The Olympic Squat
By: Greg Everett

The squat is foundational to the Olympic lifts as a position, a movement and an exercise. Without a well-developed and consistent squat, neither pulling technique nor pulling power will produce successful Olympic weightlifting. This chapter is meant to be a guide to the universal characteristics of the squat. Specifics with each variation will be discussed as they arise in the context of the snatch and clean. 

The great natural physical variation among athletes dictates that there will never be a universally perfect prescription for body positioning. The prescriptions that follow should be considered guidelines more than absolute rules. Be cautious, however, of defying advice too quickly with the excuse of individual variation—often this is inappropriately cited when the actual cause of an athlete's inability to adhere to these prescriptions is entirely correctable, such as flexibility-related limitations or simply stubborn habits. It's necessary to critically evaluate each athlete individually to make accurate determinations—avoid allowing an athlete to continue poor habits due simply to laziness. Use the following as a starting point and adjust as necessary.


The Feet

The position of the feet determines more than any other factor the mechanics of the squat. The width of the stance and degree of external rotation will affect the movement and position of the hips and back, and will often be the deciding factor in whether a squat is successful or failed, mechanically sound or injurious. Although variation among individuals exists in terms of precise placement, the basic principles of the Olympic squat are universal: the feet must be positioned in a manner that allows and encourages proper biomechanics of the legs, hips and back, while allowing the greatest possible range of motion and supporting the unique positional and movement characteristics of the Olympic lifts. 

Individual anthropometrics—in particular leg segment lengths and hip anatomy—will dictate appropriate width and rotation of the feet. Flexibility limitations and similar impediments may prevent an athlete from achieving this ultimately proper positioning—these things should be considered temporary obstacles and corrected as much as possible. 

Typically the placement of the feet will be slightly wider than hip-width at the heels with the external rotation of the legs placing the toes near shoulder-width. It's rare that a new lifter will naturally place the feet in this position. The tendencies to default to wider or narrower stances appear similarly common. 

An excessively wide stance will usually limit the depth of the squat by driving the head of the femur into the acetabulum of the hip during the descent. This can be easily felt by widening the stance and attempting to reach full depth. With little exception, the reduction in depth will be dramatic and the movement will be uncomfortable if not painful. Imagine receiving a rapidly descending heavy load in this position. Very heavy loads with a wide foot placement—seen sometimes in maximal efforts in competition—will force the hips down in between the feet, creating enormous torque on the knees.

An excessively narrow stance will usually allow a full-depth squat—although without adequate external rotation the range of motion may be interrupted by the thighs and abdomen colliding—but is problematic for other reasons. The narrowing of the lifter's base will of course reduce stability, although typically not to a degree greater than the lifter can manage. More importantly, an excessively narrow stance will result in unnecessary torque on the knees, as well as eversion of the feet, placing undue stress on the ankle joints and shortening the peroneal muscles on the lateral aspect of the lower leg, which may lead to inflammation and pain, potentially to a performance-limiting degree. 

The width of the feet should be such that the knees in their neutral position remain above them at the bottom of the squat—that is, in the bottom position, the lower legs when viewed from the front of the toe will be vertical or nearly so instead of angled in or out to any significant degree. The appropriate foot width allows the greatest possible range of motion, maintains advantageous biomechanics, and reduces potential for injury. 



The feet will be externally rotated to ensure proper alignment of the knees and ankles. As with width, the angle of rotation will be determined by individual anthropometrics—longer legs require a wider stance, which requires a greater degree of external rotation, and vice versa. The actual angle should match that of the upper legs in the bottom position of the squat.

Some lifters will find their ankle and knee joints are not in perfect alignment with each other—in these cases, the angle of the feet should be adjusted accordingly, giving priority to the maintenance of proper knee mechanics. In other words, the proper alignment of the tibia with the femur takes precedence over the alignment of the foot with the femur.


The Legs

As mentioned above, the angle of the upper legs will match the feet in most cases. This will occur only if the foot placement is correct and the tracking of the knees is properly managed. As the lifter descends into the bottom of the squat, the knees must track out directly over the feet—in other words, they will follow the line described by the angle of the feet. 

How naturally this leg positioning occurs will vary among lifters. It's common for lifters' knees to dive inward, particularly when rising during a heavy squat. Often this can be attributed to relatively weak adductors—bringing the knees in will place the quadriceps at a more mechanically advantageous position for knee extension, reducing the need for the adductors to contribute to hip extension. The solution may be as simple as coaching cues to remind the lifter to push the knees outward in order to maintain their position over the feet, whereas a stretching prescription will be necessary for those with flexibility-related impediments. Prevent lifters from overcompensating for inward knee movement by flaring the knees out excessively.

Somewhat less common, but not unusual, particularly in male lifters, is excessively tight external rotators and/or ITBs, resulting in a default to a more externally rotated foot position and/or wider stance, or the knees tracking wider than the feet. Inflexibility should be addressed and the lifter given cues to actively fight the tendency for the knees to flare out.


The Hips

The most significant difference between the Olympic and powerlifting squats other than the depth is the minimal horizontal displacement of the hips in the Olympic squat. While the powerlifting squat, with the bar racked often very low on the back, intentionally pushes the hips back, the Olympic squat, whether front or back, involves a high bar placement and upright torso, which demands that the hips remain over the feet as much as possible. Front squatting with the hips and knees pushed back is simply not possible with any significant loading—the bar must be supported by the arms instead of the shoulders when the torso leans forward. 

Much squatting instruction advocates never allowing the knees to travel farther forward than the toes—this is problematic for a number of reasons with the Olympic squat. First, whether or not an individual is capable of keeping the knees behind the toes in a full depth squat is greatly dependent on anthropometrics. Long-legged individuals attempting to keep the knees behind the toes will encounter serious problems—if their torsos remain appropriately upright, their hips and therefore centers of gravity will be too far behind their bases to remain on their feet in anything but the most limited range of motion squats; in order to remain on their feet with the hips pushed back, it will be necessary to lean the torso forward to a great degree. Clearly this torso lean prevents the performance of a loaded front squat.

The bottom position of an Olympic squat will be one in which the knees will nearly invariably protrude farther than the toes—it is unavoidable by anyone but those with extremely short legs and large feet. This will allow the hips to remain over the feet and under the shoulders as much as possible. 

While rising from the squat, many lifters will feel a natural tendency to elevate the hips prematurely, causing the torso to lean forward. As soon as possible when rising, the hips must be pushed forward under the shoulders to maintain an upright torso and continue driving the load vertically. 

Weightlifting shoes are built with elevated heels for good reason—this heel lift allows the knees to travel forward more by reducing the demand on the ankles' range of motion, in turn allowing the hips to remain under the shoulders. Some individuals will be capable of performing front squats initially with flat-soled shoes, but typically this capability will progressively disappear as greater loading is introduced. 


The Torso

As described previously, the torso in an Olympic squat remains as upright as possible throughout the movement. This requires proper hip positioning and flexibility, neither of which may be natural or immediately attainable for all lifters. 

The spine in its neutral position curves gently through lordosis in the lumbar region and kyphosis in thoracic region. Because of their accordingly angled surfaces, it is in this position that pressure is evenly distributed over vertebrae and the back at its most stable. For this reason, it's critical to maintain a neutral spine in all phases of the squat.

Commonly new lifters' hamstrings and/or adductors are not flexible enough to allow the maintenance of lordosis in the bottom position of the squat—as these muscles are stretched into this position, they will force the pelvis to rotate posteriorly, reducing or even reversing the lordotic arch, consequently increasing the risk for injury and reducing the back's ability to resist the torque of the weight. This is a pressing issue that should be addressed and corrected before heavy loads are handled. 

For those with adequate or excessive hip flexibility or limited thoracic mobility, lumbar hyperextension may be a concern. These lifters in the bottom of a squat will often achieve the upright torso position largely through hyperlordosis or abrupt hinging of the spine at or near the joint of the thoracic and lumbar sections of the spine. Spinal immobility should be addressed with appropriate means, which may be as simple as regular foam rolling or as involved as physical therapy or chiropractic work. This hyperextension should be actively countered during the squat by contraction of the abdominal muscles. 

The more upright the torso remains, the smaller the moment on the back and the greater its stability. Long-legged lifters in particular will often tend to elevate the hips relative to the shoulders when driving out of the bottom of the squat, leaning the torso forward and effectively unloading the comparatively weak legs to place the majority of the load on the back. While this position shift can be successful as an approach to deadlifting, it will be problematic with squatting, particularly front squatting, as well as the pulls for both the snatch and clean, and should not be allowed to become habitual. 


Weight Distribution

Throughout the squat, the lifter's weight should be distributed evenly across the feet. Inadequate flexibility of the hips and ankles will commonly force the heels to rise and the weight to shift to the toes—not only is this problematic in terms of balance, but it will prevent full engagement of the posterior musculature chain and place the load almost entirely on the quadriceps. In addition to simply making the completion of the squat more difficult due to the reduction in possible force production, this places undue stress on the knees, in particular the patellar tendons. If the root of the problem is inadequate flexibility, a stretching prescription will be necessary. Otherwise, coaching cues for the lifter to remain flatfooted may be sufficient.

Occasionally the outside edges of a lifter's feet will rise in cases of inward knee-diving as described previously. The corrections for these problems are the same—if the result of inadequate flexibility, stretching will be required. Otherwise, cues to remain flat-footed and keep the knees over the feet should suffice. Some lifters find it helpful to imagine squeezing the floor together between their feet.


The Head

The head should remain upright throughout the movement. Because the Olympic squat is performed with the torso quite near vertical, maintaining an upright head will not pull the cervical spine far from its neutral position. Commonly lifters will tilt the head back and redirect their focus upward to help drive through the sticking point of a squat. Despite the apparent logic, with fair comparison most lifters will find this position actually reduces their ability to generate force instead of improving it. In addition, this head position will place the cervical spine in hyperextension, which, while not necessarily being problematic, particularly with the nearly vertical torso position of the Olympic squat, is certainly not beneficial in an orthopedic sense. 

The eyes should remain straight ahead. Some lifters will locate a centered point on which to focus, while others will instead intentionally avoid focusing on anything at all. If the focus is directed to a fixed point, it's important that point be distant enough from the lifter to not noticeably change its relative position and cause the lifters head or eyes to move significantly during the squat. Lowering the gaze will commonly cause the lifter to drop the chest during the ascent, potentially resulting in a failed lift. 


The Bounce

In certain circumstances, particularly during the clean, lifters will bounce out of the bottom of the squat. Often this bounce is employed during training squats as well. Olympic barbells are manufactured to provide a degree of "whip"—that is, to flex under the weight of the plates as it reaches its bottom position, and therefore to bounce upward as that flexion reverses. With careful timing, the lifter can take advantage of this and drive through the lowest position of the squat with a temporarily reduced load. This is of particular importance to lifters in possession of comparatively weak legs, who will be cleaning loads much nearer to their greatest squat efforts than their stronger-legged counterparts. 

Bouncing also refers to the myotatic reflex resulting from the rapid stretching of the muscles that occurs in a quick squat descent. If the lengthening is quick enough, the muscles will respond by contracting powerfully. As is done with plyometric training, this reflex can be improved through training and used to the lifter's advantage. It's important to note that the bounce out of the bottom of the squat is not the result of relaxing the muscles and allowing the body to collapse—all leg, hip and trunk musculature remains tight and stable throughout the movement. Failure to maintain this structural stability will both limit the effectiveness of reflexive muscle activation and predispose the lifter to injury. 

Some coaches and athletes advocate using the bounce with all squatting. This will of course develop the technique, but it will fail to develop the greatest possible strength in the bottom-most portion of the squat. For this strengthening to occur, at least some squatting in training should be performed with a slower descent and transition—occasionally with a pause in the bottom position. This will help develop the strength necessary to rise from a clean in cases when the lifter fails to properly time the bounce and must essentially rise from a dead stop. Again, regardless of whether the lifter transitions rapidly or pauses in the bottom, all musculature must remain tight—the lifter cannot allow him- or herself to relax or collapse. 

If the lifter is already squatting heavy loads but has not had experience with bouncing out of the bottom, bouncing should be introduced with minimal loading—for example, the lifter may bounce during warm-up sets but not during working sets initially. Incrementally increasing over time the load with which the lifter bounces will allow connective tissue to develop the adequate strength to accommodate the greater forces. Similarly, squatting with a bounce out of the bottom at least occasionally in training will help prepare the body to cope with the immense ballistic forces delivered in near-maximal effort cleans.


Breathing

The basic rule regarding breathing during lifting is simple: Don't. Breath control is critical for producing and maintaining the structural integrity of the spine while under heavy loads. The spinal erectors are at an enormous mechanical disadvantage and act only along the posterior aspect—muscle activation alone is insufficient for stability. In order to adequately stabilize the spine, the abdominal and thoracic cavities must be pressurized. 

The Valsalva Maneuver is forced exhalation of a full breath against a closed glottis. It's critical to fill the lungs completely, not only lifting the ribcage but also drawing the diaphragm down and allowing the abdomen to expand. Once the lungs have been completely filled, the abdominal musculature should then be contracted to further increase the abdominal and thoracic pressure. This will create a rigid column around the spine and provide maximal structural stability. A very small amount of air may be safely expelled through a slightly opened glottis. This is not exhalation per se, but instead an unavoidable slip of a minimal fraction of the air in the lungs past the glottis because of the extreme pressure being place upon it. If this release of air does not produce an audible and brief grunt or similar noise, too much air is being released. 

As with all other training, an appropriate progression is wise in regards to the Valsalva Maneuver. The common concern of medical professionals about extreme vascular pressure is legitimate only in an individual with no conditioning for such pressurization. Most lifters who handle large loads will have already undergone a natural progression of cerebrovascular strengthening as their lifts increased over time. In the rare case of a lifter managing to develop great squatting strength without using the Valsalva Maneuver, it should be introduced with lighter loads to begin a deliberate progression to ultimately connect a full Valsalva Maneuver with a maximal effort squat. 


Shoes

Weightlifting shoes are an absolute must for all lifters for two primary reasons. First, the hard soles don't compress under loads, eliminating the instability found in soft-soled shoes as well as ensuring that generated force is transferred more completely. Second, the lifted heels effectively increase the ankles' range of motion, allowing the lifter to keep the hips forward as needed. It's important to find a pair that supports the arches well—even lifters with strong arches will likely find that frequently handling heavy loads will over time result in weakening of the arches. Orthotics are used commonly to ensure adequate arch support and foot and ankle position, which will in turn ensure the lifter is able to recognize his or her full strength potential. 

Weightlifting shoes are fairly expensive, but should be considered an investment in both performance and longevity. Typically the shoes' uppers will hold up well over time, so with occasional repairs and resoling, a single pair of shoes will often last many years. It's important to retire shoes when the uppers are no longer supportive, however; this can lead to foot and ankle instability and cause injuries up the chain from the knees to the hips to the back. Spending money now on shoes will save a lot of money later on physical therapy and ensure continued progress instead of plateaus from injury. 


Consistency

Consistency in squat positioning should be considered of primary importance. The receiving positions for the snatch and the clean will be identical to the lifter's ideal squat—the ability to hit this position immediately and confidently will obviously allow greater progress with the lifts. Initially, lifters may take a significant period of time before squatting to position their feet, and may continue to adjust slightly in between reps. This kind of adjustment is far preferable than commitment to an unsound position. Only consistent repetition of the proper squat stance over time will develop the requisite muscle memory to allow immediate correct positioning.

Greg Everett is the owner of Catalyst Athletics, publisher of The Performance Menu Journal and author of Olympic Weightlifting: A Complete Guide for Athletes & Coaches, Olympic Weightlifting for Sports, and The Portable Greg Everett, and is the writer, director, producer, editor, etc of the independent documentary American Weightlifting. Follow him on Facebook here.


This article was originally published in the Performance Menu Journal.  

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