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Starting Strength in the Real World

The Squat: Your Priorities Under the Bar

by Nick Delgadillo, SSC | August 18, 2021

nick delgadillo teaching the squat

Even though the barbell lifts are simple, their proper execution isn’t easy, especially when they’re part of a strength program that requires consistent incremental loading over time. People tend to overcomplicate everything and focus too much attention on things that aren’t really big problems while ignoring the critical aspects of performing the lifts efficiently and safely.

When you’re learning, doing, or coaching the lifts, it’s important to put the technical details in proper priority so that you have fewer things to worry about, and so that you don’t get distracted by elements of the lifts that aren’t directly responsible for allowing you to move efficiently and add more weight to the bar. First understand that being balanced over the mid-foot and hitting depth are assumed. These are prerequisites for defining the movement, so if you are not in balance and you are cutting off your reps, you are not squatting. Get that straightened out ASAP.

Assuming that you are in balance and squatting to depth, there are two primary things that you should be focused on to optimize your execution of the lift: proper position at the bottom of each rep, and driving your hips without lifting your chest on the way back up. Most of your attention should be devoted to getting these two things right since they are the determining factors in your continued loading of the bar over time.

Lifting the chest on the last rep of your heaviest set of five will cause you to fail, while a stance that’s a little less or more than precisely 30 degrees will not. And while you can fix your stance in between reps or sets easily, waiting to learn the movement pattern required to keep your chest down and the hips loaded on the way up will require some aggressive intervention since you have to unlearn the ingrained movement pattern that makes you want to get upright as quickly as possible. A correct bottom position is one in which the knees are set somewhere over the front of your feet, you’re in balance, the crease of your hip is right below the top of your knee, and you’re bent over as far as possible. This position loads the hips as much as possible, and sets you up for the most consistent and powerful hip drive.

While it’s true that your body will arrange itself to hip drive whether you do it intentionally or not – provided that the weight on your back is heavy enough, not going into the bottom correctly wastes energy, limits the amount of weight you can add to the bar, ingrains poor positioning, and produces unnecessary wear and tear on your knees as you bounce off of them or slide them forward at the bottom of each rep.

Now, you’ve noticed that I didn’t mention all of the things that most people worry about. The grip on the bar, finer details of the stance, eye position, what shirt to wear, and what shoes to buy are all things that facilitate hip drive and proper positioning. They matter, but they are lower priority in terms of your attention or your coaching than getting into the bottom of the squat correctly and driving your hips correctly. So don’t misquote me and tell people that I said these things don’t matter, because they do. But the point is that these aspects of the lift are low-hanging fruit. They are easy to fix and shouldn’t require much attention once you’ve got them down.

So when you go do your squats this afternoon, quit being a neurotic mess and get your priorities straight. Remember that lots of really dumb people have gotten really strong doing everything completely wrong and you are going to be just fine. Set your grip and set your stance the way you learned from the Blue Book, and put all of your attention on getting your hips way back, your knees forward and out, and your chest pointed at the floor right away as you start the squat. Reach back with your hips as you get into the bottom of each rep and drive your ass straight up out of the bottom and all the way up to the top, while keeping your chest pointed at the floor.  

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