Should you squat butt to calves? High bar or low bar? What about elevating the heels? Foot placement? Tempo? It’s all here in this article.
Squats are the ultimate test of total body strength and mental toughness and one lift that every strength athlete worth his salt takes very seriously.
However, being the big iconic movement that it is, it’s not surprising that there are 50 schools of thought on what exactly a good squat is and what isn’t.
I’ve always found strength and conditioning research fascinating, but some lifters let studies and research go beyond just an opinion with support and let them become indoctrinated dogmas in which there’s suddenly no other way of thinking.
This type of narrow mindedness leads to glorifying the minutiae in our field, not to mention a whole lot of failing to see the forest for all the damn trees. This article intends to break that trend and kick all the squatting dogma to the curb.
High bar squatting versus low bar squatting is a frequent point of contention. The few inches of difference between the two styles can significantly affect the geometry of your squat.
A high bar position (where the bar rests high on the upper traps) facilitates a more vertical torso, since the body doesn’t have to accommodate for the bar being too far behind the center of gravity by leaning forward at the waist.
As long as you’re mobile enough, having a vertical torso can have a huge impact on the depth you achieve in the bottom end range of your squat, if that’s what you’re going for.
Of course, if you’re looking to compete in the Olympic lifts and need that position ingrained to perfect your mobility for your first pull, then certainly train it.
I myself prefer not to load any barbell whatsoever on my cervical vertebrae (in the high bar position). I think the benefits of doing so come with enough disadvantages to make me skeptical of the overall need for it. I’d rather use other squat variations if bottom end range is the goal. But that’s just me.
Take home point: If you’re looking for size and want to kick your posterior chain into gear when you back squat, use a lower bar position. Low bar squatting will allow you to use slightly more weight as well, so you’ll see a faster rate of change in your strength training.
However, if you’re an aspiring weightlifter, or really want to learn ATG (ass to grass) squatting methods, go for the high bar method…as long as your spine can handle it.
When people refer to “hinging” as it relates to squats, they’re referring to the initial “break” coming from changing the hip angle when they begin the movement. Many people will signify a proper hinge pattern by “spreading the floor” and pushing the butt back, possibly coupled with a notable forward pelvic tilt. This does a few things:
- Allows ideal amounts of pressure to be placed on the back of the foot (the heel).
- Encourages the low back to remain tight and not lose its arch, especially not too early.
- Makes the posterior chain much more active.
A little more on that last point. When the pelvis tilts forward to create the hinge at the hip, the ischial tuberosities travel upwards, which pulls the hamstrings much longer and tighter. The added tension in the hamstrings acts to facilitate their activity much more.
One of my favorite coaches, Mark Rippetoe, uses this to his lifters’ advantage when squatting, since a pair of taut hamstrings will usually be coupled with a much smaller hip angle, potentiating much more hip drive to finish the lift.
Here’s my take. If you want to work your posterior chain more, you’re going to have to apply tension to the right muscles so they’re highly active for a greater portion of the lift.
Hip hinging will activate the posterior chain more, and as a result of the hip hinge, the lowest possible back squat depth will be compensated due to the differences in geometry. And that’s fine, if depth isn’t what you’re after in particular.
Using a knee break to start the descent, Poliquin style, will encourage more quad activation since the knee gets to flex to a smaller angle and migrate differently. In his style, the torso also stays more vertical due to further forward tracking of the knees, and also due to the bar’s placement on the back. If depth and ROM are your goals, you can prepare for a deeper squat by using this style:
I’ve practiced both methods of hinging and prefer to break at the knees first. I find that if I don’t, my 6’4" frame won’t get down nearly enough for me to comfortably deem it a “back squat” at all.
Below is a video of a heavy set. As you can see, my stance isn’t the widest (more on that later), but I do use the knees to break and track to get my most effective squat. There’s more lean forward than a high-bar squat encourages, and that’s because I still use a lower bar position – but that’s what works for me.
Take home point: Much like the above section, if you’re after posterior chain recruitment, a hip hinge is your best bet. It also goes well with low bar and box squatting. If you’re going for both depth and quad activation, play around with a knee break.
According to Stu McGill, professor of spine biomechanics, squatting foot width is more sensitive to depth and ROM than meets the eye. Most people consider an excessively narrow or wide width to take away from depth, and this is true in many cases.
However, as McGill mentions, we have to consider skeletal anatomy. The hip socket (acetabulum) isn’t located in exactly the same place on everyone’s pelvic girdle. For people whose sockets are placed more toward the front of the pelvis, they’d likely achieve more success deep squatting if they use a narrower stance to mimic their build.
There will be less resistance in the ball-and-socket joint since the femoral head will not be placed in an angled position in the acetabulum as the squat progresses.
To figure out what would be best for you, take this test:
Start with your back mildly arched and knee angle at 90 degrees. Use your arms to “push” your butt towards your heels – it should look like you’re doing a sideways squat. Take note of what point in your “depth” your pelvis turns under and the low back begins to round.
Repeat the test with a different knee and foot width, narrower and wider. Whatever width promotes the deepest flat-back position is your money-maker, so use that same width when standing in your squat. As a bonus, you’ll likely feel less hip issues from squatting, especially if you squat often.
The cool part about all this is – depending on what width you use and what width is “correct” for your build – you may end up recruiting different muscles through your ROM.
A narrower stance deep squat keeps the hips closed and really curtails involvement of the inner thigh muscles, thereby doubling down on the quads. A wider stance squat on the other hand can activate more glute and hamstring tissue, along with the adductors doing their share to contribute.
Take home point: Remember that the wider the stance, the more inner thigh you’ll have available to contribute to the lift. Above all, use the right squat width for your height and build by using the above testing method. That way if you’re lacking in ROM, you can find your way into a deeper squat and out of injury territory.
People always talk about lengthening and mobilizing the hips to assume a better depth. That’s all good and very valid, but people don’t talk about the importance of hip flexor strength relating to the stability of a bottom-range squat.
The hip flexors, in part, are made up of the iliacus, which is the common “go-to” when referring to the hip flexors group. These muscles flex the hip to an angle of roughly 90 degrees. Basically, anyone can train the iliacus muscles, directly or indirectly, through any weight training quad dominant exercise, even jogging.
The hip flexors to look at more closely are the psoas muscles. These bad boys flex the hip to an angle smaller than 90 degrees. Translate that to a squat, and strong, responsive psoas muscles can actually help pull the lifter down into a deeper and more solid squat position far below parallel.
Of course, there are few exercises that target the psoas muscles directly, but if you’ve got any shreds of athleticism I’d recommend one thing: start sprinting.
There are few other exercises or movements that accentuate a high-knee concentric action like sprinting, so it’s the easiest way to make the psoas muscles wake up from hibernation. Plus, it’ll get you lean and mean!
Take home point: Strength and flexibility are both important in basically all weight training movements, and squats are no different. If you notice instability at the bottom of your deep squat, or realize your squats just aren’t making it deep enough to begin with, giving your hips some added attention can do you good.
In the previous videos, you’re given different examples of tempo to use when back squatting. My squats and the squats by the athlete in the Rippetoe video use a moderate-speed negative, and an inclusion of the stretch reflex to get out of the hole.
Again, there’s nothing wrong with this. Without getting into the different styles of squatting (like dead-stop box squatting or paused reps), it’s very important that you maintain your muscular tightness at all times when squatting, so load stress doesn’t get shifted to the ligaments. That includes abdominal pressure through the bottom phase too.
You’ll notice that by using a slower, more controlled negative, your stretch reflex will be slightly inhibited and you’ll also spend more time under tension, limiting the amount of weight you can ultimately perform for the same number of reps. The good thing about this method is that it allows the strongest muscle fibers to get trained.
Take home point: Depending on what you’re training for, using a slower negative can lead to huge gains in strength since you’re taxing your strongest fibers through the eccentric portion. If you’re used to a tempo like 10X0, take a shot at some 30X0’s and see how they make you feel for the days to come.
Elevating the heels is usually done to ensure the full foot remains in pressure on the ground, and also to make up for any lack of depth from a flat footed position. Many view it as a “shortcut” in light of poor flexibility, but we have to remember that weightlifting shoes also perform the same function.
Taking a step back and looking at this objectively, if we want to have the deepest squat depth we can, as soon as possible, and elevating the heels was the way to achieve that, why wouldn’t we?
Elevated heels will change the pelvic angle and encourage the knees to track forward over the toes. This, as I mentioned earlier, will encourage much more quad involvement, depending on the depth you reach. Poliquin also uses heels-elevated squats as a way to tap into the strength of the quads, especially the rectus femoris and VMO, to specifically hypertrophy them.
I say to treat elevating your heels as an option, not only a solution. Work to achieve the ROM and mobility necessary to get as close to a full range squat as possible without anything under the heels. If you need to use heel lifts, use them, but do your accessory work on the side so that the end goal is you squatting without them.
Take home point: If you have weak quads or want to develop them, try deliberately elevating your heels during squats. If you lack depth in your squat, heel elevation will help, for now. Don’t rely on them forever, though. Get your flexibility up, and you’ll get more work done in your sets from the added ROM.
It’s just common sense. There isn’t a “best method” to do things – it all depends on your build and what you’re after in the weight room. Remembering this will help you keep your headspace open when it comes to the most universally revered (and criticized) exercise in the gym.