Squat is the first of three events performed in a powerlifting competition. It is the most dominant exercise when it comes to strength training of the lower body. There is nothing that can be compared to squat if you want to develop a strong body. Once some powerlifter said: “if I would be forced to pick just one exercise from my routine to do it for the rest of my life that would be the squat, without a doubt!” And that is true. They don’t refer to squat as the king of all exercises for nothing. In my opinion, bench press and deadlift always come in second.
Back arched, bar low, narrow grip, elbows down, wrists straight, head up. Image credit: roman9
The squat primarily develops muscles, increases strength, and toughens the bones and ligaments of the thighs, hips and buttocks. Since squat is a compound exercise, and by that I mean that its influence doesn’t stop just on mentioned regions, the entire body has benefits from it. Arms, shoulders, abs and back get stronger and bigger as well. There are many variants of this exercise, which I will be explaining in depth in later posts. Main focus here will be on the powerlifting squat, which in essence is a back squat. Make note that bodybuilding and weightlifting back squats are different than the powerlifting variant. I’ll cover the exact differences later in the article. Only IPF rules of competition and allowed apparel will be covered here. If you compete in a different federation, check their rules because they may be different.
Phases of the Squat
Squat is without any doubt the most complex exercise in this business. Technique is a crucial component and years of practice are required to sculpt it just right. Squat can be break down in 5 different phases or parts of the movement. I will analyze each one to make this as clear as possible, especially for beginners.
- Phase 1: Setup (Prepare yourself by putting on your apparel, chalking your hands and back and doing everything else you usually do before the squat. The bar should be placed in a rack at your chest level’s height. Approach the bar completely erect and honor the following steps to the full extent. After you have done all that is required, assumed position must be maintained during the whole lift. If just one of these details is not in place, you won’t be able to elevate the full power).
- Bar Grip Type (First and most important thing I want to stress out is that you ALWAYS use a fully wrapped grip. Never use a thumbless (monkey) grip which is often practiced by bodybuilders where the thumb comes behind the bar with the rest of the fingers. You could easily break you thumbs like this. Use your opposable thumbs as they are meant to be used)!
- Bar Grip Width (Gripping the bar as hard as possible will trigger a reflex which will make your entire body to tighten. This is a little trick used by the professionals. As for the width of the grip, the narrower it is the more support you will have during the lift. Some athletes, especially ones with extremely thick upper back, have problems with using such narrow grip because they can’t clench shoulder blades (scapulas) tight enough. In that case use as narrow grip as you can).
- Bar Position (In oppose to classic bodybuilding and Olympic weightlifting squat, the bar is not positioned high on you traps (trapezius muscles), but much lower, on the point where your rear deltoid meets the back. Such low bar positioning shifts the center of balance more towards your hips and thighs thus relieving stress from lower back and situating you in a position where you can exert more power. This is the core difference between a bodybuilding squat and a powerlifting squat. Lifter focuses on the lift, while bodybuilder on muscle stimulation. Don’t ever confuse these two and shift your training more towards stimulating the muscles instead lifting the weight. A lifter is interested ONLY in lifting the weight! I can’t stress this enough).
- Clench Blades (Make your shoulder blades touch each other. Until the pain of clenching is still bearable you are not doing it right. If you are not ready to feel enormous pain you are still not ready to compete. Clamping blades together will create a thick platform for the bar to rest on. If you don’t have a massive upper back yet to support the heavy bar that low on your back, use as narrow grip as you can, this will pop out every muscle of the upper back that you have. If you’re a big guy and/or don’t have flexible shoulder joints, practice shoulder dislocations with a stick more often to improve this).
- Elbows Beneath (Position the elbows beneath the bar, to the point where your forearms stand vertical to the floor. If you can achieve this position, it will make wonders for your squat, because the elbows will help push the bar up during ascent. This will also prevent you from falling forward with the weight. Pushing your elbows forward can result in falling backwards, so make sure this doesn’t happen).
- Wrists Straight (While you elbows come bellow the bar, resist the need to bend your wrists back under the heavy weight. Ensure this by gripping the bar insanely tight until your fingers turn blue. Let the back hold the weight, not your wrists. If you cave in and bend them during squat, you lose necessary support in a crucial moment which can make a difference between success and failure).
- Chin Up (This may seem as a detail of less importance, but it is way more important than you think. Look forward or slightly up to navigate the lift. Looking down during the lift can mess up you balance pretty fast, which can lead to disaster. Your focus should be unbreakable. Don’t cave in and look down, resist the fear).
- Arched Back (Arching your back is the most important thing you can do. Push your chest up and forward to prevent rounding of the back. This can also prevent falling down in case you lean forward too much).
- Unracking Stance (Position your feet close together so that they stand parallel to each other (toes pointing forward) directly under the bar, about 30cm (12″) apart. From this position it will be easier to unrack the bar without spending too much strength).
- Phase 2: Unracking (Here I will use the example of performing a squatting set with just one rep using maximum weight. Note: this example is actually a simulation of the maximum lift performed like the one on a meet. The only step that is different than in normal training is “Inhale Deep”, where you will inhale before every repetition and not just before the first one. Note: During competition, the spotters are allowed to assist you with this step).
- Inhale Deep (Take an enormously deep breath, to take in a lot of oxygen supplies, because the next time you will breath in will be when you return the bar on the squat rack! NOTE: Don’t exaggerate by taking too much air. Take just enough to make your stomach hard and push it out on your belt).
- Unrack the Bar (By using only the strength of your legs and not your back unrack the bar somewhat slowly. This is not the time to be aggressive and jerk the bar up like a mad man. It will waste your strength, mess up your concentration and balance or perhaps result in an injury. After unracking, wait while the weight stabilizes).
- Step Back (Step back one leg at a time until your feet stand parallel to each other. The length of steps should be big enough not to increase the stepping back time and preserve your strength while short enough not to mess up your balance and waste strength on regaining it. Once you have finished stepping back wait while the weight stabilizes).
- Stance Width (Reposition your foot stance by slightly tilting one foot at a time to the side. Distance between heels should not be shorter than shoulder width because it will put too much stress on your shoulders and lower back. Too wide stance on the other hand will put legs and hips in a weaker and more vulnerable position. Remember, the wider the stance, the less power you have. The width will also depend on the squat suit you are using, although in general rules that I have outlined apply. Most comfortable stance is something you will need to figure out on your own. I prefer using shoulder width because I apply technique that involves slight leaning forward and resting chest on the inner thighs at the bottom of the movement).
- Heels and Toes (Point toes slightly to the sides, about 15 to 30 degrees. The knees will follow your toes during the entire squat. The entire weight of your body must be concentrated on your heels. During ascent you should imagine that you’re pushing the floor down instead of coming up with the weight).
- Phase 3: Descent (Descent must be done in a very controlled and somewhat slow manner. Descending too rapidly will make you lose control at the bottom by putting you in a position where the inertia will be stronger than you can handle. So be sure to control this part of the lift. The strongest focus is required for this stage).
- Shift Hips Back (First you need to do is to shift you hips far back without even bending your knees. It’s like sitting on a chair. Your torso will naturally follow the descent of the hips. Don’t forget, HIPS GO FIRST always).
- Bend Knees Forward (Once the hips reach the point where they can’t be lowered anymore without bending the knees, then you should start bending your knees forward and out to the sides. Knees should follow your toes and must NEVER go farther than your toes are. Imagine a vertical line from your toes, pass which the knee caps must not travel, not even at the bottom of the squat).
- Break Parallel (Once down make sure that you break the “parallel” just for a second. The “parallel” is actually the point where the top surface of the legs at the hip joint comes into parallel with the top of the knees. A lot of lifters will advise you to go just until the parallel, touch it and then return. But some judges are very strict and will require you to do more than that. Diving an inch deeper will ensure the successful lift and clear any possible obscurity amongst the judges. Tape yourself during training to find out how much improvement does your depth require. Training the parallel is the reason why you should avoid doing partial squats).
- Phase 4: Ascent (During this stage you must put forth all the resources that you have in order to drive yourself out of the hole. Since your descent was done slowly, there won’t be much inertia to create a huge bouncing effect which can aid you in going up. But you should definitely exploit even the weakest bouncing force. The squat suit in this situation will act as a sling and help you additionally).
- Drive Hips Up (This is the time to use everything you have. When your hip muscles are fully stretched at the bottom, don’t relax them, not even for a second, but exert all the power that you have in your body, soul and mind to drive the hips upward from the hole as fast as you possibly can. Don’t move them forward, because the knees will follow them forward as well. Use the power of the glutes to help the hips. Remember, don’t pause at the bottom and push directly from the heels, not your toes. In essence, the trajectory of the ascent must look exactly the same as trajectory of the descent).
- Phase 5: Racking (When the climbing up is over the only thing left to do is racking the bar. The lift is not complete until you conclude this step. Only afterwards will the lift be fully finished. Don’t let the fact that you managed the weight so far to steal your focus, because it isn’t over yet. During competition, the spotters are allowed to assist you with this step).
- Step Forward (Once you ascent phase is over and you’re standing fully erect with the knees locked wait until the weight stabilizes. With the same stepping technique used for stepping back in the unracking phase approach the rack. Wait while the weight stabilizes).
- Rack the Bar (By using only the strength of your legs and not your back rack the bar. This constitutes that the movement is finally over).
These are my three successful squat attempts at the Serbian IPF Championship 2009
Common Errors and Misconceptions
- Deep Squat (There is a belief amongst people, especially beginners and misguided lifters that squatting too deep (way bellow parallel where your butt almost touches your heels) is bad and may damage your knees. On the contrary this will help you build stronger knee ligaments and increase the power of your hip and quadriceps muscles. Practicing a descent bellow parallel will eventually help you increase the squatting weight and confidence. The judges at the meet will also appreciate your lift as a successful one. Though it is correct that your knee joints are in a very sensitive position while your legs are fully flexed and you’re at the bottom. The actual thing that can damage your knees in such position is improper form of exercise execution. To prevent that, try to be extremely focused at the bottom, don’t wiggle your knees too much, especially inward, make sure your descent is slow and controlled and you’ll be just fine).
- Fast Squat (The faster you squat down the easier will be to rise up from the hole. This one is my favorite and it can’t be farther from the truth. I heard it from a couple of gym rat bozos, and I can assure you that even some older lifters uphold this technique as some hidden treasure of successful squatting. The truth is that the faster you squat the harder will be to rise up, because the weight achieves enormous acceleration on the way down and inertia makes it pretty hard to deal with. Although descent will be easy the ascent will be as double as hard, even compared to an ascent done after a super slow descent. Make sure to do it slowly enough to avoid excessive inertia, but rapid enough to ensure employment of every grain of strength that you have. The key is somewhere in the middle and in time you will figure out what works the best in your case).
- Leaning Forward (Flexing your torso during squat is a common error that a lot of people do. It often happens when your hips go up quicker than your shoulders. This increases forces exerted on your lower back, which can cause serious injury like discus hernia. BUT, and this is a big but, there is a certain technique used by some professionals which involves flexing forward for up to 40 degrees. I recommend its usage only if you have an insanely strong lower back which can serve as an additional power engine during squat. Skipping some of the weight on your lower back can help you a lot, but it must be done in a very controlled and subtle manner. That is why this technique is done only by very experienced lifters. It took me years to perfect it, so don’t play with it if you don’t know what you’re doing. Practicing heavy good mornings can aid you in mastering this skill. Note: Don’t confuse this technique with classic caving forward under the weight).
- Tilting Knees (This is actually the most common mistake that beginners make. They often put more weight than they can handle. So when they try to get up from the hole the brain realizes that hips are too weak and alarm is triggered. The untrained body then reacts without any logic by trying to compensate the lack of strength with switching to a position where hips and legs will have more strength. The first thing that a rookie will do is push the knees inward or forward or less often outward. Since this is ridiculous and doesn’t solve the problem he collapses under the weight. In such situation the only thing left for him to do is to pray to God that the squat rack had safety weight catchers or a spotter is standing behind him to help with racking the weight).
- Heels Up (This actually is not a mistake in most cases but rather a consequence of inflexible hips and ankles. Using the board or a thin weight plate under your heels can help you temporarily while learning the proper form. But don’t get used to it because this is in no way a proper part of the technique. Instead you should work on improving your flexibility in the hips and ankles. Once flexible enough, they won’t make the heels go up anymore. Useful tip would be to curl up your toes to prevent shifting the weight on them. You need to push from your heels, not toes)!
Don’t perform the squat unless you have the appropriate assisting equipment. Squat rack and its variants power rack, power cage, squat cage are the best choices because of their strong and reliable cage like construction. Squat stands are also OK, but they don’t have side posts for dropping the bar in case of emergency, so that makes them second best. Smith machine, although useful for supplemental squat exercising, reducing the risk of an injury and eliminating the need for a spotter, it is not appropriate for executing the proper squat form. Be careful if you use a smith machine because it removes the need to balance, like in free squat, and may put a lot of strain on the back and your knee joints.
Image credit: dehwang
Squatting requires extra safety, especially because once you progress you’ll be doing squats with very heavy poundage and without a squat rack injuries are bound to happen. I have seen many experienced lifters fall down with a loaded barbell during this exercise. If there wasn’t a squat rack with side weight catchers to stop the bar on its way down they would probably be long gone by now.
Apparel and Accessories
- Squat suit is worn for safety and additional support during the lift, especially at the bottom where it behaves like a slingshot helping you on the way up. Squat suit must be made from a single-ply polyester material. Canvas and denim are prohibited. I don’t recommend using a suit during all training cycles. Usually, I will introduce the use of a suit somewhere around 6th week before the meet. But if you never used a suit before or you want to get accustomed to a new one, include it in your training even earlier. Learning to use a suit is not easy and requires a lot of time. Don’t beat yourself up if you’re not good at it in the beginning. I know many lifters that simply gave up on exploiting the suit further. So they ended up getting just an additional 10kg or 20kg from it. I myself can squeeze even up to 40kg more out of mine. It took me more than 4 months to achieve that. For those of you that never used a suit before, don’t worry, I will be covering this topic in detail in future posts.
- Knee wraps support the knees and increase the weight lifted. For example, with wraps I can lift additional 10kg (22lbs). A knee wrap must not extend beyond 15cm above and 15cm below the center of the knee joint and must not exceed a total covering width of 30cm. Knee sleeves 30cm in length are also legal. A combination of the two is strictly forbidden. Maximum allowed length is 2m and width 8cm. Copyright © Powerlifting Academy
- Wrist wraps ensure stronger wrist support and relieve the stress that bar puts on your joints. A wrist covering must not extend beyond 10cm above and 2cm below the center of the wrist joint and must not exceed a total covering width of 12cm. Maximum allowed length is 1m and width 8cm.
- Boots or shoes must have uniform underside on both sides. I recommended you to use boots that cover your ankles which provides additional stability. Inner soles are limited to 1cm thickness.
- Wooden board can be put beneath your heels to allow greater depth with squat. Many people don’t have flexible hips and ankles so they tend to raise their toes while squatting. Using a board can be useful for learning proper technique and training mobility and stability of those regions. But I do NOT recommend using such help, because it worsens the form which can take months to fix. Board or shoes with heel wedges are strictly forbidden during competition.
- Gym chalk (magnesium carbonate) on your hands will provide stronger grip on the bar. Always chalk your back where the bar will be rested to prevent it from slipping down and adding stress to your wrists.
Competition Judging (Unsuccessful Lift)
The following list defines criteria that will make your attempt unsuccessful. In your training be sure to avoid all these errors. While rules in general are similar across federations, there are certain differences. Following rules only cover IPF (International Powerlifting Federation).
- Failure to observe the Chief Referee’s signals at the commencement or completion of a lift.
- Double bouncing at the bottom of the lift, or any downward movement during the ascent.
- Failure to assume an upright position with the knees locked at the commencement or completion of the lift.
- Resetting of the feet after the Chief Referee’s signal for squat.
- Stepping backward or forward (movement that would constitute a step or stumble) although lateral movement of the sole and rocking the feet between the ball and heel is permitted.
- Failure to bend the knees and lower the body until the top surface of the legs at the hip joint is lower than the top of the knees (failure to reach the “parallel”).
- Any movement of the bar on the back more than the diameter / thickness of the bar below its starting position.
- Contact with the bar or the lifter by the spotters (loaders) between the Chief Referee’s signals in order to provide help for the lifter.
- Contact of the elbows or upper arms with the legs. Slight contact is permitted if there is no supporting that might aid the lifter.
- Dropping or dumping of the bar after the lift has been completed.
IPF World Championship 2009, men 82.5kg, squat
Competition Judging (Referee’s Signals)
From time to time you should try to mimic the real competition situation in your training. Because sometimes, lack of experience in this area may throw an athlete off course, disturb his natural peace and concentration and all that hard work invested can be lost because of such a trivial thing. These are the two (2) signals which Chief Referee gives on a meet during the squat.
- When the lifter is motionless and erect with knees locked, and the bar unracked and properly positioned on his back the Chief Referee will give the signal to begin the lift. The signal shall consist of a downward movement of the arm and the audible command “Squat”. Upon receiving the Chief Referee’s signal the lifter then performs the squat.
- Once the lifter is motionless (in the apparent final upright position with the knees locked) the Chief Referee will give the signal to rack the bar. The signal to rack the bar will consist of a backward motion of the arm and the audible command “Rack”. The lifter must then return the bar to the racks.
Different Types of Squat
- Back Squat (This one is thoroughly described in the text above. As I said, there are two types of this squat: bodybuilding/weightlifting version, also called high bar, because the bar is placed high on trapezius muscles near the neck, and powerlifting version, also called low bar, where the bar is rested further down where the upper back meets the rear part of the deltoids. First one is used for achieving greater depth at the bottom of the squat while keeping the torso in the upright position, while second is used to create a lever advantage).
- Front Squat (The barbell is rested on the clavicles and front deltoids. Two grips can be used on the bar: clean type grip as used in Olympic weightlifting or arms crossed and palms placed over the bar).
- Overhead Squat (Bar is held above the head with arms fully extended in a wide snatch type grip. Depending on the flexibility of the shoulders and arms, narrower grip can be used to reduce the stress off the wrist joints. It is typically used in Olympic weightlifting training, but it can serve as a very useful supplemental powerlifting exercise).
- Hack Squat (It can be performed using free weights, where the barbell/dumbbells are placed on the floor behind the lifter to pick them up or using a sled type Hack squat machine).
- Box Squat (As the name implies, squatting is done by sitting on a usually wooden box at the bottom of the exercise. Height of the box can vary but typically it matches the lifter’s “parallel”).
- Zercher Squat (Arms are joined together and a bar is held on the inside of the elbows. A wooden board can be used between the bar and the arms to prevent knurls from tearing the skin).
- Single Leg Squat (Performed with one leg while non-lifting leg is held up and off the ground. It’s usually done without the weights, because the bodyweight is generally enough on itself).
- Bodyweight Squat (As the name says, this one is performed only by using the bodyweight; without a barbell. The form is exactly the same as with back squat but just without the weights).
- Split Squat (Performed with one leg while non-lifting leg is rested behind the lifter on the floor. Similar to lunge exercise but without moving).
- Bulgarian Squat (Similar to split variant, except the foot of the non-lifting leg is not rested on the floor but on a knee-high platform).
- Jump Squat (At the top of the back squat the lift is continued into a jump off the floor. This is actually a plyometrics exercise).
- Hindu Squat (Performed without the weights by raising the heels and shifting the weight on toes. This form is completely different and useless in regards to powerlifting; because it drives the knees far pass the toes).