Transferable life skills: 4 steps to setting up for the barbell back squat (step 0: ignore the people throwing chalk in the gym like Lebron James).
Ah, the squat.
It’s humbled everyone out there, in one way or another.
We’ve all seen videos of huge dudes with 58 plates loaded on a bent bar amping themselves up, Lebron-ing some chalk around, and looking like their heads are gonna explode somehow go down and come back up with those hundreds of pounds.
An impressive feat, to be sure, but also unlikely to be any of our goals here in real life (cool party trick, though); it’s far more likely to cause a bunch of anxiety surrounding what is, at the bottom of everything, a fundamental movement pattern for life.
#WonderWomanLoading means confronting what scares us. In my life, I’ve found that the scarier something is to me – the more I want to run away, but my brain is burning the thing, whatever it is, in there, and God/the Universe keeps presenting it to me – the more I need to do it. No one ever got stronger, in better shape, more in touch with themselves, or better by existing in a vacuum. Comfort is dope, but challenges are better.
Our brains are wired to react to uncertain situations with fear. Research has proven that the less information we have about a decision to be made, the more erratic our brains become. In fact, according to a recent Caltech study, with increasing uncertainty, our brains shift control of our thoughts to the limbic system, which is the place our emotions (like anxiety and fear) are generated.
This was ideal in the caveman era: an overwhelming sense of fear led to cautious behaviors, because there was no guarantee that a deadly snake wasn’t going to jump out at us with one wrong step. Our brains’ push to overreact and hype up our sympathetic nervous system in the face of fear ensured our survival. There was no time to worry about our personal development when a bear could start chasing us at any second.
Today, however, this is a hindrance- many of us feel this fear of the unknown and are paralyzed.
We wonder if we’re worthy- if we’re good enough- and, often times, we don’t even set out on the pursuit of our goals, just in case the answer is no.
We have to practice shifting our thinking back to rationality so that we can act on our goals instead of thinking about them. After all, no one ever accomplished anything by planning alone; we have to act.
The squat presents a perfect opportunity to do exactly this.
We look at the bar, we remember the intimidating videos, we remember that we’re new – that we’re in the conscious incompetence or conscious competence stage of learning – and instantly feel that, because we aren’t yet masters, we’re unworthy. We talk ourselves out of great things every day, team, because of this feeling, and, a lot of times, overcoming this in bigger, more impactful areas of life starts with giving ourselves a smaller victory to build momentum: overcoming this in the gym (or on the yoga mat, or deep in meditation, or if we somehow find ourselves on a treadmill, fill in the blank.).
We’ve cultivated awareness, we’ve gotten our breath under us, we’ve accepted our situation, and here, in the barbell squat, we have our first challenge.
So! I’m gonna walk you through it, from a form perspective, step by step. Because if some meathead dude can do it, so can you (also, hello to any meathead dudes that may be reading this, and sorry you’re on the back burner rn.).
Step 1: SET UP THE RACK.
· Before unracking the bar, set up the safety pins, which should be low enough that you can get to your desired depth. If you’ve never squatted before, the goal is just past parallel, as long as your knees can tolerate it (quick tip to know if your knees can tolerate it: lie on your back and bring your knee in to your chest with no assistance from your hands. If you can move through that pain-free with no pinch at your hip, you should be okay.).
o How I do this is to step onto the platform, get into a bodyweight squat where I’m comfortable, sit in the bottom, look over, and find the closest peg. For me on a standard squat rack, that’s usually a 2 (I’m 5’6”…actually 5’5 7/8”, but I give myself that 1/8”.). These are here in case you can’t get back up – not as scary as it sounds, since the safety pins will catch the bar, and you’ll just sit down, unscathed.
· We also need to set up the hooks, which is significantly more obvious.
o Place them high enough that you aren’t doing an extra squat to unrack the bar, but low enough that you don’t have to stand on your tiptoes to put it back in there when you’re done. Play around to find what’s comfortable. Under same conditions (because my height hasn’t changed), I’m at a 12, typically.
STEP 2: SET UP YOURSELF.
· There’s a lot at play for proper setup in the squat, and our mental game is super important from the jump.
o There are variations for setup depending on discipline (e.g., a powerlifter sets up a little more tightly than most; bodybuilders have 73295 variations depending on which teensy stabilizer they’re aiming for, etc.), but we’re going to stay with a standard variation that will work for everyone.
· Stand behind the bar, and place your hands on it about shoulder-width apart.
· Taking a deep belly breath (remember 90/90 breathing?? ;) ), create 360 degrees of pressure in your core.
· Get under the bar by placing it just below the bony part of your neck on the meaty part of your upper back (traps), maintain your intra-abdominal pressure, and rotate your elbows a little bit forward to engage your lats.
· Unrack the bar.
· Take no more than two steps backward (we aren’t walking through Mordor over here), look straight ahead (!), and squeeze your glutes.
STEP 3: THE DESCENT
· Let your breath out, and breathe back in, maintaining both pressure and glute squeeze.
· Descend into the squat by bending your knees, thinking about your hip flexors pulling you down into the bottom and your booty going between your ankles.
o It’s okay if your knees travel a little bit forward over your toes (contrary to popular fitness dogma, this is a movement that happens every time we take a step, so it’s okay.)!
o Only go down as far as is comfortable (play with foot position – you may have to turn your toes slightly outward, but don’t force it.).
STEP 4: THE ASCENT
· At the bottom of the squat, be sure to maintain your intra-abdominal pressure.
· Come out of the bottom (the hole) by pushing off the floor with your full foot.
o Think about pushing your upper back into the bar, elbows tucked, chest lifted, and push your knees out (they probably won’t actually *go* out; we’re just over here avoiding valgus collapse = ouchy knees).
· Once you’ve returned to the starting position, repeat for prescribed number of reps, then rerack the bar.
Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.
Broken down, like all things in life, we can see what we need to do, regardless of our feelings. It’s a lot of steps, to be sure, but what worth doing isn’t? LIFE is a lot of steps, friends. When we let the intimidation talk us out of the great, we miss all the fun, all the lessons, all the growth. And we’re on a path to bigger and better, so none of that!
I’d LOVE for you to start squatting today (or keep squatting, if you’ve been doing it regularly), thinking about how badass you are to tackle this hurdle that has crumbled many others. If you take a video, tag me in it on social media (@strongbysteph)! Or use #WonderWomanLoading.