I never learned to squat or deadlift as a high school cross country runner so I turned to Mark Rippetoe's Starting Strength instead. Rippetoe speaks of barbell training with a conviction rivaling that of Jim Jones. I finished the introduction believing that the barbell was god's gift to man. After reading the first chapter I wanted nothing more than to dedicate my life to achieving a perfect squat. Feeling myself starting to be drawn into his cult, I searched for dissenting opinions and found several that snapped me out of my trance. Nonetheless, I deeply admire his attention to detail and I believe the information I gained from his book will go a long way in helping me lift efficiently and injury free. I have summarized his chapters on squatting and deadlifting below.
Although I encourage you to skim through these tips, you won't get much out of them if that's all you do. What I did & what I encourage you to do is to print this cheat-sheet out and keep it in your gym bag or locker. Immediately before & after every workout, skim this list & notice what you've done well so far and what you need to improve on. Over the months, the details will sink in and your form will become beautiful.
How to Squat
Grip: Set the bar to be at mid-sternum height (most people set it too high). Use a thumb-over grip to keep the wrists straight and to minimize the weight supported by the arms and maximize the weight resting on the posterior deltoids and traps. The grip should be as narrow as is comfortable.
Stance: Point the toes outwards at 30 degrees (most people point their toes too far forward). Keep the heels shoulder width apart.
Bar Placement: Keep the bar low on your back (immediately below the ridge at the top of the shoulder blades) to maximize the work done by the more powerful posterior chain muscles. Lift the chest and elbows before lifting the bar off the rack to tighten your back and establish a sturdy platform for the weight to rest on.
Preparation: Lift the bar off the hooks as if you were finishing a full squat. Take one step backwards to clear the rack. Fix your gaze on a spot on the ground 4-5 feet in front of you. Take a deep breath and hold it during the rep. This allows the pressurized lungs and abdomen to behave as a rigid cylinder surrounding and stabilizing the spinal column.
Knees: Shove your knees outwards as you begin the movement so that the femurs stay in line with the feet (very difficult for most people). This allows you to squat deeply and to keep your knees in a neutral position. Don't let your knees get more than a little in front of your toes.
Depth: Squat deeply (at least below parallel) to train both the quads and posterior chain. If it's too heavy to squat deeply, it's too heavy for your back to safely support.
Back Position: Keep your back as flat as possible throughout the rep. This requires a conscious extension of the back, especially at the bottom.
How to Deadlift
Stance: Place the bar directly over the middle of the foot. Heels should be 8-12 inches apart with toes pointing out slightly.
Grip: Keep your legs stiff as you bend over and take a double overhanded grip with thumbs around. Alternate grip (one hand forward one back) is stronger and could be used in the last few reps if your grip is failing. Your grip should be just barely outside your legs. To minimize callous formation, grip the bar at the creases where your fingers meet your hand (not the creases where your hand folds in half).
Knees: Bend your knees slightly until your shins touch the bar. Keep your hips high. Your knees should be touching your elbows.
Body Position: Lift your chest as you straighten and tighten your back. Do not squeeze your shoulder blades together and do not bend your arms. Look at the bar, is it still directly above your mid-foot?
Preparation: Fix your gaze on a spot 12-15 ft ahead of you. Take a deep breath and hold it throughout the rep.
Movement: Drag the bar up your leg and make sure it never loses contact. To save your shins: either wear sweatpants or position your thumbs to drag against your shin instead of the bar.
Lockout: At the top of the pull, lift your chest, lock your knees, and take a second to make sure you're stable before lowering. No need to shrug, no need to pull your shoulders back, no need to release your breath. Lower the bar in the exact opposite way your raised it.
Reset: Don't bounce the barbell at the bottom. Reset your form at the beginning of each rep. Doing continuous reps robs you of valuable muscle contraction and prevents you from fixing any form deterioration.
- Imagine a thin vertical lane extending straight up from your mid-foot. Concentrate on keeping the bar within this lane at all times and most problems will fix themselves.
- Always start with an empty bar when squatting (or a nearly empty bar when deadlifting) and work up slowly from there. Focus on form & full a range of motion while the weight is light. If you don't have time to warm up, you don't have time to workout.
- Thin soled shoes are a must for both ankle stability and lifting efficiency. No thick-heeled running shoes! Vans or converse or dedicated lifting shoes are better.