Using the Low Bar Back Squat
Every client that trains with me, starts with the low bar back squat. The reason for this is that all my clients are either beginners, have been following their own programming and/or have never had personal coaching. Most of them have sedentary jobs and start going to the gym to get in better shape – the same goes for going to a CrossFit box, most people just want to look better naked.We have been told that we are all athletes and should train as such, but is this really the case? High level athletes exhibit decades of active lifestyles, starting at a young age. This is in stark contrast to a mid 30 year old, sedentary person who now decides to lift weights. The approach a coach needs to take with such a client is the same taken for the high level athlete when he first started. Learn how to move correctly.
But I digress, let me get back to what you actually came here to read – why I start every client out with the low bar back squat as taught by Mark Rippetoe. The answer is really simple: correct load progression. Efficient movement patterns are all about how and when to engage which muscle and to what extent, i.e. inter-muscular coordination. This is not a muscular challenge, it is a neurological one and, as a coach, I need to make sure that my client’s “firing pattern” is correct and consistent. My approach is to use exercises that leave very little leeway for the client’s interpretation, enforces correct sequencing and is safe.
When you tell a beginner to squat down, most will push their knees forward, come onto the balls of their feet and then squat down. This is their learned behavior: load the quads, then the calves. If you get such a person to high bar back squat (because they want to do Olympic weightlifting or win the CrossFit Games), this is the sequence they will slip into (especially when getting tired), putting their knees at risk as the hamstrings are not keeping the joint stable.
The easiest way to rectify this is by using a simple exercise that forces them to correctly load their system. The low bar back squat is the perfect tool to do this. I won’t try to explain how to low bar back squat – for this I advise you to get Mark Rippetoe’s book, Starting Strength. *
I will however mention that decreasing the length of the lever that acts on the lower back (and therefore decreasing rotational torque) will always be beneficial. Of course, once my clients are loading their skeletal systems correctly (this might take a few months), we can employ other exercises. They will be ready, having already acquired new movement patterns.
As coaches we need to keep the bigger picture in mind with the answer to these two important questions. Why are we using a specific exercise? Will this exercise actually help the client – not only in the short term, but also in the context of the next 10 to 20 years? The art of coaching comes less from the number of exercises employed than from your ability to present something as simply as possible and still help the client reach their goal.
One more thing from my observations. Because most of my clientele come from sedentary jobs, they have internally rotated shoulders (rounded upper back). After experience with the low bar back squat, their shoulder position improves, allowing for setting the back safely for the lift and implementing good shoulder range of motion for safe barbell training.
Do you agree with me? I would like to hear your thoughts. If you are not sure, take the time and go through a cycle of Starting Strength – if you do, please write a comment to tell us how it went.
* After reading comments and reviewing the subject, I stand corrected. The moment arm is indeed longer as the forward lean increases – however this will actually keep the posterior chain more engaged during the squat. Thank you Thomas and K.S. for pointing it out.
Written by Roland Jungwirth
Roland is a strength and conditioning coach that works out of Cape Town, South Africa. He also runs the web-design and -development company Top-Node IT.