Today’s post is a collaboration between Matt Skeffington and I on how to warm-up for the squat. It is Part One of a three-part series we’ll be doing on how to warm-up for the squat, bench press, and deadlift. Enjoy!
It’s your big squat day. Trust us, we know how you feel. All day, you’re jacked up, ready to get to the gym to move some serious weight. In fact, you’re so excited you get out of your car and immediately head over to the squat rack. You get under the bar and begin your first warm-up set. Big mistake.
Your hips couldn’t be tighter from sitting at your desk all day so you’re only able to get into a quarter squat without your adductors ripping in half. Your shoulders are stiffer than a board and you grimace in pain as you try to get your upper back and hands into a solid position. As you descend into your squat, you tip forward, putting a ton of stress on your low back because your ankles won’t move. Nothing feels good, nothing feels loose, and that 135 lbs. on your back feels more like 500 lbs.
Let’s back things up for a minute. Let’s say you decided to take the extra 10-15 minutes to do a comprehensive warm-up dedicated to getting you ready to squat. You would probably start by doing a little research, because after all, we exercise geeks love research. If you did a few searches on PubMed or the Journal of Strength and Conditioning you would find a variety of studies on various dynamic warm-up protocols and how warm-ups:
- Decrease your risk of injury
- Increase power
- Increase speed
- Increase strength
- Increase body temperature
- Increase motor unit recruitment (especially high-threshold MU’s)
- Increase energy production
- Increase flexibility
Of course the warm-ups done in these studies are very general in nature. We need all the benefits of a sound warm-up listed above, but also want something specifically designed for getting us ready to squat some big weight! Before designing our warm-up it’s important to understand what exactly our joints are doing during a squat so we can target those areas.
Take a look at the video below:
The first thing we want you to notice is foot position. As you can see, Conor sets up with his toes pointed out. Getting into the proper bottom position of a squat takes a considerable amount of hip flexion and internal rotation. Starting with your toes pointed slightly out allows your hips to start the squat in a position of external rotation. This allows gives your hips some freedom when descending into your squat. If your hip external rotators and extensors (glutes, hamstrings, etc.) are tight, we will not be squatting very deep or very safely. Don’t worry though; we will get your hips nice and mobile in the warm-up.
Next up are the ankles. Notice in the side-view how Conor’s ankles allow his knees to slightly glide over his toes as he descends into his squat. Old school bro-science would tell us this is bad for our knees. It’s not.
We need a good amount of dorsiflexion in our ankles to allow us to squat deep while maintaining a solid neutral spine position. In fact, we need about 20 degrees of dorsiflexion to squat properly. If our calves are too stiff, we cannot properly dorsiflex, and we will compensate by either tipping forward or going into lumbar (low back) flexion. OUCH! Have no fear my squatting friends, we will get those calves ready!
Our next stop on the kinetic chain is the knees. Since the knee joint is mostly a hinge joint (we do have some medial/lateral rotation), the positioning of the knees is determined mostly by the hips. Let’s take a look at Conor’s hips as he squats. From the front you can see how Conor abducts his hips and his knees track out over the toes during the descent of his squat. This keeps his femur and tibia in a strong, neutral position. To get into this position, we need adequate adductor and hip flexor length as well as glute strength and stiffness. In this warm-up, we’ll get your glutes working double time!
Let’s continue up to Conor’s abdomen. We’re going to let you in on a little secret. The key to moving big weights is not in your legs or your back. It all starts with proper functioning of the diaphragm. Notice how Conor finishes each rep by returning to a neutral spine position. What we mean by that is as he finishes each rep, he doesn’t lean back, look up, or over-arch his low back. He finishes each rep by squeezing his glutes and bracing his stomach, leaving his body in a perfectly neutral position. By maintaining a neutral position and keeping his ribcage down, Conor can exhibit good breathing mechanics and preserve a favorable Zone of Apposition.
With this optimal alignment, he can demonstrate rock-solid core stability from the inside-out. Conor now has 360 degrees of stability around his core, kind of like an invisible weight belt. Don’t worry, we’ll be practicing some diaphragmatic breathing in our warm-up.
Finally, we end our journey at the upper back. Watching the video from the back-view, you can see how Conor’s back is tight and engaged. This is due to a couple of things. First, Conor has great extension through his thoracic spine, unlike most of us who are overly kyphotic because we sit all day.
Secondly, Conor’s ability to externally rotate his shoulders and posteriorly tilt and retract his scapulae allows his chest to stay tall and for his elbows to stay down during the squat. This is due to adequate length of his muscles involved in internally rotating his humerus and anteriorly tilting his scapulae. These include subscapularis, pec major and minor, as well as his lats. This is a huge part of a solid squat. Without the ability to keep his chest tall, Conor would be putting a lot more stress on his low back and would be constantly falling forward. And you thought the squat was a just a lower body lift! We’ll attack shoulder and thoracic spine mobility as well as upper back activation in the warm-up.
- If possible, use an elevated surface to foam roll your adductors
- Include Supine Diaphragmatic Breathing (hips/knees flexed, feet flat) x 10 breaths
Mobility/Activation (*If you have a lot of joint laxity, only perform the standing drills below*)
1. Kneeling Glute Mobilization x 8/side
2. Single-leg Glute Bridge w/2 sec ISO at top x 6/side
3. Split-stance Adductor Mobilization x 8/side
4. Side-lying Extension Rotation x 8/side
5. Standing Hip Internal/External Rotation w/mini-band x 10/side
6. Knee-break Ankle Mobilization x 10
7. Forearm Wall Slides at 135 degrees w/OH Shrug and Lift-off x 8
8. Bowler Squats x 6/side
9. Walking Spiderman w/Hip Lift and OH Reach x 5/side
10. Alternating Lateral Lunge Walk x 5/side
A1) Box Jumps – 3×5
A2) Wall Hip Flexor Mobilization (Back Knee Elevated) – 3×8/side
Now let’s say you’re planning on performing your first working set of 5 reps at 315 lbs. Your warm-up sets and reps might look like this:
Bar x 5
Bar x 5
135 lbs. x 5
185 lbs. x 5
225 lbs. x 3
275 lbs. x 2
315 lbs. x 5 (first working set)
Give this warm-up a try before your next squat session. It will keep you feeling good, injury-free, and it will improve your performance so you can continue to get stronger and squat those big weights.
Check back soon for Part Two on how to warm-up for the bench press!