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Starting Strength in the Real World

Back Angle in the Squat, Part 2: How to Do It

by Nick Delgadillo, SSC | June 30, 2020

lifter at the bottom of a squat

In Back Angle in the Squat, Part 1, I discuss why it’s a good idea to establish and maintain a more horizontal back angle in the squat. A more horizontal back angle allows you to access the muscles and structures of the hip and therefore allows you to lift more weight. Lifting more weight means you get stronger, and that’s the point of all this. 

Now, let’s cover how to actually get this done. Common cues that you may hear include keeping your nipples down, sending your butt to the back wall, or simply bending over more. But just because the concept is simple doesn’t mean it’s easy to do. Unless you practice bending over and staying bent over correctly when you squat over and over again, you will not do it. And even when you do practice, you’ll still have to be reminded every once in a while. 

The reason is that you’re dealing with an ingrained movement pattern that you learned as soon as you could get around on two feet, and that you’ve practiced every day of your life since then. When you stand up from a chair, the bed, the toilet, or any position in which your knees and hips are bent, you stand up. And you stand up in a way that gets you upright as quickly as possible since that's your default position after the age of about 9 months. Anytime you’ve stood up or picked something up off the floor, your objective was to stand up with it and get upright so that you could start moving or complete your task. 

Now here you are at the age of (insert your age here) and I am telling you that the best way to stand up with this heavy barbell on your back is to use your ass and to stay bent over. That everything you know about how to stand up is wrong in this instance. You will struggle with this because every molecule in your body wants to get upright right now instead of being patient, staying bent over, and allowing your hips to do the work. 

So I am going to appeal to your higher primate brain and give you some instructions to follow so that your lizard brain is not in control of the situation. Your lizard brain is of limited use when you’re learning new things because it’s wired to make you do things quickly, automatically, and without the use of expensive brain power, especially when you’re under stress. Your primate brain can think and follow instructions, and will, over time, reprogram your lizard brain to make you respond in a new, more favorable way. But it has to be done intentionally and carefully because you will always want to default to the ingrained movement rather than the new, more efficient movement. 

In taking on this endeavor, it’s helpful to examine the parts of the movement and how they’re related so that you can give yourself something intentional to do rather than attempt to improve movement through the use of cues that you don’t fully understand. Your back is connected to your thighs via the hip joint,  your thighs are connected to your shins via the knee joint, and your ankle joints attach your feet which are connected to the floor. Your feet don’t move in a squat, and assuming you are not falling down and you are in balance, any movement of your knees will affect the position of your hips which will affect the angle of your back. 

As you squat down, the first thing you need to do is think about bending over. But your knees have to bend as well. If you bend over without also bending your knees, your knees will have to catch up at the bottom for you to hit depth and that leads to an inconsistent bottom position and sometimes achy knees. So a better way to think about this is to bend over as far as you can while also setting your knee position simultaneously. You will bend your hips and knees at the same time and you will aim to hit the back wall with your hips, the floor with your chest, and to set your knees right over your big toes. Doing this will get you to the closest correct back angle while also not neglecting proper knee positioning. In the first one-third to one-half of the descent, your back angle and knee position should be locked in. The rest of the way down should involve you reaching back and shoving your knees out while you continue to hold your knees locked in position over your big toes. 

Your back angle should be as bent over as possible while maintaining both balance and knee position and should stay that way all the way to the bottom of the squat. That will put you in the best position to drive your hips up hard out of the bottom. You will mess this up by either not bending over enough or by not controlling your knee position. Everyone forgets about the knee position and the fact that if you fail to control your knees, your back angle is affected negatively. Allowing your knees to continue moving forward as you squat down pulls your hips forward and makes your back more vertical. You have to actively reach back and intentionally set the knees right as you start your squat. 

If you’ve done all these things correctly, you’ll set yourself up for a strong hip drive out of the bottom, and then your only job is to not screw it up on the way up. Remember the part about wanting to get upright as soon as possible? About halfway up the squat, once the stretch reflex has done its thing, the bar will start to slow down and you will want to stand up by lifting your chest. In that critical moment, you have to maintain discipline, keep the lizard brain at bay, and continue driving your hips up while keeping your chest pointed at the floor. It may help you to picture the movement you make in a leg press. Imagine that your back angle is locked in position like it would be in a leg press, and that you have to push the floor away from you. Allowing yourself to succumb to the urge to lift your chest through the middle of the squat leads to a slow, grindy rep or a failed attempt. You have to intentionally remind yourself to keep driving your hips because doing otherwise works against the mechanics and anatomy involved in a squat. That limits the amount of weight you can lift, and limiting the amount of weight you can lift limits how strong you can get. 

So get into a good bottom position by setting the correct back angle and knee position. Drive your ass up hard out of the bottom and stay bent over all the way up to the top of the squat so that you can lift the most weight that you can. Lifting the most weight that you can means that you get stronger. And that, after all, is the point of all this. 

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