Squatting and Powerlifting

We’ll continue this three-day discussion on squatting by looking at squatting in the sport of powerlifting. In case you missed them, check out the High/Low Bar Comparison and Squatting in Weightlifting posts. I’ll preface this post by saying I only work with raw, non-drugged lifters. I’ve taken a variety of lifters to many meets, including two raw national meets with the USAPL. If I make a mistake in the geared squatting discussion, feel free to correct me if you’re involved in the sport.

When people think about squatting powerlifting, they’ll probably think of a multi-ply geared squat that isn’t taken very deep. While I’m not a fan of gear, there are many great people in the geared powerlifting world (e.g. Mark Bell and Donnie Thompson). It’s just a different way to train and express strength, yet the standards make it hard to compare one squat with another squat. Apparently SPF judges their squats by the bottom of the hamstring getting to parallel. This is very different than what USAPL/IPF requires with “the top surface of the legs at the hip joint is lower than the top of the knees”. At this point the geared squatting is almost like a different sport because the standardization of what constitutes a squat is different.

Geared squatting typically utilizes mechanics that utilize the maximum potential of the gear; the lifter would be stupid not too. It’s like a NASCAR team not improving their engine to the potential they can; it would result in losing. Squat suits resist hip flexion and therefore help hip extension. When the hip flexes in the descent of the squat, there is compression about the hip that applies a force to aid in the extension of the hip. Therefore the lifter should squat in a way that applies the most hip flexion. The lifter also wears knee wraps to help extend the knees, yet there will be more aid from the suit itself so the “acute hip flexion” squat mechanics are used. This is why we don’t see geared high bar squats; high bar squatting has a more obtuse hip angle and doesn’t use the suit to it’s full capability. The high bar squat would have more knee flexion, yet the suit is under utilized with these mechanics.

The result is a squatting style with a very wide stance (which may have developed to account for larger lifter’s bellies), vertical shins, and an inclination of the torso that creates acute hip flexion. This is what we see in all of the 900+ squats with multi-ply gear. I know many of you are gear haters, but understand that multi-play gear is completely different than single ply gear. “Single-ply” describes the thickness of the material of the “gear”, or squat/bench/deadlift suit. Standard USAPL fits under IPF ruling, and the IPF uses single ply gear.

Personally, my preference is still with raw lifting, but USAPL/IPF competitors squat with a modified “low bar squat”. The stance is a bit wider, the grip is different (thumbs are wrapped, usually closer grip), and the eye position is different (never down, but forward). Here is a legitimate squat that counted for a WR in the 82.5 class in 2010.

Below is my buddy Brooks Conway, an 82.5 USAPL lifter, squatting a raw 407×5 ezpz. This video represents the same squatting style that he uses with gear (suit and knee wraps). I point it out because it’s just what we refer to as “the low bar” with different eye position and grip. He lifts at Quest Athletics and is coached by Sherman Ledford. Sherman has coached/handled many IPF World Champions and World Record holders and this is how he teaches his lifters to squat. Note the shoes Brooks is wearing — Sherman also has his lifters wear what is essentially weightlifting shoes for squatting (not deadlifting).

As a side note, I see utility in the grip that Sherman teaches and that Brooks uses. The “low bar” has a wider grip with the elbows up to create a shelf with the rear deltoids (Sherman expressed his dislike for this as it encourages the bar to be dumped over the lifter’s head, but I’ve never seen this with decently coached lifters, and my friends have squatted up to the low to mid 600s raw). Instead, I see more utility in the fact that the elbows are pointed down, and then the lats are contracted (look at Brooks in the vid, he ‘tightens down’ before each rep). Consciously contracted lats would make for a stronger and tighter torso. The only issue would be that the wrists are in a compromised position, so wrist wraps would probably need to be worn (I think Brooks is wearing them in this video, I’ll get him to confirm). In any case, the point is that good single-ply lifters lift the same in their gear as they would raw. They will always be strong out of their gear too. Whereas some multi-play, wide-stance squatters are unable to squat impressive numbers to deep depths (since they train to squat high), the single-ply guys are impressive raw.

Which brings me to the next point; raw squatting is best done with the “low bar” mechanics. This is what Alexey Sorokin uses in the 380k WR squat above, and it’s the same thing that Brooks uses in the video above. It’s the same thing that Mike Tuchscherer does (albeit with a slightly wider stance). It’s the same thing that Chris has used to squat 644 in competition and what Mike used to squat 573 (he’s missed more on a questionable depth ruling). It is superior than a wide stance, shin vertical style of squatting because it balances the application of force across the anterior and posterior aspects of the hips and thighs. Wide stance squatting doesn’t put the external rotators into contraction and it provides a different stretch on the adductors than they get when the stance is not wide with the knees shoved out. The knee position is also different as a result of the non-wide stance, so the quads play a greater role in the low bar compared to a wide stance, shin vertical suited squat. This is also why it’s funny to a lot of people (including me) that a portion of the CrossFit community learns the wide stance squatting from Louie Simmons (keep in mind that the majority of the CF community employs efficient high and low bar technique too). “Low bar” squatting mechanics is the most efficient for raw or single-ply squatting. The only difference are the cues employed to have an end product of “low bar” mechanics.

But what about high bar squatting? Some guys are very successful with high bar mechanics in raw powerlifting. The coolest video is Andy Ruse squatting 462×20 below. Andy would later squat 672 after a Smolov cycle (don’t know what he could deadlift at that strength). He squatted 639 and deadlifted 683 in a meet in late 2009 (he missed a 661 squat that meet). Unfortunately he has since had to have another surgery to clear bone spurs in his elbow and is no longer going to be powerlifting.

The first problem I see with high bar squatting in powerlifting is that the high bar creates an anterior dominated lifter, and this could hurt his deadlift potential. After watching Andy deadlift and do some assistance stuff, I wouldn’t say he’s weak in his posterior chain, but his quads are just so damn impressive that the net result is being anterior dominant. Had he made the 661 squat in that linked video above, his deadlift would only have been 22 pounds above his squat, which is interesting for a raw lifter. While guys can get very, very strong with the high bar, it may blunt their deadlift potential because of the reduced posterior chain involvement in the high bar squat. If that work is present via low-bar mechanics, then it can augment the deadlift training.

Lastly, body dimensions can dictate how successful a lifter can be in a given squat style. A lifter with a long torso and short thighs will have greater success with vertical torso squatting than a lifter with a short torso and long femurs. Long femurs will push the hips back further and the short torso means the lifter has to lean over more. Contrast that with short femurs and a long torso, and this lifter doesn’t have to lean over as much in any squat form. This means that long femured lifters won’t have as much success with front squatting or high bar squatting compared to their short femured counterparts. This may also be why a long femured lifter can benefit from doing some vertical torso squatting; his quads are less effective because of the longer muscle belly and the inefficient position (from having to lean over more). By using the high or front squat, he can improve his quad size and strength to assist in the existing low bar mechanics he uses in competition. This is exactly what Mike has been doing over the last few months, and it’s solidifying his squat (he aims to hit at least 600 at the Arnold in the 275 class).

I hope you enjoyed the discussion and analysis on squatting over the last few days. Squatting is a fantastic exercise that can be done in different ways to prepare for different things. All in all, just make sure you’re getting under the bar and squatting twice a week (overhead squats don’t count; not enough of a load).

38 thoughts on “Squatting and Powerlifting

  1. @PatrickStroup: In my experience, if you don’t already know you have a long torso or people don’t regularly tell you that you have a long torso/long back, you probably don’t.

  2. How tall is Brooks Conway?

    “…an anterior dominated lifter, and this could hurt his deadlift potential.” Really good point here. Highly intuitive but I never thought of it that way.

  3. Good series these last few days Justin. I’m glad you touched on the anthropometry issue as well. I spent way to long trying to fit myself into a low bar squat technique that sat extremely far back when my torso length worked a hell of a lot better with more vertical back angle. I’ll be interested to see any fire you draw from daring to say the SPF squats high.

  4. Thank you Justin for the last three posts. As a coach, being able to break down the different techniques and styles with regard to an athletes needs is an invaluable tool.

  5. I don’t euip lift anymore because its fucken expensive number one. They keep getting new and improved gear and then you have to train to use it. So it leaves me wondering are you really getting stronger or are you getting more efficient in using the gear?

    Number two its a pain in the ass to get in and out of that shit. Its exhausting. Meh, maybe I’m a pussy, but I didn’t like it.

    Number three, how transferrable is equipped lifts into functional movements…..”hold on, I can’t help you move the hot tub, I gotta get my deadlift suit on”.

    Now I’m not against others doing it, its just not for me. My Dad still does it (62) and I help him put that god damn shit on.

    Raw only, drug free thanks.

  6. Does it then follow that longer-femured lifters are not going to do very well in the sport of weightlifting? Conventional wisdom says yes, but Urik Vardanian says no. I mean, there are freaks of nature, but surely nobody could be THAT good with such a big disadvantage too… right?

  7. I’m still going to stick to my guns and say people would probably be better off widening their stance. I am a raw lifter and I squat with a wider stance; I’m able to get much more out of my hips and hamstrings with the wide stance squat. I’m able to get much more torque and more explosion out of the hole. Now my stance isn’t as wide as a geared lifter obviously but it would be wide by conventional standards. People should keep an open mind and try all ways and see what works best for them. That’s just my opinion.

  8. Eric Lilliebridge is another powerlifter who squats high bar..not sure if his deadlift would be higher if he switched to low bar, but it seems to work pretty well for him

  9. “Instead, I see more utility in the fact that the elbows are pointed down, and then the lats are contracted (look at Brooks in the vid, he ‘tightens down’ before each rep). Consciously contracted lats would make for a stronger and tighter torso.”

    Can’t I not contract my lats when having the elbows more upward pointing? My cue for tightening my “shelf” is pulling the elbows like a row/chinup so I cannot see how where the elbows are pointed could make a difference in tightness.

    The only advantage I can imagine is that pointing your elbows down would help you keep your chest much easier.

    Enlighten me.

  10. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=So8VWJtlP2w

    I guess her style is a high-bar wide stance squat? Seems to work for her.

    Say whatever you want about geared powerlifting, I can’t help but appreciate the level of technique involved in order to squat with that level of flexibility and back strength. I noticed myself that switching from a low-bar to high-bar squat changed the postural requirements in my lifting, but has really protected my lower back since I sprained it back in 2010 and couldn’t lift anything heavier than an empty laundry basket.

    There’s so much to dissect in the squat: you can examine the flexibility needed in the hip, ankle, shoulder…. not just the muscles used. And for the powerlifting SPORT, it is all about moving the most weight effectively. So I would think that finding a way in shortening the distance traveled is the way to go.

    Now, for strength development for other sports, I’m sure that’s a whole different animal.

    Really, just want to highlight Laura’s technique even though it’s easy to focus on just her anatomical advantage; I really find it top notch. =)

  11. I think of Laura Phelps-Sweatt more of a low bar squatter. She really works box squats and sitting back as opposed to down as in a high bar. Maybe I’m picking at straws, but the bar from the vid mentioned above is below her traps. Its not the lowest low bar.

    Hey, in the from the SPF website this is their definition of a squat: A legal squat is performed when the top of the upper thigh at the hip (the �crease� of the hip) passes below the height of the knee.

    Not the hamstring as mentioned in the otherwise great article.

  12. FYI, according to the SPF Rule Book posted online, rule for the Squat #1 reads “A legal squat is performed when the top of the upper thigh at the hip (the “crease” of the hip) passes below the height of the knee.”http://www.southernpowerlifting.com/form.php?id=7
    Judges may have been instructed privately to use a different standard, but this is the one they’ve published.

  13. @cassio598: what their rulebook says and what actually happens at their meets are two entirely different things. SPF judges/lifters are notorious for passing high squats and passing them off as “NEW WORLD RECORDS, TEH OMGZZ!!!!!11111111one”; consider yourself aware’d

    geared lifting is a fucking mockery sometimes.

  14. Do not lump all geared lifting into the SPF. The SPF is a mockery always both geared and raw, they enforce the same lack of rules for all different types of equipment.

    The wide stance monolift multiply “squat” that is employed by these SPF lifters only works because they don’t have to actually perform a squat.

    The SPF is a disgrace to the sport of powerlifting.

  15. cassio: because walking out your squats is cool and pretty 70s big, whereas waddling into a monolift and making a few short movements with a bar on your back isn’t. also the more expensive equipment you have in a sport the less accessible it becomes to the masses.

    Wish I had some friday PRs to post as I expected to be setting some by now, but I spent three weeks travelling in December (before which I squatted 170kgx8, benched 120kgx8, and deadlifted 195kgx7) and now despite only losing like 1kg it feels difficult squatting 157×5, benching 105×5 and pressing 65×5 @ 94kg. will i ever squat over 200kg again? :'(

  16. What do you guys think about the ascent in the 407×5 squat? Instead of driving hips straight up all the way he drives it up and back the first few inches and then drives his ass forward…

  17. @breeze ooookay, but isn’t it easier and safer to set up properly in a monolift, rather than walking it out? Is technological innovation not 70’s big?

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