If you’re just joining this newsletter, welcome. This newsletter is here to bring you unusual yet effective techniques to learn powerlifting. You can find the first newsletter about learning the squat in the archives above. I suggest you go over the mental imagery and cues in that one first before proceeding with the tips in this letter. Practice them and become comfortable with them.
Torque: The Core of all Human Movement
Let’s get deeper on the squat, now that we’ve covered the basics. Continue to practice sets of five squats, body weight, and deepen your understanding of the importance of Torque. For those of you who did not pass physics, torque is rotational force. Squeeze a towel dry and you are creating torque by twisting it.
Every human movement and power output is generated by torque. Our bodies, our skeletal systems, are designed to create force by rotation. This is true for walking, where our back foot propels us through inward rotation of the hip, translating frictional force from the ground up through the abdomen to the shoulders.
It’s true for a simple bicep curl, where our wrist, elbow, and shoulder all pull against each other in rotational motions to bring up an object that is gripped in our hands. Gripping things is also a work of torque, where each finger joint is pulling with rotational force against the next finger joint, and the bones of the hand pull in rotationally against the muscles that lead to the forearms, to secure an object within our grasp.
To understand that torque defines all human movement will give you a better mastery of your body mechanics. The squat is no different as a combination of several systems of torque.
Feet Spread the Floor: Revisiting the Starting Stance with Torque
The well-established starting stance of the squat (see first post for more details) begins with flexing your butt, which creates outward rotational force on your thighs. Your femurs rotating outward place torque on your shins, and this creates torque on your ankles. When your ankles are being pulled outward, your feet, pointed forward, are creating torque against the ground by rotating outwards as well. They are not actually moving outwards, but the force created from your hips allows you to grip the ground through your feet.
This is why thinking of “feet spreading the floor” gives you a good cue to create that rotational force as you prepare to squat.
Creating “the Pillar” out of your abdomen, or taking in a breath to your belly and tightening the abs against it, allows the force from the ground to travel through your torso to the bar or weight without getting lost in bending or twisting motions. If your torso is soft, or extending, or otherwise not rigid through the squat, you will lose the torque created at the ground along the path through your body to the weight on your upper back.
So, before loading weight or a heavy bar for squats, familiarize yourself with performing the exercise with a rigid Pillar of a torso. This is where mobility of the hips, knees, and ankles is essential for allowing your torso to remain upright and solid through the movement. Limitations on joint mobility will tempt you to compromise your torso stability in an effort to get lower in the squat. We’ll talk more about mobility in a bit.
Knees Out: Torque Preservation Throughout the Squat
“Knees out” is also a mental cue that encourages preservation of torque through the squat. As you pull yourself down into the hole, and up out of it, keeping your knees pulled outward maintains torque and a stable transfer of power from the ground through your body.
You absolutely must not allow your knees to buckle in. This is the most important rule for the knees in the squat and all other strength building exercises. The structure of your ligaments keeping your knee together can be replicated by crossing your middle finger over your index finger. Do this with your right hand. Now grab this structure with your left hand, and twist your right hand out, or to the right. This is similar to your right knee pulling out to the right during the squatting motion.
You’ll notice that your twisted fingers, representing the ACL and PCL in your knee, tighten up and become stronger when rotated out to the side. Now, as you maintain your hold with your left hand, twist your right hand the other way, inwards to the left. You’ll notice that your fingers untwist from each other, much in the same way that your knee ligaments become unstable and lose torque.
When you’re squatting, with or without weight, getting up from the ground or the chair or out of the car, you’re using torque to do so. Depending on how your knee is positioned, you are either creating stability in the knee or you are exposing it to an unstable position. Under weight, it is crucial that you maintain “knees out” for the most stable mechanics.
Pulling Down, and Butt Back vs. Hamstrings Back: Getting Deeper on the Squat
“Pulling down” is the best way to think of the descent on the squat. Rather than letting yourself down, or dropping as free weight, thinking of “pulling down” on yourself helps to keep yourself in a stable, torque-locked state.
If you are finding it hard to pull down near the top or the beginning of the squat motion, think of “sitting back into a low chair” or “bending down to pick up a corgi running towards you”. The backwards pull from this imagery may allow for release downwards.
Do you find it hard to pull down near the bottom or the hole, or notice from video of yourself that you are “butt winking”? By butt wink I mean that right at the bottom of the squat, your lower back curves and your butt tucks in. This is a very unstable position of the spine and breaks the solid pillar that you are trying to maintain.
Remedy by thinking of “hamstrings back” rather than butt back. Shoving your butt back too far at the beginning of the squat can tilt your hips too far forward, and prevent your femurs from fully rotating out towards the bottom of the squat. That forces your pelvis to tilt back down, to allow your femurs to rotate out and your body to lower into the hole. Thus, your pillar is broken.
You need your hips at a constant angle, keeping that pocket of motion open for your thighs. This also may require some mobility work. For now, practice the squat as far down as you can go, without compromising your pillar. Think “hamstrings back” and “pull down”.
Practice the Bar Position
At this point, if you feel comfortable with the mechanics of the squat, you can practice gripping and holding the bar during the squat with a light wooden pole or broomstick (remove the broom part if you can).
Even if you are intermediate or advanced on the squat, it is always good to know your mechanics at body weight. Can you get down to the correct position? Are you able to create torque without weight on your back?
Grip the pole at just outside shoulder width. Pull the pole up above your head, arms straight. Get into the stable starting stance, and once you’ve created the pillar, bring the pole down behind your head.
Let the pole rest just below your cervical vertebrae, the pointy neck bone at the top of your spine. With your arms flexed in a bent position, you will create a muscular “shelf” between the rear shoulder muscles and the trapezius muscles just above them. Keep the pole snug in this groove.
Flex your shoulder blades tight, back and down. Grip hard on the pole. Tighten your Pillar, feel the torque as your feet spread the floor. You are in the ready stance with a bar, now.
Establish the bar position. Your wrists may not be mobile enough today to get into a full gripped, just outside shoulder width, bar position. If so, move your hands out a little further, and try bringing the pole down into position. Hold it there, allow your joints to loosen up and adjust, and progressively work on moving your hands to just outside shoulder width.
None of the three-finger grip nonsense that is going around, or the gripping the ends of the bar, or the plates. Having correct bar grip and position is critical to stability and joint health down the road.
I’m open to your thoughts.
To powerful living,