An increasing number of people are realising the benefits of strength training and as a result, more people than ever are getting under barbells and squatting. The squat is the most important lift in the Starting Strength method is arguably the most important barbell lift
The arguments between a high-bar and low-bar squat have been discussed ad nauseum and shall not be addressed here. We strongly recommend the low-bar back squat (referred to from here as The Squat) and our reasoning behind it has been explained in detail in the book, Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training 3rd Edition.
When new clients walk into the gym for coaching sessions, we see a whole host of errors on the squat; the majority of these errors occur when the barbell is in motion while the lifter is performing the squat. However, errors can occur even before the lifter does a single rep. We see it happen pretty regularly and it’s in the placement of the bar – bad placement can ruin the rep even before it has begun.
Before we can even start to squat and think about feet placement/back angles/knees angles etc, the first thing we must do is to get the barbell on our backs correctly. Firstly, to know where to place the barbell, we need to identify the exact location of where the barbell should sit when we’re performing the squat. Take your hand, reach across to your opposite shoulder and place your pointer and middle fingers on the acromioclavicular joint (Fig.1). Palpate the area and slowly work your way back, slowly “walking” down towards your heels with your fingers and pressing into the flesh. About a couple of centimeters, you should feel a “drop off” (Fig.2). The point where the “drop off” happens is the spine of your scapula and the bar sits just south of that.
We often see lifters try to find the correct spot to place the barbell by placing their hands on the barbell, pushing themselves excessively forwards under the bar and placing the barbell way below the rear deltoids, then sliding the barbell back up to where they feel is the right position. What we’ve noticed about this method is that the barbell usually to ends up a little lower than where it should be. Having the barbell sitting a little too low on the back will cause problems as the bar tends to slide down during the set.
Next time you get under a bar to squat, follow these steps:
- Set the bar on the squat rack at the appropriate height. Position the height of the barbell so that it’s roughly at the middle of your sternum when you’re standing fully upright. This may seem lower than what you’re used to but remember that we’re performing a squat and the bar will sit just below the spine of the scapula.
Some racks have pretty wide hole spacings that do not allow you to position the barbell in the middle of your sternum. Apart from changing to a gym that has better equipment, choose the lower hole as opposed to the higher one. It may be more tedious to unrack the bar from a slightly slower hole but that beats trying to rack a heavy bar back to the J hooks that are just ever so slightly too high.
- Once you’ve got the bar placed at the appropriate height, place your hands on the bar symmetrically, a little wider than shoulder width with a thumbless grip. Walk up to the bar and bring your forehead to the center knurl (or center of the bar if your barbell doesn’t have a center knurl). From here, bring your head down to clear the bar and walk straight ahead, making sure you’re moving straight forward so that the bar will sit symmetrically on your back. Place the bar on your upper traps. From here, extend your shoulders (lift your elbows up backwards) and you’ll feel your rear deltoids contract. That bunched up bit of muscle is the “shelf” where the barbell will be sitting on. While maintaining your shoulder extension, lift your chest up slightly.
- Place your feet so that they’re about shoulder width apart and line them up so that your midfoot is directly below the barbell.
- Without fully unracking the bar, stand up slightly so that you can feel the weight of the barbell press down a little on your upper traps. While maintaining the weight of the barbell pressing down on your back, slowly slide the bar down from its position on your upper traps. You’ll know the barbell is the correct position when you feel the bar slide into a little valley and resting on your rear deltoids.
- Now that the barbell is in the correct position on the back, we need to assume the correct squat grip, which is as narrow as possible while maintaining a neutral wrist. Keep working your hands in as narrow as you’re able to with the neutral wrist criteria in mind and hold it there.
- You’re now ready to take the bar out to begin squatting.
- After you’re done with your set, take a step back without moving your hands and observe their placement on the barbell. Remember where they are so that you can place them there before you get under the barbell for future sets.
This position may cause discomfort at first if you’re not used to it, especially if you’re inflexible. The discomfort should get more tolerable as you repeatedly assume this position and flexibility around the shoulder joint improves. There is a difference between discomfort and pain, and one must discern between them. For lifters with shoulder issues (usually older lifters), this position may be impossible to assume. If you can’t get into the position described above and are experiencing pain in your shoulders when you do so, this position might be contraindicated. In such a situation, you might have to consider alternatives such as the high-bar position.