The thing I focus on most when coaching the squat

Sometimes you hear other people say something that you already know, but the way in which they express it is so elegant that it helps you clarify your own thinking on the topic. Recently on Weakly Weights we had a guest, Nathan Baxter, who described the powerlifts by attempting to distil them to their simplest form. For the squat, he said it was basically all about balance.

I’ve been harping on about foot pressure in the squat for ages, now. The squat school videos by Juggernaut do a good job demonstrating the importance of maintaining a tripod foot (one with points of pressure in the big toe, little toe and heel) to squat effectively, and the simple cue of driving the big toe down has been handy for my clients and I in a variety of applications, the most important of which being preventing the knees shooting back as you commence the ascent (aka the “good morning” squat).

The opposite is true, too, in that we often have to cue people to keep their heel down as they first learn to squat. In another episode of Weakly Weights (“Fixing the squat”) I described it like this; if you have no forefoot pressure when you squat you can’t use your quads effectively, and if you have no heel pressure when you squat you can’t use your hips effectively.

Since hearing Nathan describe the squat as he did I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking through the squat. Unfortunately there aren’t any magic cues or fixes that will solve every technical error, but given that errors in foot pressure can be both causal of and symptomatic of other errors in execution, I invariably start by looking at the feet to see whether weight distribution is even, and if not, where and when during the squat pattern the weight shifts. Sometimes, simply cueing to correct the distribution in weight can make a marked difference on the squat, other times I may refer back to the weight distribution across the feet to see if the other technical changes I make are helping.

Consider these few examples (there are many more)

1 – Many lifters initially get the hang of “sitting back” to commence their squat. However, instinctively many people ALSO try to remain too upright through the trunk whilst doing so. It feels unnatural to let yourself lean over whilst supporting a heavy weight on your back. Remaining too upright will cause your centre of mass to move backwards towards the heel early in the descent, and in order to rebalance, continue the descent and hit depth you’ll often see the torso collapse forward and weight translate forward across the foot towards the toe.
Ironically, many people take this collapse as an indication that they need to try harder to stay upright, when in reality leaning over a little more early in the descent would have kept them balanced across the foot and avoided that “falling forward” sensation. Cueing either/both of “lean over and keep your big toe down” on the descent can often fix this.

2 – Similar things can occur for lifters with limited ankle mobility, who will often sit back too far on their heels (as letting the knee move forward and maintaining even foot pressure requires ankle mobility that they may not have). Improving ankle mobility or using a heeled shoe can make a marked difference in this case, although cueing appropriate foot pressure is still often necessary to eliminate the tendency to sit too far back on the heel.
In their start position these lifters may also have their kneecap sitting way behind their midfoot and their hips flexed to compensate – doing this buys them additional range through the ankle. See my article on being stacked while squatting (coming soon) to hear what I think of that.

3 – Lifters with weak quadriceps, or who are poor at using them when squatting, will often shift back on the heels abruptly as they begin their ascent. This is coupled with the knees shooting back and the hips rising (aka the “good morning squat”). As I said earlier, a lack of forefoot pressure makes using the quads effectively hard – it is only when the patella stays ahead of the centre of mass that the quad is well positioned to assist you squatting. By letting the knee shoot back, folding over more at the hips and shifting back onto their heels, lifters transfer knee extension demands to their hips, asking more of the glutes and hamstrings.
Often cueing “drive the big toe down” or “knees forward” or “stand straight up” or some combination of the three can begin with correcting this pattern.

In all three cases, an issue somewhere along the chain can be manifest at the foot, and occasionally simply cueing balance can correct it. The best practice for squatting correctly is to squat (correctly), so practicing the correct pattern, with the correct weight distribution, with a load that allows you (or your client) to perform most reps near-perfectly is the first port of call for fixing these issues in the long term.

However, a few specific exercises have been useful for me and my clients in creating some awareness of foot pressure, especially when combined with the cueing that they require.

1 – Tempo descent squats are useful when people lose foot pressure during the descent (such as in case number 1 above). When executed with the intention of maintaining an even weight distribution they can make you much more aware of the point at which you lose it and give you a chance to correct it. If you routinely fall back on your heels in the first third of the descent, performing these slowly whilst driving your toe down and trialling leaning forward more will let you feel out the difference between a good and bad descent.

2 – Pin squats are great for lifters who lose balance during the descent or as they commence their ascent. It’s very hard to break the bar off of the pins without driving straight down through your feet, and if you have to redistribute your weight whilst the bar is resting on the pins then that is indicative of an error in the descent. Paused squats are also effective for this purpose.

3 – Box squats, performed correctly, are a great teaching tool also. An error that many people make (at least for the purposes of learning to squat for powerlifting) is to fall back onto the box and then rock forward on the feet again when standing up. If instead they are cued to let their hips sit back to the box whilst keeping their toes down this exercise can be very helpful in conceptualising the synchronous folding at the hip and knee that squatting requires. I often tell athletes to “stand on their feet, but kiss the box with your butt” – it isn’t there as a seat, just as a teaching tool.

4 – Safety bar squats, due to the way the bar distributes weight around your body, are extra punishing of technical errors. When describing the “good morning” squat I explained how the knees shoot back and the hips rise early, causing the torso the lean over more. If the knees and hips move even a little asynchronously during a safety bar squat the feedback is very pronounced – it feels terrible. I’ve often had lifters tell me that they feel that they are using their legs very well whilst doing safety bar squats, presumably for this very reason – they must keep their knees forward and their weight distribution even to avoid feeling like they’ll be turned into a pretzel. On the other hand, the extra stress on the thoracic erectors from this also helps build some resilience to falling out of your groove, so for lifters who struggle to grind squats I suspect they’re quite helpful too.
Front squats can serve similar purposes, as they also punish you for your knees shifting back, but due to the difficulty in maintaining a strong rack position and the lesser similarities between front squats and back squats mechanically I use them more sparingly.

It’s about balance

To bring that all together – squats are about balance. If you see a technical error, it will often be reflected in a change at your contact point with the ground. Cueing appropriate foot pressure often helps people execute the movement correctly, and where it doesn’t seeing a renewed maintenance of even weight distribution usually indicates that something is improving. Creating some awareness of what even foot pressure feels like is a good idea, and specific squat variations and cueing can assist with this.

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