When people ask me what the best way to initiate a squat is, I love telling them, “I don’t care.” Obviously this is not true, but rather me trying to diminish over-complicating this part of the squat, and to get them to further understand the realistic demands of the Olympic lifts. When we receive a snatch or clean, we have to be able to create a solid structure and quality position to meet the bar within the heat of a reaction (without any breathing, bracing, or initiating sequence). That is, NO “initiation.” Take a second to think about that.
But of course we have to move to set a squat in motion, so how can we simplify this action and also best prepare for that moment in the snatch and clean reception? There is a lot of debate in this regard. Many coaches believe that you MUST “hip hinge,” that is, initiate with the hips, which results in a forward lean of the torso (think about a stiff legged good morning for example). Many athletes, in an attempt to exaggerate an upright torso, will initiate with the knees, leading to more ankle flexion and forward knee movement (think of the ideal dip of a jerk or push press). Most elite weightlifters (meaning 99%) will bend in these two areas at the same time: a hinge at the hips along with a break in the knees (and ankles).
Initiating with only the hips first typically leads to an athlete sending the butt back excessively, arching the back, rocking back on the heels (losing solid tripod foot and overall balance), and/or too much back and forward movement as they seek a more balanced position during the descent. Even if the athlete is able to hold these off, they are requiring a two-step process here with two separate, sequential actions: hip hinge, then knee bend. If we relate this back to a snatch or clean, from the fully extended position in the pull, a break at the hips only would cause the torso to go forward too soon. The bar would have to travel forward, the athlete would be forced to jump forward to receive, to swing or muscle the bar around the body to land in the same spot, or to jump back to accommodate a straighter bar path.
Look closely at an elite lifter performing a snatch or a clean with near maximal loads (as this always tells the real story).
From the fully extended position in the pull, we’ll see that the initial break looks more like “knee initiation” (a bend in the knee with a vertical torso). This is necessary to allow the body to go around and under a bar that is moving in a straight line. Does this mean we should perform our squats out of the rack in this way, and force that completely upright position at all costs? Nope. Initiating a squat this way typically leads to pressure shifting toward the toes and/or heels lifting off the ground (losing tripod and overall balance). For the athlete that is able to stay grounded, at some point following this straight dip (once they run out of mobility), there will be excess front to back movement of the body – and potentially the bar – as they try to maintain balance through the descent. Finally, because initial posterior engagement is lacking, we do not get the “balanced” engagement we want.
OK, OK, “just tell me what to do then,” right!? For the squat out of the rack, I recommend simultaneous initiation with the hips, knees, and ankles. It should be as though pins in all three joints are removed at once, causing them to collapse (or close) together. From an ideal set up position (with both feet and body), this will allow us to drop straight down (the bar and shoulders should remain centered over the feet), and closely mimics the drop of the reception. Simultaneous initiation also optimally engages the body with a more balanced and stronger combination of posterior and anterior. Remember, we want to be sufficiently familiar with a braced, balanced, aligned, and quality position for that moment in the snatch and clean when the bar is coming down, and this best directs our body toward preparation of that.
Furthermore, I believe that this simultaneous action occurs more naturally. You can observe this in high-speed, high-reps squats within CrossFit (air squats, wall balls, thrusters, etc.). The specific example I like to give is the workout “Karen.” If you are unfamiliar, lucky you, this workout is 150 wall balls for time. Yuck! A wall ball is a full squat with a weighted medicine ball (held at the chest), then upon standing the ball is thrown overhead to a target, then catch, and repeat. Hence the use of the word “yuck.” As unlikable as it is (most people agree with that assessment), it illustrates the reality of default movement patterns. Any sequence for initiation that may have been taught goes out the window for the sake of efficiency (i.e., they are simply happening together). Gravity dictates that the heavy medicine ball will come crashing down quickly and it would be very difficult to stop yourself on every single rep to execute a two-step squat initiation; instead your body will automatically drop straight down, and stand straight up. There is less time (or rather no time) to think, set up, and initiate in this squatting scenario.
The wall ball can tell us more (or perhaps I’m just crazy for listening). Wall balls can reveal natural tendencies that we may want to exploit – or correct. I believe they can show us what the individual is capable of with foot positioning and set up, and also magnify any compensations in the descent (such as arches collapsing, knees caving in, excessive lean forward, back rounding, and/or partial depth all to different extents). Those athletes naturally exhibiting the gold standard foot positioning on wall balls should be able to execute the same when squatting. From the rack I’ve seen many athletes arch in the set up then “butt-wink” excessively in the bottom, but display solidity in these positions within wall balls. (Read that last sentence again and let it sink in.) After they throw the ball up, they are simply standing there waiting for it to return; they are not going through their set up, breathing, and bracing checklist as they would be with a weighted squat out of the rack. This means they are capable of a relaxed, straight body before initiation and this can result in a quality, full range of motion bottom position.
So, go try a set or two of 20-30 wall ball reps with yourself or your athletes, and see what those reps tell you. I know I know, those of you that don’t do CrossFit and don’t like to breath hard are likely shocked and appalled, but just DO IT, there is something valuable to learn here! How can you use that information? Was it telling in how much (or perhaps how little) work one needs with foot position? Can you relate it back to your own or someone else’s set up you’re trying to fix/teach, or help get them to understand the reality and benefits of simultaneous initiation? And ideally, what exactly should the rest of the squat look like? Next up, let’s continue our journey and examine the movement after the initiation: the descent.
Until next time,
2-Time Olympian, USAW
Dr. Aaron Horschig, PT,
DPT, CSCS, USAW