by Bret Contreras December 03, 2013
Five months ago, I wrote a blogpost titled The Keys to Stronger Deadlifts. Since it was very well received, I decided to do the same type of article for the squat.
The most difficult position in the squat occurs right after the lifter comes “out of the hole”, at least in terms of joint torque magnitudes. This is especially true for raw squats, since squatting gear (briefs, squat suits, and knee wraps) provides enormous passive elastic assistance at the bottom of the lift. Still, positioning and explosiveness out of the bottom position in the squat play a large role in determining where the lifters’ sticking point will be. It is thought that ideal foot positioning and trunk angle in relation to the lifters’ specific body proportions play a large role in making a successful squat. But what exactly are the critical factors in elite level squats?
In this article, I have freeze-framed and snipped pictures of 41 of some of the strongest squatters in the world in the deepest positions during their squats. For comparative purposes, I made sure to include both geared and raw squatters. And though the list is predominately made up of powerlifters, I also made sure to incorporate a mixture of strongmen, Olympic weightlifters, and bodybuilders.
Please examine the following kinematic aspects of the squat in this article: squat depth, stance width, foot flare and pressure, shin angle relative to the floor, knee position in relation to the foot, torso angle, degree and location of spinal flexion, bar positioning on back, grip width, head-neck positioning, and direction of gaze.
Andrey Malanichev 1,058 lbs
Andy Bolton 1,213 lbs
Ben Rice 650 lbs
Bill Kazmaier 849 lbs
Brandon Lilly 826.5 lbs
Brian Carroll 1185 lbs
Chad Wesley Smith 905 lbs
Dan Green 800 lbs
Dave Hoff 1,210 lbs
Dmitry Ivanov 1,017 lbs
Dmitry Klokov 542 lbs with 5 second pause
Donnie Thompson 1,265 lbs
Fred Hatfield 1,008 lbs
Jonas Rantanen 1,268 lbs
Idalberto Arranda 616 lbs
Jesse Norris 700 lbs
Laura Phelps 750 lbs
Layne Norton 615 lbs
Michael Tuchscherer 744 lbs
Mike Miller 1220 lbs
Mikhail Koklyaev 796 lbs
Pat Mendez 800 lbs
Pete Rubbish 661 lbs
Ray Williams 883 lbs
Robert Wilkerson 1,000 lbs
Sam Byrd 1,050 lbs
Stan Efferding 905 lbs
Steve Goggins 975 lbs x 2 reps
Wade Hopper 815 lbs
Eric Lilliebridge 926 lbs
Ed Coan 1,003 lbs
Chuck Vogelpohl 1,114 lbs
Brent Mikesell 1,137 lbs
Kirk Karwoski 968 lbs
Paul Childress 1,125 lbs
Hossein Rezazedeh 672 lbs x 2 reps
Anonymous Chinese Weightlifter 441 lbs x 13 reps
Jesse Marunde 407 lbs x 20 reps
Ronnie Coleman 800 lbs
Tom Platz 525 lbs x 23 reps
Brandon Curry 495 lbs x 12 reps
What did you observe? Here is what I see:
Bodybuilders typically squat above parallel and keep their torsos very upright. Many don’t even lockout at the top. These are all strategies to increase tension and metabolic stress on the quadriceps.
Raw powerlifters typically squat deeper than geared powerlifters due to the gear. It’s actually quite hard for many geared powerlifters to reach depth – this is not a function of their hip mobility but rather a function of wearing support gear.
Olympic lifters squat rock bottom with very upright trunk positions to increase the transfer to their Olympic lifting pursuits.
Most of the lifters’ knees come out in front of their toes, with the exception of geared powerlifters. The raw powerlifters, bodybuilders, and Oly lifters have more forward knee migration, but the geared powerlifters sit back more in order to get more out of their supportive gear.
Most of the lifters set their stance at shoulder width or slightly wider, with the exception of geared powerlifters, who tend to go wide (with some going ultra-wide).
All the lifters have some degree of foot flare. None of these lifters squat with their toes pointing straight ahead. As the stance widens, hip external rotation and foot flare tends to increase. All of the lifters keep their feet firmly planted onto the ground, with none of them rising up onto their toes or failing to maintain heel contact.
When looking at knee positioning relating to the big toe, the majority of lifters exhibit some degree of medial knee displacement (knee valgus). Most of the bodybuilders and Olympic weightlifters kept their knees out, making sure they tracked over their toes, and the powerlifters who set up with narrower stance widths tended to keep their knees out over the toes (those with wider stances exhibit more medial knee displacement). In addition, many of the lifters exhibited what I call a “valgus twitch” during the initial ascent of the concentric movement, meaning that their knees moved inward slightly and then back outward.
Most of the lifters have a somewhat upright torso. This isn’t always the case throughout the lift though. Some of these lifters allow their hips to shoot up when coming out of the bottom position of the squat, while others maintain this upright torso position throughout the lift. Moreover, a few of the lifters exhibit what some would say is excessive trunk inclination (greater than 45 degrees in angle), indicating that it’s quite possible to have world record squat strength with marked forward trunk lean.
Nearly all of the lifters keep a fairly neutral spinal positioning throughout the squat. Even with different torso angles, the various lifters’ backs seem to stay in a pretty neutral position, with the chest up (thoracic extension) during the lift. Only one lifter (raw) tended to exhibit thoracic flexion, which occurred halfway up during the concentric phase.
There seems to be no rhyme or reason when it comes to bar position. You see lifters using a high bar position with closer and wider stances, and you see lifters using a low bar position with closer and wider stances as well. The majority of geared powerlifters use a low bar position, but not all. Olympic lifters and bodybuilders tend to utilize the high bar position to better mimic their sport or increase stress on the quads. While the majority of raw powerlifters still utilize the low bar position, a greater percentage of them use the high bar position compared to geared powerlifters.
Those lifters who compete in heavier weight classes seem to utilize wider grips while those who compete in lighter weight classes seem to use closer grips. This can be related to either shoulder mobility restrictions or comfort.
All lifters either display a neutral or extended head-neck positioning during their squat, with no lifter having a flexed neck posture. The lifters choose to look different places while squatting, with some looking down at the floor, some looking straight ahead, and some looking up.
So what are the keys to stronger squats?
That’s it! Stance width varies, bar position varies, trunk position varies, shin angle varies, knee position varies, and grip width varies considerably from one lifter to the next. This indicates that lifters should experiment to find which squat style and form works best for them, rather than trying to mold their form to mimic a preconceived style.
Take some pictures of your heavy squat form and compare it to the pictures in this article. If something is off, then you might be leaving some room on the table for increased strength. Remember, it’s highly unusual to learn a new technique and immediately set a PR in the gym. If your form isn’t up to snuff, start working with your technique, and remember to gradually increase the loading. However tempting it may be, be patient and let form improvements “cement” so you don’t end up reverting to old habits. Hopefully I’ve helped arouse excitement for your next squat session. Train hard and train smart.
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