Rob Wagner, PhD, M.Ed., C.S.C.S.
It has been a few weeks since I started my series on the balding man's advice on Powerlifting techniques. Let me review what has been covered to this point. The set up of the squat is an integral part of the lift. The methods of bar placement, foot placement and stance are all aimed at keeping the combined center of gravity of the bar and body over the foot throughout the range of motion. I also discussed the breathing and stabilization of the trunk during the set up of the lift. In this article, I hope to elaborate on the stabilization and go into detail on the descent and ascent of the squat.
If you recall, I mentioned that a series of back injuries left me in the lurch for squatting. I could set up and get ready to squat but found that as I started to descend my body had forgotten the movement. The struggle was maintaining the tightness and upright posture of my torso. This affected my drive out of the bottom of the squat. Usually I found myself completing heavier lifts in a bent over fashion resembling the Good Morning or a table lift. Do you remember about ten years ago when one of the catchers for the NY Mets lost the ability to throw the ball back to the pitcher? When it came to squatting, I felt I lost the ability to squat.
The most difficult part of this was remembering how I used to squat. Videotape was only helpful in demonstrating proper technique. However, it didn't allow me to internalize the feeling of the squat motion. Feedback from individuals was not much of a help either because I already knew what I was doing wrong, I just couldn't fix it. Instead, it took some long and expensive hypnosis sessions and experimental electric shock therapy to rattle my subconscious mind ..............just kidding! What it did involve was analyzing what was different now as compared to the past. The obvious was the back injury. It seemed my body was protecting the injured area by avoiding the movement that created the injury. This forced me to redevelop these movement patterns again which required internalizing the movement in the correct fashion with little or no weight and slowly progress toward the heavier weights. Using this approach did help me recover my old form. I have included some of the things I learned and it leads me to where I left off in the last article.
I will assume that the information mentioned in previous articles in the series has been put to use. When the bar is taken from the racks what happens next? A lifter should always do three things before descending. These are points I teach all of my athletes because it is so important. First, find a focal point somewhere in the training facility or in the meet venue that is at or above eye level. This will help keep the head oriented in its normal position (chin parallel to floor) throughout the lift. Next, inhale deeply through the nose. Why do I suggest the nose? It provides a better vacuum effect then breathing through the mouth. Dr. Mauro Di Pasquale pointed out this vacuum effect to me last year. I had mentioned the idea of breathing through the nose during a presentation and stated that I felt it was more effective than through the mouth. Mauro, who was in attendance, pointed out that due to the narrower openings of the nasal passage it is more difficult for air to escape back out once it is inhaled. Try gulping some air in one inhale through the mouth and really fill the lungs (don't cheat by pursing the lips). Now try to take additional air by breathing through the nose. If you were able to get more air to go in you have proved my point. Now do the same thing through the nose and skip the additional inhale. The nasal inhale may take a little longer but it gives that extra bit of air that can really help in developing some thoracic and abdominal pressure. The last step before descending is to lift the rib cage. This will tighten the low back and when combined with the elbows being rotated up provides a second method of making the torso more rigid. Once you develop this tightness in the torso, strive to maintain it throughout the entire lift.
One emphasis of these articles is to get the reader to focus on the various aspects of the lift and prepare the upper body for its job in the squat. How about preparing the lower body? Where do you feel the weight when starting to squat? Many of my athletes will mention that they feel it on their traps and shoulders or in their low back. The better squatters tell me something different though, they will say that they feel the weight or tension created by the weight in their legs. I suggest that you place the tension of the weight in the quads and hips before descending. It is also important to feel the pressure of the weight in the foot as well. Let me explain the difference between the two. The tension in the quads is aimed at preparing the muscles for their activity and will allow the lifter to focus on where he or she may want to push from at the bottom of the movement. The placement of tension should be in the spot where you feel yourself pushing from at the bottom of the movement. Some recommendations, depending on stance, would be that a narrow stance squatter should focus on the upper quad more than the lower. The wide stance squatter may focus more on the adductors, glutes and outer quad. The pressure in the foot, on the other hand, is the balance point from which you will push during the entire movement. Remember the Center of Gravity ideas. The pressure in the foot will help guarantee that you maintain balance throughout the lift. I suggest that you start by centering the weight in the arch of the foot during the set up. As you descend, the weight may need to move a little towards the ball of the foot. In terms of the edges of the foot, push from the edge which complements the muscle function you desire. Pushing from the outside edge involves the glutes more and the inside edges the adductors. Using myself as an example of a close stance squatter, I prefer the inside edge a little more.
How do you descend? Now here is a debatable topic. Are the hips moved to the rear first or do the knees bend first? In my opinion, the hips should lead the knees, but this may not be as easy to observe in all lifters. It almost looks like both actions occur at the same time. The importance of moving the hips is that it allows the hip joint greater freedom of motion and this helps to keep the knees in a more perpendicular position to the floor. It also allows a more even weight distribution through the quads and hips instead of just loading one area. In my mind, the initiation of the squat motion should mimic the initial movement of sitting down onto a chair. Now that the starting movement has been explained, a lifter simply needs to go down and up with the weight and rack the bar. Well, that's fine if you're a mullet and wear a spandex bodysuit religiously on squat days. On the other hand, I am assuming you're not because I lost most of the mullets with the lifting of the rib cage idea earlier in the article. Just in case there are a couple of mullets still reading this, “stop,” you may be putting your 405 lbs. quarter squat in jeopardy.
The speed at which you descend in the squat is also an important factor to discuss. I recommend that you use a descent that leans towards being faster for the following reasons. Physiologically the muscle and their attachments (tendons) have an ability to store energy. When muscle is stretched under tension (as in lifting) the muscle and tendon structures are both stretched. The muscle is fairly stiff during this activity so the tendon actually stretches to a greater degree. As these tissues stretch, they become deformed. This deformation can be seen as the tissue storing energy. The faster the rate of descent the greater the deformation due to the increased work demands that the speed places on the tissue. When we stop stretching the tissue, it wants to snap back to its normal shape. An extreme example is a rubber band. Stretch it beyond its normal shape and what happens? Muscle and tendon tissues may not be as pliable as the rubber but the potential energy is available. In order to take advantage of this energy you have to act quickly. The faster you transition from the descent phase to the ascent phase, the more elastic energy you can use. The longer you wait after stretching the muscle the more energy you will lose. The time frame I am referring to is in the tenths and even hundredths of a second range. Every fraction of a second counts here.
Another phenomenon related to the speed of the descent are the reflexes that muscles elicit during movement. In each muscle, you have a large number of stretch receptors called muscle spindles that regulate the rate of stretch of muscle. These reflexes tell the muscle to contract with a significant force to overcome the rate of stretch that the muscle has undergone. This protective mechanism keeps your body from collapsing to the ground when your foot slips off the curb. It has been shown in research studies that this reflex response also occurs after the initiation of voluntary movement. This means that the contraction force generated by the stretch reflex provides additional muscular force to assist with the voluntary movement. My personal feeling is that the elastic energy plays a larger role than the reflexes, but both are at work here as long as the speed of descent is sufficient. Does this mean you have to free fall your squats? Of course not. The speed should only be increased to a point where the lifter can still control the weight. The area where speed comes into play during the squat is at the bottom end of the descent prior to going below parallel. If you watch most squatters they will be controlled through most of the movement then they speed up the last third of the movement. The thing you want to avoid is controlling the motion all the way down almost to a stop before the ascent. You will find that as you master this technique you can initiate the speed earlier in the movement and possibly facilitate the elastic energy even more. Also keep in mind that most of the equipment worn while squatting like suits and wraps have elastic components that will also store and exhibit elastic energy. One other point about increasing your speed of descent is that the shorter the time spent descending the less energy you will use in this portion of the lift. A final note, of course there are exceptions to the speed approach but I think that if you look at the physiological evidence increasing the speed of the descent can have a positive impact.
As you descend focus on several things, the pressure in the feet, the tension in the quads, the speed of the descent and the tension and positioning of the torso. It's tough to do all at once so here are my suggestions. As you start to descend, focus on the tension in the quads first. Then as you approach the bottom just above parallel, focus on the speed. At the bottom of the squat focus on torso position. By reinforcing the upright torso at the bottom of the movement you help avoid the hips first style squat that leads to a good morning. When training the squat always descend to legal depth as regularly as possible. Cutting depth happens, but when it becomes habitual you will be in for a rude awakening when it comes time to compete
The best advice I can give here is to control the movement and push like hell. Well, I guess I can be a little more descriptive. From my experiences, I can’t tell you what happens during the start of the ascent. It seems that your conscious mind shuts down in the hole and does not start again until you reach 120' joint angle. The best way to explain what to do in the ascent is based upon my observations of other lifters.
A tendency I have witnessed in many beginning lifters is that as they start to drive up from the bottom position they lose tension in the low back and torso. I also see this occurring across the spectrum of lifters from novice level to the international scene. I can only assume that lifters feel moving fast out of the hole is the best avenue to a successful lift regardless of the torso position. I also think that for some lifters loosening the low back allows them the extra flexibility they need to get depth. I can agree with the speed approach, but feel that you must inform the upper body that it has to come along for the ride as well. In the initiation of the ascent, it is more important that you pay attention to the speed at which the chest or upper torso moves not the legs and hips. If you can briefly envision what happens when the hips move too soon you might agree that it usually leads to disaster in the squat and deadlift. Shooting the hips in the squat usually leads to a missed lift or a fatigued back and neither will help your total.
Focusing on the speed of the chest or torso helps the ascent of the lift in two ways. First, it aids in keeping the COG's in line. In the last article, I mentioned that the combined Center of Gravity (cCOG) of the bar and body was closer to the bar and was located within our upper torso. By moving this point first, it helps keep the cCOG over the foot and reduce the tendency to lean forward. The second function of this approach is that if your thinking about getting the torso moving then you can't think about pushing the hips quickly. In sports psychology this is called dissociation (thinking about one thing to distract you from another). In either case, the control of the speed of the hips and maintaining an upright posture are both beneficial and integral steps in the ascent of the squat.
As you ascend the same factors that were important during the set up and descent are important here as well. Maintaining the bar placement and head position, keeping the elbows up, and torso position all come into play in the ascent. If any of these fail, so can the lift. One other factor is the breath you took before descending. You have two options to consider when it comes to breath holding as you ascend through your sticking point. You can let the air out in a controlled manner or hold the breath until you're finished the lift. Breath holding is very important during the lift. It helps maintain your torso's internal pressure throughout the lift, which can help in supporting the spine. An additional means of using this pressure is creating the val salva effect. By pushing outward with your abs into the front of the belt, you actually develop pressure and stability with the back of the belt. You can also try to leverage your stomach off the top of your thighs if you have that size of belly.
While all these other factors are at work you will need to continue to push with the legs and keep the pressure centered in your foot. As you approach the top of the lift, you may find that shifting the pressure in the foot towards the heel aids the lock out. There are a couple of ways to complete the lift in terms of your muscle usage. The first is to drive the legs, emphasizing the quads, until they are locked out. The other version is to drive the legs and then pull the hips through and forward emphasizing the glutes. Narrow stance squatters tend to benefit more from the first technique while the wider stances tend to prefer the latter. Sometimes you may find yourself stalling at the top end of locking out. This is usually due to getting out of the groove. In these situations, shifting the pressure in the foot forward and back can aid you in completing the lift as long as your torso is upright. This may only be useful on max lifts and you may never need to do this on lighter reps, unless you get way out of the groove.