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How To Master the Olympic Squat

How To Master the Olympic Squat

Probably no weight training movement has been a bigger staple of everyone’s training routine than the squat. It has been called “The King of Exercises” for good reason.

You would be hard pressed to find a more productive full-body movement for building both overall strength and bigger, more muscular legs than the squat.

Let's get into the differences between the two most common variations of the back squat.

The Differences Between the Olympic Squat and Powerlifting Squat

There are two main versions of the back squat: the powerlifting, “low-bar” version and the Olympic, “high-bar” version.

Whereas obviously those aspiring to powerlifting will use this version of the squat, the Olympic version is preferred by weightlifters and CrossFit athletes. But these are just some of the key differences:

Bar Placement

As you are probably aware, first off the key difference is the bar placement. In the Olympic version, the bar rests on top of the trapezius whereas with the powerlifting version, the bar rests below the traps on the scapular spine. 

Posture and Muscles Worked

Given that the powerlifting squat has the bar lower, it necessitates a more forward leaning posture, engaging more of the posterior chain muscles.

The Olympic squat on the other hand the higher bar placement forces a more upright position, which puts more emphasis on the hip flexors and quadriceps. 

The Olympic squat requires more mobility in the hips, knees and ankles.

Mechanics of Movement

With the bar placed lower in the powerlifting squat, the “lever arm” (the spine) is shortened allowing for more weight to be lifted. 

The inverse is true with the Olympic squat. With the bar placed high on the traps, the lever arm is lengthened.

Range of Motion

In powerlifting contests, it is only required that the fold of the hips where the top of the quads are is lower than the knees. But the fact that it doesn’t stipulate how much, coupled with the different motion in the lift, make the powerlifting squat have a shorter range/depth of motion.

When people talk of squatting “ATG” or ass-to-the-ground, this expression comes from that one can break well below the knees, which as mentioned above, requires more flexibility in the ankles, tibialis, calves, knees and hips. Much greater dorsiflexion is required in the Olympic version.

Foot Placement

With Olympic squats, the feet are typically set at shoulder width as opposed to the wider positioning of the powerlifting style squat.

Squatting with the bar placed high on the traps - source: iStock

Key Benefits of the Olympic Squat

For most people looking to develop their quads and increase their athletic performance, high bar squats are the best. 

There are many who feel the deep wide stance squat done by powerlifters is the only way to squat. It is true that one can typically move bigger weights squatting like this, but we are interested in the muscular development of the thighs. 

I personally feel that the Olympic style squat with the bar held high on the traps puts a far greater load on the thighs and less on the low back and hips, and will avoid thickening this area as well.

The main benefits of the Olympic squat are:

  • Less shearing forces on the lower back
  • More natural squatting movement pattern
  • Greater range of motion
  • Carry over benefits to sports and CrossFit
  • More quad recruitment
  • More balanced development of the legs
  • Greater balance of force between posterior and hip flexors

To see proof of what kind of squats build better thighs, all one has to do is look at the thighs of the average Olympic lifter vs powerlifter. In many cases the former has well balanced thigh development and the latter has thighs that look big at the top and small below mid-thigh.

Why? Because all of the powerlifters strength in the squat comes from the posterior chain - the hips, and not the thighs.

Another thing is that there is more balance between the posterior and hip flexors. Keeping the bar as low as powerlifters do, on the bottom of the shoulder blade, doesn't allow for the best balancing of the load between the hips, legs and back.

Sure, with low-bar squats one can lift more weight because the leverage is shortened. Add to that, Olympic lifters focus mainly on the front squat, which I would argue is the best overall quad builder.

The focus of the average trainer isn't on powerlifting as much as on building bigger, proportionately developed muscles while gaining in athletic ability and overall strength.

The squat: the King of Exercises! - source: iStock

Common Myths About Squats

Over the years it has been blamed for ruining knees and backs, causing disk problems and building a big butt. There is absolutely no ground to any of these claims when we are talking about squatting properly. For one, squats do not destroy the knees or spine.

Squats that are bounced out of at the bottom are bad for the knees, and loading up on tremendous weight and doing partial squats is a good way to overload the lower lumbar area of the spine. But squats done with a weight that you can do in good form and going past parallel is the best way to ensure that you avoid any issues with knee and back problems.

Shallow squatting is one of the worst things you can do, because you tend to keep adding weight and then - bang - one day, there will be an attempt that will injure you because you did not train the movement in a full range of motion and develop the stabilizer muscles involved properly. 

Partial squats can also cause an imbalance where the quadriceps get stronger out of proportion to the strength of the hamstrings, which in turn contributes to pelvic imbalances and low back issues.

How To Perform the High Bar Squat Properly

Before removing the bar from the rack, grasp the bar very tightly with both hands and use as narrow a grip as you can, which will make the traps bunch up and avoid any stress on the neck. Also with the hands in tight and hands and elbows at 90 degrees to the floor, you will be able to push the chest out and thus cut down on the tendency to lean forward.

The feet and hips must be directly under the bar before the bar is lifted off the racks and stay like that throughout the movement. 

Place the feet about shoulder width apart and toes pointed slightly outwards. 

The head is held in a neutral position, not looking down or up. A big breath should be taken and the chest pushed outward and shoulders back. 

The final step involves straightening and locking the muscles of the back before pushing upward on the bar.

After lifting the bar off the rack and moving backward in as few steps as possible, the feet, hips and torso should still maintain their position and the whole body must be kept as tight as possible. 

woman squatting
Your ticket to an athletic lower body! - source: iStock

You should also concentrate on squeezing your glutes as much as possible and keep them tight as well. (this helps in all full body movements: bench, military press, cleans, deadlifts, etc!) Again, the elbows should be behind the bar.

The descent is initiated by "breaking" the hips and moving them backwards and downwards as if you were sitting down on something. Never should the movement be initiated by knee movement. 

After the hips break downwards and backwards the knees will bend automatically. You should feel the weight balanced over the middle of the foot - not the balls of the feet or heels. 

The downward movement should be controlled and you should never allow your body to drop. Stay tight.

The knees should travel directly out over the feet. This notion that the knees should always stay behind the toes is complete rubbish. As long as the hips break backwards first, there will be no exorbitant strain on the patellar tendons when the knees slightly extend over the toes. This is the norm in the Olympic squat.

Once you have gone deep enough - just below parallel - it's time to reverse the downward motion by driving up by, again, initiating movement from the hips. As in the descent, the ascent of the squat is started with hip movement. 

You should also notice soreness in the hip flexors the next day if you are unaccustomed to this, as you will feel yourself using your hip flexors to “pull yourself up”.

The heavy weight causes the hips to move up and back and in turn causes both the knees to move toward one another and the torso to bench forward.

To counteract these natural movements, and in order to keep the bar over the proper base of support - directly over the arches - the hips must be moved forward under the bar. 

This is best done slowly by pushing the knees outward once the upward acceleration has been established by the hip drive. At no point should the torso be relaxed. 

You should slightly slow the motion just before lockout to act as a brake on the explosive movement.

The most important consideration is that the trainer keeps the bar so that it is constantly at a 90 degree angle straight above the mid-thigh and also the arches of the feet. 

Tips: get a partner to take a video of you executing the movement as you are learning it to improve the fine points of your form before piling weight on the bar!

Find the bar height placement that best suits your individual body mechanics and keeps the bar in line over the femur and mid-foot. One advantage too with the Olympic style squat is that one can get far greater depth and range of motion from this method. 

Summary: Key Points of the Olympic High-Bar Squat

Foot placement: feet about shoulder width apart and toes pointed slightly outwards

Bar placement: bar is placed high on top of the traps with the traps fully contracted tight

Grip placement: hands are at clean width, narrow, with the elbows in tight and pointing straight down

Proper range of motion: the knees come to full flexion with the top of the calves coming into contact with the hamstrings resulting in a positive shin angle with knees coming out over toes

An Olympic Squat in Good Form