same position throughout the lift. If you watch a beginner squatting with too much weight, you will see the knees move together as they push out of the hole. This is a killer for the joints, and shows a weakness with the hips. There should be little or no movement of the shins anywhere in the squat. 
  • 8) Thou shalt remain humble. As a beginner, you should squat with a weight that you can handle for more then a few reps. If you cannot get 4 good reps with perfect form, then the weight is too heavy. Bad form will not make you strong. It will make you injured. Even though you may have huge quads or a strong back from other exercises, the squat involves more muscles than that. Many of these smaller muscles are not used much, if at all, except deep in the hole. “The chain is only as strong as the weakest link.” Start with a weight that all the muscles can handle, and then work up as the weak muscles catch up to the stronger ones. (Note: I am not advocating that you cannot do sets of 2 reps or even singles, like in a Westside protocol. But, if you notice, they  use 65-75% of their 1RM for these sets. A beginner should not do full squats for heavy singles or doubles until they can maintain good form.)
  • 9) Thou shalt sleep and eat properly. Squat day is by far my most taxing workout. It just takes a large toll on the body. I never squat on Fridays or the weekend, because I don’t want to risk being out late after stressing my body this way. In fact, I usually sleep 1-2 hours more after squat day then I do the rest of the week. It just takes that much out of me. If you don’t sleep, and you don’t give your body adequate protein and carbs for energy, then your body will not be able to get stronger. 
  • 10) Thou shalt squat!! You cannot substitute leg presses, hack squats, partial squats, lunges, or anything else. You are training your muscles, but you are also training your Central Nervous System. You cannot train the CNS to squat if you are lying comfortably on your back, or on a cushy padded seat. 

More on Respect

        O.K., now I want to go back to that point about respect. Here’s an illustration: A woman I know wanted to get into powerlifting after watching some great women lifters at our state meet. When she started, she couldn’t even squat one rep with a 45lb Olympic bar, even though she could deadlift 150 for reps. She just didn’t have the strength in the smaller muscles of the hip joint which are needed to get out of the hole. 

So, she started with the 25 lb. curling bar, and then started adding weight. Here’s how it went:
3 sets of 5 @ 25 lb.
3 sets of 5 @ 30 lb. (she laughed at the 2 1/2 plates when I handed them to her.)
3 sets of 5 @ 35
3 sets of 5 @ 40
2 sets of 5 @ 45
2 sets of 5 @ 50
2 sets of 5 @ 55
2 sets of 5 @ 60

        For those of you used to looking at training articles by multiple World Champion Ed Coan, you may say, why are you talking about such a light weight? I do more weight than that for one-arm curls!! 

        Here is the point: Only squat with weight you can handle. (See Rule #8) . Then, slow steady progress with hard work will lead to big gains. A 5 pound jump may seem small, but they add up quickly!! Many competitive lifters would kill for a jump of 40 lb. in 8 weeks. In this particular case, the trainer had trouble keeping form. By doing sets of 5, she got more accustomed to watching her form, but not fatiguing so badly from a high rep set that her form started to suffer. As a result, she is building good habits, instead of bad ones. The results: After only two months, she has singled 85 lb. raw, and should be good for 100+ at her first meet. All this without even a hint of knee trouble or back pain. 

        While progressive overload as I have described above may not be the most effective for the seasoned veteran, or Elite-level lifter, I do believe a beginner will see great progress from a basic system of training the squat once per week, increasing weight by 5-10 lb. each week. When I first got started into power squatting in college, I increased the weight by ten pounds each week, doing 1 or 2 sets of 5. I started at 155x5 the first week, and at week 14, I was nailed 295x5. If you think that I started light, well, yes I did. But I got used to working with a weight that I could handle. I worked on keeping my form, and even though I didn’t struggle with the weight for the first few weeks, I did get plenty sore. That’s part of what makes squats so great. They will make you strong even if you don’t train with maximum loads.

        So, I encourage you to jump right in and give them a shot. The “King of all Exercises” will crown you for your efforts.

For more information on getting started check out the archives section here on Strength Online or drop by the Q&A forums.

  Reproduction of this article, in whole or part, for any purpose other than personal use is
        prohibited without written consent. Copyright 1999 Chris Manrodt.