by Robert Maxwell
Learning the basics of most barbell movements isn't too difficult. Getting as strong as you possibly can in that movement is considerably more involved. One reason is that maximizing your strength in the squat, for example, means becoming an expert in the technical aspects of the lift, and applying them to your body with its unique ratios and leverages. This might sound like Greek if you're not a serious lifter. If you do pick up a barbell regularly to squat, bench, and deadlift, you'll want to read this. Some time ago, I asked a world ranked powerlifter, Jonnie Candito, to review a video of me squatting, and suggest technique adjustments that could make me stronger. He did, and had lots to say. You can read his full commentary here. In this post, I'll be sharing 3 specific things he suggested that have made the biggest difference in my squat strength. But first, here's a video of me squatting 415 lbs. quite easily, using these 3 technique adjustments. Watch it, then scroll down for the 3 tips that made the biggest difference in my squat.
Adjustment #1: Starting More Forward
I used to have a tendency to start my squat with my body and the bar too far backwards, while standing and preparing to squat down. As I began descending, the natural tendency of the bar was to move forward, throwing me out of balance, and moving even further forward as I reversed direction and began driving the weight back up, which made me have to concentrate more on not folding in half than on completing the lift. My too-far-back starting position was causing me to leak power. Once I realized this, I began starting my squats with a slight forward lean of my body, even before I began descending. On the way back up, I drove my hips and glutes straight towards the ceiling, pushing the bar upwards in the path it wanted to follow, instead of trying to keep it back as well as moving up.
Adjustment #2: Keeping My Toes Down
A related issue to my habit of holding my body and bar too far backwards at the beginning of the squat was my tendency to let my toes slightly rise off the floor as I began descending with the bar on my back. This was another sign that my centre of gravity was too far backwards, causing me to lose tightness and power. Many times I've heard the cue to "keep your feet planted", but for me, this was too general to be useful. The cue I needed to hear was "curl your toes into the floor". It made a huge difference for me. Consciously keeping my toes down for the whole squat meant I was also keeping my centre of gravity forward, and moving the bar in the path it wanted to go, which massively boosted the efficiency of the lift.
Adjustment #3: Widening My Stance
My foot stance is what many powerlifters would call narrow. For a long time, I squatted with my heels no more than shoulder width apart. Maybe even a little narrower. I didn't really have any reason for doing it this way, except that it felt most comfortable to me. I now understand why. My hip abductors were weak and not flexible enough. I didn't have the ability to shove my knees out wide enough to accommodate a wider squat stance. Once I understood this, I started stretching out my hips daily. It really helped. Eventually I became flexible enough to accommodate a slightly wider squat stance, which immediately helped improve my bar path when squatting (keeping the bar moving vertically over the middle of my foot as viewed from the side.) It also made hitting proper depth (crease of hips below top of kneecaps) somewhat easier.