The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to the Backsquat

In Bodybuilding, Fitness, Weightlifting by Rachel SmithLeave a Comment

From the desk of Rachel Smith:

I read an article about squats lately and I thought it was a little lacking in some crucial information.

muscles-squatBeing a fully qualified physiotherapist since 2006 and having done Olympic Weightlifting for 6 years, I am well qualified to share some information with you about squats.

Squats are a great overall body exercise.

They work the calves, quads, hamstrings, glutes (bum muscles) core, lower and upper back.  You can get a lot of bang for your workout buck by working on squats!

So where do you start?

Use a squat rack with safety bars.  Squat racks are there to give you an easy starting point and to keep you safe in the event of not being able to get up with your weight.  Set the bar hooks at a height that is just about at the tip of your shoulder, or slightly lower.  It is easier to get the bar over the hook if it starts lower, than it is if it starts higher!  Set the height of the safety bars just below the level you expect the bar to reach during your squat.

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Using lifting boots really makes a difference to your stability during a squat.

I have a pair of old Adidas Equipment boots, which I really love, and they’re still good.  But the models generally change each year.  Mine are the more traditional boots which have a solid heel made from wood, with about a 1 inch rise in the heel.  Modern lifting boots have been heavily influenced by CrossFit, and they are generally a plastic heel which is lighter in weight and more flexible as CrossFit involves running.  You can get some relatively cheap boots online but I have no knowledge on their quality.

BodySmith_Weightlifting_Shoes2

Some people find the bar to be a bit uncomfortable across the shoulders/neck.

The bar shouldn’t rest on the vertebrae but across the trapezius muscles.  If it’s uncomfortable, you can use a foam pad or other invention (gel pad, or “manta ray”) on the bar to ensure comfort during the squat.

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Personally I feel most secure just using the bar.  Keep in mind that using a pad makes it harder to determine where the centre of the bar is because it will cover the knurling (grippy part of the bar, as opposed to the smooth part).

Start with a weight that you know you can handle.

A regular men’s Olympic Bar weighs 20kg, and a women’s bar weighs 15kg and is narrower in diameter than a men’s bar.  Adjust the bar hooks to the correct height for you.

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Technique:

Start from behind the bar and place your hands evenly, about shoulder width apart.  Then bring your head under the bar, so it sits evenly across your shoulders (if it’s sitting across your neck/spine, it’s too high).  If you do it the other way you can’t see if your head and hands are evenly placed or not!  Lift the bar from the hooks and walk it into the middle of the squat rack.

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Set your heels slightly wider than hip width apart (a little on the wider side for girls, a little narrower for guys due to differing pelvic shapes) and toes facing slightly outwards.  Your heels should be equally in line with each other.  During the squat your knees should follow the line of the toes and not angle inwards towards each other.

Breathe in and lift through the chest, setting your eyes on a target in the distance.  Keeping the chest high and core tight, stick your bottom out behind you and bend your knees as if you are sitting down.  Your knees CAN travel past the toes when squatting – failure to do this leads to dropping the chest and increased risk of back injury during deep squats. Feel free to reference Youtube for Olympic Weightlifting and you will see the people who lift the heaviest weights in the world, using good technique, with their knees passing in front of their toes.

Many people when they start don’t have the required ankle flexibility to take the knees in front of the toes.

This means that when the bottom travels backwards, the whole centre of gravity moves backwards until it threatens to move out of the base of support (behind the heels).  Rather than fall backwards, people then drop the chest, bringing the centre of gravity forwards again.  This leads to increased risk of back injury.  The other thing people sometimes do is lift the heels, bringing the squat onto the toes.  This decreases the stability of the squat and also increases the risk of injury.

Rather than going through all this, those who have decreased ankle flexibility can gradually build flexibility while still squatting safely, by using a piece of wood about 1 inch thick.  (This is an old Olympic Lifting trick that you won’t learn in a lot of places!)  Place the heels on the wood during the squat, so that the centre of gravity is slightly shifted forwards naturally as you squat.  The centre of gravity should go straight through the middle of the heels. This allows a deeper squat and the chest to remain high while squatting.

There will be some very mild torso drop during the squat, that is only normal but you should aim to keep the torso only up to 30 degrees off vertical, no lower.  Keep the heels in line, the hips in line and the shoulders in line as you squat.

Back-SquatAs far as depth goes, aim for thighs to be at least horizontal.  As you become stronger and more experienced you might want to bring the squat deeper to get more out of it.  The end of the squat looks like the reverse of the start of the squat – squeeze the glutes and just like a scissor lift, make your way back up again.  Generally you breathe out as you come up or as you finish the movement.

Can’t get up?  It’s OK!  Come back down safely and rest the bar on the safety bars of the squat rack.  Remove the weights and start again at a lighter weight!

SAFETY, PHYSICS AND ANATOMY

It is crucial to avoid bending through the spine during a squat.  A distinction should be made between bending at the HIPS and bending in the SPINE.

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When we say “Put your hands on your hips”, the more correct term would be “Put your hands on your waist”, because the position we put our hands is actually on the pelvis/waist, not the hip joints.  The hips joints are a ball and socket joint at the bottom of the pelvis, designed for both stability (compared to the shoulder) and mobility.

The glutes are a thick muscle designed to control the rear hip joint!  By comparison, the spine has many joints which are not designed to move much each but overall they create a fair bit of movement.  Each joint is made up of a disc which resembles a car tyre on its side, filled with thick jelly.  Angled pressure on one side of the disc leads to matter pushing out towards the other side.  This is OK to a degree, but when forces become too great, the pressure can lead to a bulge of the disc or even a blowout.

The bulge can put physical pressure on the spinal nerves exiting the spinal cord and cause pains down the leg, and a blowout can create chemical irritation on the nerves and lead to a loss of joint space, causing extra pressure to be placed on the vertebrae themselves as the facet joints of one bone press more heavily on the next than it used to.

The spine is designed to rest in a “neutral” position.

That is with a gentle inwards curve at the neck, an outwards curve in the thorax and an inwards curve at the low back.  This is to allow flexibility of the spine and greater room for lungs etc.  In this position, each disc has centred pressure placed on it.  When we bend forwards through the back, pressure forces the disc substance backwards.  If we do it and add weight, especially holding it far away from our body, and then twist, we create a situation in which our discs are very likely to be permanently damaged.  Generally the lowest one (L5/S1) goes first because it’s taking the most weight.  Unfortunately discs don’t have a very good blood supply which leads to very poor healing rates.

Disc herniated

If we bend forwards at the hip, changing the ANGLE of the spine but not the SHAPE of the spine, the downwards pressure is still centred in the middle of each vertebra.  There may be increased pressure, but the centralised nature of the pressure means that the disc spreads the pressure evenly and can take a much greater load. It’s no mistake that the discs are round in shape.  So, when we change the ANGLE of the spine, we must use the core and back muscles to ensure that the SHAPE of the spine remains neutral, and there is also no twisting.  This is one thing that Pilates is very useful for.

If you can imagine holding an upright chopstick on a bench with a bowling ball on the top, as long as the chopstick remains very close to upright it will be very easy to support.  The further towards 90 degrees the chopstick goes, the harder it will become to support, due to gravity acting on a lever that is further away from its origin, in terms of vertical force.  So the further you drop your chest, the exponentially harder the back muscles have to work to prevent your spine from changing shape.

If the muscles fail, then the job falls to the passive structure of the spine to prevent injury, i.e. the ligaments.  We have a ligament at the back of the spinal bodies and vertebrae to assist in preventing injury, however it is notoriously inadequate under large forces and cannot be relied upon.  This is why it is so important to keep the chest quite upright during a squat (no lower than 30 degrees).  Correct technique will avoid injury and will in fact prevent injury, as correct training will mean that you are well prepared when called upon to use the core/back muscles, for example when the dog suddenly pulls on the lead or during a car accident.

There are exercises which call upon the chest to be dropped while holding weight, such as bent over rows, good mornings (bendovers) and Romanian deadlifts.  It is very important to have lots of experience before doing these due to the potential for injury, and the weight used is a lot lighter than that you would use during a squat.  The rule of not changing the shape of the spine still stands with all of these exercises – bending occurs at the HIP and not at the WAIST.

If you are new to squats, I can almost guarantee that you will be doing the waddle the day after your first squat session.  And maybe for a few more days.  There really is no way around it and you just have to suck it up!!!  As you train with frequency you will find that your recovery is faster and you don’t become as sore afterwards.  You will find that as your strength in the squat improves, many things will become easy, such as standing from a low chair, picking up shopping, picking up weights, and even activities such as jumping and sprints.  You might even become keen to try doing front squats, in which the bar is rests on the front of the shoulders and collarbone!

Squats truly are an excellent exercise.  If you’re interested in giving them a go, come into training and I’ll make sure you are doing them safely and at a level that is right for you!

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About the Author

Rachel Smith

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Rachel completed her Bachelor of Physiotherapy from the University of South Australia in 2006 and left private practise to open BodySmith Fitness with her husband, Matt Smith, in 2014. Rachel was awarded her Black Belt and Diploma from the Japan Karate Association in 2012. Rachel spent 6 years in competitive Olympic Weightlifting and in 2006 was ranked 7th in Australia in her class. Rachel spent 10 years in Gymnastics growing up, which set her up to springboard into her other pursuits. 😉 Rachel has extensively researched Health and Nutrition and this is her passion; to help people in their Fitness journey.