Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Developing your raw squat - Pt. 2

In the first part of this article we talked about some cues, setup issues, descent, body angle, etc. In this part, what you have to do is put this into action. You need to find your own sweet spots and I will outline a program to try and help you achieve that.

Finding your sweet spots -

Without a doubt this is the single most important part of raw squatting. So this part is strictly dedicated to that. No program out there is going to pay the dividends you want until you can get under the bar and not have to think about what you need to do.

You know the feeling I'm talking about right?

You look up some super-secret Russian/Bulgarian/Lithuanian/Puerto Rican squat program that is going to put a thousand pounds on your squat in 17 days. You plan out all the percentages then write out how you're finally going to make that big squat you've been dreaming of.

Then squat day comes and you get under the bar and you're back at square one.

You go to start squatting but shit doesn't feel right, and you're having to think about everything all over again. The first set sucks, the second set feels better, the third set feels awkward, the fourth set sucks, the fifth set feels great.

"What the hell is going on?" you say to yourself. "Why can't I make all the sets feel solid?"

Seem familiar? Yeah me too. I hated those days.

Finding your physical and mental cues are more important than anything else you do. Squatting has to be like second nature. Let me repeat that no program out there is going to fix your weak ass squat with sets and reps and "strengthening your weak points" crap. You have to fix your squat mechanics FIRST.

First off you need to put your ego aside for a while. If you want to eventually squat bigger weights you have to figure out your own squatting style. Physiologically the example/drawing from part 1 is spot on. However getting your body into that position is the tough part. Let's talk about some problems related to that.

Flexibility -

This is generally problem numero uno, especially for really novice guys/gals. Generally they have trouble hitting depth because they have tight achilles, hamstrings, adductors, and hip flexors. As part of a general warm up that includes lunges, I still stretch these areas. You don't have to turn into Jean Claude Van Damme flexibility wise, but becoming more flexible will help your squatting immensely. Here is the warm up I recommend and practice myself to keep these areas in shape.

Walking - 5-10 minutes to get warm and get some blood flowing.

Lunges - As many as I need to feel my hips, ankles, and groin loosen up.

Hip Flexor Stretch - Go down into a lunge and put the back knee on the floor. Keep the torso erect and tall. If your left leg is forward lift your right hand over your head and turn your body to the left a bit. Like you are going to point to something up and behind you. Hold for 10 and switch legs. Obviously when your right leg goes forward you lift your right hand over your head.

Hamstring stretch - There are 1 million hamstring stretches. I simply prop my leg up on something and hold for 10-15 and repeat a few times.

Adductor stretch - Sit down and put the bottom of your feet together. Now grab your ankles and pull them into you. Lean forward just a bit until you feel the stretch in the groin. This will also stretch your vastus medialis a bit as well. Extra bonus.

Calf/Achilles Stretch - 1 leg at a time. Just step up onto a step and stretch it out for 15-20. Repeat a few times.

This shouldn't take more than 15 minutes and you'll be much better off for it. A general warm up is something I over looked for a lot of years and lost out on the benefits of it for sure. Don't neglect this area. Add in foam rolling of the IT band if you want as well. Generally I foam roll before AND after I lift and then on days I do sprints, sled pulls, or hill runs. It doesn't hurt to do these things everyday.

Sweet spot detection (and I'm not talking about women here) and the path of the bar -

The three basic areas of finding your squat are bar placement, foot placement, and hip extension. The rest is fine tuning. The three most common combinations I see of these three factors that work are as follows...

Low bar/close stance/small sit back
Low bar/close stance/big sit back

High bar/close stance/small sit back

Low bar/wide stance/big sit back
Low bar/wide stance/small sit back

Now these terms are slightly relative. Wide stance or close stance will mean something different for each person. A big sit back or a small sit back will mean something different to everyone. All that matters is what it means to you and the path it makes the bar take.

There is no high bar/big sit back, because well, that should be obvious. If you think about leverages you should know that a a big sit back causes more forward lean with the bar up high. More forward lean with a high bar placement means the bar moves away from the being over the top your feet and quads and now your lever becomes what? The hips and low back rather than the hips, quads, and hamstrings with the low back being kept flat.

Ever hear a guy say "why does my squat turn into a good morning when it gets heavy?"

That's why. Check the drawing again and my pics. Do you see how the bar lines up hitting the middle part of the feet just over the quads? This is your center line of power. This is where you are strongest whether you prefer high bar or low bar. When the bar stays in this path you are strongest. When the bar gets forward or behind this path you lose leverage on the bar.

There are a couple of cues that tell you when the bar is out of your power path.

Bar gets/stays behind the path - This happens to people who break with their knees first in an effort to maintain a completely upright stance. You've seen these guys at the gym. They bend their knees first, stay straight up and down, then squat down about 4 inches. Obviously, they are not strong. If you do squat low enough but sometimes feel like you are going to fall backwards, or even do stammer back every once in a while, it's behind it the power path.

Possible Fix=You need a little more lean and sit back with your glutes.

Bar gets too far in front of the path - This is generally the guy who squats high bar and sits back too far to initiate the squat. He loses his arch and his hips shoot up to fast out of the hole. Then he ends up doing a good morning out of the bottom. If you do use a low bar placement, but you feel the weight shift to the front of your feet, the bar is traveling in front of your power path.

Possible Fix=Try a lower bar position OR try dropping more straight down than you have been.

Most guys struggling with squats have felt both of these at some point. These are not weaknesses in muscle groups, these are technique/mechanical issues that need to be remedied.

Obviously you want to avoid both of these problems. The key is to have the bar in the center of the body/foot when you are at the bottom of the squat to allow the hip and knee joints to work together. You can see that the hip angle and torso angle can be different based on bar placement, but the bar is still over the quads and middle of the feet. This puts the "weight in your heels" and allows you to drive with the hips and quads from the hole. This is your power spot. When you align everything up right the bar should move in that line, and you will know it, because you will feel very strong from this position. Tall, short, man, woman it doesn't matter. This is the spot where most everyone is going to be strongest from because it's where everyone will have the greatest leverage from. Hip extension and torso angle can be different but the bar still has to be center line of the body.

Actually lifting weights -

My recommendation for getting everything right is to squat twice a week for 5 weeks. Day 1 you will do 10 sets of 3 with a static weight. This means you will do a few warm up sets, then stay with a set weight for all 10 sets. This weight will be LIGHT! My recommendation is to use 60% of your max for these sets. This is either your most recent max, or what you think you could realistically hit. By realistically hit I mean don't add 20 pounds to your mile high squat that you did last week for a ball busting single. Use 50% of that.

The point here is, the weight should be fairly light, however you need just enough to gauge speed and how it felt on the descent, in the hole, and on ascent. You're going to be writing all of this down so the last thing you need to worry about is the weight on the bar. Second, if you go too heavy once the fatigue starts setting in you will resort to all of your bad habits that made you read this article in the first place. So be smart and use 60% of your max.

You will use each iteration of the different styles for 2 sets -

Low bar/close stance/small sit back - 2 sets
Low bar/close stance/big sit back - 2sets

High bar/close stance/small sit back - 2sets

Low bar/wide stance/big sit back - 2sets
Low bar/wide stance/small sit back - 2sets

Change the order up each week. I don't care how you arrange this.

Let me also make a note about what "close stance" means. That is going to be individual however what I am talking about is as close as you can get comfortably and still down down in between your legs in the hole.

The second squat day of the week (3-4 days later) you will do 5 sets of 5 using one of the styles listed above. You will use a different one for each week (5 weeks right?) and make note of the weights you hit for each and grade the speed and comfort of those as well (see below).

Now let's define what a "top" weight means here. This should not be some all out set of 5. This should be a weight you could probably hit 8 0r 9 reps with if you knuckled down. So be conservative here. Pick a weight you don't need to psyche up for. Be smart about this for the love of God.

General warm up -
bar x 20
5 sets of 5 to a "top" set

The 1-5 scale

That's the program. However percentages and sets are not the most important part. It's what you write down on the 10x3 and 5x5 days that matters most. What I recommend you do is use a 1-5 overall scale. 1 being suck-ass and 5 being awesome for speed and comfort.

Speed is centered around how fast you come out of the hole, and comfort centers around how setting up and the descent feels. Also take into account how easily each one allows you to hit depth and the angle of your torso. If you are more upright with one, make a note, if you have a lot of lean, make a note of that. If close means you have to move your feet out just a little, do so and make a note of it.

For example...

Low bar/close stance/small sit back - 2 sets - speed=4 bar moved pretty fast, comfort=5 setup felt natural and descent felt good. Was pretty upright.

Low bar/wide stance/small sit back - 2sets - speed=2 bar moved slow out of the hole, comfort=2, felt awkward from setup to descent. Had a ton of lean and had trouble hitting depth.

Don't worry about losing strength in your squat as you go through this portion of the program. If anything your squat will probably go up a hell of a lot doing this. Lots of great squat programs center around using small percentages for high volume and frequency. Not only that, you will hit almost every angle of squatting over the course of the six weeks so all of the little supporting muscles will improve and so will your flexibility. All of these things are required for bigger squatting. The most important part is finding your proper squatting groove so when it's time to add big weights you feel confident in your ability.

Arrival at level 5 -

If you take good notes over the 5 weeks you should realize pretty soon what cues work best for you. It should be apparent by how you grade your speed and comfort levels what works best, and the week of top 5's should tell you a lot as well. If it still isn't clear, look at the things you graded out as best and drop the things you graded out the lowest. This isn't science, this is trial and error. You have to find the things that work best for you. A level 5 reading should be something like so...

"Bar speed was fantastic, felt strong out of the hole and descent felt natural. Was able to drive through the floor with my heels and drive my hips upward."

More helpful hints -

Understand your strengths and body types-
Are you a great leg presser with big quads and short legs and a long torso? You're probably going to do great with closer stance squats and staying upright more easily (think high bar with a small sit back). Are you a guy with longer thinner legs and great at deadlifting? You might do better by getting a little wider then and using a bigger sit back with more body lean. Understanding what you are good at lower body wise outside of squatting will also tell you a little bit about what you should be doing squat wise.

Small plate under the heels - Some say don't do this. I don't have a problem with it at first. Why? Because some people can't hit depth without it in the beginning because of tight achilles. After you start squatting and become more flexible more you will eventually be able to remove it and hit depth without it no problem. I know because I used this exact technique. This works especially well for guys who like a closer stance. Just be cognitive of the fact that it may throw you off a bit in terms of bar path. If you find this putting you on "your toes" too much with the weight, reduce the height of heel lift.

Pressing on the hips - If you can get someone to press down on your hips as you start to ascend, this will increase the rate at which you figure out your squat 10 fold in my opinion. However it does look kinda gay. If you don't care, more power to you. Have your training partner or whoever put their hands on your hips and press apply resistance as you come out of the hole. If you do care that it looks kinda gay, find a chic who is ok with pressing down on your ass (preferably a hot one in the gym you don't know well, because this scores man points and looks good to your peers). Basically this will help set the physical cue as to what getting hip facilitation will feel like.

If you are a high bar/no-sit-back kind of guy you probably don't unhinge enough for them to find something to push down on. AHA! CLUES! In other words, you're not able to fully use your hips to come out of the hole. When you unhinge properly someone should be able to put their hands on the top of your ass and you should drive their hands upwards. If you can maintain arch and body angle and do this, you are golden.

Video - I highly recommend video taping your squats (especially if you can get that chic to push down on your butt!). The reason why should be obvious. If you don't know what you are looking for start with your notes for the set you are watching. If you graded that set out high, look at that set and watch what your hip and knee does in relation to a set you graded out low. Pause the squat at the bottom to see the relation of body angle and hip and knee angle to the path of the bar. Check the diagram from Part I. Do your levers look like they are in a strong position? Is the bar center line? Learn the right questions to ask and you'll find the right answers.

Getting rid of your belt - Best thing I ever did. I've read all sorts of sillyness about how you can't squat X amount without a belt because it's dangerous. Every low back injury I ever had was with a belt on. Ken Leistner told me to get rid of my belt and start over and I've never had a lower back injury since. That was over 10 years ago and my pathetic lifts have never been higher. Learn how to tighten your midsection and what that should feel like instead of pushing out against a belt. Learn how to keep your arch rather than getting lazy with the belt. Make the middle of your body stronger and then even if you don a belt for meets or set singles, you'll lift a hell of a lot more than you did before. In other words, make training as difficult as possible and then the meet stuff isn't so hard anymore.

Mind your shoes - I squat in adidas sambas. They feel ok. I actually would be a little better off with an adidas lifting shoe because I do need a little more heel. I know that chuck taylors have become popular to squat in but in you are a close stance guy you would probably be better off in something with a bit of a heel. For guys who feel more natural in a wider stance, they may work a little better. But that aside, try not to change your shoes from workout to workout. Changing your shoe will in fact change the flexion in the ankle, and thus changes the squat. It might not seem like much but there is a big difference. Don't believe me? Squat in 1 kind of shoe twice a week for a month then change the shoe. See if you don't get sore again. So be mindful of your footwear.

Notes - The more notes you take the better. What sucks? What feels awesome? What feels "meh"? If you are having a bad day, note that. That will tell you a lot too because on a bad day, a bad setup becomes even more pronounced to you. You will feel even weaker in that position, and it will suck more ass than usual. This is GOOD, not bad. Finding out what not to do will help you immensely. Pay just as much attention to the bad as the good.


In the final part (yes it's a freakin 3 parter!) I will go over fixing the most common weaknesses I see in raw squatters (I had these of course), how I fixed them, and some routines I have used to boost my squat.


  1. Outstanding post again Paul! BRB, printing and implementing article. A number of your points are resonating with me (i.e. finding your sweet spot, hips unhinge etc).

    Just out of curiosity, where did you develop the 10*3/5*5 test methodology? Did you think of it yourself? Scott

  2. Pretty much. I used to load up a bar with like 225 in my basement gym and do set after set playing with bar position, sit back, foot position, etc trying to find what worked best for me. I would make notes just like I wrote here. I didn't want to tell guys that were struggling just to spend hours going over this so I narrowed it down to the most common forms you see in squatting and would notice how the weight felt. Eventually I was able to figure out all of my own cues this way. So there is some trial and error involved even when trying to work around known proper leverages.

  3. This series needs to be an article somewhere. This, your Blue Collar Mass (or something like that) series, and your EL interview.

    EFS or T-Nation, or both.

  4. Another great article, Paul. Your article and a squat article by Mark Rippetoe got me thinking that I wasn't squatting optimally for a raw squatter. I talked to Landon Evans yesterday and he recommended playing around with my stance. I look forward to part 3.

  5. Thanks for the kind words Phil.

    Definitely take some time to find out exactly what feels BEST for YOU. For some of us that takes longer than others. It took me a long time to figure everything out and there isn't a lot of direction out there on how to fix problems in the raw squat. So I figured I could at least throw out there some of the things I learned.

    Now if I could ever get my deadlift to move! :) LOL

  6. Wendler's 5/3/1 program has worked the best for my deadlift. I went from 650 to 705 in 5 waves.

  7. Yeah you were one of the first 5/3/1 guys ever Jim told me. I'm just do horrible at pulling for reps. I have found a program that works for me, but my dead just moves very slowly. You went back to 5/3/1 after some tinkering with Sheiko right?

  8. I went back to 5/3/1 after Sheiko and block periodization. My lifts went down on block due to an overzealous transmutation block and I knew 5/3/1 would get my lifts back the quickest.

  9. 5/3/1 is a great program. Just don't tell Jim I said so. HAH!

  10. Hi Paul

    Firstly thanks for the blog some great ideas and simplicity here.

    Just wanted to get your opinion on 2 thoughts

    1) Over a fairly decent period of time (provided one is still raw and fit) how much do you think the original leverages will change as one gets stronger.

    2) What do you think of the idea of doing the above cycle for bench and deads. I am still a beginner and while my form looks right it doesn't feel right. Plus it seems like it would have more longterm benefits than anything else.

    Cheers and thanks for any response.

  11. 1 - Your leverages wouldn't change because you should be done growing however if you gain weight your squat could improve because of weight displacement through the midsection.

    2 - Deads and benches IMO aren't quite as difficult to nail down in terms of setup and how things need to feel. But you could still run the sets and reps and play with things to get an idea of what feels best.

    Hope this helps.

  12. Thanks Paul

    Both made good sense

  13. can the average male adult over 35 squat 400 someday????

  14. Maybe, maybe not. Not everyone will squat 400 that starts lifting. Some may do it in 6 months. Too many variables to say one way or the other.

  15. On the way down do you keep your knees tight or spread them? I understand spreading on the way up.