06 Feb 7 Key Tips to Improve Your Barbell Squat

Barbell SquatYou already know that the barbell back squat is a sure-fire way to radically improve total body strength, correct?

Arguably, it’s the best exercise for increasing full body strength and overall muscle mass.

The problem lies in getting the exercise right.  The back squat is one of the most debated exercises on the planet.

Unfortunately, many people simply don’t understand how to squat properly.

Just like any of the big lifts, making sure your technique is solid is the key to preventing injury and maximizing performance and results.

While the squat is technical, there’s a simple checklist I run through in my head as I strive for mastery in the mechanics.

Certainly, there are different styles and variations depending on what you read and who you listen to, but these are some of the most important keys to proper lift efficiency that most would agree on.

Here’s 7 simple tips you can use to improve your squat for better results.

1.) FIX YOUR EYES APPROXIMATELY 15 FEET IN FRONT OF YOU

Fix your gaze about at about 15 feet in front of you and keep your eyes there. What this does is help maintain your head in a neutral position.

You may have been told to “look up,” however, this puts the cervical spine into extension and does not keep your spine properly aligned.  Understand, I’m NOT suggesting that you look down.

I’m suggesting to keep your head in good alignment with your spine for a better biomechanical position.

It’s all about keeping the spine in an optimal position.  More on this in a minute.

2.) TAKE A DEEP BREATH – AND HOLD IT

What you want to do is “set your spine” and think of your shoulders to your hips as if it were a rigid cylinder.

The way to do this is to take a breath and “brace” the abs for the lift.

This is known as the Valsalva maneuver and will set your spine appropriately for a more powerful and safe lift.

Ideally, you’ll want to take your breath before the descent and hold it throughout the lift until you come back up.  This does take practice and learning if you’re a novice lifter.

Some lifters will exhale slowly and carefully on the drive up.

But to fully maintain a rigid torso through the lift, I believe the best technique is to hold the breath until you come up from the squat position.

3.) KEEP YOUR BACK FLAT (OR IN SLIGHT EXTENSION)

This should be obvious for optimizing back health, but let’s review.

Keep your back flat and in a straight line or maintain a slightly extended position.

A common internal cue to keep in extension is “keep the chest up.” By keeping your chest up, you won’t tend to lean forward too much and cause undue stress on your spine as you drive your hips backward.

A flat or neutral spine is the key to keeping things safe.

What you want to avoid is to bend forward or have the spine in flexion at any point during the squat. This is the primary way that injuries occur.

4.) DRIVE YOUR HIPS BACK ON THE DESCENT

Try to keep your shins vertical and drive your hips back.  This is where “box squats” can help in learning.

Sit back, fold at the hips, and drive those hips backward.

A good way to “learn” and build these mechanics is with the box squat, as I just mentioned.

This will teach you how to use your hips properly for an effective squat pattern.

Remember that the squat is a hip initiated movement.  You must use the power in your hips for a proper squat.

5.) KEEP THE BAR OVER YOUR MID-FOOT

Think about the “center of gravity” here and keeping things “centered.”

Think about displacing the bar straight up and down over the middle of your foot, as if you were in a Smith machine (except you’re not).

(***For the recored, a Smith machine will not challenge you anywhere near the extent a free weight squat. Your body does not have to stabilize the bar with the Smith machine squat and I would never recommend a Smith machine squat over any form of free-from squat movement.)

Keep the bar over your mid-foot for an optimal, balanced position.

The foot must be stable without being too much forward on your toes or being too far back on your heels.

The midfoot position is optimal for balance, safety, and power.

6.) BREAK PARALLEL

Squat deep.

Go below parallel (hips below the knees).

There’s a saying that “if you can’t go below parallel, the weight is too heavy to have on your back.”

Remember that thought.

There’s no evidence to support that squatting deep is a bad thing for normal, healthy knees.

There is some conflicting opinion on this for some reason, but if proper technique is used in an asymtomatic knee, there should be no issues.

A deeper squat is more functional and builds more strength in the knee structures, when done properly.

7.) DRIVE UP AND EXPLODE WITH THE HIPS

And, finally, explode up with the hips.

The cue of “exploding up with your hips” helps most lifters to do just that.

You are working your entire body with the squat, but the hip musculature (gluteals, hamstrings, hip rotators, adductors, abductors) are the keys to a bigger, stronger squat.

When you have properly pushed back with you hips, it then makes perfect sense to reverse the movement and use the power in your hips to drive up with the bar.

Executing proper hip drive is essential.

This cue alone can make all the difference.

There’s a lot more to a squat than just this, but this is a simple, useable mental checklist to execute a stronger, safer squat.

The barbell squat is a tremendous exercise that can help us all through a lifetime of lifting.

No matter where you are in your training, you can benefit by integrating these tips and working on mastering the lift for a better result.

I’d challenge you to work to improve your squat mechanics with one or more of these tips (depending on where you are in your “training age.”)

Take action and apply the piece of information – or cue – that can help you the most.

Spread the word! Please share this on Facebook, Twitter, or anywhere you’d like.

Scott Iardella, MPT, CSCS writes about strength training methods to optimize health and performance. If you enjoyed this, join a strong community of passionate fitness enthusiasts and subscribe below to get a ton of cool, free stuff! Subscribe at RdellaTraining.com/join and get your FREE Report and Resource Guide.
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3 Comments
  • Shawnrevfit
    Posted at 16:48h, 06 February Reply

    Nice piece bro, just wondering…

    1. what tips you may have for folks that don’t have the flexibility/mobility to go past parallel regardless of the weight.

    2. Do you think back or front squats are better?

    3. What’s your position on foot position?

    • Scott
      Posted at 19:46h, 06 February Reply

      Thanks Shawn. To answer your questions…
      1-Depends on what the limitations are due to? Real mobility, or flexibility, or a motor control issue? Hard to answer unless I know the likely source from what I would assess. I know I’m not answering this, but the honest answer is “it depends.”
      2-For size and maximal strength, back squats are better, of course. For more frontal work and to improve other lifts (Olympic lifts, for example), I love front squats. They are both fantastic, but are totally different lifts, with different purposes.
      3-For most, the optimal foot position is shoulder width or slightly wider and the feet turned out to about 30 degrees.
      ~Scott

  • Rafique D."Flex" Cabral
    Posted at 22:28h, 07 February Reply

    Number 6 gave me the biggest challenge when first learning the squat. Great Advice!!

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