by Jonathon Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC
An extremely common form error in the squat occurs as one approaches the hole, looking for that accursed depth. Here's how to fix it.
This essay was subsequently produced as a video, which you can see below.
Here’s an assignment: Go and find a seesaw, or some reasonable facsimile thereof, and set it rocking. Hell, if you have a friend, you can actually take a seat and rock it together. Maybe it’s been 6 decades since you sat on a seesaw, in which case it’s long overdue. But reconnecting with your Inner Child is not the assignment.
For this week’s homework, I want you to make both sides of the seesaw go down at the same time.
Try harder next time.
But seriously, Folks: This is one of those things that just doesn’t happen in our universe. Seesaws see (teeter) on one end and saw (totter) on the other. It’s one of those things you just have to take into account, like two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time, and kittens become cats, money doesn’t grow on trees, and you can’t always get what you want, even if you’re Mick Jagger.
When you squat, you are a seesaw, or if you prefer, a teeter-totter. The fulcrum is the hip, so one end of the seesaw is much shorter than the other, unless you have a very big butt, but you are a seesaw in any case. This has implications for how you achieve the bottom position, at depth—or not.
Everybody in the universe will recall from my Internationally Famous and World-Changing Video, Thinkage of Squattage, that in the squat we establish our knee position and back angle early, and then just lower our hips into the hole and raise them out of the hole. This is a very simple thing to do, but it is not easy, especially at heavy loading.
You will note that the teetering and tottering in this approach to the squat is kept to a precise minimum: you teeter at the very start when you unlock your hips and sit back, and you totter when you approach the top on the way up as you stand upright. In between, there is neither seeing nor sawing. Your back angle remains constant, as does your knee position (with neither backing nor forthing, but that’s a different essay).
An extremely common form error in the squat occurs as one approaches the hole, looking for that accursed depth. There’s a primitive and unregenerate part of your brain that knows you have to get your butt deeper….and would sell your mother to the Nazis, cheap, rather than lower your hips one more inch. This primitive paleocortical region is desperate and panicked and it doesn’t care who it hurts as long as it doesn’t have to sit down deep in the hole. Your homo sapiens neocortex really wants to do the right thing, and it’s thinking: DEEPER! But this cowardly, unprincipled, reptilian lobe of grey matter responds by having you lean forward and lower your chest instead.
And it says: “There. That’s deeper! See how much closer to the floor you are?”
Any closer and you’d face-plant. When this crime is committed at significant loading, the karmic repercussions are so instantaneous as to be immensely gratifying, at least for your coach, who would like to think this an eminently teachable moment. As you teeter forward, the bar comes out of the slot, you come onto the ball of your foot, the bar is suddenly bazillion times heavier, and it just sucks to be you.
Oh: and your squat is high by about 7.8 miles. Because you can’t lower both ends of a seesaw at the same time. If you lower your chest in the hole, you can’t simultaneously lower your hips, because that’s like having your cake and eating it too, or like being in two places at the same time, or like being Kanye West and also a classy dude.
This error is both a common initial mistake in new lifters and also occurs as form creep with established athletes. In both cases, yelling at them to bury it or sit on it or go deeper will often work…and often not. Some cases are recalcitrant. With hardcore squirrels who simply will not stop leaning, just yelling the same cues won’t fix it. Sometimes pause squats help. Box squats can be very helpful, by giving a hard target to the ass that even the Cheater Reptile Lobe can’t argue with—you either touch the box or you don’t.
Still, I have found that it can be a hard error to fix, and it can creep in on anybody from time to time, even (or especially) Yours Truly.
I’ve stumbled on a cue that you may find helpful in some cases. Part of the problem is that you’re giving the Reptile Lobe a single task (deeper!) that it thinks it can cheat by lowering the chest instead of the hips.
The fix is to give your lizard brain two simultaneous goals with a simple compound cue: Bar High, Hips Low!
Even the most herpetologically regressive brain can’t square this circle by leaning forward and lowering the chest, because that would lower the bar, and the cue is to keep the bar high while lowering the hips. I have had considerable success with this cue of late, in my athletes and in myself as I get back to the squat after a layoff due to injury, with a corresponding hesitancy to go to depth at heavy loading.
Be aware that this cue, like many others, can have untoward side effects, because perfecting form is always a never-ending game of Whack-a-Mole. In this case, the one I observe the most is that the lifter stops leaning into the hole, but now achieves depth by (a) relaxing the lumbar and/or (b) emulating a more high-bar squatty posture by dropping the hips forward and down to create a more vertical back with knees more forward--which is not the point, and which we have covered elsewhere.
This complication is usually a much easier fix, and indicates the Wall of Power cue, among others. But that’s for another time. For now, embrace the Cosmic Truth that you can’t teeter and totter at the same time, and focus on lowering only your hips into the hole, not your chest. Bar High, Hips Low. Let me know if it helps.
Jonathon Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC, PBC is a retired emergency physician and research physiologist, and the owner and head coach of the Greysteel Strength and Conditioning Clinic in Farmington Hills, Michigan, which specializes in training adults over 50. He is the author of The Barbell Prescription: Strength Training for Life After Forty, with Coach Andy Baker.