Those that trained under Hugh Cassidy were able to recognize one another by a signature squat technique. Once the squatter had positioned under the barbell, he inhaled and the instant he had a full breath and attained full and complete body tension, the Cassidy-trained lifter STOMPED! the dominant foot on the platform while simultaneously pushing upward. This "popped" the barbell out of the squat rack. Most lifters that try this technique make the mistake of stomping the foot then pushing upward. This technique is not one-two - the stomp and the push upward are one. It takes considerable time and practice to master this move but when it is mastered the weight seems to leap upward. I never had Karwoski learn this technique because he was left handed and left footed and it confused the hell out me and I in turn him. On the other hand, Cassidy was left handed so in retrospect I should have had Hugh teach Kirk.

 

Featured Equipment: weightlifting belt, squat racks, barbell

The Squat Papers: Part I

The squat is a technically complicated bio-mechanical movement that offers a thousand opportunities to perform incorrectly. The biggest sin in all of squatting when trainees perform what I term "The ‘good morning' to parallel" squat," a bio-mechanical abomination wherein the squatters first movement is not to squat down = rather to bend forward. The trainee takes the bar out of the squat cage, ‘set ups' and breaks their knees to commence their descent at which point they begin a controlled forward bend done in conjunction with a shallow squat.

The goal of the good-morning-to-parallel squat is to involve and recruit as many muscles as possible to assist the (weak) legs in accomplishing the assigned task, i.e., squat down to parallel or above with as much poundage as possible. The idea of the good-morning-to-parallel squat is to "help" the legs, weak in relation to stronger lower back and hip muscles, as much as possible. This technique seeks (unconsciously) to prevent the squat from being thigh isolative.

Improper Barbell Squat

Abomination taught as Gospel: the forward lean good-morning-to-parallel

The above photo sequence perfectly illustrates all that is wrong about "squatting" and the teaching of the squat. Let's rip this apart: photo #2 shows that the movement shown above is way more "bend forward" then "squat down." Photo # 3 has payload (barbell) way ahead of hips (disastrous) and knees are forward and no doubt collapsed inward. Depth is insufficient. In the good-morning-to-parallel, the barbell travels in an arc: in a proper squat, the barbell moves up and down: if the elite squatter leans forward with his payload, as in photo # 2 the weight will take the torso to the floor uncontrollably. Squats are meant to be ‘thigh centric' whereas the abomination pictured above is some sort of weird lower back exercise with a minimum of thigh muscle stimulation The proper squat is preceded by a perfect set-up and the perfect set-up for a barbell front or back squat is preceded by a perfect technical understanding and subsequent execution. I will not allow students to back squat until they master proper no-weight squatting - how can you squat properly with a barbell if the individual is incapable or unable to squat properly without weight? The main reason we stress barbell front squat is the front squat demands an upright torso and renders the lean forward horror that we see in photo #2 impossible.

Barbell Squat Leaning Forward

This is wrong on so many levels: the depth is superb - the bad news is how she got there and how she's going to have to come erect. The spine at the tailbone has to become a hinge and she will have to come erect by derricking the torso erect. Knees and payload (the barbell) are way ahead of the feet; plus she uses a thumb-less, powerless, grip. This photo is often shown as an example of proper squatting. This is a spinal erector exercise, not a leg exercise.

Improper Olympic Barbell Squatting Technique in Squat Cage

Oh the horror! Excruciating, good-morning-to-parallel technique caught in action. Imagine the spinal stress on lower back coming erect. Note how knees have collapsed inward to further aid weak legs. Lifter is using every trick imaginable used to aide weak legs lift poundage incapable of. This lifter, squatting 450, would be hard pressed to squat 300 properly.

Improper Squat Technique Using a Barbell Pad

Gruesome squat technique exemplified

I am sure she is a nice lady - however whoever taught her this style, or perhaps to put a finer point on it - whoever allowed her to squat this way should be hit with a fitness malpractice lawsuit. Look closely at this all-too-common technique: does anyone really think the thighs (the target of any legitimate squat) are being worked?? Hell no! The spinal erectors are being worked to death as the world's finest back exercise is turned into an exercise abomination.

Note how the payload (the barbell) is in front of her feet - how is she to achieve the locked-out position? Why by derricking the spinal erector upward in a hellacious spine-busting vertabre-crushing semi-arc. Ironically, this technique was so well thought of that some idiot went to the trouble to photograph this technique as a squat model for an exercise book. The finishing touch is the gloves; no doubt critical for this squat technique. This actually could be an effective neck strengthening exercise as she must exert considerable neck pressure up and back to keep the bar from rolling over her head. Ghastly and commonplace, I label this the "good morning to above parallel" lift.

Step 1
The Perfect Squat Set-up

Kirk Karwoski and I at seminars will often half-jokingly tell participants that we could easily spend a solid hour discussing just the squat set-up. There should be a specific, check list procedure for the squat set-up. The set-up is defined as any and all actions taken by the athlete to take the barbell out of the squat racks, step back, set the feet to the proper width using several adjustment steps and then attaining full attention with the barbell on the shoulders front or back. The lifter then lifts the ribcage, breathes in as if they were sucking all the air out of the room and unlocks the knees to commence the first repetition. Everything up until the knees unlock and the actual descent begins is part of the set up. Here is the set up check list...

Grip & Grip Width

  1. set the left hand precisely on the bar using the 32 inch outer ring as the guide
  2. set the right hand precisely on the bar using the 32 inch outer ring a the guide
  3. to know where to set the hands requires you make squat grip-width choices
  4. we want as narrow a grip-width as structure and discomfort allow
  5. why? We want to push upward actively with the arms during the ascent
  6. this instead of draping hands or attaining some no-tension arm positioning
  7. loose arms make it difficult to attain and retain upper body tension when squatting
  8. when using a ‘wedge' squat grip maintain maximal upper body tension is easy
  9. tension torso, particularly in the bottommost point, makes it easier to stay erect
  10. grip width is predetermined; best arrived at squatting light to medium poundage

Front Barbell Squat Using Proper Form and Technique

Front squat with ‘cross-hand' grip - stance is properly wide - elbows are held high and kept at this angle parallel to floor. I will tell cross-hand front squatters to "raise the elbows!" as they descend. The natural tendency is to drop the elbows when the pushing gets tough. Flexed thighs and glutes,, good torso tension.

The "Step Under"

  1. both hands are set precisely on the barbell set in the squat rack
  2. take the dominant foot and step forward placing ankle under barbell
  3. take the other foot and step forward placing other ankle under the barbell
  4. for front squat, break the knees, dip down and position the bar on shoulders
  5. the front squat can use either ‘cross hand' or ‘classical' grip
  6. for back squat, break at the knees, dip down and under
  7. end up with the center of the barbell on the back of the neck
  8. high-bar back squat: bar set atop traps
  9. low-bar back squat: bar rests lower on back, across flexed rear deltoids
  10. foot stance for set-up ‘lift off' is narrow: no more than 12 inches between heels

Breaking the barbell from the supports

  1. build tension into the body over a 3-4 second period
  2. do not go from no tension to complete tension: less to more
  3. simultaneously to tension building, inhale
  4. inhales as if you are trying to suck all the air out of the room
  5. the inhalation synchronizes with the muscle tension building
  6. when no more tension can be built or no more air inhaled, rotate tailbone
  7. the tailbone/hip assembly is rotated under
  8. shoulder are atop knees, knees are atop ankles in perfect push position
  9. the athlete, full of air and tension, pushes downward with the legs
  10. the athlete pushes straight up and lets the weight ‘settle'

Step back and adjustment steps

  1. do not break the barbell from the racks and immediately step backward
  2. stand erect, don't move, let weights settle, bar in now supported by lifter
  3. now step backward and outward with the strong leg
  4. settle bodyweight into the strong leg; simultaneously step back with the weak leg
  5. now shift the bodyweight from strong leg to weak leg
  6. as the weight settles into the weak leg, adjust the strong foot
  7. shift the weight yet again to the adjusted strong leg
  8. take final adjustment step with weak leg
  9. the procedure is to break barbell from rack using tension and sharp exhalation
  10. having stepped back with each leg and taken two adjustment steps, ready to squat

Stance width: what is your right stance width and how do you find it? Optimal stance width is arrived at squatting without a barbell. The right stance width is based on limb proportionality and body shape and contour. Experiment and find a squat stance width that allows you to squat all the way down and stay down while maintaining balance. Deep, paused, no-weight "free-hand" squats are used to establish deep, balanced squat technique that establishes and maintains an upright torso. Measure your optimal width!

Standing erect with a loaded barbell

One repeated squat mistake is to set-up, assume the optimal stance width, then stand with unlocked knees on un-flexed hips and torso muscles, bent forward at the waist, preparing to squat. In international powerlifting competition, the bent-forward lifter standing on unlocked knees will NOT be given the "SQUAT!" command. The rules states: at the start of the squat, before being given the requisite head referee signal to SQUAT!, knees must be locked and the lifter must stand erect. The lifter below would not be given the signal to commence a squat in competition on account of unlocked knees.

The squatter should be able to stand erect for a protracted period of time IF legs, glutes, abs and torso are flexed and locked out. Bent knees, bending forward (as a result of un-flexed muscles) at the torso is to be avoided. Lock out between reps! My old Zen Powerlifting coach used to yell at us - "Stand at attention! He used to make us stand with the poundage for protracted periods of time between reps as a way to force us to "lock every joint; flex every muscle."

Barbell Squat using Improper Start Position

Above: typical, a bad start position; when knees are unlocked glutes cannot contract and payload forces the lifter forward - the only way to be able to hold the poundage on an "unlocked body." Note how when tailbone is unlocked spine is forced to curve backward and upward. When forced to stand with heavy poundage regardless of squat type, rotate tailbone and hips down under when standing with squat poundage. I yell at lifters after set-up and before squatting, "LOCK OUT! Flex the legs - HARD! Flex the glutes, HARD! Flex the upper back HARD!" I instruct them ahead of time about breathing.

Breathing

  1. inhale mightily - ‘as if you're trying to suck all of the air out of the room'
  2. lift and raise shoulder in synchronization with inhalation
  3. unless shoulders are forcibly lifted, poundage crushes lungs impeding inhalation
  4. don't inhale all at once at the top; pull air into the lungs in a sync with lowering
  5. have all your air inhaled as you approach parallel
  6. hold air in lungs to aide and maintain torso tension
  7. don't exhale all at once; commence exhalation halfway erect
  8. exhalation is compete just as the lifter reaches lockout
  9. between reps FORCE breathing
  10. lift shoulders to aide breath inhalation - otherwise poundage compresses lungs

Rep speed
Bad squatters go down fast and come up slow
Good squatters go down slow and come up fast

Generally speaking, we want a controlled descent to maximum depth using a synchronized inhalation that creates maximally expanded lungs aiding in maintaining an upright torso at the ‘turn-around' where eccentric becomes concentric. Arising we seek to move as fast as possible (maintaining proper posture) - this is known as compensatory acceleration. CA is a learned skill and is practiced on every rep of every set. If you have ever had the pleasure of watching the world's greatest squatter, Kirk Karwoski, warm up, the sharp eye would note how ‘respectfully' he treats his light warm-ups. He approaches 135 with the same concentration as 900. By treating his 135 (and subsequent) warm-ups as if it weighed 900 he ‘greases the groove,' and starts laying the technical groundwork for the maximum weights later in the same workout.

I tell my athletes that they should be able to move 135 pounds with twice the velocity of 270 pounds and three times the velocity of 405. I once worked with a female lifter that, try as she might, could not move 135 pounds one iota faster than her 225 max. I explained to her that she did not have control of her body - that subconsciously her central nervous system and golgi-tendon reflex (Nature's shutdown switch) were telling HER how to squat. ‘There is no earthly reason why you are unable to push 135 upward faster than 225 - except a greater force is overruling the mental commands you are giving your own body.' Over the course of the next 60 days I broke her back down to zero: we found a poundage she was able to move faster that her max (75 pounds) and for the next two months she was not allowed to squat (on the concentric) slowly.

After four weeks she had progressed to where she was pushing 185x3 very quickly and I threw a ‘report card day' the following session. She hit 235 x 1 and became a believer. Over the next month we worked her upward, using her new CA technique to 245 for three reps. She squatted 300 in competition (raw) and all this had the nice side benefit of pushing her deadlift up from 330 to 385. The human body is highly conditioned and athletes need be aware of this conditioning and if they need ‘override' the body's subconscious and unconscious control mechanisms. CA is a learned skill.

"Chugging" air between reps and 20-rep squats for contrast

At very least we need one breath per squat and often we need more than one rep. The squat is unique in that mentally tough individuals can ‘self-administer' forced reps and extend the length of the set by ‘huffing' multiple breathes between reps. Back in the olden days, all true Iron Men would periodically use the "20-rep breathing squat" as a growth stimulator, a test of mental acuity and ritualistic rite of passage. The idea was simple: take a weight you can squat for ten reps and squat it 20 times. How is this possible? You stand erect between each squat rep and you inhale as many times as needed to allow the thighs, hips, glutes and lower back to clear lactic acid and recover. The deeper into the 20 rep set you get, the more breaths are needed to recover. Often a lifter might need ten breaths to recover on reps 17, 18, 19 and 20. Breathing squats taught a man how to stand locked out and breathing squats taught a man about dealing with muscular discomfort (mental acuity) and taught a man he was capable of far more than he thought. Here is Mac McCallum on 20-rep breathing squats.

"Face the rack when you're squatting. If you work as you're supposed to you'll be too beat to jockey around with putting the barbell back into the racks when done. Keep your head up and don't round your back. Fix your gaze on an imaginary spot on the wall above head height. Take three huge breaths; all the air you can cram into your lungs. Hold the third breathe and squat. Go down to below parallel and bounce back up as hard and as fast as possible. {compensatory acceleration} Breathe out forcibly when you're almost erect. At the top take three more forced, deep breaths. Keep this up for twenty reps. You might need more than three breaths the deeper into the set you get. You've got to work hard enough that the 12th rep feels like the last. Each of the final reps should be doubtful. You've got to practically bleed on these squats. Work like you have never worked before. When you finish the set you should be so wiped out that you can barely walk. This should be the hardest weight work you've ever do. The difficulty is an absolute must for success. Over time you want to work the poundage upward: 300x20 for the little guys and 400 x20 for the big guys."

20-rep squats also provided a tremendous contrast to classical squatting workout structural sameness and would provide a terrific way for the stagnant lifter to break out of the morass of squat sameness.

"Knees out!" and "Crotch open!"
Fail with integrity rather than succeed using flawed technique

During a tough concentric push upward through the squat sticking point, another trick is to allow the knees to collapse inward in order to "sneak" through the sticking point. This is to be avoided: not only is it playing to weakness (instead of building strength by maintaining structural integrity, collapsing knees inward can damage the delicate knee parts. Imagine the knee stress absorbed by a lifter that allows his knees to collapse inward - often violently - in order to get through the tough part. I will tell lifters to force the knees out as they come into contact with the sticking point. Doug Furnas put a much finer point on it: "rather than force the knees out, forcibly open the crotch

Ed Coan: Don't push your knees outward, rather open up your groin. There is a difference...Doug Furnas taught me this. I don't push my ass out that far at the start of the squat. I stick it back just a little bit, right when I start, then I open up my groin as I'm bending my knees. I drop straight down from there.

Front Barbell Squat with Conventional Grip

Lifter displays perfect start position using "conventional grip" (as opposed to ‘cross hand grip') in the front squat.

About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of numerous books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.