squat, strength training, barbell training, strength gym, barbell gym

The next time you’re in the gym, watch how other lifters in the gym squat when the weights get heavy for them. If nobody’s squatting heavy at your gym, I suggest you train at another gym. But I digress. You’ll notice that when the weights get heavy on squats, the lifter’s hips always lead out when they come up from the bottom. 

Doesn’t matter what type of squat – high bar squat, front squat, Zercher squat, overhead squat, safety squat bar – they all follow the same movement pattern. Whether or not they’re actively thinking about it, or even if they try to resist it by raising their chest, their hips will always lead out of the hole when the weights get heavy. 

Go ahead, get on YouTube now. Search for a heavy squat done in any variation, and you’ll see that this is always the case. Every. Single. Time. 


Mechanically efficient hips always lead first

When you add a load to a movement, your body will instinctively use the strongest, most efficient movement pattern to lift the load.

In the case of a squat, it’s by utilising the biggest and strongest muscles you have, which are your hip extensors. When you come up out of the bottom, your butt will naturally drive up first in order to place more of the load on your hips. 

We call this movement the hip drive. Actually, this can happen even when there is no load. If you’ve experienced a squatting toilet, can you remember how you stood back up after you were done? Very likely, you lifted your hips first, before bringing your chest up to stand upright. 

If you’ve never used a squatting toilet, try this: squat down and hold the bottom position for a couple of minutes. Now stand back up. Was it easier to get back up leading from your hips first or your chest first? 

This is the strength of the hip drive in action. 

Biomechanics of the hip drive 

The hip drive lengthens the moment arm between the load and the hips while shortening the moment arm between the load and the knees for the lifter to have access to the big, strong muscles of the hip extensors.

Moment Force = Weight x Moment Arm

The concept of leverage applies here – the longer the moment arm, the bigger the force applied. 

In the diagram above, you can see that the moment arm between the load and the hips is longer than the moment arm between the load and the knees, which means that the hips are more loaded. 

Why do we want more loading on the hip joints and less on the knee? Because the hip extensors are made up of three big muscles, the hamstrings, adductors, and glutes. These are the biggest muscle groups in the body and produce the most amount of force to lift the load. In contrast, the knee extensors are weaker, consisting of only the quadriceps. 

In order to lengthen the moment arm between the load and hips, you’ll need to hold your hips and knees back to make your back angle more horizontal as shown in the diagram.

For a more detailed explanation of forces, angles, and moments, check out our Bro Science 101

As mentioned earlier, no matter the type of squat that you do, and no matter your back angle when you’re at the bottom of a heavy squat, your hips will always lead up first to get into a configuration to use your hips. Now, if you want to continue to have access to your hips to lift the heavy bar on your back, you need to continue staying holding your hips and knees back and maintaining a horizontal back angle.

Bar speed: Staying leant over versus lifting chest early

Ideally, you want to keep utilising your hips for as long as you can to stand back up from a heavy squat.

But with a heavy bar on their backs, some lifters may feel like they’re going to get crushed by the bar. Maintaining a more horizontal back angle can feel scary, so they instinctively lift head/eyes up, which in turn lifts their chest up. It may feel psychologically better, but lifting their chest actually kills the hip drive. 

Here’s a comparison of 2 squat videos done by our very own coach Marvin. They’re both max attempts, done on separate occasions, and the weights are very close to each other at 180 kg vs 182.5 kg.

180 kg squat, staying in the hips 

Notice how he stays in his hips (you can hear the cue to stay leant over). The bar speed is relatively consistent throughout the ascent, albeit pretty slowly. The general movement is smooth and efficient. 

182.5 kg squat. Chest lifted early, killing the hip drive. 

Compared with this attempt at a slightly heavier 182.5 kg. Halfway during the ascent, he lifts his chest just slightly. The bar speed immediately slows down, and it becomes a massive grind. 

By lifting the chest, his knee and hips move forward. In doing so, the moment arm between the load and hips shortens while the moment arm between the load and knee lengthens. This means that some of the load gets transferred from the stronger hip extensors to the not-as-strong knee extensors, making the rep harder. Check out an actual calculation that compares staying in the hips versus lifting the chest and letting some of the load shift to the knee extensors.

Now, Marvin is a lifter who has in-depth knowledge about the hip drive. He actively tries to use it when squatting, and he’s been doing so for years. Even then, his lizard brain takes over on a heavy squat and tells him to get upright. 

So, if even experienced lifters have this tendency to get upright too early and lead from the chest, how can you overcome it? 

How to stay in the hips 

Stay bent over for as long as you can. Get into position the moment you start to descend, then drive the hips up, and maintain that back angle on the way up. 

Don’t worry about getting upright. Your body will naturally start to get more upright as you lock out. We’re never had to coach a lifter when to get more upright; we’ve also never had a single lifter who got to the top of the squat and was still leant over.  

Look down at the floor. Instead of looking up or straight ahead, keep your gaze about 1 – 1.5m on the floor in front of you. This will help you stay leant over and encourage you to stay in the hip drive. 

Control your knees. When you’re about halfway down, the knees should be as far forward as they will be. From there, freeze the knees (don’t let them go forward) and continue the descent while reaching your hips back. Your knees may or may not be in front of your shoes.

Make it an ingrained movement. Utilise the hip drive without the bar, during warm-ups, and all the way up to your working weights. Practice until it becomes your default squat movement. 

Remember: “drive the hips up, and keep the chest down”

If you need a refresher on squat technique, check out our articles on ideal squat depth, and how fast to descend in a squat

Use your hips

The hip drive is fundamental for squatting heavy weights. 

Here’s a video of Olympic Weightlifter Milko Tokola high bar squatting 20kgs to 210kgs. Given that he does the first few sets with a more vertical back angle (as almost every Olympic Weightlifter does/is taught to do), my guess is that he’s trying to stay upright and not thinking about driving from the hips. However, you’ll notice that as the weight gets heavier, the hip drive gets more pronounced.

Milko Tokola Squatting 20kgs to 210kgs

Your body knows that using the hips is the best way to squat heavy weights. So maximise it by staying in the hips for as long as you can. 

The only thing you really have to do is mentally get out of your own way. When the weights get heavy, tell your lizard brain to shut up, stay bent over and keep driving from the hips. 


My interest in fitness started when I was around 19 years old. Being overweight for most of my growing up years, I decided to do something about it. After months of not being able to achieve the desired results, I began poring through books and articles about training and nutrition. The more I read, the more interested I became in this field, and got better results when the the newly discovered knowledge was applied. After 1 year of persistence and hard work, I lost 24kg and felt fantastic. The sense of achievement motivated me to pursue a career in working with people to help them achieve their own fitness goals.

After achieving my weight loss goal, I tried a variety of training programs for a few years, looking for a new goal to train towards. After aimlessly moving around from program to program, I chanced upon a book called Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training, written by renowned strength and conditioning expert, Mark Rippetoe. Little did I know that this book was about to change my life and coaching career.

At that point, I had experience training with barbells and was relatively familiar with it but never have I come across any material that gave such explicitly detailed explanations of how to perform the barbell lifts. I devoured the book and modified my lifting technique and program. In just a few months, I was pleasantly surprised by how much stronger he had become. I now had a new goal to work towards – getting strong.

With full confidence in the efficacy of the Starting Strength methodology, I began coaching my clients using this program and got them stronger than they ever thought was possible. The consistent success my clients achieved through the program cemented my confidence in Mark Rippetoe’s teachings. I then decided to pursue the credential of being a Starting Strength Coach and I’m currently the first and only certified coach in Singapore and South-East Asia

In my 9 years of experience, I have given talks and ran programs at numerous companies and worked with a diverse group clientele of all ages with a variety of goals. Today, I specialise in coaching people in their 40s, 50s and beyond because it brings me a great sense of satisfaction to be part of the process of improving this demographics’ health and quality of life by getting them stronger.