So we’ve covered your safety and we’ve covered your form. Let’s push on to the mother of all lifts: The Back Squat.
The back squat is the starting point, the foundation, the core to all your other movements. There is no other movement in all of weightlifting and CrossFit which has the most potential for functional transference (meaning, we use this puppy all the time!!). Back squats are simple: you raise and lower your center of mass. Now if you think about it, all of your lifts in CrossFit will entail some aspect of this center; this core. It is for this reason that your coaches concentrate and emphasize so much on this basic of all lifts. You’ll oftentimes hear your coaches yelling the mantra, “Squats for days and days!” If you are in a good Olympic lifting or strength program, then you already know that it has some form of squat routine at the end of each session. Everybody (and booty!) knows: Squats are good for you! So, let’s ”drop it like a squat”!
First Things First
Crucial to any lift you do is your breathing. Why? It is with the breath that we tighten up our core for the duration of a lift. I’m sure you have seen it before, either in Olympic lifting or during the strength portion of your WOD: athletes approach the bar while taking a big gulp of breath, clamp their mouths shut, and then they proceed to go through the movement…only releasing that breath when they are “coming out” of the lift (coming out of the squat, getting the bar overhead, or rising out of the snatch position). This is how an athlete maintains core integrity and performance (sounds like a machine, doesn’t it? Yep, start thinking of yourself that way).
So how do you do this? First, when you take that gulp of breath, remember that you are not simply filling your mouth with air. Rather, you are inhaling deep into your lungs and using that air to bear down on your core. When do you do this? Right before you approach the bar and unrack. Key in on this: you are already tight before you remove that bar from the rack. And when you have it unracked, make sure you do not release your breath, which in turn releases your core. Your first lift should be performed with that deep inhaled breath still held in your lungs. You will only release that breath when you come out of your movement (which in this case is when you come up out of the squat hole. As you come out exhale forcefully and steadily for the duration of your push). If you think about this, that means you won’t take a long time with the weight sitting on your back before you take your first squat. You shouldn’t. This is not efficient (and efficiency is CrossFit’s middle name!). At the top of your squat you will set position once again, take a deep breath, tighten the core and proceed to the next rep.
And now, on to the lift…
1.) Bar Position
High Bar vs. Low Bar –
If you’ve been around the gym for a while, you may have heard about this debate. What is it? Where should the bar be placed on the back for a proper squat? What’s the answer? As always (and ever so frustratingly so…), it depends on what you are working. Now, in general, the position we are going to advocate here is the high bar position, i.e., place the bar across your shoulders (to be more specific, across your traps). In a future post on squat techniques and routines we’ll cover more about low bar position and its use (remind me, ’cause I’ll forget).
Are you having trouble figuring out how to lay that bar across your shoulders? Well, the easiest way to figure it out is to get your standard bar (45# for men, 35# for the ladies) and place it across your shoulders while you are in the standing position. With your back straight, you will rest that bar on your shoulders without leaning forward. The bar will naturally rest on the shoulders in a comfortable position. Make sure you are not resting the bar on the 7th cervical vertebra. Woah, wait, what?? When did this become anatomy class? Ha. You’ll know immediately what I mean if you simply reach around to the back of your neck, right above your shoulders, and gently feel the spine. Notice the bony protrusion back there? That’s your 7th cervical vertebra. Do not put the bar there. The bar rests slightly below it. If you put the bar there you will feel it…it will not feel right. Do not do it. Please, trust me on this one.
Alright folks, this is why we practiced that air squat so much. By now you should know that depth, right below the crease in the hips. As the weight goes up, our tendency is to go up with it as well, meaning that we develop a shallow squat. Under no circumstances do we want to develop this bad habit. It’s either “ass to grass” or “No rep, Bob”! So to maintain depth we want to “drop” into our squat with a controlled descent. Let me emphasize the word “control“; never ever do any movement too quickly that you cannot compensate and thus end up losing control of the bar. Now a controlled descent does not mean a hesitant descent. The slower you descend into the squat the more energy you use, thus creating problems when you try to come up out of the “hole” (note that we will cover pause squats and tempo squats in our squat regimen post). So controlled all the way down, hit the depth, right at the crease in the hips, and…
Once you hit the bottom of your squat you want to explode up out of the hole. Drive out on your heels. Make sure you do not rock forward to your toes. This is especially true in the high rep, low weight sets we tend to do as warm up. If we get sloppy here with our form, we will develop unhealthy habits for when that form is truly necessary (i.e., when we have a load of weight across our shoulders). As you explode out of the hole drive your knees out, spreading the floor with your feet (of course, your feet actually will not move; you should be planted on your heels in a stationary position…but place pressure to the outside of your feet). The tendency you’ll have as the weight goes up is to do that glorious “weeble-wobble” knee movement: the knees buckle inward and then outward, as if you just saw a really hot looking person that made you get all woozy (focus people: remember why you’re squatting…you want that squat booty to make that person go all weak-kneed!). Avoid this at all costs and maintain position. Drive out (knees) and up!
4.) Two very important cues: Elbows down and forward; Chest up!
As you descend focus on keeping your elbows pointing down towards the ground (not back, towards the wall). This will help you keep the proper squat position as you descend. As the weight increases it will be your tendency to lift the elbows back and up towards the back wall; it’s at this point that you want to push your elbows down and forward. We do this to keep a straight back and maintain position. Have you ever watched someone in the Box do the “fold technique”? Ok, it’s not a real technique, but you probably have an idea of what I mean: As a person squats they will forget to send their hips back and sit down into the squat. Instead, they tend to fold at the waist and bend their back forward as they descend. This. Is. Not. Good. To avoid this bad form we push our elbows forward. This forces us to sit down rather than bend forward. This in turn leads to our next position cue…
“Chest up!” You hear it screamed in the Box all the time. What it does NOT mean: Prop your chest up towards the ceiling as much as position while craning your neck up, eyes rolling to the back of your head. That’s what a lot of people will do when they hear this. As a result, you’ll see bars come crashing down on the floor as they roll off a person’s back. Rather, what this lifting cue DOES mean: is to bear down on your core, keeping it tight and engaged, while you go through the motion of your squat. If you do this, then you will stay in the proper, upright squat position (you won’t fold forward nor will you bow backwards). This cue is meant to help you stabilize by consciously activating and keeping that core tight. While you do so, look forward, not up. This will help keep your spine aligned in its proper place (very, very important).
You did it! Now…do it all over again, baby! Take that breath. Fill the lungs. Bear down on the core. Sit back into the squat while keeping your elbows down and forward. Hit your depth, and explode out of the hole! Next thing you know, “Baby got back!” won’t just be humming in your ears, everyone will be singing it as they watch you drop it like a squat!
Next week we’ll cover a few squat routines to help you develop form and strength for a stronger squat (booty)!
3…2…1… Back Squat!
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Rob Murphy says
I have read all of your Squats articles, Safety, practice, etc. Great Info! will work on my squats more. I am doing most of what you said instinctively but knowing to keep my elbows forward on the back is something I am lacking, and the shelf of the front squat as well. Little tips that can make it safer and go HEAVIER! Thanks a lot!