Wednesday, April 4, 2012

My Squat Story, Part 2

By Andrew McGunagle

In part 1 of My Squat Story, I discussed my squatting history and the feats of strength I witnessed that prompted me to start down the path I am currently traveling. Transitioning from a hip-dominant powerlifting-style squat to the more balanced Starting Strength-style wasn't easy. But, the insights that I gained during this process can ease the transition for others interested in making a similar change. In addition, the tips that I provide below can be instructive for anyone who simply desires to squat better.
Putting a picture of a random jacked dude in the article thumbnail doubles my views. America.
 I still have a long way to go in order to reach my squatting goals. However, I feel like I have finally reached a point where I am squat-competent. With this article, I hope to help you reach that point as well. Here are five tips to get you started.     

1. Read Starting Strength: As you may have been able to infer from a couple of my past articles, I am a big fan of Mark Rippetoe's Starting Strength book. I can't say that I have always been a believer, though. When I read through Starting Strength for the first time, I was still entrenched in the hip-dominant squatting nonsense that the rest of the Internet was wild about. I tried out a couple of the squatting tips from the book, but I never made an effort to fully adopt the style Rippetoe was advocating. The truth is, while I read the book and thought I understood it, I was too stupid to understand that the book is a advocating a specific squatting style rather than presenting a collecting of technical tips. I was trying to combine Rip's style with information from other entities and, in the process, was creating a Frankenstein power squat that was just plain ugly. From what I see on the interwebz, this is actually fairly common. Everybody claims to have read Starting Strength and is quick to proclaim it's brilliance. But, when you actually see these people squat, it is clear to see that they have not taken the time to understand the information. If you really want to learn how to perform a well-balanced squat, then buy the book or, at the very least, read through the abundance of free information that Rippetoe has published to the web. I wish I had done this sooner because, now that I know how to squat, making progress in this movement is as simple as showing up and squatting.        

2. Consider buying squat shoes: In addition to buying in to the wide-stance, sit-back squatting hype, I also adhered to the standard footwear recommendation that accompanied this style; I squatted in Chuck Taylors. Everyone on the Internet said they were the best shoe to wear when lifting, and they certainly worked better than my old running shoes. But, as anyone that has made the transition to squat shoes will tell you, you don't realize how soft Chucks are until you put on a pair of squat shoes.
Conveniently, VS Athletics has a retail store in the town where I go to school. 
For those of you that don't know, in addition to having a slightly elevated heel (which allows for greater, albeit artificial, ankle dorsiflexion), squat shoes are designed to have virtually zero sole compression. Compression, when lifting, leads to instability and inefficiency. In turn, these issues prevent lifters from maximizing their force production while squatting. It took only one set with my new squat shoes to understand the difference they can make. While lifting shoes are not for everyone, I highly recommend them to any dedicated lifter with decent mobility, adequate technique, and a desire to squat heavy with a closer stance. Don't expect the shoes to work miracles, but they can aid you in your squat positioning and stability. Squat shoes start at about $80 dollars and can get up to as much as $200 dollars for a high end pair. But, keep in mind that they will only be worn in the gym and are built to last a very long time.     

3. Learn to shove your knees out: When I first attempted to make the transition from a power squat to a Starting Strength-style squat, my biggest issue was my inability to shove my knees out. All of the squatting movements I had done up until that point had been initiated by pushing my hips straight back. I thought that forcing the hips back was what Rippetoe advocated as well, as one of his main points was that lifters should utilize "hip drive" on the ascent of the squat. In my mind, it only seemed logical to focus on the hips on the descent as well. During the first training session that I did with Ian and Jake (who I mentioned in the first article of this series), they cued me over and over again to force my knees out to the sides to initiate the descent. Due to my old habits and my faulty beliefs, I had a lot of trouble doing this.
A perfect example of shoving the knees OUT.
After watching Ian and Jake squat and rereading Starting Strength, I realized that I had to figure out how to shove my knees out if I was ever going to use a more balanced squatting style. Getting the knees out sounds like such a simple thing to do, but it took a lot of dedicated work for me to learn how to do it. The things that enabled me to finally initiate my squats correctly were doing goblet squats (more on that below), improving my hip mobility (particularly my hip external rotation), improving my ankle mobility, and buying squat shoes. In addition, putting a bar on my back and doing my best to squat correctly week after week certainly helped, as learning to control my new ranges of motion was very important.   

4. Do goblet squats: Goblet squats were an absolutely essential component of my successful squat transition. Before every session I did while retraining my squat, I grabbed a 20kg kettlebell and drilled my new technique. Doing this helped me gain the mobility to adopt sound squatting positions while simultaneously improving my strength and my ability to hold sound squatting positions. When I first started doing goblet squats, I had trouble getting my knees out, particularly in the bottom position. My adductors were tight and I did not have the hip strength to keep my knees out to the sides. Therefore, I initially had to use my elbows to force my knees out as I sat in the bottom of the squat. Over time, my hips and ankles loosened up and my hips got strong enough to keep my knees from caving in. These improvements carried over wonderfully to the squats I did with a barbell on my back.
DJ, the goblet squat originator?
I didn't abandon goblet squats once I could squat well. In fact, I still do them before every single session. Nothing gets me more prepared, both physically and mentally, to squat than a couple light sets of goblet squats. The trick is to use the same mental cues that you use while squatting with a barbell while you warm-up with goblet squats. Despite not having a bar on my back, I think "(upper back) tight, (take a big) breath, spread (the knees), drive (the hips)" during every single squat that I do. The consistency that I get from this mental and physical drilling has helped me tremendously, and I urge all lifters to grab a dumbbell or a kettlebell and goblet squat before their training sessions.     

5. Get your shoulder mobility under control: Having the requisite shoulder mobility to hold a bar on their back is not a problem that every lifter faces. But, it was a pretty significant problem for me and, from what I see in other lifters' videos, is something that others struggle with as well. Poor shoulder mobility makes it difficult to maintain upper back tightness during the squat. A lack of upper back tightness, as I have stated in the past, can cause your chest to drop and your torso positioning to falter as you fatigue. The more shoulder mobility that you possess, the easier it is to create and maintain upper back tension.
Mob', adopt this position, squat.
When it comes to squat-specific shoulder mobility, there are a number of factors that can contribute to poor range of motion. While I believe it is often inefficient to prescribe general mobility drills as universal cure-alls, I can tell you about a couple of mobilizations that caused change for me. First, roll your upper back and your lats with a foam roller. Then, use a lacrosse ball to knead your pecs against a wall. Follow this with three drills: the side-lying extension rotation, the lat EQI stretch, and the no-money drill. You should see range of motion improvements during each of these drills, and you should continue doing them until you are no longer making improvements. During the side-lying extension rotation, one of the tricks that I use is to use the hand of my non-working arm to knead the pec of my working arm when it is flexed at 45 degrees overhead. Also, during both the side-lying extension rotation and the lat EQI stretch, you can use a tension-relaxation technique to improve your range. All you have to do is flex all of the muscles surrounding the joint you are stretching for about five seconds, and then relax into what should be a greater range of motion. Cycle through these periods of tension and relaxtion until you are no longer seeing changes. Lastly, when doing the lat EQI stretch (which can be done with or without light weights), make sure that you keep your back flat against your foam roller and your rib cage down when you are in the stretched position. Allowing the spine to extend and the ribs to flair are compensations for poor shoulder flexion, and allowing yourself to succumb to them does not help your cause.
Rib cage down, son!
Lastly, if you have trouble with squat-specific shoulder mobility, understand that being tight during your first warm-up set is not always a big deal. I almost always feel tight during my first couple of warm-up sets, but I am always ready to go by the time that I get to my work sets. If your mobility does not improve by the time you do all of your warm-up sets, then you might have to settle for a slightly wider grip. As you do your mobility work and your mobility improves, gradually move a finger-width closer until you reach the grip width that you desire. Keep in mind that a closer grip (up to a point, pinkies on the rings is good enough for most lifters) makes for a tighter upper back, so getting to the point that you can adopt a fairly close grip is a good objective. 

In conclusion...
If you want to get big and strong, then you should want to squat well. Squatting well rarely happens on accident; it takes a good plan and hard work. If you are unsatisfied with your squatting style, then the five tips that I shared can definitely get you pointed in the right direction. Additionally, I have five more tips to share in part 3 of this series. Make sure you return for the final installment, as the last five points will be especially helpful. But, in the meantime, get squattin'.


  1. Just had a light bulb go off. Have always had problems squatting (long legs 36" inseam) and my heals wouldn't go down. Heels would pop off and I just figured I was too tall to squat. Slightly wider stance with shoving my knees out actually seems to be working. Now I just need to practice...

    1. Good thinking, Shawn. In my opinion, everyone should be able to squat to depth (hip crease below the top of the knee), regardless of how tall they are. I am 6 feet tall with long legs, and I used to think I was just not built to squat. Sure, every inch you are over 6 feet is going to make squatting correctly to depth a longer process, but it is doable.

      Not only would I recommend continuing to focus on shoving your knees out, I urge you to work on your ankle mobility. Google "mobilitywod ankle mobility" and watch some videos.

      Lastly, you are absolutely right, PRACTICE! Make technique adjustments, mobilize, squat, repeat. Do it daily. You are definitely on the right track. Good luck with your squatting, and let me know if you have any questions.

    2. Watched the tight ankle article on mobility wod and it EXACTLY describes my issues. I fall over just like he does. Wish I had seen this 10 years ago. Interestingly enough, just like the guy in the video, I was in the military as well. I wonder if there's a correlation between combat boots and lack of flexibility. Going to incorporate the stretch in the video and work on this daily. Actually plan on giving the 3/1/5 program a run as well. Will let you know how it goes. Thanks, Shawn

    3. Awesome, I am glad you found that video. Not only will combat boots hinder ankle mobility, but all shoes with an elevated heel will. Raise the heel of the shoe, and you shorten all of the tissues at the back of the ankle. Combine that with all sorts of marching and running and time, and you will eventually run into problems.

      Also, if you are going to do the 3/1/5 program, I strongly recommend starting very light. If you think you can deadlift 405 for 3 sets of 3, then start all the way down at 315. Make big jumps (20lbs) from session to session when it is easy, then decrease the jumps (5lbs) as you get to heavier weights. This strategy definitely seems to help lifters get more out of the program, as it helps them get used to the higher frequency. I look forward to hearing about your success with the 3/1/5 program!

    4. Deadlift is currently 350 x 1 although I could probably get 330 for 3-4. I've done 380 in the past and I do my DL with a Sumo style since i feel much stronger that way. When I fail, it's always an issue of getting the bar off the ground, which likely comes back to getting my legs into it and flexibility. I will start at 275.