Monday, April 19, 2010

Developing your raw squat - Pt. I

Let me preface this article by saying I am not a great squatter. I would consider myself a decent raw squatter. I do all my squats no belt and no wraps, so what you see is what you get. I've done 605 on numerous occasions, tripled 585, done 500x8 and 455x10+ many times. All rock bottom, at around 245-250 pounds. I hope to put my best squatting together for a meet this year in August and hit 650 no belt, no wraps. When I hit a 700 no belt no wraps squat I will quit powerlifting and the interwebs. Maybe.....

So if you are squatting 700+ raw or were one of those 500 pound 15 year old squatters, this article may not be for you. Or you still may find something useful, who knows. I really intend it for guys who are struggling to find their way squatting and hope they can learn something from the mistakes I made, and things I learned.

Let me reiterate that my suggestions are just that. Everyone has to find their squat "sweet spots". My hope is that this will help you do that. My opinions are my own, they are not going to be gospel for everyone. Take what is useful and discard the rest.

The beginning -

Anyway, I was not a naturally good squatter, so this isn't an article by some guy that was squatting 400 at 15 years old the first time he walked into the gym. Hell, for the first many many years of lifting I didn't train legs a lot, and when I finally got into a real gym I did a lot of bodybuilding style workouts and leg pressed a lot.

When I first started squatting, it flat out did not feel right. I would hurt my back a lot going too heavy and had no real "feel" for what I was supposed to be doing. I knew I was supposed to be squatting because well, everyone says so (and with good cause). But I hated it. I wasn't good at it and when you're at a small gym in a small town with no competitive lifters to help you, everything goes by trial and error.

In the beginning I squatted with the bar high on my traps and would allow my knees to travel forward to start the movement, trying to keep my torso very erect. When the weight got heavy I would inevitably end up with my upper body doing the St. Louis arch, all bent over and low back taking a beating. Did this convince me that I was squatting all wrong? Oh heavens no, I kept doing it! Because I'm smart! (your sarcasm meter should be in the red there) Actually I just didn't have any help and was very frustrated. So I suffered through one low back strain after another. My squat poundage did not move and I was finding no benefit to this whole squat thing.

Eventually I smartened up. I knew if I was ever going to squat worth a damn, I needed to figure all of this out. Bar placement, foot placement, hip extension, hand placement, everything.

This took a lot of years of experimenting. And because I am patient when it comes to lifting, I will run something to give it a fair chance. Far too many lifters spin their wheels because if they haven't added 30 pounds to a lift after 3 workouts they scrap whatever they are doing. Finding what works for you can take time so be patient.

Without boring you with every iteration of squatting I did, this is what I finally settled on...

Bar placement -
I found that the bar sitting right on top of my rear delts felt best. This is a low bar placement. It also put me in my strongest position leverage wise. You will need to play with this to see where you feel strongest. Remember, if you have been squatting high bar forever, low bar placement might not feel normal at first. This is because bar placement will ultimately determine back angle, i.e. how much lean you have in your squat. The higher the bar is the more upright you tend to be. The lower the bar gets the more lean you will naturally have in your squat. This is normal. There is no right or wrong here, only what puts you in the most comfortable and strongest position.

Courtesy of Strength Strength

Also let me say that the con (sort of) to low bar placement is that your shoulders need to be fairly flexible for this bar placement. This is not an unhealthy position for your shoulders, in fact your shoulder health NEEDS to be good to work with this bar placement. If you can't get the bar back that far on your shoulders, work on shoulder flexibility with shoulder dislocates every day. I have permanent AC joint separation in my left shoulder and squatting like this gives me no problems. Doesn't mean it wont for you however. So be cognitive of your shoulder health if you switch to this style of bar placement.

This is a low bar placement. It sits right on top of my rear delts.

Foot placement -

This one didn't take quite so long. I knew pretty quickly I could not squat wide. I had guys try to tell me to get my feet out wider and "spread the floor" and all of that bullshit. If you're wearing double ply or canvas and squatting out of a monolift in a Jean Claude Van Damme full splits stance, maybe that works great. If you are a raw squatter walking your squat out from a rack this doesn't work as well. All it did was make my hips hurt like crazy. I found just at shoulder width with a very slight outward pointing of the toes is about perfect for me. Once you get your bar placement down, play with foot placement. When you hit your "sweet spot" you'll know it. The weight will move fast and feel lightest.

Hand placement -

If you go high bar this isn't as big a deal. Your traps (if you have any HAH!) "hold" the bar in place. You just need to grab onto the bar and stay tight. If you go low bar, hand placement will also be determined on how flexible your shoulders are (see how this comes full circle?). In the beginning I would get REALLY tight and try to squeeze my hands in as close as possible. However this would naturally tilt my elbows up a little more than I found ideal, and believe it or not elbow angle plays a bigger role than you think.

If your elbows are tilted up and back too high, you're going to get more bent over than ideal and lose ideal back angle. Now I go wider with my hand placement and just concentrate on squeezing everything together back there together with shoulder blades. I try to make sure my elbows do not rise too high in relation to the angle of my torso.

Have someone video tape you from the side on some heavy squats and notice what your elbows do. If they shoot up on the ascent, play with your hand placement and shoulder blade retraction to get them to stay down and aligned with the torso.

Notice the angle of my elbows.  They are inline with the angle of my torso.

Head/Eyes -

A lot of guys tell you to look up don't they? I have no idea why. Trying to "drive the bar back" and worrying about where the torso is going was big waste of energy and time for me. The squat is a hip/quad/hamstring/glute movement. The idea is to move it with those muscles, not driving your upperbody back to get it up. This never made any sense to me. To keep the cervical spine neutral you should be looking at a point on the floor about 6-7 feet in front of you. NOT up. What you want to worry about is strong hip drive out of the bottom, not where your torso is going. Now this doesn't mean you can get sloppy with your torso and arch. Your upperbody should stay tight and rigid and your arch maintained, but the weight should be moved with the lower body. Driving the bar backwards may work for some guys, but I found this to be one of the biggest wastes of time ever. Driving hard through the heels and facilitating hip drive boosted my squat more than worrying driving back into the bar.

Again, play with both. See which cue helps you drive harder out of the hole. For some guys driving the bar backwards may be a better cue, or it may not. Experiment to find which one is best for you.

Descent -

This is, in my opinion, the real key to squatting bigger, and the most complicated for guys who aren't natural squatters. You have three different joints involved in squatting, two that perform extension (hip and knee) and one that performs flexion (ankle). Making this all work can at first be complicated. Once you get some cues down for yourself, it will feel natural and your squat will really begin to move.

Before you even begin the descent you should have taken a deep breath and held. I put 20 pounds on a guys squat one night simply because he was not taking in a big breath to stabilize his midsection for the squat. So make sure you pay attention your breathing on each rep. I usually take in a single big breath for 2-3 reps.

The next part is to think about "sitting back". The degree of sit back will be determined by you. The "sit back sit back sit back" mantra that is preached in geared circles did not work for me. There are a few reasons why. First off, in raw squatting the quads are vitally important. I know this seems like an obvious statement to some, however some geared lifting circles have likened training quads to training biceps for the powerlifter (you should be training biceps too as they help stabilize the elbow and shoulder joint when you bench).

Raw squatters need superior quad strength to squat big. The quads share the majority of the load and work in conjunction with the hips and hamstrings. When you perform an exaggerated sit back in a raw squat the knees do not travel forward very far, or at all, (keeping the shins more perpendicular, straight up and down) and the quads are not engaged as much, and your levers get all F'd up (to be scientific about it). You lose power and leverage. If you look at the example above you will see the knee travels in front of the toes. Regardless of what you have been told this is not bad. The knees do need to track in the same path as the feet/toes however to REALLY engage the quads they will in fact need to travel slightly over the toes. The length which they travel will obviously be different for everyone. Someone with short femurs it won't be very much, and someone with longer femurs it would obviously be more. But the overall angle of hip to knee should be similar.

Now the actual sitting back part is going to be different for everyone to get into position. So play with how much you sit back and get a feel for what feels best for you. I use a small sit-back.

After the sit back, you should actually drop straight down, keeping the low back arched hard. Now explaining the next part is fairly difficult. Some say you need to push your knees out, just enough to allow yourself to sit down between your legs. This is true, but this cue did not work for me. Ed Coan said you needed to spread the groin after the sit back. This cue did not work for me. For me it was to let the hips "unhinge" (my sit back) and to keep the weight over my heels. This put everything into place and the squat felt more like a leg press and I could press properly from my heels. Either way, you need find your mental and physical cues that help you drive best with your hips and legs out of the hole.

Let me also address that a high bar squatter and lower bar squatter will have very different looking descents. A high bar guy might really just drop straight down with very little unhinging of the hips. A low bar guy will unhinge more, with that slight sit back I talked about above. So remember that bar placement will effect your descent as well, then of course the angle of your torso.

My back is flat and my head looking down just ahead of me to keep my spine neutral. From this position I will drive with my hips from the hole.

My mental and physical cues work like so -

- Grab the bar right out around the rings or right outside of them
- Hips under the bar in the rack
- Pull bar into my rear delts and squeeze shoulder blades together
- Unrack bar and take two steps (right foot back first then left foot)
- Check toe angle
- Find spot on floor about 6 feet in front of me
- Take in deep breath and hold, making sure midsection is tight and back is arched
- Unhinge and descent (I have a pretty good forward lean in my squat)
- Make sure weight stays on heels
- Put hams on calves
- Drive hard out of the hole with hips making sure to maintain arch

It seems like it might be a lot of thinking but it's second nature to me now. Play with each of the things mentioned to find your sweet spot. You might find a bit of each one as you try new things, so make a written note of them. Soon you will be able to put it all together and your squat will feel natural to you.

In part II I will talk about correcting weakness issues (back caving over, knees caving in) and setting up a squat cycle to help start setting some PR's.


  1. Just found this blog. Good stuff! I will be following it.


  2. Awesome article Paul. After reading a lot of bad advice for raw lifters, it was nice to finally get some useful information. Thanks again, this is great stuff!

  3. Excellent post Paul! I'm been frustrated with my squat and your early days summarize exactly where I'm at...

    When I first started squatting, it flat out did not feel right. I would hurt my back a lot going too heavy and had no real "feel" for what I was supposed to be doing.... I wasn't good at it and when you're at a small gym in a small town with no competitive lifters to help you, everything goes by trial and error.

    Due to my frustration I've been experimenting and recently purchased new shoes (rogue do-wins vs. wrestling shoes) and a camcorder. I figure it's a small investment when compared to serious lower back pain.

    Anyhow, I'm hope you can provide some feedback regarding my form ( )...

    Some points I've observed:
    1) Need to break from the hips first (i.e. sit-back better)
    2) Elbows better in line w/ my torso
    3) Reset after after each squat...that 225*10 was real ugly
    4) Eyes pointed 6-7 ft in front
    5) increase the speed of my concentric
    6) focus better on driving my hips out of the hole

    If you agree/disagree with any of the aforementioned points I would be interested in your input...along with any other observations.

    BTW, what shoes do you squat in?

    Sorry for the long post and thanks...Scott

  4. Scott,
    I wear adidas sambas. Truth is I would like something with a little more heel but these will do.

    It looks like to me from your videos that your concentration is on staying very upright. A lot of guys do this but it's perfectly normal to have some lean in your squat. That's what the hip joint is designed to do. You can't really unhinge the hips and stay perfectly upright. So if you don't feel like you are able to drive with power out of the hole with the high bar position and staying upright, lighten the weight and go low bar. Unhinging on low bar placement will feel more natural than with a high bar placement. Because you are high bar and trying to stay upright, hinging will not feel natural.

    Hope this helps.

  5. Another great article and a subject I am interested in. The article did give me some ideas as to what I am doing wrong. I competed in gear for years and switched to raw powerlifting May of 2008. I also lean when I squat. Maybe I should not worry about leaning.

  6. Very well written article Paul! Thanks for sharing that.

  7. Phil,
    I used to worry about that myself but after I did more research I realized that for some of us, that's exactly what the hip joint was going to do. All of our levers aren't the same so if you have lean in your squat, don't worry about it. Eric Lilliebridge and Tyson Meyers can stay completely upright in both close and wide stances. I can't stay that upright in ANY stance. So if you have lean don't sweat it. So long as your back stays neutral and your hip drive is good you're good to go.

  8. I see you're down with Rip's methods. Do you ever have trouble with the knees moving forward at the bottom?

    Rip states that about about 1/2 to 2/3 of the way down, forward knee movement should stop.

    I've tried his "block of wood" approach, where you place a 4x4 block in front of the foot and allow that to provide some feedback where the knees should go. With this, my knees can stay behind my toes and I can hit depth.

    No matter how frequent its use, when I remove it they go more forward and move forward after 2/3 of the descent. Maybe it's more natural for me or a bad habit? I'm about 6'2" with 34" inseam, so who knows.

    Ever worry about this?

  9. as long as the bar is staying in your power path and you feel strong out of the hole I wouldn't worry about it. I definitely like Mark's teachings and methods however I don't get so rigid about some things. As Phil noted above, he worried about his forward lean too much but it felt natural to him. I always just focus on my hip drive and how strong I feel coming out of the hole. With the squat there are so many factors you can end up with paralysis by analysis. I'm going to get more into this in part II.

  10. I got into the whole sit back too much thing and spreading the floor equipped thing. Only when I changed my style did squatting feel more natural and powerful. I am a raw lifter. This guy really knows what he is talking about. I also try to get a little pop out of the descent hit the hole with a little controlled speed.

  11. Great article, looks like your technique is pretty similar to mine. Nice to know that I'm on the right path.

  12. Hands down the most informative, and actionable article on the squat iv seen on the net. keep these coming man

  13. Well goddammit. That deep breath hold helps. I hadn't focused breath other than on the lift out of the hole as exhale. I can't think of one good reason besides stupidity for not focusing more on the hold. Your 3-4 rep example (I can't do it) put it into perspective well. That practice recently pushed me through a PR rather easily. Thanks

  14. Great article! I have a long way to go, but my squats are starting to feel more natural and I am making slow progress.
    Thanks for sharing your knowledge and experience!!

    1. My pleasure. Glad you got something out of this.

  15. I've got to ask. People speak of gearing and so forth: I squat nothing more than a support belt at the higher weight. Is that still raw, or does that belt count towards "gear?"

    1. to my own standards...

      raw = no belt, belt only

      unequipped = knee wraps and belt

      gear/equipped = squat suit, brifs, knee wraps, bench shirts, etc

    2. Something about that just doesn't seem right.

      Neat. You can lift more with these suits. I can lift more with a forklift. I know the analogy is extreme, but come on...

      Just one (still learning) guy's opinion.

    3. It's a debate that has been going on for some time now.

  16. I wish I had found this sooner! I worked up to 340x20 a year ago and then read about stupid ass dynamic work and squatting wide on elite fts. Don't get me wrong thats great and all - for suit guys. My squat has been so fucked that my first meet this past December was 20 less than my best full oly squat.

    Today I had my wheaties and hit 315x20 for my AMAP set with a few in the tank and 10 more for the 50% set a minute later (also could've hit a few more) - first rep looked as solid as the 30th. I didn't piss around with worrying about splitting the floor today and just attacked it. Couldn't be happier.

  17. Thank you for this. I was nearly about to give up squatting. Too much hip pain in the front of my hips. I too was told to "squat wide". I was also told to sit back more. I felt like I was going to fall backwards. This info has helped! I am not spot on yet, but last session was better. Question. Do you feel awkward with lighter weights, but notice form improvement as you get heavier? 135 feels all weird, but after 185-225 I find a groove.

  18. this blog is very helpful since i do not squat as much i will start looking at these more!