Setting up: The Squat

Setting up: The Squat

On Wednesday I talked about how to properly set up for a bench press, and today I want to focus on the important factors of a squat such as bar position, stance, grip and breathing.

This post is just about the set-up. For specifics about the squat itself, see this post and this post. These posts cover proper mobility drills, mastering the hip hinge and how to train your core muscles to maximise your squat.

My gym has this picture on the wall in the power rack... awesome!

My gym has this picture on the wall in the power rack… awesome!

Back to the set-up! First thing’s first: make sure the barbell is at a height where you can easily unrack it. If you have to go onto your tiptoes, the bar is too high. It is always better to bend your knees slightly to lift the bar, then throw your back out by trying to manouvre the barbell out of a high position.

Use the safety rails if your gym has them, setting them at a height just below parallel depth. My last gym did not have them, which is why it was a disaster when I failed sets. Having now thankfully gone back to squatting with rails, the weights feel so much lighter and I feel a million times more confident. Make sure you practice actually failing a squat too, so you’re prepared for when it happens!

Rack with rails... no, not a Smith machine!

Rack with rails… no, not a Smith machine!


This is how I set up for squats:

  • Approach the bar with confidence. Every time I see someone nervously and awkwardly slide under the bar, they deliver a mediocre effort. When I see someone storm up to the bar with their ‘grr’ face on, I know I’m going to witness something epic!
  • Duck your head under the bar, and centre the bar on your back with evenly spaced hands. I’m not going to get into the high bar versus low bar debate, but just make sure the bar is resting on your upper back and not on your neck. Set your feet approximately shoulder-width apart.
  • Because I can never say it enough, don’t even think about putting the pad on the bar. I don’t care who you are and how much you squat, I don’t have an ounce of respect if you use the maxi pad.
  • Like with the bench press, your grip should be strong. Again, just as the bench press is not an upper body-only exercise, squats are not just for your legs. Your arms should be active – pull down on the bar like you’re trying to snap it over your back.

squat shelf


  • Your hands should be as close to your shoulders as possible in order to create upper back tension and the best ‘shelf’ possible. Point your elbows down, straighten your wrists and squeeze your shoulder blades together as hard as you can while also engaging your lats. Do not let your elbows flare out to the side at any point throughout the lift.
  • Take a big breath into your belly (push your stomach out) and hold it as you unrack the bar. Minimise the number of steps you take back. Too many people seem to walk the bar so far back you’d think they’re leaving the gym! As a general rule, keep it to one step backwards per foot. You don’t want to use up all your energy before you’ve even begun. Once you are in position, release your breath.
  • Foot placement is a personal choice. Some of my clients only squat well with a narrow stance, but the majority of people (including myself!) will perform better with a slightly wider stance as the bar has less distance to travel. Imagine spreading your feet across the floor. I recommend squatting barefoot or in Converse or Olympic lifting shoes, as you want regular elevated sneakers. Your toes should be pointing directly forwards or slightly outwards (again, personal preference).
  • Grip the floor with your toes and use your feet as an anchor for stability. Think of forcing your knees out to the side, and continue to keep this in mind throughout the lift.
  • squat depth
  • Contrary to what many people believe, you don’t want to lift your head up as it will breaks the neutral alignment of your spine. I look slightly up, but only because I trust my head is tracking forwards. Instead, think of keeping your chest up. Also arch your back and stick your butt out.
  • Take one final deep belly breath, and then brace your core (tighten your stomach as if you are anticipating a punch). You can either hold your breath for the entire duration of the set, and then breathe again at the top, or breathe out on the exertion (as you come up).
  • One final point concerns the reracking of the barbell. A lot of people finish their set, walk forward, and rerack the weight by leaning forward and awkwardly dropping the bar into position – don’t do this! Keep walking forward naturally until the bar hits the rack, and then bend your knees to gently ease the bar down into position.

More than any other lift, I make sure I take the time to psych myself up a little and stretch my muscles immediately before the lift. I usually grab the bar and flatten out my back, then push my chest into the bar while pushing my elbows back to stretch my chest and shoulder blades. Once I have the bar on my back, I usually take a second or two to prepare myself. You can see this a little in my squat video from Monday, but I was conscious of being filmed so rushed through my normal set-up (and the damn bar was also too high!).

I’m not going to talk about the squat itself, but just remember that it doesn’t count unless you hit parallel or below!

Did I miss anything? Do you remember all of these points when you squat?

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