Simple as it may seem, squat form can be incredibly complex, especially if you want to get brutally strong. As a coach and lifter, it’s my job to make this daunting task a little more manageable for my athletes and myself.
There are hundreds – if not thousands – of resources available to teach you how to squat, but sometimes conventional wisdom fails. If a tried-and-true cue isn’t working for someone, you can’t keep saying the same thing over and over and expect that person to suddenly get it. If you say “chest up” and the chest doesn’t stay up, continuing to say “chest up” isn’t going to work. Common sense, right?
Today, I’ll share several cues that I’ve started using more recently in place of more traditional instructions to improve a lifter’s squat form.
1. PULL THE BAR THROUGH YOU
Use in place of: Pull your elbows under the bar
Ideally, the elbows should be under the bar when you squat. Your torso angle tends to mimic your elbow angle, so keeping the elbows under the bar helps keep the torso upright and prevents the lifter from falling forward.
However, elbow position alone won’t get the upper body tightness we’re after. In fact, simply rolling the elbows under the bar without getting the lats involved can lead to some seriously sore inner elbows.
What’s more, many smaller lifters or those who use a high-bar position will roll the elbows too far under the bar to the point where the elbows are in FRONT of the bar. This may lead to the bar rolling backward, which is clearly a problem.
Instead of cueing elbows under the bar, I’ll often tell the lifter to pull the bar through them as if doing a behind-the-neck lat pulldown. This gets the lats to extend the thoracic spine while pulling the shoulder blades together for an extra-tight upper back position.
Sometimes I’ll also tell the lifter to point their elbows at their butt. This reinforces a down-and-back shoulder position instead of just rolling the elbows forwards.
2. MAKE YOUR BUTT DISAPPEAR
Use in place of: Ribs down/belt buckle up
Lifters have been taught for years to arch their back as hard as possible while squatting. A simple understanding of the way the spine, hips and pelvis interact tells you why this isn’t the best idea.
Squatting with a more neutral lower back position lets the hips move freely, which lets the lifter make better use of the quads and glutes (the REAL prime movers in the squat, NOT the hamstrings). Plus, it’ll help you hit depth consistently without rounding your lower back or chewing up the front of your hips.
Unfortunately, cueing a lifter to “keep the ribs down” and “pull the belt buckle up to your chin” can cause some problems. Many lifters well set up properly, only to stick their butt out and arch their back the second they start squatting down. Others will overcorrect and tuck their pelvis under too much, which will cause them to lose tightness and their chest to cave.
We want the bottom half of our spine to be neutral and the top half to be in some degree of extension, which is easier said than done.
(Watch this video to see what I mean)
To find a happy medium, I’ll tell lifters to make their butt disappear. This gives them enough posterior tilt to prevent hyperextending the lower back while allowing them to still keep their chest tall. It also keeps their hips under the bar as they initiate the squat, preventing them from sitting back through their hips and falling forward.
3. BREATHE INTO YOUR LOWER BACK
Use in place of: Fill your belly with air
Bracing the core with a good breath of air is essential for staying tight and maintaining proper squat form. It’s easy to mess this up, though. Many lifters breathe only into their chest or belly, which stabilizes the front of the body but not the back and sides.
You want to fill your entire midsection with air on all sides, not just the front. Instead of breathing into your belly, try breathing into your lower back. This will fill EVERYTHING, not just the belly, and create 360 degrees of stability, much like a lifting belt would do.
Here’s a quick trick to make this work: put on a lifting belt and have a training partner place a finger between the belt and your lower back. Take a breath and try to crush their finger between your back and the belt. If you only breathe into your belly, you won’t crush their finger. If you squeeze their finger, you’ve got it right.
4. FIND THE OUTSIDES OF YOUR HEELS
Use in place of: Knees out/Spread the floor/Tripod foot
You can’t squat very well if your knees cave in. Trust me, I’ve battled this issue my entire lifting career. There are tons of cues to keep the knees out. “Spread the floor” and “tripod foot” are two of the most popular, the latter meaning keeping pressure on the big toe, little toe and heel.
Does that not seem overly complicated? It seems a bit silly to me to think about my pinky toe, especially right before a big squat. Instead, with lifters who tend to lose knee and ankle position as they squat down, I tell them to find the outsides of their heels. That’s it.
This oversimplification almost always work because almost no one lifts their toes off the floor when they squat. They either lift up the heels or roll inward to their instep. Applying pressure to the outsides of the heels tracks the knees outward and keeps tension in the glutes. Simple and effective.
5. BREAK AT THE KNEES FIRST
Use in place of: Sit back/Drop straight down
“Sitting back” into the squat works well for many beginners who don’t understand how to shift their weight back into their heels. However, sitting back too much can lead to trouble as the weight gets heavier. Many lifters will lean forward through their torso as they sit back, causing their hips to shoot back and the bar to roll forward.
I much prefer to have lifters sit straight down, a cue I’ll often use. Ideally, the hips and knees would break at the same time, but if someone struggles to break the sitting-back habit, I’ll cue them to break at the knees first. This will sound like heresy to many powerlifters, but driving the knees out over the toes FIRST can help the lifter keep the bar over the midfoot and prevent falling forward.
Clearly, pushing the knees too far forward is a bad idea. If the knees break to the point where the heels come off the ground, that’s no good. But shifting the focus from the hips to the knees can be exactly what a lifter needs to break the sit-back/fall-forward habit.
Good old fashioned goblet squats may be the best drill to groove this pattern. You can’t sit back without dropping the weight, which dials in the knee-and-hip interaction.
6. TRAPS UP FIRST
Use in place of: Chest up out of the hole
Driving up out of the bottom of the squat might be the most common place where lifters fall apart. Most people can lower the bar properly, but transitioning from the eccentric to the concentric portion of the lift can give people fits.
Whether the hips rise before the chest, the knees cave in or the butt winks, you can’t have a strong squat if you can’t reverse the bar without falling to pieces. “Chest up” is the most common cue to teach a good reversal because if the chest leads out of the hole, you’ll likely be in a good, balanced position. Unfortunately, many lifters interpret this as arching the back harder as they stand up, which can kick the hips backward and throw off their balance.
Cueing “traps up” instead can shift the focus from arching the back to driving the head and shoulders up through the bar. This keeps the lifters more upright while keeping the bar centered over the midfoot.
It’s almost silly how this small change can make such a big difference, but I firmly believe that cueing a body part CLOSER to the bar can have a more positive influence on what comes up first out of the hole.
7. STAND UP EARLY
Use in place of: Bounce out of the hole
I’m a big fan of bouncing out of the bottom of the squat if the lifter can stay tight and under control. This is no easy task. Bouncing requires some degree of relaxation to facilitate the stretch reflex. If you stay too tight, you don’t get much bounce, but if you relax too much, you’ll fold under heavy weight.
The bouncier the squatter, the more likely they’ll get too loose at the bottom position. This may lead to knees caving in or the upper back rounding. Any easy way to prevent losing tension while maintain the bounce is to think about standing up earlier.
There’s always a short delay between what we tell our brain to do and what our body does. So if we don’t think about standing up until we’ve hit rock bottom on the squat, there will be a delay during which we hang out at the bottom position. No matter how brief, this is the moment where things can fall apart. Simply telling yourself to stand up sooner can help you perfect your timing of when you bounce while reducing that “dead” time at the bottom when tension is often lost.
THINK BETTER TO SQUAT BETTER
When you’re going over cues in your head while squatting, the simpler the better. Your inner dialogue had better be quick if you don’t want to get stapled by a few hundred pounds. Use these cues to improve your squat form if more traditional cues haven’t work as well as you’d like.