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How To Fix Your Barbell Squat Form

Several misconceptions about the correct barbell squat form and popular coaching cues persist. And those cues are hurting your results. 

You’ve heard them all before. “Squeeze your shoulder blades!”, “Chest up!”, “Drive your knees out!”, “Spread the floor!” and “Squeeze your glutes!” 

It’s time we reassess the validity of each one and show you how to get the most out of your barbell back squats. 

We’ve teamed up with Jeffrey Wolf over at Strength Culture in Clearwater, FL to go through the correct squat cues.

 

Stop squeezing your shoulder blades

In the barbell back squat, most people overemphasize squeezing the shoulder blades to create tension in the upper body. Although the idea behind this is correct, to stabilize the upper body for the lift, excessively squeezing the shoulder blades lifts and externally rotates the ribcage and extends the lower back. 

Doing so puts the whole upper body in an unstable position.

What to do instead

Let the bar naturally sit on top of your shoulders, allowing the shoulder blades to find their comfortable position.

Stop lifting your chest up

As you step back to initiate the squat, you want to keep the ribcage internally rotated or pulled towards the pelvis. To do this, you’ll have to ignore one of the most common squat cues, as it externally rotates your ribs and put unnecessary strain on the low back.

What to do instead

If you video your barbell squat form and find yourself stuck in an overly extended position, setting your gaze straight ahead and slightly unlocking your knees often helps to reduce the forward pelvic tilt. 

Emphasize this by taking a short inhale and a long exhale to draw the ribs further down towards the pelvis. 

Then, with your ribs down, pelvis in place, and shoulder blades relatively relaxed, fill your trunk with air to lock in intra-abdominal pressure. 

 

Ian demonstrates squat form do's and dont's.

 

Stop driving your knees out

 

This forces your pelvis into external rotation, which keeps the glutes in a shortened position throughout the lift. To get the most out of your glutes, you want the glutes to both maximally lengthen and shorten. 

Driving the knees out also causes excessive lumbar extension, leading to external rotation of the ribs. You might notice this as lumbar pain or lateral knee pain.

 

What to do instead

Bend your knees to squat down, letting the knees travel towards the first or second toe. Focus the pressure on the inside of your foot, specifically, the inside of the first metatarsal and heel.

This setup encourages the pelvis to follow a natural rotation throughout the lift: external rotation at the top, internal rotation in the middle, and returning to external rotation at the bottom. 

You maximize muscle activation throughout the lift by allowing the body to do what it naturally wants.

 

Where to point your toes

Where you point your toes is a matter of comfort and depends largely on your hip socket anatomy. Most people find a slight outward point more comfortable when dialing in their barbell squat form. Especially if they lack the range of motion and mobility in the hip. 

Despite the toe orientation, the idea isn’t to aggressively drive the knees in that direction. Let both internal and external rotation naturally occur in the hip during the squat by letting your knees move towards the first or the second toes. Regardless of where the toes point.

 

Stop spreading the floor 

 

As with driving the knees out, spreading the floor induces excessive external rotation in the hip. What you need is natural internal rotation to generate force into the ground.

You can feel the difference right now. Attempt a max vertical jump while driving the knees out. Now do it again with natural internal rotation, pointing the knees towards the first or second toe. 

Which one lends itself to a higher jump?

What to do instead

Let the knees track towards the first or even second toe. 

The goal isn’t to get rid of external rotation altogether. But let both internal and external rotation naturally occur naturally instead of forcing either one. 

 

Driving the knees out messes up your foot mechanics

When your knees are travelling out, it’s almost impossible to get weight onto the inside of the foot to drive force into the ground. The foot can’t stretch and load properly, which means the muscles of the foot can’t engage fully.

 

The correct barbell squat form engages the whole foot

The foot has three points where the weight is distributed: the outside and the inside of the foot, and the heel. Although all the points stay in contact, there is more weight on one area of the foot, depending on which part of the squat you’re in. 

At the top of the squat, you’re heel’s taking more of the weight. When dropping down into the squat, you’re loading more of the inside of the foot and the big toe.

Stop squeezing your glutes

Finishing with a glute squeeze leads to a deep pelvic tuck, and it compresses the hell out of your sacrum. You might get away with it for a while, until you can’t. Besides, the extra tuck at the end doesn’t give you anything you already didn’t get in the lift.

What to do instead

To finish the squat, stand tall. At the same time, keep in mind what we mentioned earlier about not lifting the chest up or squeezing the shoulder blades.

Tension on the inside of the knee is normal

This sometimes freaks people out, but it’s normal to feel a bit of stress on the inside of your knee or groin as the hip naturally adducts during the squat.

If you’ve been using the “knees out” cue for a long time, slowly let your body gradually adapt to the new form.

 

A deep heavy barbell squat.

The correct barbell squat form takes work

But it’s well worth the benefits. When done correctly, the barbell squat challenges and builds your overall strength, hypertrophy, and mobility. 

When squatting in the way we outlined earlier, most people notice a significant increase in quad activation and glute engagement, primarily because the hip can fully extend. 

The abs naturally feel tighter as the pelvis and ribs are in a position to allow this, even without actively bracing. The hamstrings also engage correctly, thanks to the better pelvic position.

Let the body do what it naturally wants to do, and you’ll notice a significant improvement in your strength, mobility, and how much force you can put into the ground.

 

What if you’ve tried everything we’ve talked about and your barbell squat still feels like crap? Here’s what we recommend..

Work on your hip mobility

 

Our Beginner Hip Mobility Program is specifically designed to improve your range of motion, strength, and overall lower body performance. Sign up today and get access to more range of motion. 

You can also work one-on-one with us!

If you’re a coach, trainer or therapist who wants to take a deep dive into biomechanics and mobility, sign up for Mobility Coach Plus.

 

If you have any questions or need further guidance on your back bend journey, feel free to leave a comment below.

We are here to support you in achieving your flexibility goals.

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