The squat is one of those moves that I have long held a love / hate relationship with. On one hand I love having strong legs and the feeling of tension surging through my body in a big powerful way. On the other hand, I hated having that damn barbell pressing down on my back and the stress on my spine.
My black and white relationship changed when I made a shift over to body weight based exercise and gave up on the heavy weights. At first, I was concerned that the lack of heavy weight would compromise my strength, but that fear quickly dissipated when my legs became even bigger and stronger through progressive body weight squats.
Not that it was all sunshine and roses. While I always thought I was strong under the bar, some of the advanced body weight squats proved to be quite the challenge. I didn’t know it at first, but my lack of lower body strength was compromised by those barbell squats. I believed I was doing everything right, but the rules I was following were mostly due to the artificial nature of the barbell back squat. Yes I said artificial back squat. While squatting in itself is as natural as breathing, doing a barbell squat is about as natural as an all beef hot dog. While all of the primary ingredients are natural, the packaging isn’t what Mother Nature Intended. The ability to load hundreds of pounds on your upper back is almost entirely a product of human engineering. It was almost impossible to back squat 300 pounds until we invented the adjustable barbell and squat rack. Before then, it was a struggle to load up the back with even half that weight, let alone have it perfectly balanced and in control.
I’m not saying the back squat is a bad move and that you shouldn’t do it. By all means crush it. I’m just mentioning it because many of the rules about how to squat are grounded in the back squat rather than the natural squat that Mother Nature intended.
When you squat with a heavy weight you need to follow a few rules for the sake of safety and control. However once it’s about controlling your own body weight some of these rules can keep your potential in check. They can limit your range of motion, flexibility, control and over all strength. Let’s look at these rules in detail.
#1- Don’t let your knees move too far forward.
I recently was working with a client who kept trying to squat without letting his knees move forward even an inch or two. He kept complaining that he had trouble staying upright and not falling backwards. He said he was fine in the squat rack, but when it came to body weight it was almost impossible.
I quickly told him to let his knees track forward as far as he could. The more forward travel the better, just as long as his heels stayed down. He looked at me as if I had 2 heads but when he tried it the motion seemed a whole lot easier to work.
The reason for this is simple. When you have a heavy weight on your back, or in your hands, that weight will counter balance your center of gravity as you sit back into the squat. I’ve even seen some folks throw their weight so far behind them that the weight on their back practically makes them bent in half as if they are bowing down to the front of the squat rack. Their knees are almost directly above their heels as the weight pulls their upper body forward.
Once again, this is a construct of an artificial loaded situation. It’s almost entirely possible because of that heavy weight, but once that weight disappears your natural center of balance is all messed up.
Letting your knees flex forwards is not unhealthy and can actually keep your knees strong. In addition, it also improves ankle flexibility, ramps up calf muscle engagement and demands much of the muscles in the front of your shin. In essence, trying to prevent your knees from moving forwards is an attempt to prevent much of your lower leg from getting into the game. It creates stiff ankles, weak shin muscles and prohibits calf engagement. Not to mention it can also stress the hell out of your knees. If your lower leg has minimal engagement all of the stress from the squat flows down your body and pools into your knees. The more you can get your lower leg involved the move that tension can flow through your knees rather than stopping there and creating stressful damage.
So let your knees move forwards. Just make sure you can keep come weight on your heels which brings me to rule #2.
#2- Push through your heels.
This is one of those rules that has good intentions but it sometimes goes out of hand. I often see people push through their heels so much that their weight shifts far back and their toes may even lift off the floor.
Ideally your weight should press down on your entire foot. I always push through my heels when I squat. I also push through the ball of my foot and toes as well. The reason is simple, you have less balance and muscle activation when your weight is leaning heavily on our heels. Any boxer or fighter will tell you that they are vulnerable when they are “caught on their heels.” They lack mobility, balance, control and power which makes them vulnerable during the fight. In much the same way you don’t want to be caught on your heels when squatting for the same reasons.
Squatting is very much a balance exercise and it’s essential you become highly capable of being able to fine tune where your weight resides in your feet. This is why I give many clients an exercise where I have them squat down and then shift their weight from their heels to their toes back and forth so they can learn that fine motor control.
After all, many of the muscles in your legs control your weight control through the use of your entire foot. Why limit that control by taking as much weight as possible off of your foot?
Both of these rules may be fine, and even necessary when it comes to certain squats, but it’s time we made the body weight squat the standard version of the exercise and heavily weighted methods the modified style. Calling the back squat the standard squat is like telling someone you’re going for a run and they assume you’re running on a treadmill while watching reality TV. It may not be bad, but it’s not what your body was built for.
In the next post I’ll go over 2 more squat myths that need to die including how deep you should squat and why you should let your spine round forward.