There are many reasons why training legs is neglected and many more reasons why it shouldn’t be, which I have covered in other articles. One of the main reasons is that people see training legs, particularly activities like squatting, as unsafe or do not know how to squat properly so struggle to get stronger, activate the correct muscles and therefore use other methods. Obviously there is more than one way to train legs without using big compound movements like the squat, however the nature of compound movement helps the whole body grow and develop strength along the kinetic chain. This article will cover some of the basics of squat mechanics and serve as a guide to get you on the road to developing massive wheels, or just improve safety and performance of the squat. Time to learn how to squat correctly! [Tweet ""Time to learn how to squat correctly!""]
The squat rules
As way of a disclaimer this article is a series of principles that need to be adjusted to the individual with some rules thrown in the mix to keep you safe under the bar. As individuals we need to adjust techniques accordingly, we have different limb lengths, flexibility and muscle insertions. This means that positioning of the feet, spinal position and when we ‘break’ (the act and timing of flexing the ankle, knee and hip from standing fully extended) each joint in the chain will differ dependent on your individual characteristics. This is why a coach is always a good idea, their trained eye can easily make adjustments to improve your squat, but for those without a coach, hopefully this article will give you some ideas of what you can do to improve your squat. The ultimate aim of the squat is to get the bar to travel in a line above the point at which we can generate maximum force, this usually require the bar traveling in as straight a line as possible, this allows activation of the bigger muscles of the quads and does not pull you out of posture when leaning forward, fighting to control the bar.
What if your leg muscles are weak?
Most squats are not failed because of leg strength, but poor control and positioning of the core (and fatigue but that’s kind of the point for bodybuilding so always have a trusty and observant spotter!), so obviously appropriate strengthening of the abs and lower back should be employed to ensure this does not happen. Towards 1RM’s territory the use of belts will assist in this but again, learn how to use them properly to create intra-abdominal pressure (this is again a topic for another article), to stabilize the core and maintain posture. I like to take a top down approach to squatting, the approach and pick up of the bar is important it activates the muscles of the upper back, shoulder and chest to stabilize the bar and the position in relation to the traps and influence the direction of travel and sets the tone for the rest of the squat movement, approach this aggressively and the rest of the squat will follow suit. There are two main bar positions high bar and low bar, whatever position suits you will depend on your torso length, shoulder flexibility or as simple as how comfortable and stable the bar feels. The hands should be outside the line of the elbows with the shoulder blades pulled together in a downward rowing movement, contracting the lats and squeezing the bar firmly into the shoulders, contracting the shoulder blades. Another key thing to note is to try and make a conscious contraction of the lower lumbar, which will hopefully be initiated by the contraction of the lats, this sets the bar in a stable position and ensures the postural control muscles are firing and ready to respond to changes in loading that are about to occur as the hips and knees ‘break’ to drop to the lower portion of the squat. The back should not dramatically flex or extend except from the hips, the spinal column should remain as straight as possible, again, conscious contraction of the lower back muscles will help to control this.
The timing of the break
The timing of the break at the hips and knees, will differ between different people and their structure, so try manipulating this with lighter weights, trying to break with the hips before the knees then the knees before the hips, or at the same time and seeing how they feel, take videos and assess which ones felt strong and what you were doing when this was happening. For me personally, being over 6 feet and with long femurs, a knee break before my hips allows my torso to stay more upright, meaning my posture is maintained and flexion of the hips is reduced early in the movement, meaning the bar travels vertically downwards and I am not pulled forward by the bar in the early stages of the squat which happens if my hips flex too early. Range of motion depends on goal, but activation of the full quad is achieved by about parallel, however going lower than this does have other benefits. Firstly it looks awesome to go ‘ass to grass’, and it also recruits the glutes at the bottom of the movement and for 1rm allows you to explode more effectively out of the ‘hole’ using stored elastic energy in the muscles, however this should only be attempted when you have proper mechanics at a lighter weight and you have gauged a feel for how this is achieved.
Is it bad for your knees?
Despite what people suggest no evidence exists that squatting deeper that parallel is worse for the knees, maximum loading of the knee joint takes place around 90 degrees of knee flexion so there really is no excuse for not going deeper, unless there is pre-existing pathology or postural control is lost, or you are just not interested in hitting other muscle groups. So choose your excuses for partial squats wisely and don’t be a half-repper! The reason deeper squats are harder is because of lack of knowledge of how to blast out of the hole and of course that the body system is in a mechanical deficit as muscle activation patterns shift making it more difficult. To reiterate the previous point, knee loading actually decreases at the bottom of the squat as the force is transferred to the powerful muscles of the glutes and as hip flexion is increased, recruiting the muscles of the hip ensuring the majority of the muscles of the leg are getting worked, which is after all what we want! If you physically can’t squat that deep that suggests there are muscle imbalances and/or flexibility issues, these should be addressed using appropriate flexibility and mobility work. However, weightlifting shoes can help as they open up the ankle joint allowing greater range of motion enabling a much more comfortable, stable and more upright and therefore deeper squat. From the front view, knees should be stable and not bend in wards or outwards overloading the medial or lateral compartment of the knee excessively, relying on other structures to compensate other than muscles, this is an accident waiting to happen. If this happens then strengthening of muscles around the hip needs to be addressed or the weight lowered until this is achieved. How the knees track over the toes from a side view will depend on the foot position, bar position and mechanics. Many will say the knees should never come in front of the toes, I say it really depends how you are put together, with many top level squatters showing different knee tracking patterns.
Comfort is key
As long as it feels comfortable, stable and allows full range of motion then that’s the best way to do it for you, unless you have an experienced coach who can observe and make the relevant adjustments. Foot width position will depend on goal, for one RM’s this will vary and be a case of trial and error to recruit your most powerful muscle groups into the movements. Having the feet wider than shoulder width, with toes pointed slightly outwards will recruit the majority of the muscles of the quadriceps, wider food positions recruit more the front of the quads, the vastus medialis and the adductors of the inner thigh.Narrower foot positions target the outer portion of the quads, the sweeping vastus lateralis, so as you can see the squat is a versatile movement that can be adjusted to target and develop specific muscles, if that’s what you require! This has been one of the longest articles to date and I could write more on how positioning of each joint in the kinetic chain influences performance, loading and stability (biomechanics is a particular areas of interest for my PhD). Fortunately for you though that’s all folks, so for now I will call this little jaunt into the mechanics of a squat to an end. Further articles will dig a little deeper into the mechanics of the squat but for now apply these principles and you won’t go far wrong.. as for me, today’s leg day, time to practice what we preach! Thanks for reading, Peace, Weights and Protein shakes, Paul Rimmer (BSc, MSc). [wpsr_socialbts]