Getting Your Lifters to Hit Depth


The importance of hitting depth in the squat has
been thoroughly covered in Starting Strength: Basic Barbell
Training
, articles published on StartingStrength.com, and the
many, many form checks on the forums. The mechanics of hitting depth
are well understood, but as a coach getting your lifters to hit depth
can be a challenge. It’s your job to figure out if it’s a technical
problem or psychological problem. There are many different tactics
you can use in the case of a psychological problem, and you’ll have
to discern which method is most appropriate.

Check
Technique First

The first place to
check why a lifter isn’t hitting depth is just basic technique. The
stance must be wide enough, but not too wide, and the knees must be
actively shoved apart. If the stance is too wide, the lifter’s knees
will cave in (valgus) in order to hit depth, or he will choose not to
go lower because he can feel the excessive adductor stretch and knees
caving. Make sure the stance width is right. If the lifter has a big
belly, the toes may need to be turned out a little more than the
standard starting place of “30 degrees.” A lifter on his first
day will need to learn the bottom position with the thighs out of the
way, a bent-over back angle, and the hip crease below the top of the
patella.

The lifter may be too
weak to squat to this position without falling down. Refer in this
case to the following video: What to do if You Can’t Squat the Bar. These are the common
physiological problems of hitting depth, but they all basically come
from learning problems or weakness problems. These usually show up
the first day, but need to be confirmed again in later workouts if
the lifter has started to miss depth – particularly the stance.

Lifters usually fail
the squat in one of two ways:

1) They hit depth, and
then at some point on the way up, stop moving up and start to go
down. Then the spotters help or the lifter puts the bar down on the
safeties.

2) They squat high and
then finish the ascent.

The second situation is
a problem all coaches have to learn to solve: when the lifter is able
to squat to depth one workout, and as the weight gets progressively
heavier across workouts, he will miss depth. Before anything else,
ensure the basic technique mechanics are correct. The lifter may have
stopped shoving his knees out, so his thighs are blocking him. Cue
“Knees out” or “Knees apart” as he gets to the bottom. His
balance may be getting forward as he gets to the bottom. Tell him
“Sit back at the bottom to hit depth” before the set, and then as
he approaches the bottom of the squat, “Sit back.” If fixing the
technique doesn’t fix the depth, you have a psychology problem.
Fortunately, we have methods to address that too.

Check
Understanding

Lifters frequently have
no idea what they are doing with their bodies. Find out if they know
what’s going on. Ask them if they know if they got deep enough. Many
will think they were correctly deep. Tell them they are not at
full depth and need to get deeper on the next set. Make sure to give
feedback in the middle of the set. For example, after the first rep:
“Good depth.” After the second: “Get a half-inch deeper,” and
so on. This is just an information problem. If they continue to be
inconsistent or make no progress, ask what they feel at the bottom.
Most lifters in this situation will directly tell you, “I’m scared
I won’t be able to come up back up if I get deeper.”

The way you squat is
with your hips, and this will have to be taught to almost everybody
because, again, they don’t know. Popular culture holds that the squat
is “quads” – “Just look at the pictures in the magazines!”
A few minutes on YouTube looking at heavy squats clearly shows that
the hips initiate the squat out of the bottom. If you think about
driving your ass up out of the bottom, the squat immediately gets
more efficient, and you now have a useful thing to think about to
focus your attention correctly. You “come back up” with your
hips, and thinking about that under the bar is very useful.

The interesting aspect
of depth is that full depth is actually easier and more effective
than hitting parallel. Squatting six inches high does not train the
prime movers or stabilizers of the squat as effectively as a
full-depth squat. As the moment on the hip and knee increase, the
muscles controlling their joint angles require more force, thereby
stressing the muscles more. Additionally, the stabilizing muscles
must produce more force to prevent undesirable motion. The back, for
example, will change angle because of the hip joint, but the spine
should not flex or extend – it should be rigid. The back muscles
are responsible for this, and if the moment arm between the bar and
hip increases, so does the stabilizing force requirement on the back
muscles.

As a result, it is easy
to squat heavier weights high, since the range of motion is shorter,
but it’s also not effective for getting stronger. Squatting very
deep, like six inches below parallel, is not desirable because 1.)
the weight is always lighter, and 2.) most lifters have to relax
muscles to get that deep, thereby removing muscle mass from the
system. Even if the lifter doesn’t need to relax any muscles to get
six inches below parallel, lighter weight is being lifted, so it’s
simply less effective for improving strength.

Given these extremes,
where very low is very hard and very high is very easy, it’s
intuitive that parallel must be easier than slightly below parallel.
However, all of the muscles at parallel are not stretched
effectively, so the stretch reflex – the bounce out of the bottom –
is diminished. At full depth, the adductors and hamstrings are
incorporated better than at parallel. Therefore, the speed on the way
up in a correct squat will be faster than a parallel squat, assuming
all other aspects are the same.

Pointing this out to
lifters who are scared of the heavy weight can lessen their fears.
But this may not be enough.

Trick
Them into Hitting Depth

There are a few tricks
to handle fear if information is inadequate to alleviating that fear.
Try loading the bar in a non-standard way so they don’t actually know
what they’re lifting. For example, for a 315 lb squat, instead of
loading three 45 lb plates on each side, load two 45 lb plates, a 25 lb
plate, one 10 lb plate, one 5 lb plate, and two 2.5 lb plates. This
concept works particularly well on milestone weights like 135, 185,
200, 225, 275, 300, 315. Many lifters are intimidated by seeing a new
full 45 lb plate on the bar, even though it may literally be only 2 lb
more than last workout.

It can be effective to
just focus on the first rep, because squatting one rep full depth is
not as daunting as all five reps. Tell them, “I don’t care if you
get all five reps here. I just want to see them all full depth, so
focus on the first rep, and get that full depth. Then focus on the
next. If you only three or four or whatever reps, that’s fine. Just
make sure they’re all full depth.” Make sure to give them feedback
during the set and continue fixing technical problems too. Typically,
they will be able to do all five reps.

Similarly, lifters
sometimes benefit from a last warm up that is close to their set of
five – even as far as doing the work set weight for a single rep as
a last warm up. If they can prove to themselves they can do one
full-depth rep, they will be able to do all five. This does not
represent such a large amount of stress that it will negatively
affect the program, just make sure they rest enough before their
first full set.

Lifters who are
ambitious and aggressive might miss depth because of motivation to
add weight to the bar. These lifters respond well to being held back.
Resetting weights to a load they can squat to full depth may be
prudent when they aren’t hitting depth. Or repeating a workout to
reinforce the importance of depth may be a good short term decision
to ensure long term expectations are correct. You can tell the
lifter, “The depth wasn’t good on all of those today. We’ll have
you repeat this next time, but they all have to be full depth,
otherwise we’ll have to repeat again, or we might even have to reduce
the weight a little, but this has to be right.” This may dishearten
your lifters for the moment, and they may even try to negotiate to
keep adding weight, but it’s the job of the coach to make sure
they’re doing the squats correctly in order to make the best
long-term progress.

Counting acceptable
reps is a brutal tactic that can work on lifters with the grit to
tolerate it or younger lifters. Tell the lifter before the set, “On
this next set, I will only count each legal-depth rep. If you squat
high on the first one, I’m going to say ‘zero’. If you squat full
depth, I’ll say ‘one.’ We’re going to do this until I count to ‘five’
and then you can rack the bar. If it takes you eight reps to get five
full depth, so be it.” This will scare the shit out of some
lifters, so be judicious when using it. You don’t want to push people
harder than they can be pushed. In general, I have noticed this works
well on lifters under 20 years old, because in my experience they’re
not used to making openly contrary decisions. If you tell them to do
another rep, they’ll at least try their best. They also usually are
not aware of how capable they actually are.

Hitting depth at heavy
weight is difficult but essential. It is the lifter’s and coach’s
jobs to make sure full depth is reached. The lifter’s job is to be
coachable and give every rep his best effort. It is the coach’s job
to figure out what is impeding the lifter from hitting depth and
using teaching, cueing, and counseling to enable him to succeed. The
first assumption should be to check basic mechanics – new lifters
may need to make some changes from what is typical to hit depth.
Experienced lifters may have had “form creep” develop. Check and
fix the mechanics. Then see if the problem is a learning problem or
maybe even a psychological problem, like fear. But depth is essential
and can be learned.


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