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squat, barbell training, strength training, starting strength

 

A heavy bar is loaded on your back. You start descending, bending your knees and hips so that your hip crease dips below the top of your patella. You try to get back up, but darn, it’s heavy! Here comes your natural instinct to survive – raising the chest up, in the hope that the bar will follow. This is what I usually call a “chesty” squat. Even worse, you might start looking up! Because you’ve got to look up to go up, right? Well, well. If this is you, please read this article to understand how your survival reaction is detrimental to the lift.

 

Biomechanics of a squat 

After reaching depth in a squat, you have 2 simple things to do to get back up. Straightening your knees and hips back to a standing position – knee and hip extension.

The muscles involved in these processes are the biggest, strongest muscle groups in the human body. Let’s break down the musculature involved in the movement.

The quadriceps is a four-headed muscle (thus the name) that extends your knees. In case you’re wondering where your quads are, it’s the big piece of muscle located on the front of your thigh. Now, try extending your knee joint as hard as can – this “flexes” your quads!

Your hip extensors consist of a tag team of 3 muscle groups: your glutes, hamstrings, and adductors. Glutes, the buttocks muscle, are the biggest muscle group in the human body. There’s a high chance that you are sitting on them right now reading this article. Hamstrings are located on the back part of your thigh and it has two functions – to straighten the hip and bend your knees. Lastly, the adductors are the ones on your inner thigh.

The hip extensors are more significant in size and strength as compared to the knee extensors. It’s a bigger engine!

Now imagine this scenario – you are hanging off a cliff and require help from someone to pull you up. You see, a few people are trying to help you (while some are just recording it to post on Facebook!). However, you have two choices, to be pulled by Hafthor Bjornsson (one of the world’s strongest man) or to get help from Marvin (pretty strong too but nowhere close to being the strongest man in the world). Assuming both are willing to help, who do you trust your life with? If you still want to live, I think Hafthor will be a better option. Why? Because he is much stronger, and thus more reliable to do the task.

Similarly, if you want to squat heavy weights, you want to call on the strongest muscles to do the job.

 

The physics of squat

In order for our hip and knees to extend, the muscle needs to contract and pull our bones. These contractions create rotational forces in the joints. We can calculate the minimum force that our body needs to generate to counter the weight by multiplying the load with the perpendicular distance of the load to the center of rotation.

 

Moment force = Weight x Moment Arm

 

Here, the concept of leverage applies. The longer the moment arm, the bigger the turning force/moment.

Our femur’s length is fixed, but we can manipulate the moment arm from both joints by controlling the knee position and back angle. Stand up and try this. Squat down to down while trying to keep your back as vertical as possible. Do your knees goes far forward? Now allow your back to be as horizontal as possible. Do your knees automatically being pulled back?

Knowing that your back angle will affect your knee position, here’s a mathematical example. Assume that the femur length is 5 units, and all other segments are equal in size.

 

squat, high bar squat, low bar squat, squat mechanics, how to squat

 

 

We can see that squatting with a more vertical back put more load to the knees and less on the hips. Squatting with a more horizontal back allows us to use more of the hip extensor muscles.

 

Back to the main discussion: How does raising your chest affect the movement? 

More often than not, when the bar is heavy, raising the chest up doesn’t create much upward movement to the bar. Instead, it changes the back angle more vertically while the bar stays mostly stationary. Borrowing the concept we just learned – what happens when the back is more vertical? The knees will go forward. And it will look like a high bar/ front squat, creating a longer moment arm between the bar and the knees. Thus more moment force to be loaded on the smaller knee extensor muscle group. It’s like saying to Hafthor, “Go away! Let Marvin help me!” Such a waste of Hafthor’s strength!

 

Takeaways and the fix

Always let “Hafthor” helps you! Use the bigger, stronger muscle group to lift the bar. In the gospel of Mark Rippetoe, this is called: HIP DRIVE (read: hip draaahve). If you train using the Starting Strength method, this will be one of the first things you learn.

 

Some cues you can use:

1. Sit back – even as you are going up. Keep your arse back to the wall. You might want to keep your hip back longer than you think you need to. Imagine that there’s a wall behind you, and you need to slide your arse up against the wall.

2. Chest down / point your nipples down – pardon the language, but to be mistaken with intentionally pushing your chest down as you are going up. We want you to keep pointing your chest to the floor and maintaining your back angle. It’s almost like looking at yourself in an imaginary mirror on the floor.

3. Eyegaze – sometimes a problem might arise from the habit of looking too far up/forward during the squat, or worse, shifting your eye gaze up during the ascent. Quick solution, fixing your eye gaze to a position 1.5m to 2m in front of you. Keep staring at the same point throughout your squat!

 

Limitation

This article is written under the assumption that you can maintain your balance in the middle of the foot.

If you’d like to discuss more on this topic, please feel free to leave a comment here.

 

Bio

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.

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