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Referring to the “big lifts”—the squat, bench press, and deadlift—is a Catch-22 for anyone writing about them. Telling people, in article after article, that a solid program has to use these lifts as a foundation is somewhat played out at this point, yet the reality of the situation is that if you’re not squatting, bench pressing, and deadlifting, your program sucks.
These lifts—with the possible exception of bench pressing—are gaining in popularity in the mainstream world, in large part because of CrossFit. According to them, apparently, there are movements other than pressing and the Olympic lifts that can now be considered cool. In other words, everyone’s squatting these days, and that’s a good thing.
The problem, however, is that the vast majority of all these new people taking up the big lifts aren’t being coached properly. They have absolutely no clue about form, technique, lifting cues, equipment, programming, the mentality they need, or anything else. They’re walking in blindly, doing things the wrong way, and going nowhere fast.
This is the first installment in an article series covering these lifts, and I want you to read these with an open mind. I’m all over social media just like you, and I see the advice you’re getting every day—and it’s disturbing, because so much of it is sending you down the wrong path. The idea here, then, is to give you five things to think about—the top five mistakes I see all over the place—before you put another barbell on your back:
1. The absence of vital main lifting cues
Squatting can be dangerous, and there’s no getting around this. A lot of things can go very, very wrong on any given rep. The most important piece of advice I give everyone I coach is to lock down their form and technique before they start stacking serious plates on the bar. Here’s the list of cues you need to know before the next time you squat:
- Sit back into your squats, not down. Think “hip hinge.” That’s the key to a powerful squat.
- Grip the floor “like a monkey” to solidify your foundation when you’re ready to descend.
- Try to bend the bar with your lats. Pulling your elbows down and locking in your back will create leverage advantages that will totally blow your mind.
- Instead of looking down like so many so-called experts have been telling you, you need to be looking up. Get your eyes on the point where the wall meets the ceiling. This will both give you better leverage and promote a healthy squatting posture.
2. You're wearing the wrong shoes
The trendy thing to wear nowadays is a heeled Olympic lifting shoe, but if you’re doing this, there are some things you should consider. Heeled shoes will help if you squat with an extremely close stance, or if you have poor hip mobility, but if these scenarios don’t apply to you, you’re probably better off wearing a flat shoe.
With flat squatting shoes, you won’t be as prone to pitching forward onto your toes. Having a raised heel can turn the squat into a more quad-dominant movement, taking away a good bit of your glute, hamstring, and hip drive. Of course, this is an individual thing that depends on your particular set of biomechanics and levers, but the point here is to give you something to think about before you start blindly following the Olympic shoe crowd.
3. Poor programming
You’ll hear me talk a lot about how quality coaching trumps programming every day of the week, but the problem with most programming is that it overcomplicates the process. Contrary to apparent popular belief, programming the squat can be very simple if you follow the one principle I believe to be the most important of all: The concept of attacking your weak points.
Getting after your weak points is the key to making improvements. In 10/20/Life, I go into this in exceptional detail. If you don’t figure out where you’re lacking, then go after those deficits with a vengeance, you’ll never see your numbers go up. For the squat, exercises like close-stance squats, explosive (speed) squats, pause squats, and wide-stance box squats can make a massive difference. They’ll also teach you how to design your own programs like a pro.
4. Your mentality might be all wrong
I’ve squatted 1185 pounds in competition—a world record at the time—so I know a little bit about what it takes to get under the bar and go down with that kind of weight. The key to squatting properly is to conquer the weight before you eve feel it on your back. This entails developing the confidence to own that weight without fearing it, while still respecting it enough to do things right.
It’s a great idea to have a mental checklist to go through before you squat. Think about the cues I gave you above, then take your time and go through them in your head as you’re setting up. Be controlled and explosive when you squat, but take a calm and methodical approach. Turn yourself into a technician.
5. You're not staying tight enough
If you’re too loose when you squat, you’re not doing yourself any favors in terms of either your health or your ability to generate power. While you’re sticking to the above cues, you should also be pushing your belly out, keeping it firm, and generating plenty of stiffness and tightness from head to toe.
The way to do all of this is to maintain a stiff core, and the best way I’ve found to develop that comes from Dr. Stuart McGill’s “Big 3”—the rolling plank, bird dog, and McGill crunch. Exercises like stir the pot and kettlebell swings are also extremely valuable for this purpose. Keeping this in mind, doing some mobility work from time to time will keep your back and hips healthy. Throw in some goblet squats on occasion to keep yourself mobile.
This may sound a little counterintuitive, but having tight hips is a good thing for squatting. If you can get down to your desired depth without forcing things, don’t stretch. Tightness is part of what helps you explode and create power.
Putting It All Together
Your goal here should be to take every little tip you find and make yourself one percent better at everything you do—because all these minor things add up in the end. One minor correction can mean the difference between a new squat record and a horrific miss.
With so many people trying the big lifts for the first time, we’re seeing more misguided trainees than ever doing these lifts wrong. Powerlifters know these movements better than anyone else in the world. We do them every day, we’ve honed the craft for decades, and we know how to teach them correctly to get you stronger and keep you injury-free, because that’s just what we do.
Start with these five corrections, and you’ll be well on your way.