Leg Day Observer

Why is it nearly impossible to master the squat?

The exercise may take a lifetime to master.

Two people, woman exercises with weights while her female personal trainer is assisting her in gym.
Hirurg/E+/Getty Images

The powerlifter, U.S. Marine, and academic Fred Hatfield reportedly spent years squatting “only” 550 lbs. He felt he was “wallowing in mediocrity” at that weight, so he scrutinized the movement. Hatfield cataloged thirty-five or forty factors to help “truly maximize” his squat number.

Once he mastered them, his numbers shot up — nearly doubling, to over 1,000 lbs. Even someone like Hatfield, a sports scientist who spent decades thinking about the squat and executing it better than anyone, found the exercise grueling to master.

If squatting is the best way to build strength and athleticism, then why is it so freaking hard? How can such a simple movement take so long to master? And what can lifters do to get better faster?

I spoke to Paulie Steinman, a USA Powerlifting Senior International Coach at South Brooklyn Weightlifting Club, about the squat’s mechanics, why people tend to get hung up on its moving parts, and whether a less is more approach to the movement builds strength better than cerebral tinkering.

What is the squat?

Squatting, fundamentally, is simple: You sit down, then stand up. But the movement utilizes just about every muscle in the body. While it primarily strengthens the glutes and quads, it also builds up the upper body, core, arms, and hamstrings. We stand up and sit down throughout the day, and as a loaded extension — when there’s weight on the bar — the movement becomes more complex. This is why it’s so useful for training.

Syncing movement is key

Squats become more complicated when they get heavier, precisely because they’re such an important and powerful exercise: Since just about every body part gets incorporated into the lift, they all need to work in concert to move a heavy bar up and down. This is not easy. Most of us don’t move very much — we can be pretty sedentary. “You don’t have [as many] opportunities to just move,” outside the gym, says Steinman.

The result is that people who sit down most of the day often “won’t know how to move in a compound way,” says Steinman, and sync up their knees, feet, hips, and back in one motion.

Our sedentary lifestyles can also hamper our range of movement. Steinman says many lifters cannot get stiff enough on the squat — they can’t stay rigid throughout and put enough energy into their muscles — and that most people are not mobile enough to get through the squat’s full range of motion. Specifically, they can’t ease into the bottom of the hole of the squat — the deepest position when you sit with your butt slightly lower than your knees. Some of this, Steinman says, might be due to fear. A lifter may worry that “they’re going to fall down, or that they can’t get back up,” when they sit in the hole — which is natural. They’re not used to being in that position — and they’re not used to doing it with weight.

Ideally, a lifter should be able to stay rigid enough throughout a squat and be mobile enough to reach every position. This sounds complicated, but it shouldn’t be. The squat, ultimately, is an “infinitely scalable” movement, according to Steinman. Mobility can improve, and stiffness can be practiced. And when lifters focus on their movement, balance, and comfort under the bar, progress follows.

Squatting, fundamentally, is simple: You sit down, then stand up. But the movement utilizes just about every muscle in the body.

Hirurg/E+/Getty Images

Stay balanced

Moving well through a squat is about proprioception — your awareness of how your body goes through space — and balance. Lifters need to feel how their body moves while staying balanced throughout the lift to get the bar up and down quickly and confidently. Proprioception may not be immediate, but it can develop over time through good reps, done with challenging weight.

Balance might be the most important cue. Steinman offers an example: During a squat, the barbell is placed on the lifter’s back, which is about an inch behind their heels. One well-quoted cue is for lifters to get the weight over the middle part of the foot — the arch. Steinman says finding this natural balance point, where the weight on the barbell doesn’t get resistance from either the front or the back of the body, is the key to unlocking the squat as a fluid movement. Finding this balance point might be unnatural for some lifters to start: it may not be how they squatted before, or they might not be used to moving their bodies with the weight distributed as this new point.

But once they do, they’ll start squatting. Steinman will see “the lightbulb go on.” When the lifter is balanced, a squat — even with serious weight on the barbell — is not too far off from sitting down on a chair and then getting up. It’s not a mind game but a movement.

Don’t overthink it

Because the squat has so many moving parts, and because moving more weight is a process of making each piece more efficient, lifters can sometimes overthink how they move. Squat tutorials online and in books can read like to-do lists for each part of the body — chest up, hips back, toes out, eyes forward, core tight. At best, these can overload lifters; at worst, they don’t help. Internalizing and retaining those cues when working alone can be difficult.

“People can easily get overwhelmed with their checklist,” says Steinman. “If they’re trying to observe and correct themselves while they’re squatting, it’s too late.” A better option is to approach the squat as a movement and not as a disjointed series of steps that need to be perfected. This way, a lifter won’t psych themselves out.

Lifters can’t exactly calculate themselves into a good, easy squat anyways. Steinman points out that an Olympic weightlifting-style squat, which is a high bar, takes about half a second, and its powerlifting variant, in which a lifter leans forward a bit more, is only about twice as long. Both movements are done quickly, and the science is closer to a hitter timing up a fastball than setting up for a golf swing. There’s just not enough time for the brain to log through every movement as it’s being done. Simply put, lifters have to just move.

Steinman’s emphasis on placing the barbell at the balance point takes the mind off from completing the checklist. Once there’s balance, more minor cues, like the ones from DIY squat books, can be inserted. A lifter will shift — with help from a coach — into better, stronger positions, and move more powerfully and efficiently when the weight goes up on the bar.

Even if we begin approaching the squat as a fluid, simple movement, it’s still full of technical elements, and translating these improvements from the mind to the body takes time. Steinman says he can fix “anyone’s squat in an hour,” but the bigger issue is how many fixes a lifter will retain after one session. Tweaks to squat form can be pointed out quickly but only get internalized and smoothed out after reps. Luckily, when “you string together 20, 30, 50, 100 good training sessions, you’re going to get stronger,” says Steinman. Lifters can relax, take a process-based approach, and worry less about chasing a number. They’ll get there if they keep showing up and training intentionally.

Be patient

It’s freeing to not focus too much on how heavy we squat. In one sense, we shouldn’t. The squat’s litany of moving parts make it tough to master, to begin with, and as weight goes up, the exercise exposes new weaknesses.

But it’s less a pyrrhic endeavor than a transformative one. “There’s everything and nothing involved in the squat,” says Steinman. It’s both a movement we can work on perfecting forever and a very simple sit-down, stand-up, one-two punch. There’s almost a Buddhist approach to the process. Steinman calls it “the Zen aspect” of squatting: shutting your mind off, accepting you’re just pretty much moving, and working on getting there.

Keeping the tactile points in mind can keep us from drifting. Weight should be appropriate, and the set-up should be good — but not every rep has to be perfect. It’s less about perfecting the squat than building a positive habit centered around movement and the brain not getting too much involved. Squats are such a great exercise because they build up strength even they’re not executed perfectly.

This is helpful reframing. Those of us who have extracted every last ounce of strength from our bodies may take Dr. Hatfield’s approach. At that weight, it’s a technical enterprise. But for the rest of us, we’re better off thinking about what the squat is. “At the end of the day, eliminate the bar, and what do you have?” Steinman asks. “Movement.” Which both precedes strength and ensures it.

LEG DAY OBSERVER is an exploratory look at fitness, the companion to GQ.com’s Snake America vintage column, and a home for all things Leg Day. Due to the complicated nature of the human body, these columns are meant to be taken as introductory prompts for further research and not as directives. Read past editions of Leg Day Observer for more thoughtful approaches to lifting and eating.

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