Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

The Squat: Hips are the Key

by Mark Rippetoe | August 02, 2023

We have always taught the squat as a “hips” exercise – it was presented that way in the Blue Book, because this approach trains more muscle mass over the longest effective range of motion, allowing the use of heavier weights and thus producing the most force against the bar and the most effective strength adaptation. Squatting down and standing back up is one of the progressively-trainable bilateral human movement patterns that comprise the basic exercises of strength training. But it is not a “quad” exercise.

Bodybuilding is based on bodypart thinking: quads, hammys, delts, bis, tris, pecs, lats, traps, and calves. Combine enough exercises for the bodyparts, and you have a workout. You have “chest day” and “back day” and “leg day” and “arm day” and “calf day” and “forearms day” and so on. This is the basis for every machine-based corporate gym in the industry. Strength training is based on movement patterns – the things you do with your body, not the muscle groups that look cool when you pose them when your bodyfat is unnaturally low. What we do is based on function – the things the human body has evolved to actually do – not on its appearance. When we strengthen the ability to execute a basic movement pattern, like the squat, we improve the functional capacity of the body.

The squat improves strength because the entire system of levers and muscle mass involved in squatting down and standing up is progressively trainable – their force-producing function can be improved, while the constituent portions thereof, if worked separately, are not trainable over time. You can increase the weight used in a split squat for about 6 weeks, maybe, while the squat itself can be progressively and incrementally increased for years. Most competitive powerlifters perform their best totals after 15-20 years of training.

The bar on your back requires that you support the weight with your shoulders, and keep the spine stable, so the column of muscle surrounding the spine grows thicker and stronger as the weight increases. The fact that you can fall down with the bar but that you don't fall down with the bar means that your ability to balance improves with your strength, without having made instability an active factor to overcome every rep.

Separating basic bilateral movement patterns into subsidiary exercises – like dumbbell split squats, or single leg anythings, or ipsilateral/contralateral dumbbell presses on unstable surfaces – is the basis of the newly-fashionable trend called “Functional Fitness.” It relies on instability as an exercise variable, replacing incremental increases in load as the stress. If instability is designed into the movement, maximum force production cannot be improved, since your body will not produce maximum force from a position of instability – you may be stupid, but your body is not.

Stronger is always better; ask any athlete that competes against strong opponents, and ask their grandparents if they'd rather be strong again. Strong athletes are harder to knock off balance, and old people fall because they are not strong enough to quickly move back to a position of stability when their balance fails. If strength cannot be improved, “function” cannot be improved, because the function of the body is to apply force against external resistances in the environment. If the production of force is not the primary limiting factor, it will not be the primary adaptation.

And here's the main point: if the primary human movement pattern exercises get stronger, so do the derivative and subsidiary exercises. What happens to your dumbbell split squat if your actual squat goes from 135 to 405? So, I think I will reclaim the term “functional” and use it as the dictionary suggests – actual strength training is functional training, and dancing around on one leg with little dumbbells in the weight room is a form of masturbation: making yourself feel good without really getting anything done.


Decades of experience with the squat has taught us that the key to squatting big weights most effectively and efficiently is thinking about the hips. Not the knees. Knees are obviously involved since you cannot “squat” down and stand back up without them. So the muscles that operate the knees get trained as the weight on the squat goes up over time. But thinking about the squat like it's a leg press is not productive – thinking about lowering your hips to a below-parallel position and then shoving your ass straight up in the air is the most productive way to mentally structure the movement pattern.

And really, your knees are among the shittiest joints in the body. They are very directional, not very tolerant of lateral or axial shifting, and the cartilage arrangement is a vestige of the more-controlled environment of quadrupedalism. How many people do you know over the age of 45 who do not have a knee problem? The nicer you are to your knees, the longer they will work correctly.

So I'm suggesting that you learn to squat with your hips, and invite your knees along for the ride. This involves the simple manipulation of the basic angles between the major segments of the body: the back, the thighs, and the shanks, and the angles between them – the back angle (more vertical or horizontal), the hip angle (more open or closed), and the knee angle (more open or closed). Given that the bar must remain over the middle of the foot for the system to remain in balance, a hips-driven squat will show a more horizontal back, and a resulting closed hip angle and open knee angle. 

comparison of knee vs hips driven squat schematic

Squatting with your hips involves learning to bend over and shove your ass back, pointing your nipples at the floor, holding your shins more vertical on the way down, shoving your knees out so your thighs are out of the way, and then driving your ass up out of the bottom without lifting your chest until the very top of the squat. Yes, you have to think about what you're doing with a heavy weight on your back, but that's what warmups are for, so plan on using them to practice this.

The primary value of this analysis is twofold. First, it's correct, as a critical review of heavy squat videos will demonstrate (light weights can be squatted inefficiently, so they won't help). Hip drive gets all heavy squats out of the bottom, even if your coach tells you otherwise. Look for yourself – it becomes quite obvious if you study the videos of heavy squats. Even heavy front squats and overhead squats out of the bottom of a snatch are initiated with the hips. And second, it is incredibly helpful to be able to focus on a single movement cue that actually helps you lift the weight while you're under the bar: “Shove your ass up out of the bottom.” Learn to squat with your hips, and see how many problems it solves. 

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