Again, my intention with this article series isn’t to overwhelm you with information and things to implement. What I’m trying to provide is a simple resource that can benefit beginners and more advanced lifters alike with some simple, actionable tips to consider.
To summarise what we have covered so far:
Part 1: The Warm Up
Why warming up prior to squatting is a crucial, often overlooked aspect. Why it should provide a consistent ritual prior to training and how to set up a simple warm up tailored to your needs.
Part 2: The Set Up
Here I covered stance width, toe position, hand position and how to normalise every part of your set up such that you take the guess work out of the equation. I touched on eye line and the walk out also, covering how to make this more repeatable and consistent every time you train.
Let’s get to it
In this instalment, I want to cover what I would consider to be some loose ends from the parts I’ve not yet discussed and also some common misconceptions to round up the 3 part series. By now, from the above 2 articles, you should have been able to gain a decent grasp of the basics of squatting as everything from stepping foot into the gym to standing with a bar on your back, ready to squat has been covered. What follows are some finer points and answers to questions which we get a lot from clients and readers.
Before I get into that, to help me discuss the below, I want to outline what I would consider the be the fundamentals of squatting, from why we’re doing it in the first place to how it should be performed.
- You’re either squatting for performance (and maybe competing) or for leg development. These are very different goals and should have very different approaches.
- Your form and set up decisions should depend on your answer to the above. If you’re trying to grow your quads and opting to squat low bar for 3 sets of 3, this isn’t very complimentary to your goal.
- We should be always striving for a set up that allows us to move the most weight in the safest manner, maximising training effect of the desired structures and minimising injury risk. In general, this requires the bar path to be centred over the mid food in the straighest line possible, minimising moment arms. Let that sink in.
Bracing and wearing a belt
Wearing a belt during training has had mixed views for some time now. There is one camp that argues that wearing a belt will reduce abdominal activation and develop a reliance on it and then the opposing camp (led by good old Ron) that seems to think that you need to wear a belt before you even get out of the car in the gym car park.
So, whats the deal?
First and foremost, you should be bracing prior to any kind of heavy lifting. This sounds like a bit of a general term but in simply, bracing involves performing a valsalva’s manoeuver while tensing the abdominals. The intention is to create intra-abdominal pressure and create extra stability to assist in moving more weight and decreasing injury risk.
(yes they say it’s as though you’re having a poo – I hope you got a cheap laugh out of that)
Before every rep of every set you should be running through this process, regardless of whether it’s a warm up or heavy set.
So where does a belt fit in?
My thoughts on this are pretty simple. You should wear a belt at a tightness setting that doesn’t decrease the current circumference of your torso, there should be some gap between you and the belt, any tighter than this will decrease your torso’s circumference and make you less stable under the bar, defeating the object.
By bracing into the belt you create more intra abdominal tension that without the belt. This was found here and has been linked with lower risk of disk herniation as a result.
The argument that belts may decrease ab activation fall down when you consider that typically a belt will add 5-20% onto the loads the lifter can use, depending on experience and there has also been evidence pointing to no change in abdominal activation with and without a belt
While there has been some evidence to suggest that belts don’t provide any performance enhancement (they also don’t decrease it) there is some evidence to suggest that bar speed increases significantly with a belt
In short, you should always be using a bracing pattern before every single lift. A belt seems to provide a decrease in the risk of injury (particularly of the spine) and an improvement to performance with no impact on ab The only thing that we maybe need to manage is the tendency to become reliant on it.
Use a belt for the main barbell lifts (squat and deadlift especially and their variants). Avoid it on barbell curls etc.
Have a point in the warm up where you apply your belt. For me, this is usually 2-3 sets into the warm up and everything above 140kg on squat and deadlift.
High bar versus Low bar
The first idea to dispel here is that there is even such a thing has “high bar” and “low bar”. The reality is that there is a wide spectrum of realistic bar placements and when you examine the top lifters in the world, you’ll notice a lot of variation in this.
In general, excluding extreme heights and limb lengths, most people can move more weight with a lower bar placement.
The idea here is that we want to minimise moment arms, this is the distance from the fulcrum or pivot point. The longer the moment arm, the stronger the moment arm. Here is a photo from Mark Rippetoe and Powerlifting to win that nicely illustrates this idea:
To move the most weight, we need to keep the bar over the mid foot and minimise the moment arms. Again, a nice visual explaining this:
You’ll notice that on the left, a high bar squat has a fairly balanced impact for knee and hips, low bar allowing more forward lean and more of the moment arm towards the hips.
A lower bar placement shifts the moment arm more to the hips and away from the quads, so a lower bar squat is more “hip dominant” and uses more glute, hamstring and lower back.
The issue with a high bar squat is that we’re using more quad strength (typically weaker than hamstrings and glutes for most people) and the scope for error is very small. Even the slightest amount of forward lean will massively increase the moment arm and move the bar away from the mid-foot, causing the lifter to miss the lift.
By contrast, in a lower bar placement, we’re using the huge muscle groups that control the hip and also allowing a lot more margin for error, the lifter’s torso could be tipped forward until it was almost parallel to the floor and he/she could still make the lift.
So a lower bar placement is going to maximise the chances of moving more weight but the higher bar placement is better for quad development.
Whichever option you choose, be mindful that keeping the bar over the mid-food and minimising moment arms is still the priority.
Squat Shoes versus Flats
I’ve left the simplest until last. There isn’t really a black and white answer to this. I would suggest that you try out both, film your training from the side and decide which option:
a) Allows the most “up and down” bar path, centering over the mid-foot
b) Feels the most comfortable
c) Allows you to move the most weight or feel the contraction where it is intended, depending on your goal.
One of the simplest and most effective changes I made to my training was to film every set I did and watch it back after the session. Something can feel right but look awful visually and vice versa, bear in mind the above points and look to implement the changes step by step, using the video footage as feedback.
If you’d like to learn more about how to optimise not only your squat but all your lifts, general training and approach and diet strategy to compliment it, we’re now accepting entries for our Strength Mastery course, this includes 12 weeks of video training taking you through an in depth tour of all the components required to successfully gain and maintain size and strength while staying lean.
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