Featuring Jonnie Candito
If you've never heard the name Jonnie Candito before, you're probably not a powerlifter. Even if you're not particularly interested in the sport, this guy is worth knowing about. At roughly 185 lbs. bodyweight, he squats over 500 lbs., bench presses well over 300, and deadlifts almost 700. If these numbers don't mean much to you, take my word for it that they're extremely impressive for anyone, but especially a guy under 200 lbs. He's medalled multiple times in world level competitions, and has a YouTube channel where he shares his knowledge and expertise which other lifters. That's where I learned about him, and his lifting technique check service. For a while now, I've felt my squat needs work to be optimal. All the basics are there, and most people who see me squat call my technique advanced. But I knew I needed detailed advice from a master of the movement to get to the next level. That's why I got in touch with Jonnie, and sent him two videos of me squatting. The advice he responded with exceeded my expectations. Keep reading below for our full exchange.
Here are the squats I'd like you to look at.
Squat Video 1 (365x8): before attempted form correction: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vesNUaxCBj4&feature=youtu.be
Squat Video 2 (315x5) after attempting form correction: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kz8fj65ju1s
Primary Concerns Video 1:
-wonky bar path, going over toes
-extreme lack of balance, feet rocking onto toes and heels at different points during each rep
-hips breaking before knees
-knee slide, knees travelling forward for entire rep
-changing torso angle on the way up, probably due to not leaning over enough
Primary Concerns Video 2:
-knee slide at the bottom still happening
-bar path still not perfect
-still a bit of heel lifting at the bottom
-felt WAY heavier than 315 normally feels for me. (I've repped it out for 12 before, but this set of 5 was an RPE 8)
Height: 6 feet
Weight: 245 lbs.
As you see, I recognize most if not all of the issues with my squat, and have tried to correct them. Trouble is, I've cued myself into a state of confusion and no longer know how to improve my technique. I feel I'm trying to think of way too many cues at once while squatting, and end up not executing any of them very well. I was happier when my squat was ugly but strong, but know I need help to reach my goal of a 500 lb. squat at my first competition in Spring.
Thanks in advance Jonnie, I'm a big fan.
Let's get right into your form check.
Bar Path And Foot Pressure
Your situation is unique as you are 100% correct on your self-assessment. It's so thorough that I'll write fluidly here instead of my usual format. The only exception I'd point out, is that the bar path over toes point is incredibly deceptive from the 365 x 8 camera angle. Not only the fact that the camera isn't perfectly aligned to the side of the midfoot, but also the closer the camera the more it distorts any imperfection. If the camera was backed up 5 yards then I strongly believe it'd paint a more forgiving picture on your bar path. The best way to think about bar path is that no matter what the general average is going to be midfoot without even putting much effort. So if it seems frustratingly forward almost inevitably, then it's likely the camera angle. I only look for jumps forward in most people. Now you still were right, there is an issue on many reps. However reps 3-5 on the 365 lbs set were absolutely good enough. Bar path on the descent and ascent reflect each other pretty damn well.
The key overall I see is that at no point in the ascent, including all reps, is the bar as far back towards your heels as it is on the descent of your first 2 reps. That's important to keep in mind because when things feels chaotic, we first have to write off what's always a predictable error. We can confidently say you aren't just rocking back and forth on heels and midfoot, but also that you specifically start the first rep too far back on your heels. We can also confidently say that your bar path isn't just wonky (I view wonky as directionless error), it wants to go forward so clearly that any effort to push it back will weaken you. I believe this is what happened on the 315 set. It looks like you controlled the bar path to stay back rather than matching where the bar wanting to jump by shifting your weight more forward at the top.
Cuing wise, all i want you to think about here is "toes down". If that isn't enough, then sometimes I have lifters literally curl their toes down into their socks. You need to keep your toes planted on the floor as you brace, and keep them planted as you're descending. This is mostly relevant to the top 50% of the descent. You can explicitly see that the toe box of your shoes is coming up off the floor, and it corresponds with the bar path poor reps given you elevate them more on the first 2 reps. If you get active on your forefoot, and shift your whole body as a "system" forward at the top, then you'll find the issue of forward lean can be managed much more naturally than trying to balance each individual point.
Stemming off this, make sure bar path is only used to check for deviation so bad that it crosses an acceptable range and not in your mind whatsoever during the lift. This can be far more important than it may seem, especially since you mentioned the overthinking issue. The moment bar path goes from a guideline and turns into a goal, it can deeply disrupt how natural the movement simply will have to feel come time to test a 1 RM. It needs to be fluid, it needs to be intuitive. The moment you fix your bar path on that critical first rep, then I'd honestly take a mental break and record front angles for a while. The last rep is a great example of what I consider accept deviation. It moves more forward than all the other reps, but is caused by fatigue more than any predictable skill error throughout the set.
Bracing Abs And Hip Break
Again working here from a point of confidence first, before even thinking about the grey areas. The grey area is of course how to balance loading your hips a bit less given your shin angle in the bottom position causes a bit of a death drop, yet also knowing that you do end up in that hip dominant position on the ascent perhaps justifying the hip dominant descent in the first place. There is no easy answer to that. However, there is an easy fix to the issue connecting with your hip break, which is that you are over-extending at the lumbar with loose abs. Get your big air to press against the belt, then give yourself a moment to "lock it down" by flexing your abs just enough in this inflated state. Then descend keeping those abs at the same level of tightness. This will make sure you don't kick back into a strong pelvic tilt which only adds another factor as you're throwing in some dynamic spinal ROM rather than it being purely hips vs knees. Mentally it's much easier to "accept" forward lean too when you establish a perfectly rigid core at the abs because the more you over-extend, the more you give yourself permission to both try to sit back while also trying to keep the chest high, giving the illusion of the best of both worlds. I'm attaching an image of you descending in an early rep vs ascending in a later rep, and you can notice the clear difference in mid back position.
The most important part applying this in my opinion is figuring out the percentage of ab flex you find comfortable (obviously not all out here, personally i find 10% cues it in enough), and then making it work with your head position. The temptation for someone like myself is to say ok now you need to look down to keep your head perfectly neutral as you focus on avoiding over-extension elsewhere. In theory it sounds great. However I find that tends to lead to your 315 set of things not feeling particularly great under heavy loading. So I still think you can look forward and have your neck slightly extended while also finding this sweet spot.
Shin Angle In Context Of Short vs Long Term
Short term I absolutely would accept your shifting knee movement. I agree with you in that it isn't ideal in the long run, but there are way to nudge it in the right direction with hypertrophy in the right places while not forcing technique to derail entire cycles. Your intuition on ugly but strong being better than pretty and light is dead on right. The only exceptions in my book are with severe spinal flexion and/or specific lifter injury history. If you rounded over in that sticking point and had a pop in your back a few times, now we have to make moves even if the strength is fine currently. However there is no single position you can freeze frame in your current squat and say that is dangerous, the movement just isn't as tight and fluid as it could be. Then you have to ask well why is tightness and fluidity even important in the first place? Because it allows you to lift more weight of course. But then if it doesn't allow you to lift more weight very clearly now, and it sets you back far enough that it'd detract from your training effect for the next handful of months, then there is simply no positive to fixing shin angle consistency for the time being. Technique always gets reduced to two things - injury risk and weight on the bar. Nothing else matters.
A good example of this is with the heel raise. From what I'm seeing, it looks relatively minimal, and I've personally seen some of the most elite squatters in history warmup with a little heel rise when hawking it. I'm going to assume you have no knee pain currently nor a history of damage to it. Let's say you end up with 3 possible scenarios:
1. You keep it as it is.
2. You buy a raised heel which keeps you planted w/ current shin angle. It looks to me like you are using the powerlift shoes which are 0.6 inch heels so I do recommend trying a 0.75-1.25 inch heel if you haven't already.
3. You reduce the shin angle you currently have and increase hip dominance, which also keeps your heels planted.
Both 2 and 3 would look "cleaner", but I'd go as far as saying if you lifted significantly less even on day 1, then it's not worth it. The only grey area here would be if you lifted 5-10 lbs less on day 1, and then you have to decide if it's worth giving a shot for 2-3 weeks to allow for motor control adaptations. That could be worth it, but 25-50+ lbs reduced, absolutely not.
Accessories To Nudge Towards Textbook Form
Given your injury risk being minimal, you can simply let your comp lift remain how it is while pushing barbell accessories with real transfer. I would look to two priorities. Lifts that force an increased stance width and/or forward shins. Either of those 2 would allow you to bring more of a steady knee position in your squat, but they'd need to be done over months. I find it's significantly better to lead with accessories first because then you'll start to adjust without even trying to on your comp lift. I actually had to stop ATG squatting as an accessory for example because the narrower stance started bleeding into my comp squat. It's so much more difficult to make that change and then have to stick with it rather than develop the ability first and coordination second.
As far as specific exercises, for a forward shin angle I recommend the typical high bar or tempo low bar squat. For the tempo squat, do a 3 count on both the descent AND ascent, so that you can deliberately force knee position to remain forward. It's critical if you pick the tempos to view it entirely as a different exercise and to see any deviation in shin angle as a "missed lift". If doing high bar work, I always recommend 3 sets in the 5-12 rep range for most workouts. If you go significantly over 3 sets, it starts to become too much of a priority in my opinion setup wise, and can make low bar feel awkward. On the tempos however, I recommend the opposite as you can't do high reps with it, yet need the cumulative rep work. So 4-8 sets of 3-4 reps per set is usually what I recommend. 4 x 4 is always a safe starting point.
For stance width, you could use the tempo squat as well, but instead of forward shins, focusing on knees out to allow for knee travel to stay closer to where you currently are at in your sticking point. Your torso angle wouldn't need to change much either. However, i will say that stance width is in my opinion the most skill heavy change to make because it can drastically affect tempo into the hole on your comp squat and walkout. So only entertain this if it's clear that your stance is fairly narrow currently, and that your posterior chain strength naturally exceeds your quad potential. Sean Noreiga is one of the few examples of lifters who used to squat narrow with a lot of shifting - https://youtu.be/iN7eSL8f-oM?t=168. Now he squats wide and there is still a lot of shifting around, but it clearly played to his advantage massively - https://youtu.be/clxA6rY2UFM?t=88.
No matter what, quad machine work for volume over months on end will help. Single leg press and belt squats are the two most effective for most people. If you keep at those for 3-5 sets at least once a week, you will balance out far more than if you skipped on them. Textbook form starts to reveal itself almost automatically once your strong points naturally plateau while the weak points are prime for progress.
That's all Robert. The bar path correction should be pretty immediate, as well as the ab control, and then the rest you should worry about minimally as you let the long game play out. Hope this helps!