Critical Technique Elements - Part 1: The Squat

by Andrew Lewis, SSC | November 30, 2022

andrew lewis coaching the squat at a starting strength gym

Barbell training is comprised entirely of natural human movement. This means that the exercises used are how human physiology and anatomy are supposed to be used. The rotator cuff is a good example. The rotator cuff can produce external and internal rotation of the shoulder, but what it actually does is pull the arm into the shoulder joint. Essentially, it protects the arm from ripping out of its socket. This is apparent while analyzing the anatomy – the muscles attach close to the shoulder joint.

Therefore, they are not capable of producing a lot of moment on the humerus. They're much better at producing tension in the direction of the axis of the humerus – pulling the humerus into the glenohumeral joint.

Despite being natural, these movements are not intuitive or necessarily easy to learn. They are so unintuitive that coaching them is a viable career path: the professional barbell coach. Watching a lifter squat in real time (or a video of the set) can reveal many deviations from the model. Bent wrists, asymmetrical bar on the back, balance on the heels, squatting high, no hip drive, looking around, and knees caving are all errors that could happen on a single rep of a set of squats. It can be overwhelming as a lifter or coach to know what needs to be fixed first when there are so many errors.

There are a few critical elements of each lift to focus on that need to be fixed before other issues. However, if fixing a seemingly minor issue would then also fix one of the critical elements, then that would be good to focus on. For the squat, the critical elements are the depth, hip drive, and balance.


Correct depth results from a correct bottom position, and is so important that it's the first aspect of the squat taught in the teaching progression. Full depth is characterized by the hip crease being just below the top of the knee cap, the thighs being in line with the feet, and the lifter being bent over. How bent over the lifter is will depend his body proportions, so a back angle is not specified, but typically a new lifter will be much more bent over than he intuitively thinks is correct. If the back angle is not sufficiently horizontal, the knees will be too forward, the knee angle will close before depth is reached, and the hamstring/calf muscle “impingement” will prevent good depth.

His weight should also be balanced mid-foot front to back halfway between the toes and heels. His weight will also be balanced side-to-side with equal pressure on each foot, although this aspect is far more intuitive for lifters and does not frequently need to be coached. His toes should be turned out with a stance is wide enough to allow him to get his thighs out of the way of his stomach and use his adductors (groin muscles) effectively, but not so wide that the adductors reach the end of their extensibility prematurely.

Full depth can be extremely difficult to reach when one or more of these aspects are wrong, so it's common for a lifter to think he can't hit depth when really the problem is technical. This starts with the stance. Too narrow a stance won't incorporate the adductors (groin muscles) as much, and will require the lifter to relax his lower back to hit the bottom. This is obvious from a side view where lumbar flexes and the pelvis rotates a significant amount. This is particularly apparent in wide-bellied lifters. By contrast, too wide a stance will produce tightness in the groin that prevents a lifter from hitting depth unless he lets his knees cave in. Similarly, a lifter who does not voluntarily shove his knees out enough with a correct stance will have trouble hitting depth. Make sure the stance is correct and the knees are shoved out.


Fundamentally, staying in balance is keeping one's center of mass over the base of support. Practically, this means that when a lifter squats, his mass and all mass attached to him is centered over his feet. Ideally, this will be centered between the feet and in the middle of each foot – a position we call mid-foot. Correct balance is not the bar being mid-foot. The combined center of mass of the lifter and barbell should be mid-foot. This point will approximately be the bar's center of mass when the weight is heavy, and the lifter's center of mass when the weight on the bar is light. As a result, a lifter should not try to make the bar mid-foot with low weight. This is all outlined in detail in Understanding the Master Cue.

Without real time coaching, correcting balance becomes a proprioception problem incumbent on the lifter to fix. Balance problems can be fixed by learning what mid-foot feels like. Stand up right now without a barbell. Rock forward onto your toes, then back onto your heels, and then forward again to the middle of the two positions. This is what mid-foot feels like. Repeat this before starting squat warm-ups next workout. It can be helpful in preventing imbalance by visualizing this pressure in the middle of the foot during a heavy squat (or press).

On the way down, the most common problem with balance comes from not bending over enough and descending too fast. Slowing down will allow the lifter time to sense the pressure in the feet. Get your knees out early and think about "sitting back" to hit the last few inches of depth.

On the way up, the most common problem with balance is the hips going back instead of up, which puts the lifter on his heels. The knees straightening too quickly and hips shooting back occur as geometric constraints of the joints and limb segments. If the knees extend, the hips have to go somewhere. If the hip drive is done correctly, the hips will go up. If the knee extension and hip extension are not in the correct proportions, the chest will stay down too much and the hips will shoot back, with the combined center of mass going back as well, to the heels. This is a knee position problem typically, so thinking about leaving the knees forward can be helpful: "Freeze the knees forward."

Hip drive

The least intuitive aspect of the squat is bending over enough to effectively use the hip and knee musculature. This starts at the top, proceeds to the bottom position, and then is used on the way up as the hip drive. The hip drive actually starts with an aggressive knee extension, resulting in an immediate back angle change. This allows the hips to be used more effectively to produce force during the ascent of the squat than if a more upright back angle were used.

The two most common errors are also the most obvious: lifting the chest instead of the hips – not driving the hips enough, resulting in too upright a back angle, or driving the hips excessively resulting in too horizontal a back angle with knees prematurely extended.

The first error, lifting the chest, is easily fixed during the teaching progression. However, it is much harder to fix if the lifter has been doing it wrong for a substantial time period. Extra focus will need to be spent on driving the butt up out of the bottom of the squat. The lifter may even have to think about leaving the chest down. Self-preservation will prevent him from literally leaving it down, but it's a useful cue.

Remaining too bent over is not a common problem except when accompanied with excessive knee extension. This looks like an excessive back angle change out of the bottom of the squat with the hips shooting back instead of up, and the knees straighten too quickly. Notice how intimately related balance and hip drive are.

Additionally, the descent affects the bottom position quite a bit. The lifter needs to bend over first and stay bent over, unlocking his knees at the same time. New lifters commonly get bent over if they've seen enough of the teaching videos, and may neglect the knees. The knees and hips should bend at the same time with a back in rigid extension and the belly pointing down between the thighs. The knees should be in their final horizontal position about halfway down and then freeze position as the lifter sits down and back with his hips to finish the last half of the descent. Overly focusing on the hips and not the knees will cause the knees to bend late, which causes knees sliding too far forward at the bottom, producing slack hamstrings and a weak hip drive on the way up.

If parts of these explanations seem repetitive, it is because balance, hip drive, and depth are intimately related aspects of the squat and to truly separate them as different problems isn't possible.

Finally, a brief mention of bar position is important here. If a lifter thinks the bar is in the right position on his back, but it is actually too high, it will be difficult to achieve a correct bottom position and the hip drive. The bar needs to be inferior to (lower than) the spine of the scapulas. If the bar is in the high bar position on the back, using squat mechanics as discussed here will be inappropriate, because it's a different exercise.

A lifter and coach should be thinking about these three critical elements when watching a set of squats (or video recording). Is the balance mid-foot? Is the bottom position correct? Is the lifter driving his hips correctly? Ask these questions and if the answer is “no,” fix it fast to get better mechanics and, therefore, an improved training effect and resultant strength.

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