Knowing Squat About Squats: Milwaukee Area Strength Experts Discuss The Nuances of the King of Exercises


Alex Schuld, Howard Hensen and Ryan Atkins

January 2013

Within fitness, bodybuilding and strength and conditioning cycles, it’s almost universally recognized that if you want to make progress and do so quickly, the squat is a definite go-to movement. And when we talk about progress, we can mention many goals that the squat will all help to achieve – strength, muscle mass, explosiveness, improved bone density, and trunk stability are just a few that come to mind. It’s the rare exception in our industry, or the rare client that will invoke a ‘don’t squat’ reaction from any seasoned, knowledgeable coach.

 All that being said, sometimes athletes received mixed messages. Maybe they’re visiting a guest while on vacation. Perhaps they’re reading an article online. In any case, eventually an athlete will come across a moment where they realize that, ‘My other coach didn’t cue that!’ Let’s ignore for the second the possibility that one of the coaches the athlete is receiving instruction from is a complete moron when it comes to biomechanics and/or has never been under a barbell before. Sometimes there are perfectly valid reasons for coaches to give athletes what are, on the surface, contradictory instructions regarding this great movement.

 The purpose of this article is to explore some of the squat variations used, explaining what the differences are and hopefully helping people out to find what might be the best one to use given their ability and goals. To that end, we’re going to probe the thoughts of three different strength experts of the Milwaukee area. Each uses a slightly different approach when coaching the squat, yet all have made some remarkable progress with their clients, proving that, regardless of the approach, anyone reasonably concerned about efficiently and effectively achieving fitness goals should get a fricking barbell on your back and make sure to squat on a regular basis.

 Here’s some background on each of the coaches:

 Alex Schuld – Alex currently heads the Strength and Skills program at CrossFit Milwaukee where heavy emphasis is placed on the use of the full versions of the Olympic Lifts. He has also recently been appointed the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for Whitefish Bay High School. Outside of having his CrossFit Olympic Lifting Certification, he has attended seminars from the folks over at Strength Specific Seminars, Kendrick Farriss and Jon North. He’s a member of USAW and competes in weightlifting on a regular basis. Alex is currently majoring in Kinesiology and Economics at UWM.

 Howard Hensen – Howy is the owner-operator of Cream City CrossFit. Although incorporating the Olympic lifts as part of his programming for his clients, the bulk of his barbell programming is derived from Louis Simmons Westside methods, splitting days into maximum effort and dynamic sessions. Among other credentials, Howy holds certifications in CrossFit’s Olympic lifting and Powerlifting certifications and has been coaching human movement for over 20 years.

 Ryan Atkins – Ryan opened up his own CrossFit affiliate in 2005. Besides running CrossFit Milwaukee, he serves as Dominican High School’s Strength and Conditioning Coordinator. He’s obtained certifications in CrossFit’s Football, Powerlifting and Olympic Weightlifting courses, among others and achieved his USAW Club Coach status in 2006. Ryan uses Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength model and John Welbourne’s Novice strength program as influences for the launching point of most of his clients.

Question 1 – What is your ‘go-to’ variation of the squat? The one that, barring injuries or limitations, you will likely use with most of your clients? Please briefly describe this version of the squat to the unitiated.

Alex – In the case of my clients aspiring to weightlift, I use the high bar back squat. In the high bar squat the bar is placed high on the traps opposed to being wedged under the spine of the scapula as in a low bar squat. This gives the athlete a more vertical torso and a knees-over-toes position.

Howy – Definitely the box squat. The box squat is done in order to focus the squat movement to the posterior chain. Athletically the posterior chain is where it’s happening!

Ryan – With about 90% of the clients who walk through the door at our facility I will default to the low bar back squat. It involves placing the bar at the base of the traps, beneath the spine of scapula (basically the top ridge of the shoulder blades, you can find it by reaching around the side of the opposite shoulder with your hand). The athlete performs this squat by drawing the tailbone as far back as possible, trying to stretch the hamstrings as much as possible and ensuring that the crease of the hip just barely breaks parallel before ascending. The shins, compared to other squat variations have minimal forward knee motion and they stay almost completely vertical.

Question 2 – In using the variation you describe, please talk about the goals you have in mind when using the type of squat you rely on most.

Alex – My overall goal is to make my athletes better weightlifters. It all starts with the receiving position; if my athletes can’t get into the hole with proper position in a controlled manner with a relatively easy movement like a squat what chance do they have when they begin to snatch and clean?

Second, I not only want them to get into correct position, but I want them to be as strong as they can be there. The front squat does a great job of this as well; however, you can load the high bar squat much heavier. As you can imagine this results in a much stronger athlete.

Howy – Our goal at Cream City CrossFit is to improve athletic performance – PERIOD! One of the best ways to do this is to squat. You can not have a good squat without strong hips and a strong posterior chain. The box squat works these areas more effectively then any other squat. You must train the squat for strength speed (Max Effort), speed strength (Dynamic Effort), and muscular endurance (properly programmed CrossFit WOD’s do this very well). You only have a certain amount of time to complete a lift so you must train for explosiveness, it is not enough to just train heavy. We do a Max Effort (ME) squat every week, but we never do the same one two weeks in a row. One week might be a normal box squat. The next week we might do the squat with chains, the next week we might use bands, the next week a different bar, etc. By doing this you can max out every week because by making subtle changes in the movement you keep the central nervous system from getting “fried”. The Dynamic Effort (DE) squats are done 3 days after the ME days. The sets and reps of the DE days vary depending on the lift and the DE percentage. DE Squats are always done with 2 rep sets. The number of sets are 12 for the 70% day, 10 for the 75% day, and 8 for the 80% day. This keeps the volume approximately the same which ensures that the athlete will not get burned out. The DE lifts are based off of percentages of the ME lifts. At Cream City we use percentages of 70%, 75%, and 80% of the ME’s. I have found these percentages to be superior for most CF athletes. The percentages are where it gets confusing because the percentages will change depending on whether the lifters are using gear (bench shirts, etc), and the stage in the lifters career. We are just getting to the point now at CCCF where some or our athletes are getting strong enough that they are going to a three week DE wave of 65%, 70%, and 75% of their ME. These percentages also change when training the Olympic lifts (they got up). The DE days train the central nervous system to activate more muscle fibers so the athletes get stronger without getting bigger and bulkier. So to sum things up, our goal is to become more bad-ass with out getting bigger and bulkier.

Ryan – The vast majority of clients entering our gym for the first time generally share one or many of the following traits:

  1. They haven’t had a long history of barbell/strength training, if any

  2. Any barbell training they may have had was possibly erroneous/misinformed

  3. They generally don’t know how to fully recruit the muscles of the posterior chain

In my mind, the low bar back squat is the simplest, most direct way to increase overall strength in a novice trainee. Because of its emphasis on posterior chain engagement, it’s a natural choice for many who are stuck driving/at a desk all day, or heavily involved in a quad dominant sport. The low bar back squat still works a degree of flexibility, but generally at a level that won’t preclude most novice trainees from being able to perform the movement effectively from day one. Because of the large amount of hamstring/glute involvement in a low bar back squat, sheer force on the knee is minimized, making a good movement for those looking to rehab/prehab existing/potential knee issues.

Question 3 – In your mind, what are the five most important coaching points when it comes to your squat of choice.

Alex –

Utilize the bonce- After you have sufficient technique and a decent level of strength (you don’t look like your patella will shoot across the room) practice the stretch reflex in the hole. You shouldn’t be hanging out in the hole anyways; missing a clean because of insufficient strength and a sloppy utilization of the bounce is no fun, and counter intuitive. Make it second nature.

Heels- Find the front edge of you heel and stay there. When you use the bounce stay balanced on your feet. Athletes like to shift their weight forward in the bottom of the squat regardless of technique used resulting in missed weight in the long run.

Push the elbows forward- I’m not sure how this matches with main stream technique, but I like to shove my elbows forward opposed to pulling them back. I find my back, especially the external rotators of the shoulder are much tighter. It carries over to overall back tightness.

Knees out- This is nothing new or unique for this type or any type of squat. Get them out and keep them out.

Don’t quit.

Howy –

1)The box squat is done in a wide stance with the feet pointing straight forward.

2)Keep the head slightly up, take a medium breath and hold it,

3)Maintain the lumbar curve and keep a tight core.

4)While maintaining control (not falling onto the box) squat onto the box moving the hips back until the knees are behind the ankles, and your butt is resting on the box. Do NOT reposition your feet. The box squat should be done to parallel position with the thighs. Going deeper simply slows down the movement and sabotages your explosiveness.

5)Keep the knees wide and explode the hips up and forward to a full standing position. Do not rock the torso to aide recovery out of the squat. By eliminating torso rock you are forced to use the posterior chain to rise up off of the box.

P.S. Do you like how I count to 5 😉

 Ryan –

  1. Feet flat

  2. Hinge the hip back and get it below the knee

  3. Knees out

  4. Head in line with lengthened spine

  5. Elbows up and back

Question 4 – Name some cases where you wouldn’t use your preferred method of squatting. What would you use instead? Are there cases where you wouldn’t have someone use the squat as one of their main exercises?

Alex – I wouldn’t use the high bar in the case of someone who is really gooey after an initial cycle of high bar and RDLs. If they have weak hammies and a weak pull from the ground I’ll put a heavier emphasis on the low bar.

 I personally have yet to see a situation where squatting isn’t necessary; although, that certainly doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Everything is scalable; I’ve seen some kids and adults alike that were in a bad place. I’m talking no preconception, external rotation of the hip is nonexistent, and the back is rounded regardless of load. Rat backed, knee knockers. In a case like that I’d work with goblet squats, a trap bar, YWLT’s, and a mini-band could be in order. If there’s the will there’s a squat.

Howy – One of the beautiful things about the box squat is that it is the easiest squat on the knee so it is great for athletes that are coming back from an injury and can’t squat normally. If your athlete can get in and out of a chair he/she can squat. Of course I would make sure the athlete is cleared by their physician. The only things I might adjust for the injured athlete would be the depth of the squat, the width of the stance, and the angle of the feet.

 Ryan – For some, the position of the low bar back squat can be problematic if they lack shoulder flexibility. If they happen to have better leg and hip flexibility and their shoulder flexibility is making it painful to obtain a proper low bar position, I’d be open to consider alternatives as a temporary measure. One of my elderly clients not only has trashed shoulders, but a non-functioning hand as well, making it impossible to grab the bar. He still squats though. We’ve used Zerchers, hip belt squats and a safety bar with him. If a client had an extremely difficult time keeping a rigid back position, I’d consider opting for a front squat, which, although reducing the tension on the hamstrings, generally makes it easier for a person to maintain a neutral spine by keeping the torso more vertical. Lastly, if someone already came to me with good powerlifting experience, a strong Olympic lifting background and/or some other well-established strength base, I wouldn’t necessarily default to the low bar back squat, depending on what that particular client’s goals were.

 It’s hard for me to think of cases where we’d take the squat out altogether. It’s such a foundational and efficient exercise. I guess if someone had a severe, lasting back injury that precluded loading the spine, we’d have to dig for other options. Another case might be if I am working with someone just a few weeks out from competition and who has zero experience with back squatting. In that case, the time invested to get him to learn the technique and start getting serious benefit might have a better payoff being devoted to other, less technical exercises, at least for the short term.

Question 5 – What are your three most commonly used auxiliary movements you use to help enhance the benefits of the squat or improve someone’s squatting ability?

Alex – RDL’s- They can help pick up the slack left behind with the high bar. The high bar doesn’t elicit much response from the hammies so in an effort to keep them from lagging it can be a great assistance movement.

Low bar squats- I like to throw them in when my athletes have weak hammies. I’ll usually break it out during a prep or rebuilding phase.

More Squats- Nothing helps a weak squat other than more squats. High bar, low bar, medium bar; just keep adding weight and reps.

Howy – I would never limit it to 3. At CCCF we use the conjugate system which means that we are constantly changing exercises. We work the same basic areas, but we change the exercises constantly: GHD sit ups, GHD raises, back extensions, good mornings, Dimmel deadlifts, Russian hard-style KB swings, lunges, box jumps, etc. The list is only limited by your imagination. As coaches we must get good at watching an athlete execute a movement, such as a squat, and determine what weakness is causing the lifter to continue making progress. We then must turn that weakness into a strength, rinse & repeat.

 Ryan – Most people know I’m a huge fan of Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength and the version of it that John Welbourne uses for his novice level CrossFit Football program. I think for developing a newcomer’s base strength levels quickly, this program does the job wonderfully. Several years ago, I played with a version of DeFranco’s Westside for Skinny Bastards program and I found that the unilateral work complemented very nicely the squats, deadlifts, cleans and other bilateral movements that form the core of most strength programs. My knees (history of acl, meniscus, other issues) felt better, more stable than they did in a long time. To that end I’d say split squats and step-ups are two great auxiliary exercises – I will usually throw these into short metcons that follow the basic strength and power work. I’d choose a third unilateral exercise to round things out, but since we’re limited to three choices I’m going to have to cast a vote to the reverse hyper which is great for having a person get in touch with their nether regions and for strengthening their lower back!


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