Athletes and coaches spend an increasingly amount of time mobilizing and foam rolling to find the perfect formula for better squats, yet many still have nagging aches, pains, and movement issues (including yours truly from time to time). When looking at squat techniques for sports like Olympic weightlifting, CrossFit, and general strength, power and fitness (excluding the low bar squat, see below), it can be difficult to pinpoint what may be at fault for collapsing knees, horizontal displacement of the barbell (barbell moving forward), and/or getting stuck in what looks like a barbell bent over good morning position.
Therefore, in this article I want to offer coaches and athletes six (6) warm-up and movement exercises to help build better squat mechanics (specifically for high bar and overhead squats) to improve knee, hip, and ankle tracking and hopeful help alleviate any aches and pains that are caused by poor squat set-up and mechanics.
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Squat Technique (Weightlifting)
In Olympic weightlifting, CrossFit, and general fitness, the high bar is often used to increase quadriceps development, enhance strength for movements like cleans, push presses, jerks, and snatches, and strengthen overall athletic development capacities. The low bar back squat has a profound effect on increasing posterior chain strength and hip power, however does have limited application to Olympic weightlifting and general fitness movements.
In the video above, the weightlifting squat technique are discussed along with some of the biggest failures in squat technique.
***Once again, if the goal is low bar back squat patterning, this article may not apply to you, as your objective is to lean forward and load the back and hips rather than place strong emphasis on building quadriceps and an upright positioning needed for snatches, cleans, squats, and other general fitness movements.
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6 Weightlifting Squat Warm-Up Exercises for Stronger, Healthier Squats
In the below section you will find six (6) warm-up exercises that can be used to increase hip and knee function, proper squat mechanics, and prime heavier squat training. Note, that the below exercises and drills can be used to prepare for Olympic weightlifting training, CrossFit workouts (involving squats), running, sporting events.
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Wall Squat (Facing Wall)
The forward facing wall squats is one of my personal favorites because it can be done anywhere (a wall is needed). I find that this exercise opens my hips and helps me engrain a more upright, balanced position in the squat. As a weightlifting coach, I also find it very helpful to line athletes up along a wall and have them perform these prior to training sessions to open the hips and help reinforce the proper upright positioning needed for Olympic weightlifting and squats.
Perform 3-4 sets of 10 repetitions, 3-4 days per week, preferably prior to squat and Olympic weightlifting (snatch and clean) sessions.
Wall Squat (Facing Away from Wall)
This wall squat variation is done facing away from the wall, with your butt about a foot or so from the wall. When squatting down, be sure to perform a similar descent as when you were performing the forward facing wall squat to ensure proper squat mechanics and carryover to this movement. You will most likely notice that the wall will brush you backside (which you may also need to adjust your distance from the wall) on the way down. This variation uses the wall as a stopper, not allowing you to shift your hips back any further than what they were needed to squat down, ensuring proper upright squat mechanics and usage of the quadriceps (and glutes) to promote the force needed to stand up.
Perform 3-4 sets of 10 repetitions, 3-4 days per week, preferably prior to squat and Olympic weightlifting (snatch and clean) sessions. You can do these in addition to forward facing wall squats of superset them, performing 2 sets of each variation (facing away and facing the wall).
Mini Band Squat
If you have ever had issues with squat patterning and/or your knees caving in during the squat, odds are you have already come across this drill. That said, the fact you are still trying to learn more tells me you may not have been as diligent as you should have with including this into your regular warm-up routine! The mini-band squat is a great way to teach the neurological systems to fire the correct muscles needed to open the hips and resist knee valgus (caving in). I prefer doing these with a band just above the knees, either in my bodyweight warm-ups and/or in my lighter warm-up sets (empty barbell and upwards of 50-60% of squat max).
Perform 3-4 sets of 8-10 slow and controlled bodyweight squats with mini band, making sure to actively open the groin and hips to allow the knees to stay out over the toes (be sure not to shove the knees outside of the toes).
Additionally, you can perform your warm-up sets and even repetition work with the mini bands to increase the benefit of this drill (be sure to keep loads relatively light, under 50-60% RM). The focus should be on the movement with the band, not moving the weight with the bands on.
Mini Band Glute Circuit
These are a series of drills I often have my athletes (and self) do when performing the mini-band squats, as they are a perfect pairing to quickly increase glute engagement and activate all the necessary muscles needed to squat.
Perform 2-3 total rounds of the below exercises, focusing on using the glutes to actively stretch the bands in a controlled manner.
Banded Clam Shell x10/leg
Banded Side Leg Lift x10/leg
Banded Lying Hip Raise x10 (not shown)
Squat on 1 Kilo Plates
At this point, you have already done all the unload and activation movements necessary to start the session. I often find that this exercise in particle is the perfect way to develop better patterning and balance in the squat (both high bar and front squat). When performing light warm-up sets (no more than 50-60% of squat max), place a small 1 kilogram (or 2 ½ pound plate) under each foot so that the heels and toes are hanging off. By doing so, you force pressure to be displaced primarily across the middle of the foot. As you squat down, take notes on how your body wants to shift weight either forwards or backwards, as this will tell you a lot about your compensation patterning (shift into heels may suggest poor knee/hip mobility, weak quads, etc).
Perform these during light warm-up sets for prescribed repetitions (in your program). Be sure to remove them once loads get above 60% squat max.
The pause squat is a movement that can be done during lighter warm-up sets or as an accessory/squat variation done within the actual squat program. By forcing a lifter to pause (typically either at the deepest position a lifter can assume OR 1-inch above the deepest position the lifter can assume) you require them to find proper balance and recognize any shifting of the hips and load. This exercise can help a lifter gain a deeper understanding of their squat faults and help strengthen the specific angles needed to remain in an upright squat position.
Perform the pause squats during warm-up sets and/or lighter percentage based training. Repetitions are often kept between 3-8 repetitions for beginner lifters looking to increase squat technique and muscle hypertrophy.
For more advanced athletes, pause squats can be done using many of the same linear progression models and strength programs for typical squats (however pause squat maxes are typically 10%-20 less, relative to squats with not pause.
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