- If you want to get bigger, stronger legs, then most of your gains are going to come from getting as strong as possible on the back squat, eating right, and getting enough sleep.
- The single biggest mistake people make when squatting (according to Rippetoe), is keeping their back too upright and letting their knees shoot too far forward.
- If you want to get the most out of your squat workouts, invest in a good pair of weightlifting shoes.
You probably know that if you want to gain strength and muscle as fast as possible, then you want to squat.
Squats aren’t easy, though, which is part of why they’re so effective.
The squat requires just about every major muscle group in your body to work in concert to generate a tremendous amount of force, as well as near picture-perfect form if you’re going to ever put up impressive numbers.
And if you do it incorrectly, then you risk injuring your knees, back, and shoulders.
When you poke around online to learn how to squat with proper form, though, you come away with more questions than answers.
Should you squat high bar or low bar?
Should you squat barefoot or in squat shoes?
Should you use a wide stance or narrow stance?
Should you use a safety bar or regular barbell?
Should you use paused reps or “explode” out of the hole?
I decided to ask the grandfather of barbell training, Mark Rippetoe, to get to the bottom of this.
In case you don’t know him, Mark is the bestselling author of Starting Strength and Practical Programming.
I’m a fan of Mark and his work, of course, because nobody has done more to promote, teach, and defend barbell training than Rip, and because he’s extremely disagreeable, which always makes for a fun conversation.
Here’s his take…
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Mike Matthews: Let’s talk about squatting. Obviously you have written and spoken extensively about how to squat and all the key things you’ve got to do right to be squatting at least with decent form.
I thought it would be fun though to pick your brain on some of the more nuanced aspects of squatting and just hear your thoughts. I kind of put together a little bullet point list of aspects of the squat that I just want to throw out to you and see what you have to say.
Let’s start with high bar versus low bar. This is an ongoing debate, something I’m asked about fairly frequently. I personally prefer low bar, it’s more comfortable for me. What are your thoughts on high bar versus low bar?
Mark Rippetoe: I think that we’ve developed a set criteria that we use to analyze all of the exercises that we do. That set criteria are as follows.
First, is the exercise should involve the most muscle mass that it can. The exercise should involve, two, the longest effective range of motion that it can.
If these two things are satisfied the exercise will allow you to handle the most weight possible in order to, four, get you as strong as you can get because we’re strength training. We’re not bodybuilding, we’re strength training. We’re talking about getting stronger.
If we correctly analyze the lifts and make a little list of the things that we can do to change the lifts, to head them in the direction of those criteria, then the outcome is one of increased efficiency in terms of the time we spend under the bar at the gym, right?
It would be better to get more done than less done at the gym in the same period of time and is a result of that because of the practical … well, because of the fact that wasted time is wasted opportunity.
The people that we do business with, the people that you and I do business with, are productive individuals. They are not 23 year old kids living in the basement. They don’t have six hours a day to fool around in the gym so we have to look at this from a practical standpoint. If there is a way to squat that accomplishes our objectives much more efficiently, then that’s the way we ought to squat.
As it turns out, the low bar squat, squatting with the bar in what is called the low bar position produces a more horizontal back angle and produces more use of the larger muscles of the posterior chain because we expose that muscle mass anatomically to longer moment arms as a result of these angles.
It allows us to lift more weight but it also causes us to have to use more muscle mass. That’s why we like the low bar position because it produces a slightly more horizontal back angle and more activation of the glutes, the abductors, the low-back muscles, the hamstrings.
The quads are there anyway, they go along for the ride because they have to work. They’re one joint muscle and they take up a large role in the activity no matter how you squat, high bar, front squat, everything else uses quads.
If we assume a little bit more horizontal back angle then all of the other muscle mass gets brought into the equation and you know this because you can lift more weight that way. You activate more muscle mass. You get stronger.
You make that increased amount of muscle mass lift heavier weights and do more things during the squat than it would otherwise. And, otherwise would mean high bar squats, a more vertical back angle, and front squats, the most vertical back angle of all.
In the grand scheme of things, if you’re squatting you’re doing just fine. If you’re squatting you’re doing what you need to do.
High bar squats are obviously better than no squats at all. Some people can’t do low bar squats because of their shoulders, because … I will say this, the low bar squat is a lot more difficult to coach. It’s a lot more complicated movement pattern. It can be done wrong quite easily, it has to be coached. It has to be dealt with correctly and as a result high bar squats are easier to do. If you don’t have access to some coaching just squat.
If we’re talking about what is optimum, optimum is the greatest amount of muscle mass operating over the longest effective range of motion so that you can lift the most weight and therefore get the strongest.
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That’s optimum. In an ideal world we’d low bar squat. In a less ideal world we’d do something else, but we’d squat. You know, there’s a lot of yelling and screaming about how we’re gonna squat, you know, it’s of secondary consideration. We have to squat but if we have the luxury of deciding which way we’re gonna squat, those are the criteria we use for the decision. The way we squat is a way that satisfies those.
Mike: Makes sense. You can apply that same logic to just weight lifting on the whole and that’s why. You start with your squats, your deadlifts, your presses and if you can do those exercises then those are the ones you want to do. I would say, you mentioned earlier strength training versus bodybuilding, I would say for people that aren’t on drugs there isn’t as big a difference between those two things as many people think.
I’d say a good natural bodybuilding program is kind of more like a basic strength training program with some … you could say accessory work and diet, right?
Strength training, some extra volume for the pretty muscles, and then diet. That’s really what bodybuilding is for most people unless you’re on a shit load of drugs.
You are not going to get very far if you do anything other than that, actually.
Mark: Right. If you do not base your training on that which affects the largest muscle mass in the whole body, then you are not going to have as big a muscle mass as you could if you did.
This ought to be obvious. It ought to be obvious that the guy with a 500 pound deadlift has got bigger back, hips and legs than the guy with the 200 pound deadlift. How do you best get to a 500 pound deadlift? Well, you just set it to five, basic heavy loading on sets of five gets you to those big numbers. Do sets of 15. Get your deadlift up to 500 pounds. I’ve never seen it happen because the set of 15 is light, relative to a set of five.
So, if you want to get strong and get big by getting strong then you do sets of five and you do sets of five as long as that simple program works. Then, when it becomes necessary, much later on to get more complicated in terms of your programming then do what you want to do.
Until then, what we do is do a set of five on the deadlifts, go up five pounds next time, do a set of five. Go up five more pounds the following workout, do a set of five. Don’t make it more complicated than it needs to be.
Change as little about your programming over time as is necessary. Make the smallest amount of change at any given time that you have to to keep progress going on.
PRs, Personal Records, on the lifts, on your sets of five, are the guarantee of progress. You cannot put five pounds a week on your deadlift and fail to make progress because that is, by definition, progress.
Since you’re getting stronger your muscles have to get bigger to get stronger and therefore you get bigger when you get stronger. Sets of five is the best way to do it. There’s just not any other analysis that makes as much sense because it is simple and straightforward.
The human mind, for some bizarre reason just is in love with complexity. Complexity sells. Complexity is … novelty and complexity, both of them are confused quite often. Sometimes novelty … sometimes to your doctor, if you go in with cancer your doctor is going to find the five pounds of workout approach to your deadlift, he’d be quite novel isn’t he?
It’s not complicated but it is novel because he’s never heard of that before. Complexity to a lifter, complexity for some reason always … people want to do a program that sounds complicated because the guys they want to be like do complicated programs. They copy what their heroes are doing and that may or may not be useful. It usually is not useful. It is usually best to stay as simple and uncomplicated with your training as you can.
As long as merely adding some weight to the work set next workout works, do that. Save all of this complicated shit for later when it will, in fact, be necessary. For most people it really is not, is it?
Mike: In some ways it’s never necessary. I think of a review in MASS, which is Greg Nuckols’ and Mike Zourdos’ and Eric Helms’ research review, and they were talking about … I think it was DUP versus just straight sets. The long story short was … and these are smart guys that I don’t think that they have an agenda or an ideology they’re trying to sell, I think they truly are just trying to get at the truth of things.
Based on a pretty extensive review of just relevant literature it was that like in high level strength athletics that are doing everything right, DUP does seem to be a little bit better over the long term. But, by a little bit better is like 5% better in terms of strength gain. What does that really mean in terms of … yes, that matters if you’re a strength athlete, that does matter. If you’re an advanced strength athlete and you can gain strength 5% faster or gain 5% it was something around there. It was a relatively small increase that yes, I could understand that if that’s what you live and die by are your numbers, that matters.
How does that matter though to the average guy or average girl who just wants to be fit?
They just want to put on … the average guy, I’ve worked with thousands and so have you, you know the average guy wants to put on let’s just say 30 to 40 pounds of muscle and wants to be relatively lean and look good.
The average woman, I’m speaking from my personal experience, your experience is going to be a bit different actually because you probably have a little bit different crowd. In terms of just the everyday gym fit person that seems to be the sweet spot for guys and for girls it’s probably mostly 15 to 20 pounds of muscle added in the right places and around 20% body fat and they’re thrilled. For those people, they don’t need to ever hear the word DUP, you know what I mean?
Mark: Yep, I will tell you a little secret, Mike. I don’t know what DUP means.
Mike: Oh, Daily Undulating Periodization.
Mark: Oh, I see, complexity.
Mike: It’s one of these … Yes, yes, yes.
Mark: Nah, I don’t care about that.
Mike: You got to appreciate it because actually from a programming perspective it’s just working different rep ranges and different workouts, that’s all. It’s like you’re doing your really heavy training on one day and then you’re doing a little bit lighter on another day and a little bit lighter, just to work in different rep ranges is the long story short. Obviously it’s a bit more technical than that but that’s the gist.
Mark: It always is.
Mike: Anyways, so yes. I totally agree. Keeping it simple is gonna get the vast majority of people listening to this and just the vast majority of people out there that are interested in strength training is simple is better. Just stick to the fundamentals.
Mark: Right. The vast majority of the time, who are the vast majority of people? Are they competitive lifters?
Mike: Exactly. That’s the point.
Mark: It’s not who we do business with. I don’t care what competitive lifters do. They can figure all this out themselves. They’re certainly entitled. You’ve been training 10 years, you probably know more about your training than I do and I’m gonna always defer to your judgment.
Whatever you want to do, have fun. As long as you’re making progress, as long as you’re making PRs on a regular basis then what you’re doing is obviously working.
But, I don’t care about those people. They’re gonna be … they don’t need me to care about them. I care about their mom. I care about their uncle. I care about their little brother who’s not a competitive lifter. I care about people who want the most straight forward, uninterrupted period of progress that we can hand them with the simplest most effective programming possible. That’s all I’m concerned about.
If a guy is lifting at the Nationals this year, I’m not even going to presume to offer an opinion about what he ought to be doing. He’ll figure that out. If he doesn’t figure it out right he won’t win. He’ll come back, he’ll reassess and he’ll go through the process of making better decisions next time. He has to if he’s gonna win. But, that’s not who we train. That’s not who you train, it’s not who I train.
For our clients, our demographic, the best approach to all of this is always the most simple, straightforward way to squat that you can do it. The only conflict I would have is that our low bar squat is not always simple and straightforward. It requires a little bit of coaching.
As a result of that, I am aware of the fact that most people who squat are squatting in what we would consider to be a less than optimum way. They’re probably doing high bar. I don’t care, at least they’re squatting and at least the squat is going up. Does that sound more reasonable than I’m expected to sound?
Mike: That makes perfect sense to me. That’s what I say at least. For me, low bar, I like it more for the reasons that you gave and I’m also used to it. I’ve been low bar squatting for years now and high bar squatting feels awkward to me.
Let’s move on to another point here. Let’s talk about the width of the stance. A more narrow stance versus a wider stance.
Mark: Well, we coach a position that is about, and this works for 98% of everybody. We use a position where heels are at about shoulder width. If you draw a line vertically down from your shoulders to your heels that’s how wide your stance will be. Then, we use a stance angle of 30 to 35 degrees. The reason for this is because it produces conformity with our criteria. It uses more muscle mass-
Mike: By that, just to clarify, you’re talking about the position of the feet, right?
Mark: Yes. The stance is heels at shoulder width, toes out at 30 to 35 degrees. Then, when you squat, you keep your knees in line with your feet so that feet and knees and femurs are parallel. The parallel nature of that alignment at 30 to 35 degrees of external rotation requires that your hips engage all of the musculature that produces external rotation.
All of that musculature is the three big glute bellies as well as the internal, the physical therapy muscles, I like to call them. The piriformis, the obturator, the gemelli and the … I always forget the quadratus guy in there, I think he is the quadratus lumborum, but I don’t really care. What I care about is that all of the muscle mass that produces external rotation is called into the squat. It’s involved in the exercise if external rotation is a part of the execution.
We intentionally choose a stance that produces external rotation, thus involving the external rotator muscle mass in the exercise. This has another side effect. It produces a more complete activation of the “A-D ducters”, the groin muscle, which when that stance and when external rotation is involved in the movement, the adductors, the groin muscles, become very, very strong and effective hip extensors because of their anatomy.
You’ll just have to look this up. So, in other words, if we are pointing our toes out at 30, 35 degrees, at that stance width, and we’re keeping our knees out in a line over the foot then we are involving all of the muscle mass that produces that external rotation, the glutes and all of the physical therapists muscles and we’re involving the “A-D ducters”, the groin muscles in the squat.
Whereas, if you take the standard conventional wisdom, narrower stance, toes pointed, knees pointed straight ahead, you leave all of that muscle mass completely out of the movement pattern. I don’t think that’s a good idea because I like to train as much muscle mass when I squat as I can so that I can lift more weight and get stronger, strengthening all that muscle mass.
That’s the reason for our stance differences. You know this works if you’ve ever had a groin injury and training through it. Groin pulls are amazing little things. You have no idea how many things your adductors are involved in until you tear one of them. It’s exquisitely painful that you’ve probably had one yourself.
Mike: Fortunately I haven’t. I haven’t had an injury but I’ve had very sore adductors that got in the way of squatting. I remember I had to work through … I actually had to drop weight for a bit and just, if I remember, for about two months I was just working through extreme soreness.
This was the first time when I started to get up into the low and mid 300’s on my back squat. There was a period I may have been in a deficit at the time … there was just a period when for some reason my hip flexors and my groin muscles, they were just very sore. I actually had to back off on the weight and had to let them recover and get strong enough to allow me to continue progressing.
So, what are your thoughts on paused reps?
Mark: I think they’re useful for advanced lifters. I do them myself because a paused rep, below parallel to a box, allows me to stay out of my creaky old knees. I tend to make mistakes because I train in here late at night by myself and I tend to make mistakes with my form, just like everyone else does.
I need a coach. If I’m in here by myself at night what I do is squat to a box that is 12 and 3/4 inches high, which puts me at about a 1/2 below parallel, then I pause on that box and then I drive my hips up. In doing so, I’m able to stay out of my knees. I hurt my left knee doing this wrong about a year and a half ago. I just decided I’m gonna do all my squats to a below parallel box with a pause in it.
Why that’s not good for novices should be obvious. I’m 62 years old. I’m just barely held together with chewing gum and baling wire. I think that the older you get, obviously, the more nuanced your training is gonna have to be.
For the vast majority of people, they don’t need to do a paused squat, they just need to squat. They just need to learn how to squat correctly and do it correct.
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So, that’s what we coach. We don’t use paused squats for many people. Later on, advanced lifters, once again can do anything they want to do.
Mike: Makes sense. What are your thoughts on paused reps without the box?
Mark: They’re real hard.
Mike: Simply, you’re getting down in the hole and you’re pausing a few seconds. Yeah, they’re difficult.
Mark: They’re difficult because they remove the stretch reflex, the rebound from the bottom of the squat.
Mike: Yeah, you don’t get the hamstring bounce, right?
Mark: You don’t get any bounce at all and it’s not just the hamstrings you’re bouncing off of. It’s all the posterior chain. All the glutes, all the adductors, the quads, all that muscle mass is involved in the stretch reflex if you produce a bounce out of a hole.
Paused squat, box squats, pin squats, all the variations of a squat that removes the stretch reflex makes the movement much harder because the stretch reflex increases mechanical efficiency of the squat to a gigantic extent. It’s supposed to be in there.
The stretch reflex is a normal human movement. Anytime we jump we use a stretch reflex. Anytime we push on something hard in real life we’re using a stretch reflex. All of that movement pattern stuff is quite thoroughly dependent on the stretch reflex and so is the squat.
If we artificially remove it from the squat that’s a good way to increase the difficulty of the squat. Think of it like this, what is force production? If doing a pause squat reduces your ability to squat by 25%, just like going eight inches below parallel, does it have the ability to make you as strong? No.
It may be necessary later on for special reasons, it may be useful for an advanced lifter as an assistance exercise, depending on the particular nature of his squat training, but it does not have the capacity to allow you to lift as much weight and therefore it cannot make you as strong.
Mike: Agreed. I’ve always done it, if I have done it it’s been an assistance thing. It’s been … I’ll do my heavy regular squats and then simply because I feel like, and I can’t say for sure the reason why I was doing it for a period of time, is that I was just trying to get stronger out of the hole.
I feel also just get more used to … because I would actually still keep the weight heavy, just be fewer reps. I was progressing on my squat nicely at that time. Not necessarily because of paused squats but it was something that I had read about and I’m like, interesting, I’ll try it.
Mark: I think everybody ought to try it after they’ve been training three or four years. You need to be experience at doing all kinds things. There really isn’t a better way to distract a novice, or an early intermediate trainee, than to introduce a bunch of assistance exercises that have the net effect of lowering the amount of weight on the bar.
Mike: Totally agree. What about heels elevated on plates? That’s something we see fairly often.
Mark: Well, we don’t see that as much as we used to.
Mark: In most gyms I think that’s gone away. A heel on a shoe is a useful thing for some lifters depending on their anthropometry. I’ll ask you to consider the case of femur, tibia ratio. The length of the femur to the tibia.
In your mind, I want you to draw a person in a squat, at the bottom of the squat, who has a short femur and a long tibia. Where are his knees compared to a person with a long femur and a short tibia? You can see that the person with the long femur’s knees are gonna be forward of the person with the short femur, right?
You can see that the knee position relative to the shin produces a different angle in the shank, that part of the leg dominated by the tibia. A person with a long femur is going to have a more horizontal shank angle than a person with a short femur.
Mike: Yeah, that’s me. My knees just are more forward than some of the … a couple of guys in the office who have different legs and they’re much more upright, their tibia is in a much more upright at the bottom.
Mark: Right. And you’d mentioned earlier that your femurs were long relative to your tibia. So, if a guy is going to have an anthropometry that produces a more forward knee relative to his toes, because that’s really what we’re talking about here, then I don’t see a point in elevating the heel for him.
He’s already … the reason we might want to elevate a heel is to get more quadricep into the movement pattern. A guy with that anthropometry, with your anthropometry is already using a whole bunch of quad anyway because below parallel his knees are going to be more forward than the guy with short femur and long tibia.
Now, the guy with short femurs and long tibias, at the bottom of the squat may very well see his knees behind his toe at the same depth that you’re at. Two completely different tibia angles.
As a result, a person like that might find that even a one inch heel on his lifting shoes helps him squat more weight because it more thoroughly activates the quads and adds that muscle mass in a little bit more to the squat than his anthropometry is interfering with, right?
Long tibias and short femurs are typically what we see in sprinters. Have you ever noticed that sprinters, if you look at the last heat of the 100 meters at the Worlds, you’ll see that every one of those guys is built the same way. They’ve got short femurs and long tibias.
It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see why that might be very, very useful for a sprint. By the same token, it doesn’t necessarily make for the best squatting. The best squatting is gonna be effective with a more normalized anthropometry, neither long or short femurs relative to tibias.
If you have an anthropometry situation where you have a long femur relative to your tibia, I say a flat shoe works just fine. Plates under the heels or heel height. I think you just have to make the judgment call.
I recommend that most people are … I say, the coach in fact, all the time, I wish I could get somebody to make shoes like this. I think about 5/8’s heel is optimum for most people to squat. It helps a little bit with quad push off the floor in both the squat and pulls off the floors, deadlifts and cleans too.
Mike: Yeah, I just want to transition into weight lifting shoes and get your thought on that. I think you’ve pretty much covered it. I’ve noticed, probably not so much because of the heel, because again, just how my body’s built, but I find that I’m able to generally … the one I like, the stable base of the shoe and I like the torque that I can generate and I’ve noticed a slight increase in performance with good lifting shoes. No apparent change in technique, I just am able to dig my feet into the ground and generate a bit more power.
Mark: That is because lifting shoes primary role is to produce stability between your foot and the floor. Stability increases the efficiency of the forced production between your foot and the floor and increases the efficiency of the forced transfer between your foot and the floor.
If you have a solid block under your feet and your feet are squeezed in tightly, stabilized latterly by a nice metatarsal strap, just shut up and buy some shoes. This is not silly. They’re not that expensive. They last for 10 years.
Mike: How about cues. I’d be curious about some of your cues or some of the cues you recommend for, let’s say, the knees starting to cave? The butt shooting out of the hole, the standard kind of mistakes. You feel like one leg is working harder than the other, stuff like that.
Mark: First off. Let’s talk about what a cue actually is. When we coach, really anything, what we coach and let’s just use the lifting example. If I’m gonna coach lifting I have to know what it is that I’m trying to coach. I have to have a personal experience with what I’m coaching. Just reading a book doesn’t do it.
I’ve got to know what actually the guy I’m trying to coach is going through under the bar. I have to use my own experience. I have to use the information I’ve gathered from reading the material. I’ve got to accumulate quite a bit of information in order to be able to coach. Then, what I need to do is condense all of that information into a teaching method.
When I take somebody out into the gym and teach them how to squat, I have a procedure that I go through that I have distilled from over 40 years of doing this.
I can teach somebody how to squat in about five minutes with an extremely high degree of accuracy because I’ve condensed all of my experience and all my information into a method that very, very quickly puts somebody in correct positions at the bottom of the squat and gets them out of that position effectively with the most effective force transfer. That’s my teaching method.
I’m gonna teach a guy how to do the squat. I teach him how to do it as he’s squatting. He’s caught under the bar. His first set, empty bar. Second set, empty bar. Then we put a little weight on it. What I am doing during that process is I’m watching him do the thing I have taught him.
I am gathering information about how he is executing the model of that movement pattern that I have taught him. Then, I must communicate to him the corrections that he needs to hear in order to more accurately execute that movement pattern. Those corrections are cues.
Those are the things that I’ve already taught him about the movement he is supposed to be doing that are essentially reminders of things he already knows. Cues are reminders of things that we’ve already given him in terms of what he’s supposed to be doing under the bar, when I taught him how to do it. During the teaching method he learned all of that stuff.
Now, I’m reminding him to do the things that he needs to do to execute the movement pattern correctly I see him making errors on. A cue is a reminder to do something that I’ve already taught him how to do. That’s how cues can be short.
Look at it like this, not everybody needs the same cue. Not everybody will process the teaching method the same way. Not everybody will execute the teaching method perfectly and as a result cues are highly personal. They are highly dependent on the coach/athlete relationship.
If I’ve just been coaching this guy five minutes, I’m gonna see a different set of problems. He’s gonna show me a different set of problems than an advanced lifter who’s been training for ten years is gonna show me. Cues are gonna vary pending on the history between the coach and the lifter.
If I am being coached, for example, somebody sees my knees going too far forward, how many ways could a person trying to coach me tell me to not let my knees get to far forward? There’s several things they could say.
They could remind me of my back angle because I’m too vertical back angle is gonna drop the knees too far forward. They could remind me of the knees themselves. They could say shove your knees back on the way down. “Knees back, knees back.” They could say “knees out” if there is a forward and adduction component to my knee problem, they could say “knees out.” If knees are going out they’re not going forward.
They could remind me of my hips. They could remind me of weight on my feet. There are several different ways. All these things are interrelated and depending on which of these interrelated things that we see the guy doing wrong and how we know he’s gonna interpret that cue, that might determine the cue that we’re gonna give him.
Mike: Are there any cues that you find yourself that are useful with most people? Again, some of the more common mistakes. Let’s say shooting the hips up too quickly or …
Mark: The cues that are useful for most people are in the teaching method. The most common error we see, and we’ve coached thousands of people through this process, we coach … this year we will be doing 16 seminars with 30 people in them. We’re coaching lots and lots of people all the time.
The most common error we see in squatting is the tendency to try to squat with too vertical a back. It’s normal for most people to think that squat is legs. Squat is hips. The squat is a hips’ movement.
In order to get the most out of the hips, thereby accidentally get the most out of the leg, the back angle must be more horizontal than most people want it to be.
This is why we put the bar down low and why we have to continually remind people to bend over. Present your hips to the floor. Present your chest to the floor. Point your nipples down. There are several different ways to work with this back angle because if your back is too vertical you can’t drive the hips up out of the bottom.
Hip drive is an inherent part of every heavy squat whether you want it to be or not. There are no videos available of people squatting heavy weights without an initial hip extension, without the use of the hips as the way to get out of the box.
Whether you’ve been taught not to do that or not, that’s what you do. It makes absolutely no sense to ignore that perfectly reasonable way to improve your ability under the bar to think correctly about what it is you’re going to do with that movement pattern.
As a result, hip drive is the primary feature of effective squatting and there are all of the stuff that goes into driving the hips up needs to be the thing that you, as a coach, get very good at getting out of your lifter. There’s as many ways to interact with lifters as there are coaches and lifters. But, squats are all basically the same. Squats are hips out of the bottom.
They may all look different because of anthropometry, bar placement, all that other stuff, but the human body squats one way. This is why, Mike, experience in coaching the barbell lifts is the most important aspect of passing our certification. It is the least accessible thing that we can provide with a person we’re trying to train.
You just have to go coach a whole bunch of people, develop your ability to watch what they’re doing wrong, to explain effectively first, what to do. To watch what they’re doing wrong and then to effectively communicate through cues.
“I just feel as though Rippetoe is teaching a good morning. I just feel as though Rippetoe is teaching this morning.” Well, he’s not. What you feel is irrelevant. Deal with it.
Mike: Okay, last question for you. Safety bar?
Mark: I could see a role for it. I don’t have one here, never found it.
Mike: What’s that role?
Mark: Never found it necessary myself. Well, a guy with one arm. He could probably squat more effectively with a safety bar. A guy with a bad shoulder injury. A guy with terribly arthritic shoulders. Some kind of a problem with interfacing with the bar with his hands and upper back is what a safety bar is for.
But, what does a safety bar do to the back angle? It makes it more vertical doesn’t it? It turns a squat into a front squat. What do we want to do? We want a more horizontal back angle so we can do more muscle mass over a longer range of motion.
I don’t see a point in using a safety squat bar unless there are special considerations with respect to injuries.
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I see no point for it. It’s unfortunate that Olympic lifters have to do those but they have no choice. They’re a terrible exercise.
Mike: Great. Okay, last thing. Just for fun. I don’t have any other squat … those are all my squat questions. We can’t complete one of our interviews without you ranting about something.
So, what’s something that is just annoying the shit out of you these days? What’s something that you wish were not so? What’s just one thing? Quick, just give us something. Make us laugh.
Mark: Functional training.
Mike: Still, functional training?
Mark: Still, functional training gets … the worst thing that’s ever happened to strength and conditioning is functional training. We were talking about this.
Mike: What’s the state of functional training now? Has it changed since the last time?
Mark: Far as I can tell it’s the norm. All of the D1 and Pro teams are using some version of functional training. Apparently, in the complete absence of the ability to think logically about any of this. You know? When you run, for example, what are you doing? You’re using one leg at a time, right?
Well, what they want to say, of course, is that if you’re using one leg at a time then we ought to train one leg at a time, so we get better at using one leg at a time. This is so preposterous I can’t … do you want to be strong or not?
Does an NFL football player need to be strong? Now, if all NFL players have agreed that they’re not going to worry about being strong then everything is fine, all right? But, if we come to the awareness that we need to be strong, what’s the best way to get strong on one leg at a time? What are you doing on one leg at a time? Anytime you’re on one leg what are you doing? You’re going somewhere, right?
You’re moving forward. What are you doing with respect to your body’s center of mass in relationship to your body’s center of balance? You’re translating it forward across the ground. In other words you are unstable when you are on one leg at a time. You are unstable.
Can you produce strength under conditions of instability? Well, no. That’s not what it’s for. It’s for moving across the ground. You get strong on both legs at a time. Now you take your stronger body, and you move it through positions of instability, and it works better because it’s stronger because you got that way on both legs.
Mike: That’s a big thing then, doing the unilateral, doing split squats, over the barbell squats.
Mark: Right. It’s the basis of the whole thing. The best functional trainers are the ones that have figured out novel approaches to doing shit with lightweights on one leg at a time. I just don’t see … the only way anybody gets away with it is that everybody in professional and D1 sports have somehow bought into this nonsense. Since none of them are squatting 700 now, when they ought to be, a lot of them can’t do that without a lot of training. These guys are freaks.
If we all decide we’re just gonna do one leg at a time and nobody ever gets their deadlift up over 500 then, A, it works just fine because everybody is weak. And, B, when they get hurt because their knees are not nice and strong like I just explained to you about front squats, when their knees hurt it’s probably good because that enables a guy down the bench to do your job that he wouldn’t be doing if you’d just actually done your squats and deadlifts. I guess it’s good. It makes an opportunity.
Mike: There’s also something to the said for, it’s almost like a survivorship bias because like you said, these guys are super freak athletes and they’re gonna be super freaks. They’ve been super freaks their entire life. It doesn’t really matter what they do or don’t do. They could be more freakish, but yeah, you’re looking at-
Mark: If you got a whole locker room full of guys with 36 inch verticals, this is another thing we always talk, if you’ve got a locker room full of guys with 36 inch verticals it automatically looks like you know what the hell you’re doing, doesn’t it?
Guess what always happens with guys that have 36 inch verticals when they go from 18 years old to 22 years old? They get stronger. They get bigger because they’re still growing and you get the credit even though all you had to do is dancing around on bosu balls with 10 pound dumbbells.
Mike: Was there a time when … this is something you know a lot more about that world, about this whole world we’re talking about than I do. Was there a time when that was not the case? When it was more about just traditional strength training than …
Mark: Back in the 70s I think it was.
Mike: Do you know why it moved away? Did people think that traditional strength training was riskier or was not as effective as what is being done now? How did that happen? Do you know?
Mark: Well, I don’t know the actual mechanism by which this took place but I suspect it has something to do with the training programs at colleges and universities that generated the strength coaches.
Who’s dominating those programs now? The certifying bodies, the NSCA is the one that’s dominating all of this. You have a CSCS just by virtue of the fact that you graduated with a PE degree now. What changes have you seen in the NSCA since Boyd Epley established it back in the 70s? Can you name one important change in the NSCA? I can.
Mike: I can’t.
Mark: I can, the physical therapist have taken over the damn thing.
Mike: This is a whole world I’m not familiar with.
Mark: What do the physical therapist do? Rehab. And what is functional training based on? Rehab. It’s not based on anything that ever got anybody strong. How many people in the NSCA made strong? How many 600 pound deadlifts has CSCS generated over the past 20 years?
They don’t even do the exercise. I think it’s all gone down the toilet as the result of that. Once we’re all operating under the same assumption then it gets real hard to change that paradigm, doesn’t it?
Mike: Yeah, you just get stuck in a cave, right?
Mark: And that’s where they are.
Mike: Interesting. All right, well, that’s everything that I had. We’ve talked about squatting. We’ve talked about functional training. One of your favorites. We even talked about abs. Two of your favorite things.
Mark: I love both abs and functional training. My favorite things.
Mike: Functional training is the best way to get abs. That’s correct. Perfect. This has been great Mark. I really appreciate it, super informative. Thank you for taking the time.
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