The squat and deadlift are some of the most individualized exercises, so here's how you can help your clients nail their technique.
The deadlift and squat are considered to be the king and queen of all strength training exercises. Both target most of the major muscle groups in the body, boost the production of growth-enhancing hormones, and can help lower the risk of osteoporosis, bone fractures, and a wide range of musculoskeletal disorders.
Unfortunately, a lot of people perform the deadlift and squat with poor technique, and therefore, fail to reap the many benefits these two exercises can provide. Even coaches, trainers, and advanced lifters could always use improvements.
Not everyone is able to do them perfectly, but over the years, I’ve helped thousands of people learn the squat and deadlift. The eight tips in this article are based on my experience as a personal trainer and strength coach, as well as the knowledge I’ve acquired from years of lifting weights myself. While many of the same technical principles apply to both the squat and deadlift, there are some important differences between the two lifts. As an aside, not all of the elements mentioned in this article are equally important for both exercises.
1. Learn the Hip Hinge Pattern and Strengthen the Posterior Chain
One reason a lot of people display poor technique in the squat and deadlift is that they have a weak posterior chain (particularly glutes).
If I instruct a new client to perform a squat, without first giving him any technical instructions, chances are he’s going to perform a quad-dominant movement and fail to properly activate his glutes and posterior chain.
In some instances, technical instruction is sufficient to remedy the problem. Oftentimes, however, the problem is more deeply rooted, and additional steps are required to fix the situation. Typically, the client has to strengthen the posterior chain and work on improving his movement pattern before he can move on to heavy squatting. Usually, these two things go hand-in-hand, because many of the best exercises and drills for learning a good squat pattern also strengthen the backside.
The cable pull-through is one of my favorite exercises to use in these types of cases, because it forces the trainee to push his hips back, rather than bending his knees and sitting down. Moreover, it’s an excellent exercise for learning the hip hinge pattern.
Another exercise I’ve found to be particularly effective for teaching people to push hips back is the box squat, which should be performed with almost vertical shins.
2. Correct Muscle Imbalance Patterns
The two most common muscle imbalance patterns I’ve encountered in my work with clients over the years are Lower Crossed Syndrome (LCS), which is characterized by excessive anterior pelvic tilt and a protruding abdomen; and Upper Crossed Syndrome (UCS), which presents as rounded shoulders and “hunchback posture”. These two conditions are extremely common.
It’s important to be aware of and able to correct these types of muscle imbalance patterns. They set the stage for poor exercise technique, compensation patterns, injuries, lower back pain, impaired physical performance, and in some cases, disorders such as osteoarthritis and degenerative joint disease. Plus, poor posture generally isn’t aesthetically appealing.
Individuals with LCS often overextend their spine during the squat, deadlift, and other similar exercises. Moreover, they generally fail to properly activate their glutes and get into a good movement pattern. When it comes to UCS, the problem is that the lifter flexes his upper spine and fails to retract the scapulae.
3. Spread the Floor Apart
Here’s a cue that was a game-changer for my clients’ (and my own) squat and deadlift technique: “Push against the outside of your feet/heels like you’re basically trying to pull the floor apart!“
The reason this strategy is so effective is that it promotes a “ripple effect” throughout the body, forcing you into a good way of moving:
- It forces you to push the knees apart.
- It helps you maintain a neutral spine.
- It forces you to keep the weight on the back of the foot.
- It helps you distribute the load correctly.
4. Drive Through the Heels
A common mistake people make when performing the squat and deadlift is letting their knees travel forward (excessively), something that results in a concentric movement that’s driven through the balls of their feet instead of through their heels. This is a big mistake, as it puts excessive strain on their knees and back, and shifts the load from the posterior chain over to the quads and lower back.
One way to avoid this problem is to focus on spreading the floor apart, as I mentioned earlier, and pushing through the heels. You may also consider lifting the toes. If you still have trouble distributing the load correctly, the issue may be too much weight and/or your client may need to work on learning the hip hinge pattern and strengthening the posterior chain.
When doing strength exercises, the load should always be kept on the mid-back of the feet – never on the ball of the feet or toes.
5. Push the Hips Back and the Knees Apart
A common mistake in the squat is to initiate the movement by letting the knees drift too far forward and sitting down, not back.
As for the deadlift, many lifters fail to get into a good starting position; some may have their back positioned too vertical. This is a recipe for disaster, as it leads to many of the problems discussed earlier.
Getting the hips back is particularly important in the deadlift, as this exercise is supposed to be performed with a hip-dominant movement pattern. I typically prefer to instruct clients to push their hips back when doing the squat as well, because excessive knee drift and quad-dominant lifting are very common issues in this exercise. That said, it’s important to note that there are many different versions of the squat. For instance, an Olympic squat is performed with a very vertical back angle, while a powerlifting squat is performed with a more horizontal back position.
There are certainly some disagreements among strength coaches regarding the use of the “knees out!” cue, but I’ve found that the knees out position helps support good exercise technique. I usually prefer to tell the trainee to “push against the outside of the heels”, which is a cue that will get the knees out as well.
6. Keep the Bar In a Vertical Line Over the Mid-foot
A lot of gym-goers perform the squat and deadlift so that the bar travels in a vertical line over the toes rather than over the mid-foot.
Oftentimes, the bar path is also very uneven and not travelling in a straight line as it should. An incorrect bar path is a sign that the lifter is not distributing the load correctly, and as a result, decreases stability and makes the lifter more prone to injuries.
Instead, the bar should ideally travel in an almost vertical line over the mid-foot. If you adhere to the other principles outlined in this article, the bar should naturally get into the correct path.
In the deadlift, the bar should travel close to the shins and thighs. If that’s not sufficient to ensure good technique, you may consider envisioning the path in your mind and focus on that image when performing the exercise. This method is sometimes effective for getting the bar into the correct path.
7. Aim For a Smooth and Controlled Movement
Many lifters fail to get the full benefits of squatting and deadlifting because they’re not performing the exercises in a smooth and controlled fashion.
In the deadlift, they may jerk the bar off the ground instead of applying tension through the system before pulling the weight in a controlled movement. This can result in a torn biceps, head and neck issues, and increased lumbar spinal shear stresses.
Meanwhile, in the squat, a lot of lifters try to bounce as fast as they can out of the hole. While a little “bounce” in the bottom position is a natural part of the squat, it has to be done the right way. Don’t think about making yourself bounce; the bounce should come naturally as a result of the tension and compression that is built up in the body.
8. Maintain a Neutral Spine
If you watch one hundred people at your local gym perform the squat or deadlift, chances are most of them either flex or overextend their spine when performing these exercises. While some coaches will tell you that it’s no problem to perform these movements with a somewhat flexed spine, others will tell you to always strive for a nice neutral (straight) back position.
When I teach the deadlift and squat to beginners, I’ll always have them strive for a neutral back position. Not because I’m overly concerned about the potential dangers associated with having a flexed spine when lifting, but because I’ve found that it’s much easier for the trainee to get into a good movement pattern. He also avoids putting excessive load on his lower back and gets his glutes working correctly if he lifts with a neutral spine.
The best strategy for achieving this position varies from person to person. For someone with a normal (neutral/slight anterior pelvic tilt) or posteriorly tilted pelvis, it’s useful to think about arching the back, or perhaps even better, pulling the chest tall. For someone with excessive anterior pelvic tilt, getting the chest up is still important, but focusing on arching the back may be a mistake, as this can quickly lead to overextension of the lumbar spine.
As for the position of the neck/head, many of the strongest deadlifters and squatters in the world look straight ahead, tuck their chin and maintain a neutral neck position. It’s arguable whether this is absolutely necessary, but it’s generally the more accepted way to position your neck and head.
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