Why do we squat? There are numerous answers including performance, strength, aesthetics, and/or quality of life. There are as many ways to squat as there are reasons why we squat – low bar, high bar, front, back, functional, sumo, olympic, split, etc. How we squat should then be in line with why we squat. The movement needs to be performed with intention. Like any exercise, we must be mindful of what our goals are and how the squat will translate to support that end goal.
Powerlifters squat differently than Olympic Weightlifters. CrossFitters tend to squat differently than Olympic Weightlifters. And this will be the main focus of this blog. The Olympic lifts (Snatch and Clean and Jerk) are an integral part of many, if not most, CrossFit programs. However, there appears to be a disconnect between how CrossFitters squat and how the Olympic lifts should be performed, specifically how the body is positioned in the bottom of both lifts. Especially under max load, the bottom position is very deep (e.g., ass to grass, hamstrings to calves) while maintaining a neutral spine and as vertical torso as possible. Thus, why would we not train in a manner that would allow us to develop both the mobility and strength to be comfortable in the bottom if our goal is to carry over from the back squat, front squat, and overhead squat to the snatch and clean and jerk?
Chad Vaughn receiving the snatch
What might sound like blasphemy, I recently took three weeks off from training (used barbell only) to improve my mobility. It wasn't just restricted (pun intended) to working on ankles, calves, hips, hamstrings and glutes. It also included a heavy focus on the thoracic spine, shoulders, and pecs. What aided significantly in my search of greater range of motion is being barefoot as much as possible, especially while performing mobility exercises including banded distractions, foam rolling, and good old active stretching. I also began with squatting (bodyweight) barefoot, and sitting in the end range for as long as comfort would allow, and repeat. In general, limiting time sitting in a traditional way and encouraging movement (think play) with proper posture throughout the day will facilitate improvement in mobility as well as continued maintenance. Here is a great dynamic movement that is used often at Black Flag Athletics.
This is where we get into a discussion of preventing or exposing imbalances created or hidden through bilateral movement. Squatting is a bilateral exercise and consequently, one area of the body can compensate for instability, immobility and weakness somewhere else. It is prudent to incorporate lateral work in a number of ways to avoid these issues; try muscle activation prior to the workout, as accessory exercises to follow strength portion (main movement) or even as the main strength movements themselves. Perform these with intention and under control. Here is a great exercise that I picked up from Ryan Flaherty.
Once you have the requisite mobility and stability, it is time to move. Feet are to remain flat throughout the movement with eyes focused straight ahead; avoid excessive extension or flexion of the neck. Thoracic spine is to remain rigid and slightly extended, with the lumbar spine held in neutral throughout the movement; no rounding of the lower back under load. Initiate the movement at the hips, not the knees, by pushing them back slightly as you begin the descent. Knees track over the toes with focus on not permitting them to cave in or flare out excessively. In the Olympic squat, the bar rests higher on the back and traps, which allows for a more vertical torso – think "chest out, be proud". Keep in mind, as anthropometry varies from individual to individual there will be slight differences in movement patterns amongst us. Someone who is know for great squat mechanics is Lu Xiaojun:
Good mornings, back extensions, and single arm carries are just a few examples of exercise that will help to develop the masculature around the spine. Besides looking good, the purpose of the core is to enhance spinal stability (that word again). Therefore you need to work on developing the entire 360 degree area around your spine. Breathing and bracing are also two key ingredients in utilizing the core. Make sure to breathe in and brace before inititaing the movement to ensure appropriate abdominal pressure. Another great core strengthening exercise, yet often underutilized and misunderstood is the deadbug:
For all intents and purposes the width of your feet at with which you recieve the clean and snatch should dictate the width of your feet when performing the front squat and overhead squat. The vice versa holds true as well, the width with which you front and overhead squat should then be the same width of your feet when your recieve the clean or the snatch. Ideally, the foot width stance is the same across the board, including the Olympic back squat, which develops strength for both lifts.
How low can you go? With increasing loads, the height at which you recieve the clean or the snatch will increasingly become lower and lower. To be able to handle max load, continue developing the requiste mobility to achieve full depth (see Chad Vaughn above). Lifting shoes are a tool, especially for stability, not a crutch. I have continued squatting for reps barefoot as I have developed strength with increased range of motion and the benefits have been tremendous. When I throw lifters on for rep maxes and max squat efforts, it feels like walking on clouds. Do not perform the Olympic lifts barefoot.
Developing strength in new-found range of motion. It's a whole new world the deeper you go. For most individuals, including myself, the first step will be checking your ego at the door. The tissues might not be used to the new length and handling load at deeper depth. Carefully stimulate the tissues and musculature with progressive overload at that new found depth. Avoid dive bombing to the bottom and attempting to utilize the "bounce". Control the movement down and explode up. It is not uncommon to decrease the load signficantly to start as you develop strength.
Not only will your squats transfer more directly to the Olympic lifts themselves, you will be able to move better. Moving better translates to improved efficiency during metcons incorporating barbell movements. Feel free to comment below. Looking for a health conversation.
"Remember, it doesn't matter how much you lift, it matters how MUCH you lift WELL!"- Dr. Aaron Horschig
Pawel Wencel is the co-creator and host of Uncharted Performance, website and podcast dedicated to maximizing our potential inside and outside of the gym. Pawel possess over 15 years in strength training through the exploration and adaptation of various training methods, including CrossFit, Olympic Weightlifting, Strongman, Powerlifting, and Bodybuilding. He is keen on athletes, members and clients utilizing their strength and movement practice to get outside, travel, hike, and find adventure outside the confines of the gym. He holds the following certifications; CrossFit Level 1, CrossFit Scaling, FMS Level 1, and USAW Level 1. His claim to fame is a great set of legs :) For more of Uncharted Performance check them out on their website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. The Podcast is available on iTunes, Stitcher, and Google Play.