My Most Effective Squat Cue

Chris Holder

Coach

Kettlebells, Strength and Conditioning, Martial Arts

I have a sordid history with squatting. It’s been a classic love-hate relationship, mixed with heartbreak, disappointment, and pain (dramatic, I know). When I was coming up as an athlete, like most guys, I was obsessed with the bench press. Unfortunately for me, I was really good at benching, which meant that’s all I wanted to do.

 

I came up as an athlete in the late 80s and throughout the 90s. Strength training as we know it today didn’t really exist. There were pockets of people doing great stuff, but most of us were getting our lifting routines from the muscle mags at the grocery store, and unless you want only the aesthetics piece, those routines are not for athletes. What made matters worse were all the benching and arm articles that monopolized the pages of those magazines. Rarely would you see much on squatting, and if you did, it was normally buried among leg routines that focused on the leg press. Squats were an afterthought.

 

 

By the time I was a sophomore in college, I was able to bench around 500lb, all natural. The problem was, I couldn’t squat 500lb to save my life. It wasn’t until the offseason before my senior year that I decided (belatedly) to train with the best squatter on my team. My squat became respectable and passed my bench, but not by much. And to say that I hated every second of it was an understatement.

 

Then something strange happened. I graduated college, started coaching, and decided that I would become obsessed with squatting. For about four years, I went on a squatting odyssey. Bending my knees became a daily priority. I remember training myself to love it thusly: Every time I would address the bar, I would say to myself, “I fucking love this shit.” Over time, it became the truth.

 

A few years into my obsession, I suffered a string of back injuries that put me into early retirement. I might have loved squatting, but since I never received any real coaching on it as an athlete, I didn’t realize that I was doing some sketchy things. These flaws led to some of the most debilitating times of my training life. It was a breakup with an exercise that I can say with the utmost sincerity I am not over, even to this day.

 

If You Can Sit, You Can Squat

It makes sense, at least in theory. We sit all the time, so something as organic and natural as the squatting motion should be nearly seamless. Well friends, it isn’t. Let’s do some soul searching, together.

 

Think of the last 650 times you sat down in a chair. Go ahead, I’ll wait. It’s a squat, in most cases. Now think of how you get into your car. If you’re like 99% of the population, you plop down into your chair. There’s no real “control” of the descent. Same with our cars. I’m guilty of this more than anyone. I sort of dive into my seat, rather than strategically lower myself. I can’t count how many times my wife has given me dirty looks because some of that crash has me spilling over into her space, and I thump her with an elbow or shoulder as I’m crash landing into the driver’s seat.

 

We tend to be a bit more careful when we make our daily stop to the toilet. But I would also venture that your “technique” to getting to the seat is more of a good morning with a “whatever knee bend” to get your ass to the chair. Sound about right?

 

Don’t Crash or Crumble; Pull Into the Hole

My favorite cue for all of my athletes is to puuuuull themselves into the hole. For reasons I have tried to establish above, we might be able to arrive in a squatting position that may or may not be acceptable, but nearly every athlete I encounter has no practice on how to get there effectively. The chair-flops, driver’s-seat-dives, and toilet-good-mornings don’t count as good reps. In fact, on some low level, they influence your squat reps more than you know.

 

I can look you in the eye and say with complete confidence that 0% of my athletes have any idea of what I’m talking about when I deliver this cue to them for the first time. The notion of how they are getting down has never occurred to them, nor evidently the coaches who taught them prior to me. Most of them awkwardly “drop it like it’s hot,” or go down a bit slower, but for slow’s sake. Gravity, the bar, and the load are all in charge of crumbling them toward their understanding of the bottom, then they attempt to organize some semblance of tension for the big push to get up. It’s a hot mess.

 

What we teach is a controlled descent that is less of an eccentric contraction as the muscles lengthen, and more of a concentric contraction of the hip flexors, hamstrings and ankle dorsiflexors. It is an orchestra of active muscles contracting (shortening) and creating the pull, to take the athlete to their desired depth.

 

The Hip Flexors

The pull begins with the lifter engaging the hip flexors. There are around 10 muscles in the hips that are either directly or indirectly responsible for flexing the hip. Engage all of them. Muscles like the rectus femoris and the psoas contract hard to draw the knees up and move the lifter down. Activating this entire complex also creates space between the femoral head and the pelvis itself. This allows the lifter to comfortably sit lower and not feel jammed in the hip. I have had several athletes with hip labrum tears who were able to move pain-free and continue squatting because they are using this lone cue.

 

The Hamstrings

For the longest time, the hamstrings were an afterthought when it came to squatting. Not anymore. Engaging the hamstring the descending portion of the squat further adds control and stability to the system as the lifter sits into their groove. The hamstring is a knee flexor and hip extensor (by job title), and in this case, we want the knee flexor role to come into play. For squatting (and pistols especially), the hamstrings help steer the legs, keeping some of the goofy stuff that tends to manifest to a minimum.

 

The Ankle Dorsiflexors

Yes, even the shins become a player in the lowering of the athlete. Think of pulling the tops of the feet up towards the knees, without the toes leaving the ground. This one very subtle idea can make profound differences in the range of motion for a lifter, and continue to give the athlete a sense of control throughout the movement. Many coaches try and coach a vertical shin at all costs. This, for most people, is not a practical goal. Whether you like it or not, the ankle must move during a squat. No, we don’t want the knees tracking way beyond the toes, but there will be some drift forward as the dorsiflexors contribute their role in pulling.

 

The Orchestra

Once you own the feeling of each of these three major sections actively pulling the body down you’re your bottom position, it’s time to coordinate how it’s done. If you look at my article Get The Rhythm In Your Bones For Safer Squats, the hips, knees, and ankles move in concert. The movement does not begin here and then finish there. As the descent begins, all three joints need to be in motion. At no time will one joint (take hips for example) lead the movement. It’s a coordinated, three-joint, fluid movement.

 

Take Charge of Your Squat

I tell my athletes that they are in charge of, and responsible for, every second the bar or bell is in motion. We never let gravity or the load take charge. I am in charge, at all times. When the lifter knows that they must control things and pull themselves into the bottom position, there’s a sense of ownership to the entire motion.

 

The active descent also opens the doors to new levels of strength in the muscles involved. Instead of the muscles of the hips and legs going along for the ride on the way down, we create opportunities to get stronger. Many of the muscles of the legs responsible for the eccentric movement get their fair share of work, but you are now sneaking in opportunities for the others, who would normally be somewhat dormant, to come to the party and get work. Win, win.

 

Pulling into the hole also washes away some of the inherent fear that comes with many of the big movements like squatting. There’s a real threat to the lifter that the nervous system picks up on when they either have poor coaching, or carelessly drop into bottom position. If you imagine going for a max attempt, fear can be a deciding factor for the success of that attempt. If the athlete is careless during this stage of their attempt, it’s a great way to get hurt.

 

Even old guys like me, who were forced into a premature squatting retirement, find new life as we begin to implement these rules. I went into a lifting depression when I was having my back issues. My attitude was, “well, if I can’t squat, why lift?” It was a sad, dark place. But in the past year I have returned to squatting, although with different goals in mind. I am very careful every session, but I’ve had a year of training that has been injury-free. My back feels good, my strength is coming along, and my love for squatting has never been this strong.

 

Regardless of how you like to squat—the Kelly Starrett knees-out version, high bar Olympic, low bar powerlifter, narrow-stance bodybuilder—this is a cue that will immediately change how you move. Safer. Stronger. Pull yourself into the hole.

 

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