By Guy Page, Acceleration Performance 

I may not know much, but I do know what a squat is and I know what
it is not.  It never ceases to amaze me how many people out there can’t
tell the difference. The barbell squat is performed with the barbell resting across the
upper back and rear delts.  The athlete then proceeds to push their
hips to the rear, then sits back and then down, lowering the body
between the athlete’s legs.  How far down do you go?  At a minimum you
go down until the top of the thigh is parallel to the ground, real
squatters go well below that.  I’m not saying to wipe the floor with
your butt, but you should be getting pretty close.  I tell most
athletes to go down as low as they can, knowing that to them, low is
still fairly high.

I always wonder where all this high squatting came from.  Some coaches advocate only doing a half squat since their athletes never descend below that when performing a sports movement such as a jump.  Can these coaches guarantee that their athletes will never encounter any other positions when playing sports?  I’ll guarantee they can’t, we should train in a way that prepares the athlete for all the possible scenarios they may encounter when playing sports. 

Let’s take a step back and review what our main goals should be when strength training for sports.  The two main benefits which an athlete seeks from strength training are performance enhancement and injury prevention.  From a performance enhancement standpoint, all things being equal, a stronger athlete will be a better athlete.  In the weight room we seek to work the targeted muscles in the fullest range of motion possible so that they may be able to produce force in any position.  This will have more carryover to the sports environment since we cannot guarantee any specific position that the athlete will be in during competition.  As an example, think of a loose ball in basketball, the athlete runs to recover it, dips to pick it up, stands erect, drives towards the net, stops to evade a defender, maneuvers towards the net some more, then jumps again to evade another defender and sinks the shot.  So many more things just happened than a quarter squat, so are we going to do an exercise in the weight room to mimic every movement that we may occur in the playing environment?  We could, but who has that kind of time.  The proper squat will work all the muscles necessary at the same time to perform all the movements we encounter in the sporting environment, allowing the athlete to run faster and jump higher.  This is why it’s called the king of all exercises.

    From an injury prevention standpoint, squatting high leads to all the bad things that people generally attribute to squatting, sore knees and sore backs.  Once again the sporting environment is uncontrolled.  The athlete will inevitably encounter awkward if not dangerous body positions when playing sports, hyperextension and hyperflexion of the knee and deep side lunge positions just to name a few.  We don’t practice these movements in practice or train them in the weight room, but they do occur.  When the muscles, tendons and ligaments are properly conditioned and strengthened through their fullest range of motion they will be more resistant to injury when these dangerous movements occur, since it is just beyond what they are used to.  From my personal experience I can attest to the effectiveness of including squats in sports training. I started strength training when I was fourteen years old after my first year of high school football, I then went on to play ten years of football and rugby at a fairly high level.  I never missed a game or practice due to injury, and the last time I sprained my ankle was when I was fourteen years old.  I credit my time in the weight room for remaining injury free for so long.

As far as squats themselves being dangerous, the people that say that generally don’t know how to squat properly.  If you’re healthy and squats hurt your knees and back, you aren’t doing them properly.  When squatting high, all the force is pushed towards the lower quadriceps just above the knee joint, causing a shearing force at the knee, which is what leads to the pain.  When squatting below parallel, the force is distributed between all the muscles acting on the knee and hip, the quadriceps, hamstrings, adductors and gluteals, resulting in a force of nil on the ligaments of the knee.  I could go on and draw some diagrams with force vectors, but I don’t want to bore you with science.  After a squat workout done with proper form and an appropriate load, it is normal to feel some tenderness in the groin region and the hamstrings where they tie into the glutes.  The low back pain most people claim to get from squats results from them taking too narrow a stance, which results in them leaning too far forward putting their lower backs in an awkward position.  It is generally accepted that the knees shouldn’t pass over the toes and the lower back shouldn’t round over when performing squats, yet this is exactly what happens when someone tries to perform a narrow stance “squat”.  This is especially true for the taller athlete.

Well how do you squat then, you jerk?  Let’s take a look at the ready position that is universal to all sports, volleyball players, basketball players, fullbacks in football or shortstops in baseball, it is very similar for all of them.  It consists of a shoulder width stance with the weight on the balls of the feet, a slight bend in the knee with the hips pushed to the rear, an arch in the lower back and the chest upright.  Let’s call it the athletic stance.  Although it might be slightly different from athlete to athlete, it starts out generally the same.  We can start there, which works well for most people. To see the best starting point for yourself, simply jump.  Note where your feet are when you land, this is where your body wants to go, don’t fight it.  From there, pivot your feet out a few inches.  Now you should be in a slightly wider than shoulder width stance with your feet slightly pointed out.  To initiate the squat movement, push your hips to the rear, then sit back and down between your legs while pushing your knees out, keeping your chest up and maintaining an arch in your lower back.  Sink down as far as you can, if you aren’t particularly flexible you will most likely feel tight in your hips and calf region.  Return to an upright position.  Perform a few reps with just your bodyweight to get a feel for it.  Your weight should be on the midpoint of your feet, not on your toes.  If you feel exceptionally tight in the bottom position of the squat, get down there again, and place your elbows on the inside of your knees, push out and hold for 10-15 seconds.  Perform a few more reps like that to thoroughly stretch yourself out.  Once you have gotten used to it with just your bodyweight, you can start using the bar.  Note I said the bar, you never add weight until you are ready.  Grab the bar with your hands near the ring markers on it, grab it and squeeze it like you want to hurt it, this will help get your body tight which is essential for squatting properly.  Get under the bar and have it rest on your upper back just below the traps and above the rear delts, please don’t have it resting on the back of your neck.  Walk it out and assume the same stance you had before. 

From here everything is the same, sit back and then down, while keeping an arch in the low back and your chest up.  There is going to be a slight forward lean of the torso when squatting properly, this is normal and safe when done with an arch in the lower back.  Sink down to below parallel and initiate the drive upwards by driving your upper back into the bar.  Perform a minimum of 10 reps with just the bar every time to continue the warm up.  From here you can add weight.  Stick with sets of 10 at first, if you cannot perform the reps properly when you add weight, there’s too much weight on the bar.  The form should be the same every time regardless of the weight.  Don’t let your ego get the best of you, do it properly and choose your weights appropriately.  If you don’t, the barbell will quickly give you a lesson in self restraint. 

There are things that can be tinkered with such as foot stance, hand grip width, bar placement etc.  It is highly individual since everyone is built differently and has different weaknesses.  The general form should be the same.  Squat properly every time and the weight will increase as you move along.  As an athlete, don’t get too caught up in the weight room numbers, getting stronger in the weight room is great, but the ability to transfer that strength over to your given sport is even greater. 

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Guy Page is currently a student at the University of Winnipeg working on his Bachelor of Science – Exercise Science.  After being involved with football and rugby at various levels he became more interested in the strength training aspect of sports. He has become involved in the sport of powerlifting where he recently set a world record squat of 749lbs in the junior 275lbs weight class at the Amateur World Powerlifting Congress Worlds in Chicago.  He now assists athletes in achieving their strength training goals at Acceleration Performance.

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