5 Pro Tips to Maximize your Back Squat
As a competitive strength athlete in the sport of powerlifting for 5 years, my least favorite movement was the Back Squat. It was my weakest, I lacked the mobility to get into the proper position, and it was extremely humbling to me as I was quite a natural at Benching and Deadlifting. I remember my first ever meet, where I hit a 185lb back squat, which was hard for me! I knew I had a lot of work to do to get to the elite level. I dedicated and specifically trained my back squat consistently for five years, working on improvement of my technique, mobility, and overall strength. My fourth year training I hit a 303lb Back Squat at USAPL Raw Nationals, which was one of my largest accomplishments ever. As it is still my weakest lift, it went from being my least favorite, to my favorite to train.
In my career thus far as a Strength and Conditioning Coach, I must have coached the squat close to one thousand times. In that time I have seen how different every athlete can be when it comes to not only body mechanics, but in responding to different cues. Not all squats will look or be performed the same. Some athletes will benefit from a narrow stance, some a wide stance. If you lack dorsiflexion of the ankle or have long femurs, you may benefit from a wider stance, and if you have great ankle mobility and/or shorter femurs, a medium or even narrow stance may work best (Demers et al. 2018). Some will benefit from a cue to break at the knees first, some will benefit from breaking at the hip first. The differences can be endless in how the movement is coached and put to application. However, I have found over the years that these 5 in particular tips can help anyone with improving their squat technique, and executing a fantastic squat. I’ve seen clients put on 10-20 pounds on their squat strength in one session from using any to all of these tips!
Before going into the five tips to maximize your squat I want to go over the benefits of why you are squatting in the first place, specifically as a Golf athlete. The first and I believe most notable benefit would be the increased production of vertical ground forces. In order for these forces to be maximized, the largest muscles of the lower body need to be strengthened. These are the forces that are transferred up from the ground, through the legs, to the extremities, to the golf club. The squat undoubtedly increases lower body strength, as it targets these large muscle groups such as the gluteal muscles, hip flexors, quadriceps and hamstrings. With more lower body strength comes the ability to produce more force in a vertical manner to the ground, which we know is extremely important in maximizing power generation and club head speed (Lynn, 2018). Hip extension, which is the primary movement in the golf swing is also going to be maximized in a strong squat. While the muscles of the glutes and the hamstrings are two of the primary movers of hip extension, the development of them will want to be a goal of the athlete looking to build hip extension power.
Feel your 3 Points of Contact:
For the first tip to maximize your squat, we are going to start with the base of support, your feet! Naturally, this is important in application to your squat in making sure you are distributing your weight properly. Individually squat stance will differ person to person, but they way you should apply pressure to the ground should not change to maximize force production. Too far back on the heels, and you risk not only the chance of falling backward, but miss out on utilization of the quadriceps and possibly glute activation to achieve full potential. Too far forward on the toes, you risk the possibility of falling forward as well as again missing out on activation of hamstrings, some glute, and other large muscles that produce much force. I tell my athletes to think about feeling their “Big toe, Pinky Toe, and Heel” all pushing into the ground at once. This distributes the weight in an effective manner and a lot of times help with the stability of the overall squat.
It is very common to see an athlete’s knees want to cave inward while performing a squat, especially as the load gets heavier. Although this is common, it is not necessarily a good thing. This is called “knee valgus”, and is biomechanically defined as hip adduction and hip internal rotation with hip flexion. This typically occurs in the case of weak glutes/hips, or impaired quadricep or hamstring function. There are many ways to correct this from a strength perspective, which should be addressed. However, before attacking the musculature itself, I want to make sure that neuromuscularly, we are doing everything we can do. So I cue my athlete to “drive the knees outward”. This helps to ensure the glutes are activated, and the pelvis is stabilized. Even some of the most elite squatters in the world (yes there is such a thing), come across the knees wanting to cave in while coming up from a heavy load. You will see these athletes trying to push their knees out as they come up, and they will stay stuck until they are able to do so!
Drive your Elbows Down:
Continuing to work up the chain, the next area to really target will be the shoulders and lats. Coaches typically look at the ankles, knees, hips, and sometimes back position but rarely take these two into account. By flaring the elbows outward in a squat, your lats are not contracting, and you lose a lot of tension in the upper body. When you actively “drive your elbows down towards the floor”, you activate your lats and keep your upper back tight. This helps drive more force into the barbell and create more stability throughout the midline. Achieving and maintaining the erect position of the torso is important for generating force and keeping your back and shoulders healthy while operating under heavy loads. This can be GAME CHANGER for your squat!
Make a double chin:
The position of your neck shouldn’t be ignored in a squat. A lot of torque is sent up through the spine, and the most sensitive part of the spine will be the cervical spine around your neck. Dialing in the position of the neck during a squat will not only help to stay away from neck strains or other injuries, but also help with keeping your entire midline tight to generate more force. I will give the cue to “create a double chin” to those athletes who are looking up too high, or even for athletes who look straight ahead. Looking straight ahead may seem fine, but the spine is still not in the most ideal neutral position in which we can maximize technique. If I tell them to look down, sometimes this will cause the athlete to look too far down, and cause more spinal flexion, and even fall forward.
Minimize your walk out:
My last and maybe favorite tip to give athletes while performing the back squat, is going to be to “minimize the walkout”. Even though it is my favorite, most of the time I will save this one for after all other technique flaws are fixed, and an athlete has gotten strong and comfortable at this point with all the other tips. Watch someone squat next time you are in the gym, and just watch the way they unrack the bar and set up before they descend in their squat. This is extremely important and can make or break a squat! It is like with the golf swing, if your set up is out of control and sloppy looking, the rest of the swing can’t be executed as well as it could with a solid set up. Athletes waste a tone of energy unracking the bar first in a split stance, then taking 5 steps back, then another 5 getting set up in their ideal stance. This is a skill in itself to learn, but by using two legs to stand up underneath the bar, then taking no more than three steps to set up into your start position while properly bracing on the way out, can be huge in executing a great squat. Take the following steps, and practice with an empty barbell before adding weight:
- Position yourself underneath the bar with your ideal squat stance.
- Take a deep belly breath and hold in as you stand up with the bar on your back (shouldn’t be a large range of motion off the rack)
- Take two small steps backward, and then a third step to set your squat stance, then release your air.
- Take in another big belly breath, and descend into your squat.
Wrapping it Up:
Along with helping me put over 100lbs on my back squat in a four year span, I have been extremely successful in helping my athletes build their back squats over the years with these tips. They have become stronger, and more efficient in producing vertical forces as shown with numerous testing periods of measuring vertical peak power. Applying these 5 tips can also help you increase your back squat and inadvertently increase your club head speed!!
- Demers E, Pendenza J, Radevich V, Preuss R. The Effect of Stance Width and Anthropometrics on Joint Range of Motion in the Lower Extremities during a Back Squat. Int J Exerc Sci. 2018 Jun 1;11(1):764-775.
- Lynn, S. (2018). Vertical Forces | Swing Catalyst. [online] Swingcatalyst.com. Available at: https://swingcatalyst.com/articles/vertical-forces/ [Accessed 12 Aug. 2020].