Last week we started off our discussion with squat safety. This week we pick up with the next step in mastering this all important, functional and foundational movement:
The Mighty Air Squat
Air squat, you say? Why in the world would we start here with a body weight movement? We all want to move heavy weight on our backs and PR! Well, to hit that PR we all need proper form. Even power-lifters that follow the “Bulgarian” method of training (think daily, heavy/max weight squats) will first perform weeks of unweighted squat reps so that technique becomes second nature (muscle memory). Next to safety in our chain of movement instruction will always be proper technique. Technique is based on a series of building blocks using proper form. So, the place to start with regarding our form is the air squat. Let’s consider a few things together:
First, 3 items to be wary of:
1.) Heels coming off the ground
When we squat we want the weight to balanced on our heels, not our toes. This is a hard one for a lot of us, especially if you played other sports growing up. We are used to hearing the mantra, “On your toes!” as the “ready-for-action” position. But when we lift, we do not want to be on those toes. We want to be on our heels so we can bear that weight. This calls for a shift in balance. Sit back and down into the squat, not forward.
2.) Knees caving in
We covered this one a bit last week, but need to reiterate it here: “Knees out!” As we bear heavy weight, we need to make sure that our knees do not cave in, thus causing over pronation of the feet (our feet “rolling” inward under heavy weight). When this happens we transfer the weight from our glutes to our knees. This is bad. Let me say that again: It’s bad. If you already have knee problems, they will become worse. If you don’t, you might possibly develop them. So, keep the knees out, spread the floor, and stay on the “outside” of your foot (we say this, but really, your not coming up on the outside of your foot thus taking the ball of your feet off the ground; it may at first feel like this, but really all we are doing is getting in the habit of staying to the outside of the foot so as to prevent that dreaded pronation).
3.) Lumbar position
Simply put, be aware of your spine position. There should be no curve/bow (flexion or extension) to your spine when you squat. Please note, there will be a natural bend to your lumbar when you are “keeping your back straight.” This is natural and wanted. What we do not want is the “bowing” effect, or the unnatural “deep curve” we tend to get when we put our “chest up” too high (more on this later and what it means and does not mean…it’s been slightly misunderstood). When you squat, you want a straight spine, which means a “straight” back (while maintaining natural lumbar curve).
So, how do you do all of this while under the weight of a heavy squat set? By practicing the movement at body weight until it becomes second nature (aka – muscle memory). This is done with the air squat.
4 Keys to performing the proper air squat:
1.) Feet shoulder width apart, toes ever so slightly pointed outward (“under your hips”)
Why do our coaches tell us to put our feet under our hips? Because we can establish the foundation of power stance this way. We want to drive with our legs out of the hole (bottom of the squat position). By having our feet positioned under our hips with the toes slightly pointing outward we will put stress on our quadriceps and not our backs. This will help with the overall development of our leg muscles, thus giving us those sexy legs we all want! (Let’s be clear: this is a general rule of squatting. There are exceptions. Pointing the toes forward and even outward at greater degrees will result in other leg muscles being developed. We will cover this later in squat technique regimens. When you are first beginning, begin here with the basic form.)
2.) Raise your arms slightly above parallel and look forward
Raising the arms straight forward and ever so slightly above parallel will help maintain proper lumbar position during the squat. In addition, keep your eyes straight forward. Do not look down, do not look up (when we were younger we were taught to look up towards the ceiling while squatting; however, doing this may cause an unnatural curvature to the spine.). Looking forward will keep you balanced on your heels and keep the spine in its proper position.
3.) Send the hips back and sit down
With feet firmly planted on the ground, weight in the heels, arms slightly raised just above parallel to the ground, you are now ready to drop it like a squat! So here’s what you want to do: send the hips back (note, not down), as if you are sitting back onto a step-stool. Why a stool? Proper squat depth is below parallel. You want to feel the crease in your hips. When we sit in a chair we are actually just above parallel. You don’t want this. Imagining a chair is not going to get you the depth you need. So think about a step-stool and go just below parallel. As you do so, pay close attention to those knees. Make sure they don’t cave or wobble in. Stay on the “outside” of your feet, actively pressing the knees outward. And as always, stay on your heels (this is why we send the hips “back”) while keeping those eyes forward. Find something to focus on: a point, a person, a thing. Stay focused (but if it’s a person, well…just know that might be awkward :).
One thing you will see many people do is lower their arms on the way up out of the squat. Once the reach the top and begin the next downward descent, the arms raise up in tandem as if they are on a hinge. Back and forth, back and forth. This is fine. The movement helps a lot of people with pace and speed. But remember, this is a secondary issue. Key in on that form first.
4.) Core, Core, Core
Finally, the one key component to all of this (and in fact every lift we do in CrossFit): Keep the core tight. What does this mean? Imagine someone is about to punch you in the gut. What are you going to do? You are instinctively going to tighten your stomach. Note, this does not mean to bear down on your intestines as if you are having a bowel movement. Rather, simply tighten the stomach muscles as if you are preparing for that gut shot, and keep that core tight throughout the duration of your movement. At the top of the squat you can relax for a second, take a deep breath, and tighten up again as you send your hips back into the next squat.
A tight core is essential to squatting. And…it definitely helps in getting you ready for next summer! As you squat, or do any other lift, you need to be conscious of your core. Keep it tight. This is generally the first thing to go when we are under a heavy load. However, this is in fact the most important thing. So that mantra you hear in the box or at competitions: “Keep your core tight!“; that’s the best advice you can give and listen to. Keep it tight, folks!
Remember, starting with the proper form is always easier than correcting a bad habit later. It may be tough in the beginning, but you will develop the strength in your legs quicker and faster if you get to the proper depth from the very beginning. It’s for this reason that we advocate the air squat first before picking up a bar.
Tips for practicing:
If you are just beginning, do 1 round of Cindy (5 pull-ups, 10 push-ups; 15 air squats) after your WOD. Pay very close attention to each movement. Remember, as you practice it’s not about speed, but rather about form. Why after your WOD? You want to do this practice when you are a little fatigued, so you can train your muscles and work on their memory, giving them an idea of the type of endurance you want to build up. On an off day, do 2 rounds of Cindy. Do it slowly, paying attention to each and every single movement. Do it methodically.
As you build strength, increase the rounds. Perhaps you’ll start off with 2 weeks of 1 round, and then move up as the soreness eases and the strength builds. Will you always be doing Cindy? No. Remember, this is simply advice as you begin to learn that proper squat form and prepare to move some heavy weight.
Practice makes perfect, friends! So have fun, and…
Our “Pick up the Bar” series continues with: Back Squats