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A squat is a squat, right? Well, not so much. While it might seem like a simple matter of holding a barbell on your back, squatting down and standing back up, there’s a little more to it than that.

“To squat a lot, you must squat a lot.”

This quote from the powerlifting community rings true on so many levels. The squat is a highly technical lift, and as such, requires frequent practice with perfect technique. It isn’t enough to simply squat on an ad hoc basis, rotating them into your routine as and when you feel. If you’re serious about boosting squat strength, they need to be your main exercise. Not only that, but you need to strip things right back to basics, re-learn the perfect technique and gradually work your way up to a super squat.

Learning from the Lifters

To squat big weights, you need to look at the guys with the biggest squats. These are powerlifters. The bodybuilders at your gym might have huge thighs, but chances are, they’re not quite as strong as they look. Watch a bodybuilder squat, and you’re unlikely to see the bar bend with the colossal weight that you would when a powerlifter steps under the barbell. Not only that, but bodybuilders and gym rats tend to cut their reps short, and lift with improper form. So how do powerlifters squat, and what are the key things you need to do?

Key Tips for Squatting

Visualize the Lift

Before you even approach the bar, think about how you’re going to squat. Get mentally prepared as you walk toward the rack, and have a strong mental attitude. Take a grip of the bar and get ready to set up.

The Set Up

First thing to look at is your grip width. This generally depends on your arm length and degree of shoulder mobility. If you have long arms and/or poor shoulder mobility, go for a wide grip. If you’ve got shorter arms and/or highly mobile shoulders, go for a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip. Duck under the bar so it sits across your upper back.

Get Tight

Squeeze the life out of the bar as hard as you can. The tighter you can get, the more muscles you recruit and the stronger you’ll be. You also need to squeeze your shoulder blades together and point your elbows toward the floor. This creates a ledge for the bar to sit on. It should be across your mid-traps, NOT on your neck or resting precariously on your shoulders. Once you’ve got a stable position, lift the bar out of the rack and take two steps back with each leg.

Back, Not Down

Contrary to what you might think, the squat is a “back” movement, not a “down” one. By dropping straight down, all the emphasis is on your quads. While these are relatively strong, they’re nothing in comparison with your hamstrings and glutes. Think “hips back, knees out” as you descend to keep the tension on the glutes and hams.

Keep pushing back and down until your hips are just below your knee joint. (Note – if you cut your squats higher than this, it is not a squat. Not only are you not getting all the benefits, but if you intend to compete in powerlifting, this won’t qualify as a successful lift.)

On the Up

As you stand back up, drive forcefully through your heels. Keep your head looking straight ahead, with your abdominals braced as tightly as possible. A good cue here is “big chest.” By keeping your chest up, the bar stays directly over your center of gravity and you avoid rounding your lower-back – a big no-no.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • “Squat 101”, By Chad Smith, September 4, 2013,
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  • Photo courtesy of Raj Taneja by Flickr :

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