Updated: Mar 25, 2020
By: Bill Hannon
I’ve always struggled a bit with my squats. Deadlifts more or less came naturally to me, but squats took a lot of effort and time to get to the point where I can say they’re finally in a good place – at least with regards technique. They’re still far too damn light, lagging behind my deadlift by almost 150 pounds, but I’m working on that. I have fairly long arms and tight shoulders, and I carry a lot of muscle mass across my upper back. Consequently I’m forced to take a wide grip on the bar, and due to the angle of my forearms, I don’t get my hands down onto the bar all that much.
As I was teaching myself the low bar squat I struggled for a good amount of time to get the bar, as well as my hands and elbows, in the correct position. Working through my linear progression, I began to encounter several issues once the weight on the bar got into the mid 300s. I had trouble controlling my hips and back angle coming out of the hole, with my hips shooting backwards and my back angle becoming more horizontal as I started my ascent.
The bar would also roll up my back as I ascended, and I developed some wicked elbow tendonitis, no doubt deriving from my proclivity to excessively extend my shoulders and raise my elbows as I was trying to drive the bar up. I initially attributed all these issues to a less-than-perfect bar position, and a sub-optimal grip on the bar. These issues would stay with me for some time, since I was basically attempting to fix the symptoms of an unknown root cause.
As I progressed on to intermediate programming I had gotten better at controlling and correcting these issues, but had not been successful at eliminating them altogether. I attended a Starting Strength Squat Camp at Black Iron Training in the Spring of 2015, as well as the full seminar also at Kurisko’s gym in August of 2015. At the seminar, Rip worked on me to try and fix my grip, and I struggled quite a bit with the change. I believe I ended up squatting about 50 pounds less than I had planned for my top set, and I left the seminar a little frustrated, but also determined to fix my broke-ass squat for good. Once home, I deloaded my squats for a fresh start, and did another read-thru of the squat chapter in Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training.
The Eureka! Moment
Something jumped out on this pass through the book, and it was a key piece of technique that I had basically ignored up to that point. I was not actively keeping my chest up, and therefore was not keeping my upper back tight. While the lack of tightness in my upper back was not egregious to the point that it was visually obvious, it was enough to cause some serious issues with my form. Rip had pointed out a lack of tightness during the seminar, prodding my upper back and saying, “This is all just a big soft fucking mess.” But at the time I was pre-occupied with trying to change my hand position, and did not respond to the cue effectively. Once I started implementing a heavy dose of thoracic spinal extension into my squat setup, all my issues immediately disappeared. I was better able to control my hips and back angle, the bar stuck to my back like glue, and my elbow pain vanished as I was no longer leading up with the elbows out of the hole.
As described in Starting Strength, the spinal erectors are responsible for holding the spine in rigid extension during the squat. A failure to isometrically contract these muscles and keep the torso rigid results in inefficient force transmission between the hips and the bar, as well as an unstable bar placement. Done correctly, with the back held in extension, the knees shoved out over the toes, feet flat on the floor, the hips shoved back and torso leaning over, the bar will track in a vertical path over the middle of the foot as the lifter squats down and back up. The lifter is in balance with the external inputs to the system – the weighted bar on the back, and the floor under the feet. The movement just feels right: not easy, but smooth and predictable. To borrow a couple lines from Rip, when the movement is performed properly, “Your skeleton will have solved the problem of how to most efficiently use your muscles to get the job of squatting done. It will have done so within the constraints imposed upon it by the mechanics of the barbell/body/gravity system.”
If the lifter allows the upper back to flex, the bar position, the effective back segment length, and the moment arm between the bar and hips all essentially become variable, and the biomechanical equation of squatting becomes vastly harder to solve. A flexed upper back represents a loss of control over the interface with one of the two external inputs to the lifter, and this will have a huge impact on the quality and efficiency your squat. You certainly wouldn’t want to try to squat while standing on a mattress, or with roller skates on your feet, and you also don’t want to squat with a heavy bar resting on an upper back that’s a big soft fucking mess.
Identifying Thoracic Spinal Flexion in the Squat
In most cases thoracic spinal flexion is going to be visually noticeable, with the lifter failing to get tight and stay tight, often starting when the weight is removed from the rack. Occasionally the lifter will properly tighten the upper back when they take their valsalva, only to relax as soon as they begin their descent. The visual indicators for both scenarios will be the same:
The spine will exhibit an excessive convex curvature in the thoracic region with the lumbar spine sometimes rounded as well.
In obvious cases of thoracic flexion, the elbows will be excessively high, and the neck flexed forward with chin down.
The lifter’s shirt will often appear smooth over the upper back, as opposed to the wrinkles that appear on the shirt when the spine is extended.
In some scenarios, the lack of upper back tightness will be very subtle. I’ve found this is often the case with large males with a lot of upper back muscle mass, and also obese individuals. The lifter may not visually round their upper back, or the bulk of the individual makes the flexion hard to detect, but the effects of not staying tight under the bar will be present. If any of the following form errors are present, a cue to tighten the upper back is likely appropriate:
The hips shoot back as the lifter comes out of the hole.
The back angle becoming excessively horizontal on descent or ascent.
There are problems with keeping the bar in position on the back, often with the bar riding up as the lifter reaches the bottom or starts to ascend.
Shoulder and neck extension is apparent during the ascent (Leading up with elbows, head, or both in an attempt to compensate for a less-than-rigid back).
The weight shifts to the lifter’s toes near the bottom position or upon ascent.
Correcting Thoracic Spinal Flexion in the Squat
If your upper back visually rounds during the squat, or you suffer from any of these form errors, practice the following:
Get tight before taking the bar out of the rack. Remember, you should be squatting the bar off the hooks, and this is a non-trivial task. Get your feet set, take your breath, chest up, tighten against your belt, and squat the bar off the hooks. It’s hard to fix your back position and get tight under the bar after the fact if you’re a lazy ass when you take it out of the rack.
After you’ve walked your squat out, take your valsalva breath and again tighten up your spinal erectors, both lumbar and thoracic. Puff your chest up into a “proud” position. You should feel your upper back muscles tighten as you do so. Hold this “proud chest” position throughout the squat, as you lean over on the way down, and as you drive up through your hips out of the hole. Do not confuse “proud chest” with keeping the back angle vertical, or with lifting the chest as you come out of the hole.
Don’t overdo the elbows up cue. Excessively raising the elbows will cause the upper back to round.
Don’t relax and loosen up between reps. Take a shallow breath or two, but never a full exhale, and then another big valsalva breath, tightening the erectors and puffing the chest up once again before the next rep.
As a coach you’ll need to be careful with any sort of “chest up” or “proud chest” cue. Many will interpret this as a cue to keep the torso vertical, or to lift the chest out of the hole. Reinforce the point that the “proud chest” back-extended position is to be maintained independent of back angle. Obviously this conversation is most effectively carried out before a set or between sets, and not as the lifter readies to descend for the first rep. I tend to default to the “proud chest” cue, and typically employ it right before or right as the lifter takes their valsalva breath.
For lifters that tend to lose back tightness as they descend I’ll use something like a “Proud chest and stay tight!” cue. Some lifters may need a reminder cue to stay tight on the ascent, delivered just as they’re reaching the bottom of the squat. For what it’s worth, men and teenagers respond fairly well to a “Superman chest!” cue, and “Stick your boobs out!” works pretty well for women. Stick with the stuff you know, right? I’ll end with one other great cue that I’ve heard used often by Dr. Sullivan: “Dominate the bar!” The cue isn’t necessarily specific to the topic in question, but when used in conjunction with: “Chest up, dominate the bar!!!” it will convey a message fitting for both the postural and attitudinal requirements of a properly executed heavy set of squats.
(An earlier version of this article was originally posted at startingstrength.com)