Powerlifting Squat Form 101
Although I have covered squatting rather extensively in “500 lb Squat: I Did It and You Can Too” and “Knee Pain When Squatting: Solutions”, my analysis of squat form was rather limited in both articles. This is not because I find proper powerlifting squat form to be inconsequential. In fact, this couldn’t be further from the truth! Perfecting your squat form is so crucial to your success as a powerlifter that it would be an injustice not to dedicate an entire article to topic. After you have finished reading this article, you will have a solid grasp on powerlifting squat form, including the pros and cons of high bar vs low bar, how your grip impacts your squat, the right stance for you, cues, common mistakes and much more.
Why is Form Important?
As a powerlifter, we are looking to train and improve upon movements, not target muscle groups. We want to lift as much weight as possible, even if we lose out on a little tissue growth from the process. With slight form alterations, you can immediately add pounds to your squat by making the movement much more efficient — effectively loading additional muscle groups, improving leverages and reducing range of motion.
Understandably, performance is extremely important, but it should never come at the cost of safety. Lifting with poor form puts you at risk for injury. From experience, I can tell you that nothing will hinder long-term performance more than an injury. If you are worried that powerlifting squat form isn’t safe, you need not worry. In this case, performance and safety are not exclusive; you can really have your cake and eat it too.
If you played football in high school, your coaches probably taught you to look up when squatting. Some of you reading this may still squat like this today. Other lifters, such as those who were introduced to squatting through Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe (who will be discussed later), learned to squat with a slightly downward head angle. You might even be one of those guys or girls that stares straight ahead into the mirror. Who’s right? If you fall into one of these categories and hope your way is correct, I am sorry to disappoint you, but you’re wrong because the answer isn’t quite so straightforward.
To keep your head up when squatting (or deadlifting), you must hyperextend your cervical spine. Not only is this dangerous, but performance is affected as well. According to the highly sought-after strength coach Mike Robertson, squatting with your head up drives you into anterior pelvic tilt, shutting off your glutes and hamstrings in the process. Instead of looking up, Robertson tells his clients to pack the neck back, keep the head in neutral and look up with your eyes. For more information on Robertson’s thoughts on the head position debate, check out this article and the informative YouTube video within.
Looking down isn’t any better as the cervical spine is placed in flexion and according to studies (even if they are of questionable quality), a downward gaze causes excessive hip and trunk flexion. This results in a a rounded spine that is contraindicated for the squat. We don’t want our squats turning into good mornings.
Having your head at neutral is the best choice of the three, but this isn’t sufficient when so many of us exhibit a forward head posture from leaning over our computer all day. This is where packing the neck comes into play. To pack the neck, you push your head back and then tilt ever so slightly downward as if you were trying to create a double chin. By doing this, we maintain proper spinal alignment, reduce the likelihood of injury and don’t shut off any muscle groups so that we stand a fighting chance of coming back up with our heavier squats.
High Bar Vs Low Bar
The high bar vs low bar squat debate has always been heavily contested, and chances are that if you are already strong on one side of the camp, then my opinion isn’t going to do much to change that.
The main difference between these two squat variants is the position of the bar on the back. The high bar squat position has the bar resting on top of the shoulders while the low bar squat has the bar a few inches lower, resting on the delts. To accommodate the low bar position, the lifer has to lean forward at the torso. A high bar squatter on the other hand, will remain almost perfectly upright in comparison.
Because the bar is lower on your back with a low bar squat, the center of gravity is lower. In athletics, we are always trying to lower our center of gravity, as this creates a more stable base. Leverages also improve with the low bar squat and because of this, the low bar squat is going to be superior for powerlifting purposes, unless you lack the flexibility to properly set up and maintain the low bar squat position. This is something that can be improved upon over time. Greg Nuckols, founder of Strength Theory and a former world record holding natural powerlifter, has two articles dedicated solely to the high bar vs low bar debate. You can find them here and here.
Many experts recommend a close grip when squatting because it passively creates back tightness, but this is complete and utter hogwash. You can test this at home by holding your arms by your side as if you were going to squat and then moving your grip in and out by extending or flexing at the elbow. I sure don’t notice any significant changes in my back when I do this!
Furthermore, a large number of lifters, especially bigger ones, do not have the flexibility to squat with a close grip. If they try to force it, they compensate with a broken thoracic, which either pitches them forward or inhibits abdominal activation depending upon whether the lifter goes into thoracic flexion or extension.
A close grip won’t magically create a tight upper back, but it does make it easier to recruit your lats to actively create upper back tightness and torso stability. This is because it becomes easier to engage your lats by pulling down on the bar as your forearms progressively move closer and closer to running parallel with your body. As such, it’s still important to work on flexibility so you can bring your grip in as much as possible without pain or your form breaking down somewhere else along the chain.
Stretching the pecs, particularly the pec minor, will help a lot as will band dislocates. To learn the right way to stretch the pecs, check out this article by Eric Cressey. A video of band dislocates is provided below. Be sure not to extend at the spine when doing these. Squeezing the glutes by extending the hips forward will help prevent this.
Perhaps the simplest way to increase your shoulder flexibility when squatting is to simply work your grip in over time. If you rush this too quickly, you can develop terrible bicep tendonitis, so don’t try to force this. Once you feel comfortable with your current grip, bring your grip in by a finger’s width. Any more than this is asking for trouble.
Finally, if you are switching from high bar to low bar or from low bar to high bar, you will most likely have to modify your grip as the low bar squat requires more flexibility to maintain a closer grip than the high bar squat. Keep this in mind when going back and forth between the two variations. Regardless of your squat form, you should wear a good pair of wrist wraps like these which will take a lot of strain off the wrists and elbows when squatting.
Grip on Bar
There are three types of grips that can be implemented when squatting. The most common grip has the thumbs wrapped around the bar. While this is perfectly fine for high bar squatting, many (not all) powerlifters report shoulder, elbow and wrist pain when low bar squatting with this grip. More often than not, this is because of flexibility limitations and carrying the weight of the bar in your hands instead of your back. If you’re in pain every time you low bar squat with your thumbs wrapped around the bar, then the next two grips deserve a closer look.
The second commonly employed grip for squats is the thumbless grip. By draping your thumb over the bar instead of around it from underneath, it’s much easier to keep a straight wrist when squatting, which loads bones that can hold up to compression, rather than muscles of the wrist and forearms which cannot. I also find it easier to set up with the thumbless grip too. This is the grip I prefer, but there is another grip that a few lifters out there use as well.
It is worth noting that bar security can be a little bit sketchy when you don’t have your thumbs wrapped around the bar. Because I don’t have as tight of a grip on the bar, I have lost a bar or two off my back when a bar whipped and when my torso angle drastically changed. This is rare though and much of the blame is on myself for getting sloppy with some of my reps.
The final grip isn’t used by many lifters, but I do know a couple, including a 1000 pound multiply squatter, that swear by it. Known as the “eagle grip” or “eagle claw grip”, this grip is performed by putting your finger under the bar. From my understanding, it feels uncomfortable at first, but just like the thumbless grip, the eagle grip makes it easier to keep a straight wrist when squatting and you still have the security that comes from having your thumbs wrapped around the bar. Although each of these grips come with distinct advantages and disadvantages, personal i is going to dictate which grip you prefer. Give each of them a shot if you are having issues with your current grip.
While Mark Rippetoe, the author of the wildly popular Starting Strength and Practical Programming for Strength Training books, is one of the best strength training coaches on this planet, I strongly disagree with how he teaches the squat form, chiefly in regards to elbow position during the squat. For more than a decade, Mark Rippetoe has taught his followers to point the elbows up when squatting because of the tight shelf that it creates. This is also a position that many new lifters naturally gravitate to because they are afraid of the bar falling off their back.
Both of these reasons for an elbows up position are moot. You can try at home to rotate your elbow up as much as you want, but you aren’t going to notice any difference in torso stability, back tightness or a shelf unless you imagined it. In reality, this position is far more likely to cause you to round your upper back at the thoracic and pitch you forward, turning the squat into more of a good morning.
In addition, the chance of you dropping the bar off your back when squatting (as I mentioned earlier) is extremely low. Leaning forward a bit prevents the bar from falling and we already tend to do this without any conscious effort. If you still aren’t buying what I am selling, compare Rippetoe’s 315×10 squat to my 375×12 squat. You should be able to tell a world of difference. Which squat looks more efficient and safer to you?
Even if you know to keep your elbows down when squatting, most people go about doing this in the wrong way. Instead of pulling down on the bar to engage their lats, lifters have a tendency to externally rotate at the shoulder (like this) in order to keep the elbows down. This offers very little in terms of back tightness or torso stability and can also be easily tested at home.
Try rotating your hand upwards until you arm is completely vertical. Do you notice a drastic change in your back? You may notice a slight change, but it’s nothing compared to engaging the lats. With your arm still vertical, try pulling down and in as hard as possible as if you were trying to touch your elbows together behind your back. Notice a difference now? I bet you did! This is what happens when you stabilize the spine with one of the largest muscles in the body! If you do this properly, you will also depress and retract your scapula, which creates a much better shelf than pointing your elbows up ever will.
To properly activate the core to stabilize the torso when squatting, the spine must first be in neutral alignment. You should not be extending the spine at the thoracic or lumbar (lower back)! Even though this is commonly taught, an extended spine is a weak spine when squatting AND deadlifting!
To engage the core when squatting, I like to imagine that someone is going to punch me in the stomach. My natural reaction would be to brace my core by pushing out my abs and obliques and to pull my ribcage down.
Another way to think about doing this is to pretend that something or someone is compressing you by pushing down on your shoulders. Regardless of how you imagine doing this, remember that you should not be pulling your chest up, as this will put the thoracic spine in extension. We want our ribcage down, not up!
Once you are holding this braced position, breathe as deeply as you can “into your stomach” from the diaphragm, which will fill the lungs from the bottom up. To further understand the role that the diaphragm plays in core activation and torso stabilization, read this Breaking Muscle article. If you didn’t understand my explanation of core activation for squats, or would like to know more about it, watch the video with Chris Duffin, a former raw world record holding powerlifter in the 220’s.
Stance width is going to be individual, but the widest stance you can achieve while maintaining good powerlifting squat form, is typically going to be best. A narrow stance does a poor job of recruiting the largest muscles in the body, the glutes, and significantly increases the range of motion. Many lifters also have a hard time reaching depth because their belly gets in the way. This isn’t an issue with a wide stance squat that allows you to sit down between your legs.
It will take some experimentation to find out how wide of a squat stance you can tolerate. You will know your stance is too wide when you can no longer hit depth, your knees start to cave in or your adductors begin to hurt.
If you currently squat with a narrow stance, bringing your stance out is going to take time. If you rush it too quickly, you risk adductor/groin strains and your external rotators and hip abductors (glutes) aren’t going to be strong enough to keep your knees from collapsing in on themselves. The easiest way to become more comfortable with a wide stance squat is to gradually work your stance out while squatting, but stretching the adductors (I like this stretch) and strengthening the glutes with exercise bands or the hip circle will expedite the process.
When you squat, you want your toes to be in line with your knees at all times. Pointing your toes out makes it easier to keep your knees out when squatting, so you will need to point your toes out more with a wide squat stance unless you have extremely mobile and strong hips. Only point your toes out as far as you need to in order to keep your knees out though, as torsion (twisting forces) on the knee increase with a larger toe angle.
Bones and the passive structures of the knee are fairly weak when subjected to torsion, so we want to minimize this to avoid injury. With this in mind, I would stay away from a toe angle greater than 30 degrees. If your toes point out more than this, you need to work on adductor flexibility and hip strength with the exercises mentioned above in the “Stance Width” section.
Note: Some lifters, like Dan Green, intentionally let their knees cave for a moment as they come out of the bottom of the squat. This is an advanced technique and carries an increased risk of injury, so I do not condone intentionally doing this. Use at your own risk.
I am sure the vast majority of you have heard the old adage, “Your knees shouldn’t travel over your toes when you squat.”. This is nonsense. Your knees can be perpendicular to the floor, slightly forward or over the toes completely, depending upon your ankle flexibility, stance width and build. This is something I wouldn’t spend a lot of time worrying about unless you have knee pain when squatting.
If you have knee pain when squatting, your toes might be travelling too far forward for your current level of flexibility. Work on stretching the calves (specifically the gastrocnemius), try widening your stance, sitting back more, or even using a box for a while until you get everything fixed. Better yet, refer to this article I wrote on knee pain when squatting, where I go over in detail how to fix this problem and other problems that may cause knee pain when squatting.
The Walk Out
I have seen many good lifters botch the walk out and it’s something I still need to improve on too. With that being said, there are many mistakes I see on the walk out that can easily be avoided.
The first major mistake I see is not having your hips under the bar when you go to unrack the weight. Beginning your squat with a good morning out of the rack is a terrible idea. Get your hips squarely under the bar, with your feet together (not staggered) and you will notice an immediate difference in your walk out.
Another mistake I witness time and time again involves rushing the walk out. Too often, I see lifters get underneath the bar without a thought in the world, scream a bunch, slam the bar around and then haphazardly unrack the weight. I understand and I can admire bringing intensity on your squats, but you must control and funnel your intensity to some degree if you wish to do your best in powerlifting.
Before you ever even begin your walk out, you should make sure everything is locked in place. Follow the previously mentioned tips such as pulling down on the bar to engage your lats, take your first big breath and activate your core.
After you have unracked the weight, let it settle for a second before you begin walking back. Try to take small steps (almost as if you were shuffling) and minimize the number of steps you make. Big steps and a large number of them are only going to throw you off-balance and waste precious energy, especially with heavier weights.
Don’t shift and fidget around once you finish walking back as this only delays the amount of time before the bar has settled on your back. After you have finished moving, wait a second to make sure that the bar has settled and then take one final, big breath and lock everything in to the best of your abilities before you begin the descent. If you do all of this correctly, your squats will feel lighter and move faster.
Common Mistakes and Solutions
Arching your back and keeping your chest up – This puts you in anterior pelvic tilt and limits the ability of the abs, hamstrings and glutes. Don’t use the cue “chest up”. “Head back” works better. Keep your spine in neutral instead of extension.
Keeping the head up when squatting – This also puts you into anterior pelvic tilt and shuts off some huge muscle groups. The cervical spine (neck) is also placed in a dangerous position. Keep your head neutral, look up and learn how to pack your neck instead.
Sucking in your abs to engage the core— A large, wide base with a low center of gravity is the strongest support. Breathe deeply “into your belly” (it’s not really your belly, but feels like it) with the diaphragm and pull your ribcage down as if you were bracing for a blow to your abs.
Knees caving in— Knee valgus is most commonly attributed to weak abductors or tight gastrocnemius calf muscles. Try on a pair of weightlifting shoes with a raised heel (learn more about powerlifting shoes here), stretch the gastrocnemius and work on strengthening the abductors with band walks and seated band abductions. You can also wear a band around your knees on your warm up sets.
Pointing elbows up or back— If you are properly engaging your lats when squatting, which happens to be an extremely strong spinal stabilizer, your elbows should be facing down. To do this, pull your elbows down as if you were doing a lat pulldown and toward each other as if you were going to touch your elbows behind your back (as previously mentioned).
Turning your squats into a good morning— This could be due to some of the mistakes above or even a combination of them. Try to fix any of the mistakes above that you might make and this problem will most likely go away too. If this still doesn’t help, think about sitting down and not back. Imagine squeezing the glutes and sitting into them and between your knees.
- Keep your head in neutral and pack your neck.
- Maintain a neutral spine at all times.
- People tend to squat more low bar, but go with whichever you feel most comfortable with.
- Bring in your grip as much as you can without pain or form deterioration. Work on bringing your grip in over time.
- Consider the thumbless or eagle grip if you are a low bar squatter.
- Keep your elbows down when squatting by pulling down on the bar to engage your lats.
- Activate your core by pulling your ribcage down, taking a big breath with your diaphragm, and expanding the abs and obliques.
- Widen your stance. Work on adductor flexibility, abductor strength and turn your toes out more to accommodate this.
- It’s okay for your knees to travel over the bar when squatting. Don’t worry about this unless you suffer from knee pain when squatting.
- Don’t rush the walk out. If you start sloppy, your squats are going to end sloppy.
Out of the powerlifts, the squat has the most misinformation and confusion out of the three. Countless errors in head position, elbow position and stance are seen every day and even preached by so-called experts in the exercise and fitness field! The tips and keys in this article come from a much greater source. Not only are these tips are being shared by former world-record holders such as Chris Duffin and Greg Nuckols, and innovative strength coaches like Mike Robertson, but many are also supported by the scientific literature as well! With implementation of these tips into your training, squat PRs are just around the corner.
I hope you enjoyed reading “Powerlifting Squat Form 101”! If you did, please share it and be sure follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, Tumblr and Pinterest. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to comment below or Contact Me. Last, but most certainly not least, thank you for your time and feedback!