[heavy rain is in the forecast for tomorrow morning – if it’s raining at 9:50, QF is cancelled. If it’s not raining, we’re on! Join the Queerfit Atlanta group for location & scheduling changes]

First comes the air squat, which we do all day every day. Then there is the mighty overhead squat, which we do whenever we come across a barbell. Finally, come now the third of the holy trilogy of squats: the weighted heavy squat. Whether front squat, high back squat, or low back squat, there are few things as satisfying as putting something really heavy across your shoulders, dropping down low and standing it back up.

Queerfit, alas, doesn’t have the racks we need for heavy squats. If you have a gym with a rack and you have the right foundation, you absolutely positively should do heavy squats. Do you have the right foundation? You’re ready to put squats into heavy rotation if:

  • you have the mobility to sit at the bottom of an air squat with your heels on the ground and your torso upright, and
  • you have the stability to do an overhead squat with an Olympic bar loaded up to at least a third of your bodyweight.

If you have said mobility and stability, don’t bother with the leg press machine or the smith machine. Go straight to the squat rack and use what you’ve learned from doing a million air squats:

  • Set up right. Feet at shoulder-width or slightly wider, toes out about 30 degrees
  • Keep a neutral spine. Because your spine has a natural curve, keeping it neutral feels like you’re arching your lower back. Arch away, from start to finish. And don’t forget that your neck is part of your spine too, so keeping your whole spine neutral means neither cranking your neck way up (staring at the ceiling) nor down (staring at your toes).
  • Hinge your hip and sit back. Just like in an air squat, you initiate the heavy weighted squat by pushing your butt back and sitting down. Sliding your hips back allow your big ole hamstrings and glutes to get in on the action better. The cue we use at queerfit (“butt back”) requires some clarification here. Some of you push your butt back like you’re dancing in the club. You can get away with that (kind of) in an air squat. Put some real weight on a bar, though, and you most certainly don’t want to be pushing your butt back in that kind of fabulous way. Push your butt back by hinging at your hip and sliding your butt back. Slide, don’t pop.
  • Go low. Hips below knees. If you have trouble getting low enough in an air squat, then you don’t have the mobility to do a proper weighted squat. Go back and work on your mobility. If you can get low enough with an air squat but not a weighted squat, you either have too much weight on the bar or, more likely, you don’t have the mobility to keep your torso sufficiently upright and the weight is pitching you forward. Again, go back and work on your mobility
  • Shove your knees out. So long as you keep your shins perpendicular to the ground and your knees pushed out, it’s nearly impossible to harm your knees.

But you already know all that, because you’ve done millions of perfect air squats. That leaves only three things you need to cue yourself on once you add weight:

  • Get tight, stay tight. You know this from overhead squats. Full body tension keeps everything of one piece. While the overhead squat forces you to stay tight – the bar moves out of alignment the moment you get loose – front and back squats allow for some wobbliness. Don’t wobble!  Get under the bar and stand it up, two steps back, then big breath in and hold. Think tight, then squat.
  • Go lower. Nine times out of ten, the big guys with cut off t-shirts grunting from the squat racks are actually doing half or quarter squats. Avert your eyes. These are not squats. They’re ego-boosters. The point of going deep is to turn on our big glutes and hamstrings. Above parallel, our quadriceps do most of the work. Below parallel, bang!, everything comes on line. It is exactly when that shift happens – from the quads on the front of your legs to the hammies and glutes on the back – that most people feel the shift, hesitate, think uh oh, and stand back up. Getting through that hesitation and continuing into a full range of motion takes practice.
    But will it hurt your knees? Ego is reason number one for shallow squats. The number two reason people don’t squat deep enough is they’ve heard it will hurt their knees.  If you’re worried about your knees, figure out what’s bugging your knee. If it’s chondromalacia (runner’s knee), arthritis, or a torn menisci, don’t do weighted squats. If it’s anything else, or just a generalized fear of “twinging” your knees, getting deeper is actually safer than doing half-squats – when you drop below parallel, the load shifts away from your knees to your hips.
  • Big chest, drive up. When you hit the bottom of the squat, keep your torso upright by thinking “big chest” and drive up. Some people think about pushing down through their heels. Others think about pushing up against an imaginary hand on their lower back at the top of their shorts/pants.  Your choice on whose hand you’re imagining on your butt.

Next week: How often & how heavy?