Technique is tough. Yeah, I know the squat, bench press, and deadlift are “basics,” but the truth is, performing those lifts optimally can be really complicated! By optimal, I mean not only safe and effective, but also efficient. Someone who uses optimal technique will be able to lift more weight, more easily, than someone who’s equally strong but maybe has some minor flaws in their technique. This series of articles is about finding and fixing those flaws.
The first thing that you need to understand is simple: everything about technique is individual. Optimal technique is based on a combination of muscular strengths and weaknesses, leverages, goals, and much more. So it’s difficult or maybe even impossible to offer recommendations about fixing a specific issue without working with someone in person. Even watching videos can only give you so much information about what’s really going on.
However, just approaching from a more nuanced view can be really useful, so in this series of articles, I’m going to break down some common problems and explain how you might go about changing your technique or habits. Note that you’re going to get mostly starting points out of these pieces, not exact answers, for the reason I explained above.
Hips Shooting Up
I can’t think of a better place to start than what’s probably the most common frustration in the squat: when your hips shoot up before your chest. You nail your descent, start to come out of the hole, and it feels like the bar’s moving — but it’s not. You’re actually turning the lift into a bastardized good morning, by allowing your butt to rise, but not your shoulders. All that energy from your hips is lost because it’s not used to move the bar. Maybe worse: it’s used instead to put your body in a comprised position.
The answer most people (especially internet gurus will give you) is straightforward: the glutes aren’t firing, so you need to do box squats, or hip thrusts, or any other amount of posterior chain work. And to be fair, that’s often the right approach. But not always. Greg Nuckols gives a great example of how something else might be the culprit, and I totally agree with him in this case — but I think you need to go a step further. Here’s how to do it.
Starting from Square One
Just like all your muscle groups need to work together, all elements of technique need to feed into each other. For that reason, so you can’t just look at your problems out of the hole and expect to find a solution that results in the perfect squat. You need to start from square one and address your technique as a whole, so that you can understand how one change might affect the rest of the movement.
We’ve already established the glutes may be the culprit, but ultimately, the goal is to extend the hip and knee evenly as you initiate the ascent. Let’s look at a few of the other reasons why you might be failing to do that:
- Muscular imbalance. You’re naturally going to try to put your body in a position where it feels the strongest. This is where the glutes come in: if your lower back is overpowering, you’re going to try to change the squat into a good morning so that you can use your lower back to lever the bar up, even if that’s not efficient from a mechanical standpoint. But there are other possible weaknesses, too: for example, like Greg explained, if your quads are weak, you still might shoot your hips up because you’re not strong enough to extend your knee in the hole. Balance is the key, and we can’t point to one single weak muscle group.
- An unfavorable bar path. This really gets at your literal ability to balance the load during the descent to set yourself up for a successful ascent. If you shift your bodyweight all the way forward onto your toes during the descent, you’ll already be leaning forward when you get in the hole, and there’s no way you’ll be able to stand up without some type of technique breakdown. In fact, if you review your own training videos, you’ll see this breakdown as a curve in your bar path as you come up. This is why we cue to feel your weight over your midfoot.
(Incidentally, this is also part of the reason I think too many people use weightlifting shoes to squat. The raised heel encourages shifting your bodyweight slightly forward of the midfoot. I often suggest that lifters who have problems with hips shooting on the squat use flat-soled shoes.)
- Habit. Even if you’re a very balanced athlete, you might not always have been that way. Maybe you learned some bad habits when you were just starting out because of muscular weaknesses you had as a beginner, and you’ve stuck to those ways even as an advanced athlete. This is often the hardest underlying issue to correct, because you’ll usually be able to keep perfect form at even a moderately high percentage of your one-rep max, and things don’t fall apart until you’re pushing to your absolute limit. And, because you can’t train productively by pushing to your absolute max all the time, it’s hard to get the practice you need to change those habits.
Now, keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive list of the reasons you might be struggling in your squat. But I do believe these three issues are among the most common, and the ones that you consider first when you’re analyzing your own technique.
So How Do You Fix It?
This is where the “starting point” thing comes in, and this section might seem a little vague. Don’t get frustrated by that: one of the biggest challenges in getting stronger involves learning about your own body, but that makes it so much more rewarding when you do figure things out.
First, and as always, you must start with small changes. This goes back to the logic behind starting from square one: there’s simply no way to know in advance how one small change is going to affect your squat, perhaps in unintended ways. For example, if you were to try to widen your stance to recruit more glute out of the hole, you might end up exacerbating the problem because with your heeled squat shoes, you’re not able to “sit back” onto the posterior chain while keeping your weight over your midfoot. And, if you switch to a wider stance in flat shoes all at once, you might struggle because of weak glutes, or you might struggle because of poor ankle mobility — but you won’t necessarily know which is the case.
While I can’t give perfect solutions, I can recommend a few specific small changes to address the issues above.
- If you’re dealing with a muscular imbalance, don’t change your technique at all. Instead, start with adding in isolation exercises to address those weaknesses. I like this approach because strengthening an individual weak muscle is fairly straightforward, while adjusting technique is complicated.
- For similar reasons, if you’re struggling with an unfavorable bar path, I’d suggest starting with a simple mobility routine before attempting to change technique. Oftentimes, issues with finding the proper positions stem from an inability to get into those positions in the first place, and once you resolve the underlying issue, your technique will naturally evolve into something more efficient. On the other hand, if you try to adjust your technique without fixing the underlying issues, you might never be able to find something truly optimal.
- For fixing poor habits, I strongly recommend taking the high-rep approach, because it will allow you to both get in more work with perfect technique and push yourself to the max without using very high intensities, which tend to beat the body up. The key is to make sure that you actually use perfect technique on every rep, and not sacrifice technique for the sake of cranking out a couple of extra reps. This takes an extraordinary amount of discipline, and the truth is, you’ll probably never get it perfect — but the more you strive towards that, the quicker you’ll correct the underlying issue.
Finally, remember that we’re taking a long-term approach here. Our ultimate goal requires understanding how one change is going to affect your technique as a whole — at both light weights and with true one-rep maxes. That simply can’t be accomplished in one session. And, for that reason, keep an open mind. Reach out to everyone, because there is no one right answer, so you never know where you’ll find your solution.
One Last Note: Is It Even a Problem?
While it’s true that shooting the hips up is rarely optimal from a technique standpoint, that’s not a universal truth. If you’re a very advanced athlete, there’s a good chance that you’ve built up some strengths that are so overpowering that it’s not practical to try to truly balance them. By the time you made that much progress, your competitive career might be over. Or maybe you’re so genetically predisposed to a particular muscle group or motion that you’ll never be able to change those through training.
This is very rarely the case, but it is a possibility, and it’s important to consider because it highlights how everything is individual.
Finally, if you’re struggling with a problem in your technique, I really recommend that you give the advice in this article a shot, but recognize also that a lot of technique issues resolve themselves if you simply get stronger. And the best way to get stronger – at least in my opinion – is by unfucking your programming. So if you’re really looking to start at square one, or if this approach really appeals to you, make sure to join the course!