Squat Technique: How to Set-Up Properly (and Save Your Back)

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The squat is undoubtedly one of the more popular exercises out there in the fitness world, and with good reason!  You’d be hard pressed to find anything else that can trump what it can accomplish with regards to muscle gains, increased strength, improved athletic performance, and even less talked about benefits like increased bone density (staving off osteoporosis) as well as a litany of positive hormonal adaptations that come into play.

While there’s an endless abyss of information available discussing proper squatting technique – what’s the ideal bar placement, foot placement, how to groove a proper hip hinge (and by extension how to engage the hamstrings/glutes to a higher degree), not to mention all the different variations – more cogent to today’s post I want to discuss a factor that’s often dismissed or at best glazed over.

And that’s how not to destroy the back of your pants the set-up.

Quite literally, how you set up to squat can make or break your set, and thinking more long-term, your overall squatting success.

Many people just kinda haphazardly approach the bar, un-rack it without much thought or attention to detail, and then perform their set. And I hate to break it to you:  it looks like garbage.  And I can only imagine what it feels like.

Suffice it to say, there’s a bit more to it than just approaching the bar and performing your set.  Like, a lot more. And in today’s video I briefly cover why taking the time to set-up properly (and yes, even learning how to un-rack and rack the bar without making your spine hate you) can pay huge dividends in terms of keeping your back healthy in addition to aiding overall squatting performance.

* Photo credit above goes to the peeps over at Elitefts.

  • Kirk

    Hey Tony, Not really on topic but I had a question about single-leg deadlifts. In your experience, have you seen athletes who have a tendency to rotate their hip on the same side of the leg they are lifting on the ground. Sometimes to the point where the leg they are lifting starts to migrate behind the leg with foot still in contact with the ground. How would you rectify the issue? How would you recommend I take a step back in the progression. To this point certain verbal and physical cues haven’t worked as well as I was hoping. It almost seems as though his hip (external rotators) in the leg with the foot down isn’t stable enough. I hope I am on the right path. I was wondering if working lunges in the frontal plane would help with the stability…

    Thanks in advance

    • TonyGentilcore

      I see it all the time Kirk, and it’s usually indicative of being out of alignment. When people stretch out of alignment they cause more instability. When people strength train out of alignment they create imbalances.

      Either way, it’s important to fix the alignment issue.

      My guess is that their pelvis is out of alignment and you may need to tweak things to address the issue.

      I think single leg training is fine, but you have to make sure that they’re on point with their technique. I’d also have them look into getting some soft tissue work done if it’s an issue that hasn’t gone away.

  • Kirk

    single leg abducted DL (contreras)?

  • Matt

    Tony, I’m curious about your thoughts on using a suicide grip vs a full grip when squatting. I am more comfortable with a suicide grip because I feel it makes it easier to smash the bar into my back.

    • TonyGentilcore

      I think for more experienced lifters the suicide grip is fine (and really, I have NOTHING against the suicide grip). But for most people, most of the time, I like to coach the full grip as it forces them to learn to crush the bar (and they can still pull down) to activate the lats.

      If there’s wrist pain or it’s uncomfortable, then I’ll tweak as necessary.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Bob-Justa/1165294320 Bob Justa

    I love the idea of pulling down on the bar to activate the lats. Thanks Tony.

    • TonyGentilcore

      Right on! Give it a try and I guarantee you’ll see a marked improvement in the weight you lift.

  • Barath

    Thanks for this Tony! I am starting Smolov on Monday, so equal parts terrified and excited! Great point about taking the weight off the rack. When I tighten my back and create that shelf you talk about, the weight actually seems lighter, as opposed to unracking it when slack. That first step is crucial in deciding how good your rep is going to be.

    Not that this applies to me, but people who squat real heavy often just lean into the pins to rack because the rep has gassed them out so much that it’s impossible to rack it “properly”. I’ve heard Paul Carter talk about this. But yeah, for most mortals this doesn’t apply :)

    • TonyGentilcore

      Exactly. If you’re someone who’s squatting 500+ for reps, you can rack the weight however the hell you want.

      Good luck with Smolov……;o)

  • Ben Bruno

    Good stuff Tony!

    • TonyGentilcore

      Thanks buddy….

  • Derek

    Thanks for this… I’m a relatively small guy and I hate getting “schooled” by huge jerks that go up there and don’t set themselves up properly for stuff like squats. I take great pains to make sure that my setup and form are as good as they can be and you’ve just reinforced that I shouldn’t worry about them and that maybe I can offer them some advice instead of just assuming that they know what they’re doing because they’re huge…

  • http://twitter.com/SheynaSteiner Sheyna Steiner

    Thank you! This is really helpful.

    • TonyGentilcore

      Glad you liked it Sheyna

  • Teri Skinner Chadwick

    I don’t know what I like more: the excellent guidance of information that I get from you on a regular basis or the fact that I laugh out loud every time I read one of your posts. Ah, well, it’s true then: A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down! Thank you!

    • TonyGentilcore

      Thanks Teri. I try to mix an equal blend of good content that actually teaches people a thing or two with a little sarcasm. Always happy to hear that people appreciate it and “get” it.

      Hope you continue reading!

  • Teri Skinner Chadwick

    So, it’s not really a big deal either way if you un-rack and re-rack the bar in a split stance or a parallel stance so long as you are squarely under the bar? I’ve gotten used to racking and un-racking in a split stance, but then I’m only squatting a little over 100#.

    • TonyGentilcore

      I think it’s best to unrack and rack in a squared stance. You’re at a point now where you can get away with it, but once the load gets heavier it’s just best to be safe than sorry.

      But in an emergency: if you have to unrack that shit quick, just get it there. Who cares how you do it…..;o)

      • Teri Skinner Chadwick

        Thanks, Tony!