Squatting and Weightlifting

Most of everyone enjoyed yesterday’s post, so we’ll continue the squatting discussion. Today will focus on how squatting mechanics relate to weightlifting and tomorrow will discuss powerlifting.

I’ll preface this post with the clarification that I’m neither a high level Olympic weightlifter nor a high level Olympic weightlifting coach. I’ve competed at nationals, taken people to meets, and enjoy thinking about programming, mechanics, and how they relate to the function of muscular anatomy. I originally learned the lifts from Rippetoe and have slightly modified some things. I consider Glenn Pendlay a friend and have chatted with him about all kinds of topics in weightlifting. I don’t mention these two guys to get people flipping out about who is right or wrong, but acknowledging that the dichotomy between their coaching is out there on the internet.

First, I want to tell you a story. My first meet was at Spoon Barbell, which is a big barn in North Texas. The inside is dusty and has bars and colored plates scattered around the floor. Furniture lines the center so spectators can sit comfortably during meets. One of the couches is quite possibly the ugliest orange couch in the universe. This is where I first saw two time Olympian Chad Vaughn lift.

Chad is a shorter guy with a young looking face, a bit of scruff on his chin, and…fucking huge quads. I weighed about 222 at the time and was mirin’ his quad size. In contrast, he didn’t have steel cable hamstrings. It’s not that they were non-existant; it’s just that his quads looked like someone slapped some dwarvish armor on his thighs. I can’t remember exactly, but Chad clean and jerked about 180 (as a 77kg lifter) in that October meet in 2009. I later saw him at the Texas State meet and Senior Nationals in 2010. He’s a really nice guy and I wish I had more time to chat with him.

Cool story, bro. What else ya got?
There are several points to pull from this story. The first is that Chad has impressive quads. The second is that those quads aren’t just for show, but move a considerable amount of weight. The third is that he’s an Olympian. There aren’t many American Olympians anymore and he’s done it twice. Judging from his muscular distribution, it’s a good bet that he primarily front or high bar squats in training. So here’s a question: If he started low bar squatting, would he improve his best total?

Let’s ignore his age or limitations (his weakness might be overhead instead of the pull or clean recovery anyway). This isn’t a knock on low bar squatting, but instead observes the current state of adaptation — in this case muscularly — with a given athlete. An athlete’s end product, or current musculature, tells the story about how they train. The end product of the training program will provide support for how the program is conducted. For example, in Greg Everett’s Olympic Weightlifting book, he teaches a very vertical dip-drive for the jerk that primarily uses the knee extensors to drive the weight up. This favors an athlete with a dominant anterior chain. When I originally read that when I got the book, I didn’t like that method and have implemented and coached something different. Part of my reasoning was that if I’m going to create an athlete that has more balance around his hips and knees, then I want to utilize what we created on the dip-drive itself. The result is a dip-drive that has a little bit of hip extension as well.

As you see, the end result of the athlete will dictate the mechanics and training program the coach recommends. The point is it’s not enough to assign a program — or squat style — without acknowledging the athlete. I think that coaches, regardless of level and prestige, all understand that yet the public (forum users, followers, disciples, etc.) do not.

That basically means that it’s possible to train athletes differently and have a successful end result, yet it’s not really possible to take the end result and transform it to how the coach wanted it done from the beginning. In the case of Chad, he’s so advanced from a muscular, strength, and adaptation perspective that approaching things drastically different would not produce similar or better results. It’s the same type of situation if a football team’s personnel is perfectly set up to play a 3-4 defense, and a new coach comes in and tries to change to a 4-3 scheme. The requirements of each position are completely different and this change would not go well if the same personnel were used (to continue the analogy, changing the personnel would also take a long time).

It’s possible to buck the system and deviate from what conventional methods dictate. In this case I’m referring to using a low bar squat for Olympic weightlifting when weightlifting history would favor the high bar squat. Instead of worrying about which squat or program to use, it should depend on the type of trainee and their level of advancement. Anyone who knows me understands that I’m not a zealot of one style of eating or programming because it always depends. This is probably irritating, especially for the people who just want to be given something to follow without having to think about it.

Let’s discuss some opposite view points on how to train a beginning weightlifter.
It really doesn’t matter what type of squat he does; he just needs to squat. Depending on his athletic background, he might easily fit into one squat or another. If a kid has always done high bar squats when looking at the ceiling, he’ll transition very nicely into a high bar squat. Squatting technique has two considerations: the musculature trained and the mechanics used. Properly executed mechanics are a learned skill. It’s the same as a free throw in basketball, a backhand in tennis, and a golf swing. It’s a skill that must be practiced over and over to solidify. However, lifting is different than those other sport examples because the intensity of the movement changes. In basketball, the ball doesn’t increase in weight during the game (although that’d be interesting).

If the young lifter’s goals were to snatch and clean and jerk in competition, would it behoove him to learn a completely different skill (in the form of the low bar squat)? Some people can seamlessly differentiate between the two (I’m one of them), but not everyone can. Whether the athlete can differentiate the two skills, will the low bar squat significantly produce an improvement to warrant it’s inclusion? A standard weightlifting coach would say, “Absolutely not. Why bother with the low bar when we can emulate the same mechanics of the snatch and clean with the high bar? Only using the front squat isn’t enough because more weight can be used with the high bar, therefore more of a progressive overload to get stronger within the confines of the snatch and clean mechanics.”

The low bar proponent would say, “A beginner needs strong hamstrings. Neglecting their posterior chain will only limit them at some point in their training. If the low bar can improve the second pull, then I want that strong in my beginner lifter. Also, I want to get more strong with the low bar and express that strength with the front squat.”

I think the problem with only low bar squatting with front squatting is that the muscular end product wouldn’t be suitable to lift the most weight with vertical torso mechanics. I didn’t front squat 180kx2 because I could low bar squat above 500; I had to build the muscular, strength, and skill of the front squat up in training.

Using the ‘high bar method’ for beginners necessitates assistance work for the hamstrings (like the RDL) during a linear progression and would favor doing the full lifts (i.e. squatting the snatches and cleans most of the time). The ‘low bar method’ could focus on primarily power snatching and power clean and jerking. After a linear progression with the low bar, it could be dropped in favor of the high bar and front squats for a few weeks while still doing the power version of the Olympic lifts, and then convert over to the full Olympic lifts.

The primary goal is to get the athlete stronger and get plenty of reps with the Olympic lifts, yet we’ve talked about two completely different paths of getting there. Either way, my observation and opinion is that the intermediate lifter benefits most from focusing on the movements that most closely mimic the mechanics of the actual Oly lifts. Personally I’d be more open to using the low bar in “off-season” periods when there aren’t any big meets coming up, but primarily in an assistance role.

However, ‘late stage intermediates’ and advanced weightlifters won’t bother with ancillary work and primary funnel their efforts into the lifts themselves with assistance that closely resembles the mechanics. That’s why we see the California Strength guys doing clean and jerk complexes, jerks from blocks, or hang work — it all directly resembles the competition lifts or is a piece of the competition lift.

Overall, the message is the same as yesterday: you need to squat. But in this case, squatting with mechanics that emulate the competitive lifts not only improves the skill of that positioning and ROM, but develops the musculature that would be optimal for applying force through the same position and ROM. That’s why I support using the high bar version overall and only support the low bar for beginners (it definitely helps the second pull).

29 thoughts on “Squatting and Weightlifting

  1. Good read. Looking forward to the powerlifting post. Any chance of a post talking about squats relating to non-barbell sports. Football, hockey, etc.

  2. Justin, I’ve been getting stiffness in my lower back lately. I do primarily low bar squatting. Is it possible I’m getting bent over too far and it’s putting pressure and stress on my lumbar? Could focusing a lot on form help my back stiffness?

  3. I checked out the photos on that site. Chad is bouldered as fuck. Really looking forward to the powerlifting post and seminar in DC next month.

    Good luck getting a rack/bench to everyone who uses a public gym over the next month or two. Pack snacks and plan ahead. Mine is already starting to look like this:


  4. Thankfully the New Years resolution crowd at my gym seems to be more of the elliptical/treadmill crowd. One of the five racks is usually always free.

  5. @alexc: Five racks?! I hate you. My (school) gym has two, with fixed spot bars. And only one platform.

    There is, however one plate loaded machine and one selectorized machine for every possible isolation movement.

  6. @harveymushman: 5 racks, 8 platforms, all the bumpers, bars and toys you could ever ask for. Only thing I could ask for is DBs heavier than 125.

    And it’s cheap, and a 5 minute walk from my front door. Love me my local YMCA.

  7. first time poster, long time lurker. Thanks for all the excellent writing and information

    Q: I’ve been meaning to add front squats to my workout, I’ve been doing mostly high bar. Would you advise against using front squats as warm up sets to my working sets of high bar squats?


  8. justin,

    can you talk more about the knees in High Bar squat? I understand the reason that going below parallel in a LB squat creates an even force between quads and hams on the knee therefore it is better than half squats because it is less anterior force

    So what does that say about high bar squatting? are HB squats destined to cause knee problems in the long run? What are the mechanisms that make a below parallel, or even ass to grass, front or high bar squat safe on the knees?

    this question is repeated from yesterday’s discussion, if you answered it already in todays post then just tell me to fuck myself.

  9. Maybe I’ve just been a lazy dickhead and missed where Justin might have said anything, but what about which exercise is safer?

    I have a few injured discs and I low bar squat simply because it doesn’t bother my discs or give me sciatica. I imagine this is the case because I experience less disk compression with a low bar squat.

  10. Justin,
    How does a person go about lifting without a coach. I can honestly say it took me about 2 years to learn to squat properly, and most of that was realizing that I was just really inflexible.

    Once adequate form has been accomplished how does a person go about making progress while overcoming mental issues.

    A good coach knows when to push it, and when to not push it. The ego of an individual makes the distinction difficult. I have read PPFST and SS and a few other books. Is the answer “just stop being a pussy”

  11. Sorry for the incoherence of that last paragraph. What I meant to describe is how even with the “knowledge” gained from reading shit can get confusing. How does someone with out a coach go about training effectively.

  12. Justin: Thanks for the response yesterday. It gives me hope that things will stop sucking. I actually don’t know what the injury is. At first I thought it was a psoas problem too; couch stretch helped a lot initially. But now I think that was probably a symptom of something else. I learned tonight that a little band distraction before squatting (back and away from the midline of the body) helps a whole fucking lot.

    Also? Weightlifting shoes. My jerk was fucking SOLID tonight.

  13. I did only LB squats for a couple of years. First as a novice, and then when I ran the Texas Method.

    Fairly recently, I decided to throw front squats into my training. I figured since I had worked my LB squat up to close to 500 lbs my front squat would be decent. I thought that starting with 225 might even be fairly light. I realized while warming up that I was not going to make it to 225 that day. I actually had to start quite low. The good thing, however, was that I was able to run the FS like a novice and increase the weight each workout.

    I’m still working it up as such, and I’m hoping to see an improvement with my power cleans as well, after I have worked up to a respectable weight with FS.

  14. Mobility report for all of the duck-footed squatters out there:

    I noticed tonight that my left foot drifts into the duck-footed asshat position exactly as I’m shoving my knees out. You know, as though my ankle and knee are tied together by something really fucking tight. You know, like a gastrocnemius. Discovery: my calves are tight as fuck. Relevant: I wear heels. A lot. Some send this finding to the Journal for Obvious Physiology, please.

    Your peroneals are probably tight as well (the lateral portion of the shin). Work on those with a lacrosse ball. Go back and make sure to watch the videos I put up with the foot posts (one had Kelly working on the medial/lateral shin with a lacrosse ball). If the peroneals are tight, then eversion in the ankle is tight, and eversion is necessary for knees out.


  15. So the dude that just wants to be strong without caring about power or oly lifting should take a look at HB…

    Such a dude should take a look at squatting.


  16. I really enjoy this site, but I have to weigh in on this issue.

    I think these last couple of articles miss the point. Bar position is not what determines which muscles are used, stance width does. Look at the picture from Rippetoe, their shin and knee angle are all pretty close to being the same. Now look at a powerlifter squat where the feet are out wide and the shins are near vertical. There is much more recruitment of the hips, hamstrings and glutes regardless of how high the bar is. Bar placement will determine the back angle, but stance width will determine the leg muscles that are recruited.

    I’ve seen a bunch of people who are doing a “low bar” squat but their stance is so close they are just turning it into a good morning. I don’t think that is the goal. Just my 2 cents.

  17. Pingback: » Squatting and Powerlifting

  18. markk,

    i understand what you are saying, and i agree that stance has an effect on muscle recruitment, more specifically the adductors.

    however back angle, which is determined by bar placement, is a huge determinant in muscles being used.

    The reason knee tracking is different is largely based on necessity to keep the bar over the mid foot.

  19. Our campus gym has two racks and two smith machines. The racks are for curls and the smith’s are for calf raises.

    Fortunately I have two racks at home; one in the garage and one in the basement. Too bad I don’t have a smith machine at home, then I could do calf raises.

  20. Justin,

    During the catch phase in the snatch it seems like a number of lifters have (more) noticeable forward lean. Would LB squatting benefit people who catch in said position?

  21. track…you should get rid of both squat racks at home and get 2 smith machines for calf raises. then you can get them done in the morning and when your getting ready to get into your car/rig.

  22. Justin,

    I’ve always low bar squatted, and I’m quite good at it. However, reading this particular post makes me want to try some high bar squatting sometimes too.

    Problem is, it hurts like hell to put a bar on my traps. What am I doing wrong? You can find all kinds of instruction for finding the proper low bar position, but you don’t find that kind of info for high bar. I must be a fucking moron, because apparently the high bar position is supposed to be the natural position that any idiot can do. Am I just a pussy?

  23. @cried the fox-That’s true, but the point I was trying to make was that bar height mainly determines which back muscles are being used, whereas stance width determines which leg muscles are being used. I really don’t think you can talk about one without the other, that’s all.

  24. @sking1001

    you just gotta get your traps used to it, you’re not doing anything wrong. The high bar position IS a natural position that any idiot can do but remember that’s based off the fact that there are beginners doing high bar because they don’t know low bar, and beginners lift jelly dick weights, so they get used to the weight on their traps as they progress in strength,

    where as you, being someone who lifts rock hard dick weights, never got used to that weight being on your traps so its much different starting as a beginner at high bar and trying to put 400 lbs on your traps…

    am i making sense? haha sorry if i’m not.

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