The value of an upright squat is often lost on CrossFitters. The biggest reason being many can still squat considerable amounts of weight. It often comes at a cost though, namely unrealized potential and constant lower back pain. Yes, pain is a fairly normal sensation among athletes, but only because most people suffer from the very same tight hamstrings/hips issues. It doesn’t have to be that way though. Imagine a world where your torso is perfectly vertical in a squat. Imagine a world where there is no torque upon your lower back because you’re able to keep your shoulders sitting over your hips. A world where the only question of whether you’re going to be able to squat a heavy load is if your legs are strong enough, not if your back is going to hold up. Now doesn’t that sound pretty sweet? Heck, who needs money and fame when you’ve got a…okay, maybe I’m getting a little carried away here. The point is, the upright squat is key but very few people have one. Even then, for those that do, typically it’s because they’ve been blessed with one. Here’s how the rest of us join the party.
Photo: Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe
The first step to improving your squat is realizing you have a problem. Because we don’t have any mirrors in the gym, you’ll have to ask one of your trainers. It will be a yes or no answer. Can’t find one? Get a friend to take a picture of you sitting at the bottom of an air squat (as active an air squat as possible) Next, compare that picture to the one above. Is there a big difference? If yes, I’m going to go out on a limb (sarcasm) and say you have a difficult time with front squats/cleans and overhead squats/snatches. Each requires a vertical torso at moderate to heavy loads. Acquire this ability and you’ll instantly feel stronger, more stable, and pain free.
Pole squats are a super effective way of working your way towards them. Below is a photo of Melody before two weeks of pole squats, and the other after. The difference is remarkable.
- butt behind feet
- butt far from ankles
- shoulders in front of hips
- major back angle
- knees behind toes
- butt between feet
- butt close to ankles
- shoulders over hips
- upright torso
- knees beyond toes
Everyone should strive to make this change for the previously stated reasons. Here’s how:
- Straddle a pole (any pole) with your toes even with the front edge of it
- Open your feet to about shoulder width, or wider, with your toes slightly angled out (standard squat stance)
- Grab the pole in front of you
- Use the pole to keep your balance when lowering into a squat and to pull your hips forward (you are trying to keep your hips as close to the pole as possible)
- Keep your back as arched as possible
- keep your knees as wide as possible
- If you start to feel your hips getting too far from the pole, stop descending, make the necessary adjustments (knees out, chest up, hips in), then continue dropping
- Stop when you are just below parallel (or as far as you can go without losing wide knees and an arched back)
- While in the bottom position, lower your hands on the pole and pull your hips in as much as possible and hold for 5-10 secs
- Stand up with as vertical a torso as possible using the pole for assistance
Don’t be fooled. This is extremely taxing. You will get tired!
You can’t perform an upright squat because you haven’t trained the proper muscles to be able to. Mid-pole squat you’ll immediately notice muscles stretching and struggling you didn’t think you had. Those are the muscles necessary to maintain an upright torso.
Pay special attention to the knees during pole squats. In order to stay upright, you must be able to drop your hips directly between your legs. If the knees are too narrow, there is nowhere for the hips to go but backwards. Hips that go backwards means a torso that comes forward.
The best part is that it only take about five sets of these per day, about three times per week. One set consists of a nice slow descent with a 5-10 second hold at the bottom. Most people will attain quick/dramatic results because of the difficult nature of the
Note: The upright squat is an Olympic style squat. That is, it’s utilized primarily during the Olympic lifts (snatch, clean & jerk) and their associated squats (front squat, overhead squat). This is not to say that the more hamstring dominant, angled torso squat (Melody’s before photo) isn’t useful or necessary. There are plenty of applications for both squats. Once you dabble in pole squats for a bit you should have the ability to perform both, thus increasing your arsenal for a multitude of workouts.