Summary Box: Squat variations form a cornerstone of many strength programmes as a potent stimulus for neuromuscular adaptation. With such potency comes great necessity for technical perfection if we are to have the maximal positive effect on complex sports skills and cap the negative stressors from poor technique under intense loads.
The technical model for squatting in the SSOS is derived from our technical model for vertical plyometrics.
Oftentimes we are using strength training to improve the performance of more ballistic, high velocity movements in sport. Squat derivatives offer a potent stimulus for neuromuscular change. Since these exercise become cornerstones of many programmes it is imperative that the techniques we promote for lifting facilitate as much positive carry over into ballistic movements whilst minimising unwanted stress to joints and soft tissue under heavy load.
This is not necessarily about lifting the maximum load possible as is for a powerlifter. Strength and the expression of strength is a skill and it is important to always remember that our end-goal is the expression of vertical power development integrated in an effective kinetic chain, whatever the target sport requires.
Below you will find 6 technical considerations which our exercise progressions in the Squat Exercise Category are designed to optimise for. Remember the goal is not lifting as much weight as possible. The goal in the Squat Exercise Category is explosive vertical power development through a balanced foot, with a spinal posture optimised for transmission of ground reaction forces through the shoulder girdle.
1. Maximise the Upright Torso
An excessive forward lean during Squat exercises (namely back squat variations) has a series of negative implications for spinal health but also relevance to sports performance.
Tennis is a sport that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about which illustrates how I came to this conclusion. Here
In a perfect world, I’d like all my athletes to Front Squat over Back Squat. The constraint of bar on the front of the shoulders forces the torso upright demands that the lower body does the work while the spine stays stiffened in braced lumbar neutral. On the contrary a back squat with sloppy technique almost encourages forward lean of the torso asking the lumbar erectors to assist in hip extension. The spine is designed to handle compressive loads but not so good at handling shearing loads.
2. Feet reasonably straight, grip the floor with the big toe and heel
This coaching cue is common to the majority of Exercise Categories in the SSOS. Often we see athletes with very passive feet during squatting, like 2 slabs of meat on the bottom of their legs. The feet play a critical role in effectively anchoring the leg to allow external rotation tor at the hip. The foot posture is controlled by the hip and the hip relies upon foot position to generate effective external rotation torque. This 2-way relationship is called the Hubscher reflex.
The Hubscher Reflex– Place your feet together, press your big toes into the floor. Now turn your knees out as far as you can whilst maintaining big toes on the floor. Notice how the action of turning the knees out controls the ankle and arch of the foot. What controls the knee in this motion? The external rotators of the femur, the glute min. and glute med. The hip controls the foot.
So the hip controls foot posture and in turn, the hip requires the foot to be well anchored to generate effective hip stability.
Now turn the feet out to 10 and 2 and do the same drill. You will find it is far harder to generate external rotation at the hip. Stability and readiness to accept load at both the foot and the hip is compromised.
We’re often taught about the negative implications of a valgus angle at the hip as knees cave in together during squatting but turning feet and keeping knees straight creates the same outcome at the hip.
For running and jumping based sports, good posture of the foot upon landing is important but often compromised. Broadly speaking a foot posture with an arch is best able to spread impact forces across the entire foot whilst maintain good alignment of the achilles tendon and the muscles of the calf as they act on the foot.
We can use our strength training practice to highlight functional limitations to maintaining an effective foot posture during full squatting motions (feet straight, grip the floor with your big toe). Common culprits include ankle dorsiflexion and/or hip mobility, specifically hip external rotation in flexed position.
3. Weight through the mid-foot toward the heel
Maintaining balanced weight through the mid-foot while the hip and knee flex and extend at a similar rate is my goal. Add this to an upright torso whilst gripping the floor and I think we have optimal transfer of training to vertical jump performance with minimal distress to the body (i.e., least negative/ unwanted stress).
Whilst gripping the floor with the feet and screwing the knees out, I want weight through the mid-foot, towards the heel for my court and field sport athletes. I want the resultant effect of the lift to be as vertical as possible. If the weight is too far forward on the toes, the resultant force vector is forwards placing significant load on the quadriceps, knees with unwanted extra tension in the calves. Too much weight on the heels and we lack as much knee flexion as we’d like and tibialis anterior now works extra hard to stop the body falling backwards. Both can result in hypertonic muscles and reduce ankle range of motion over time.
Whilst the kinematics of squatting are subtly different to vertical jumping, I still want to keep the end goal of balanced vertical impulse in mind. Vertical jumping I’m going to cue weight through the mid-foot towards the forefoot to pre-load the achilles tendon. Squatting I’m cueing weight through mid-foot, towards the heel to facilitate good posterior chain recruitment.
I want them to remain balanced throughout the lift, without weight shifting excessively forwards or backwards. Oftentimes we’ll hear coaches cueing a weight shift onto the heels but I don’t like that. This places
4. An Unchanging Lumbar Spine posture
Again, powerlifters and Olympic lifters might disagree with me here but I don’t want lumbar extension during squatting motion. Their goal is to lift the heaviest load possible. Mine is to add horsepower to a well functioning kinetic chain. I want the lumbar spine to be stiffened prior to the descent phase and I do not want it to change shape at all throughout the lift. Here’s why….
I believe that the lumbar spine is the cornerstone of the kinetic chain. It transmits forces between the lower and upper body as it stiffens. So often the lumbar spine compromises optimal posture to compensate for dysfunction elsewhere in the kinetic chain. It’s intimate relationship with the pelvis and anchoring role for peripheral motion means that when position is compromised, so too is many other motions in the body.
I want to promote the lumbar spine as the cornerstone of coordination in every Exercise Category. Ankles, hips and thoracic spines should be investigated and tested against the backdrop of an unmoving, stiffened lumbar spine. Dysfunction in these joints should be sniffed out as a source of potential compensation to the lumbar spine in motion.
I want to promote powerful hip extension with a stiffened lumbar spine able to transmit and direct that force towards the shoulders like a steel rod. If the spine is in motion as the hips extend, that stiffness is compromised and an energy leak created. Not only that but the excess of joint sheer on the lumbar vertebrae during squatting in lumbar extension will take it’s toll over time and does nothing to serve athletes for whom lumbar stress injuries are prevalent.
But there’s more
5. Finish in True Hip Extension
There is an interdependent relationship between the lumbar spine and the pelvis. An anterior tilt of the pelvis will create lumbar extension as the body reorientates to keep the head and eyes still and level. A heavy posterior tilt will create lumbar flexion. It’s unequivocal that full hip extension is important for maximising power output in any number of athletic skills. This is because such a position allows Gluteus Maximus, the strongest of hip extensors to fully engage. We simply cannot achieve full hip extension in lumbar extension- pelvis anterior tilt and Gluteus Maximus will not complete it’s full contraction.
If the spine is stiffened in lumbar-neutral (not a popular term) by the abdominal corset throughout the Squatting motion, as the athlete arrives in a fully extended position they will automatically have access to full hip extension and full engagement of Gluteus Maximus.
I believe that if we can achieve this during countless squatting repetitions under various loads and tempos we have facilitated the motor control and structural strength to explode through full hip extension in more ballistic triple extension activities.
6. Chin tucked
Oftentimes athletes look to the sky as they begin the concentric phase of lifting. This creates excessive cervical extension. If we were to creates the same Cervical spine posture in standing we will quickly see that this is a ridiculous position for the head to be in during vertical power development. I much prefer to cue athlete to pick a spot on the floor 2-3m ahead of them or imagine you’re trying to pinch an apple under your chin throughout the lift. This will keep the cervical spine in a fixed, neutral position.