20-Rep Squats – Form and Foot Placement
Recently I’ve written a couple of pieces on the 20-rep squat, a sort of introductory piece and a more advanced piece about the pure psychology of getting through the horror of a heavy set. Although I wrote that I wasn’t going to get into correct form, it’s been niggling me that if I have inspired anyone out there to have a go at them and they dive in without a good instructor, maybe I need to give them at least something to go on.
For what is on the face of it such a simple exercise, it has always amazed me that even when you have squatted for years, you still find tiny little adjustments and improvements in the form.
Small changes I have made over the years have been as subtle as a couple of inches difference in hand placement on the bar (changing the ‘pad’ of your traps for more comfort under the bar) or even the direction the eyes look at the bottom of the rep. These seemingly tiny changes can make the difference between success and failure during the full-bore sets at the end of a cycle.
However, if I had to pick one little piece of the puzzle to impart it’s on foot placement. During my time training people in the squat, I have encountered a small minority who just cannot seem to ‘get’ the form. They look ungainly and twist and bend as they come up from the bottom of the rep, and however hard they try they just don’t seem cut out for this magnificent exercise.
I cannot remember a case where eventually I didn’t have them squatting successfully, and 90% of the time it was down to foot placement. Once this was sorted, great gains were made.
If you read about the form of the squat, even in some great publications, it generally does not stress enough what should be the number one consideration – everybody’s physiology is different! One person might be able to grab a squat bar and do the exercise perfectly from the off, but some people with limitations such as a long back, or tight Achilles tendons and/or hips, might need to do some detective work first to find their form.
This detective work takes the form of practicing extensively with just the bar until the form is good, then finding a way of remembering and duplicating that form so that you can reproduce it in the heat of battle of a heavy set.
The main cause of injury during the squat is rounding the back while driving up from the bottom position. This can just be caused by losing focus on keeping the core muscles tightened on a difficult rep, but that has to be addressed by mental issues. See my article on the psychology of the 20-rep squat on this site.
But presuming we are just working on pure form with just the bar, some people can squat deeply before the back rounds, and some people less so. Once you have found your ideal depth of squat, find a way to remember it. My favourite was to always squat in a power rack, and at the bottom of each rep look in the mirror to align the bar with a certain hole on the upright of the rack. It’s surprising how, by the 17th or 18th rep, we naturally try to make the squat less deep and cheat! This trick prevents such naughtiness!
To find the deepest you can safely squat with your genetics, you have to experiment with foot placement. Some people like their feet to be close together, and others further apart. For some, and well worth experimenting with if you are having trouble, the key is the angle of the feet. In such cases sometimes a few degrees one way or the other can make a difference to comfort.
As a general rule, the wider you have your feet the deeper you can squat, up to the point where it compromises the knee joint, of course.
Having promised solutions, it might seem like I’m being a little vague, but I’m just trying to give some pointers as starting points for your own experimentation, as the form of a squat is so particular to individual, I cannot just lay down the law about it without meeting you and seeing your limitations first hand.
So, to recap, practice with the bar only. Squat until the top of the thighs are parallel with the floor, and if it’s not comfortable and the back begins to round slightly at the bottom of the rep, move your feet out a little bit and try again until you can squat to your maximum comfortable depth with NO rounding of the back at the bottom of the rep. Then measure the distance between your heels and between your toes so you can reproduce that safe stance every time.
It might seem like a lot of faffing about, but if you can learn to take advantage of what must surely be the king of exercises it will be well worth it, and the health and muscular benefits you will reap will amaze you!
Remember to keep your diet in order, and have a look at some Ayurvedic or Paleolithic principles for clues on that, and stretch those muscles and joints out with Somatic Movement routines after the squats to get rid of all the knots and keep your weights cycle on track.
For more info see my book, Pure Activity.