Written by: Kevin Cann
This is one of my favorite excuses in the world of powerlifting, “My squat sucks because I have long limbs.” I have even seen numerous posts circling around the web showing pictures of people with different anatomical makeups squatting and even skeletal diagrams showing the exact same thing.
The problem with the examples that just use a skeleton anchored to a device is that it does not take into effect the other planes of motion. A longer limbed person is at a disadvantage in the squat with their feet narrow because of the forward lean that they require to keep the bar over the midfoot. However, we can manipulate leverages to help keep the lifter more upright.
One way that a longer lifter can remain upright is with good external rotation at the hip. The further we can drive our knees out the more upright the torso can remain. This is something that the two dimensional models cannot show. This is not always a mobility issue with a simple stretch to fix it.
The spine and pelvis need to be in a neutral position in order to maximally externally rotate the hip. Remember, we must first control the sagittal plane before we can own the frontal and transverse planes. In order to set the spine and pelvis we can exhale hard and hold the tightness in our abs and squeeze our butts. The cue I prefer to drive external rotation at the hip is “screw your feet into ground.” This helps elicit that rotational thought a little bit more than “drive your knees out.” Sometimes I choose to use both of them together.
Once we are here we need to demonstrate the ability to remain here while we sit down and stand back up. Often times, especially with longer lifters, we will see the knees cave into valgus collapse at the bottom of the squat. This is not a mobility issue as they have demonstrated the ability to externally rotate the hip while standing. This is a motor control issue because they were not able to resist change during a dynamic movement. In the rare case that you are a longer limbed lifter and can really drive your knees out, you will be able to squat with a narrower stance. However, for the majority of longer limbed athletes we will have to manipulate stance.
A moderate to wide stance is going to allow the longer limbed athlete to remain more upright during the squat. Even if you have shorter femurs adding a tad of width may help add pounds on the bar as long as tension remains the same. I like to use wall squats to figure out where a lifter should place their feet.
Place your toes touching a wall in your squat stance. From here perform a technically efficient squat. The wall will disallow much forward lean and can help you figure out where you need to go for width. Make sure the squat is executed correctly. If the knees are caving in you will miss depth because knee valgus leads to forward lean in the squat.
Before we move onto other pieces of the squat we should take a step back and discuss footwear. Everything you will read on the internet will tell you that a lifting shoe with a raised heel will help minimize forward lean. Most of us have seen an assessment of overhead squat fixed with a heel raise. However, squatting with weight on our back changes the game a bit.
The weight on our back is always pushing us forward. To stay upright in the squat we need to push back against the bar while remaining in a position to drive through our heels. If you have the ability to do this a raised heel may help. However, if you do not it may be working against you.
The point of the raised heel is not only to give us more ankle mobility to minimize forward lean, but it also moves our hips closer to the bar giving us more leverage to move weight. If we do not create maximum tension the raised heels will push us forward onto our toes which will lead to forward lean in the squat. Try a pair of flat shoes such as Chuck’s and see if this helps your forward lean.
The low-bar position on the squat does the same thing as a raised heel except it brings the bar closer to the hips to give the glutes and hamstrings more leverage in the squat. The problem with the low-bar position is it requires a greater forward lean. If we are getting that forward lean, whether from shoes or bar position, and our hips shoot out and chest falls forward we lose those advantages. In a squat that looks more like a good morning, our hips are as far away from the bar as they can be. This puts a lot of stress on our spinal erectors and our spinal erectors will fail before our glutes and hamstrings.
Instead, find a bar position that allows you to remain upright and the bar to track over the midfoot throughout the movement. I prefer a bar position of shelving it on the traps. Basically, when you pull your shoulder blades together your traps make a nice shelf for a barbell. Place the bar there and see how it feels first. Adjustments can be made after.
The other important piece to minimizing forward lean is engaging the lats. The lats are one of, if not the most important stabilizer of the spine under heavy loads. There has been a trend to squat with the hands as narrow as possible. The problem with this is once our hands get too narrow we can’t drive the elbows into the ribs and maximally contract the lats. Females should start with pinky finger on the ring and males with the ring or middle finger.
I prefer my thumbs around the bar for the squat. This took some getting used to, but I feel I can create more tension this way. To fully engage your lats think of “spreading and bending the bar” at the same time. If our lats are not maximally engaged our back will round and this will lead to the chest coming forward. As a longer limbed lifter the bar has further to go so it is even more important to use those lats.
As a longer limbed lifter you are not at a disadvantage. You just need to change your leverages. Look at your squat stance, footwear, bar position, and technique. Make the changes necessary to keep you as upright as possible in the squat. The more upright you can remain (with the bar over the midfoot), the more weight you can put on the bar.
Here are a couple of quick videos that show a bit of what I was explaining