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Learning the Olympic Squat

May 06, 2019

Is learning about the Olympic Squat a personal goal on your list?

Do you wonder how it differs from the Powerlifting Squat?

The Olympic squat is often called the third world squat, the Paleolithic chair, or what you do to pick stuff up off the floor.


Learning the Olympic Squat:  What is it?

The Olympic squat (or back squat), is known as a high bar squat.

The bar is placed on top of the traps, on the shelf created when the shoulder blades between the upper trapezius and the middle trapezius are retracted.

You also keep the torso relatively upright during both the descent and the ascent of the lift.

Place your feet shoulder-width apart and positioned somewhere between straight ahead and externally rotated 15 degrees.

The hands are in the same position as in the clean; and sometimes slightly wider.

Unlike the powerlifting squat, Olympic lifters stay relatively relaxed under the bar.

The “long spine” position where they lengthen from the top of the head to the coccyx is ideal.

These Olympic squats are performed relatively fast with a quick, yet controlled, explosive action.


When is the Olympic Squat Used?

Learning the Olympic Squat--woman squatting, snatch and clean

Olympic lifters don’t compete in the squat. They use it as an assistance exercise to aid in their competition lifts: the snatch and the clean & jerk.

In Olympic weightlifting the squat has two jobs.

It’s the catch position after a snatch pull or a clean, and the lifter then has to stand up out of the squat to finish the snatch.

Or it’s used as preparation to jerk the weight to complete a clean and jerk.

This helps the lifter pull himself under the bar and recover the lift quickly.

Too much tension can slow the lifter down and cause him to miss the lift.


Learning the Olympic Squat: Why Squat?

Remember that the legs “feed the wolf” – so the stronger the legs, the stronger the body

  • Improved athletic performance
  • Faster metabolism
  • Better body composition
  • Increase hormone release
  • Improved day-to-day activities

Oftentimes your body’s limitations will dictate the style of squat you choose to use.

Related: Learn to Barbell Squat | Tips to Squat with Ease


Learning the Olympic Squat: This Takes Time

How to High Bar SquatYou need to learn how to walk before you can run.

Most individuals should learn how to box squat before any other squat. Why?

Because most people spend their days sitting in front of a computer.

Therefore, everything’s tight that needs to be loose, and everything that needs to be strong is weak.

As your mobility improves throughout your body, you might gravitate towards the Olympic style squat.

Why? Because this is a “natural” squat.

If you ever watch children squat, you will see how easily they do this.

A Good Squat--It's Child's Play!

Their bodies fold like an accordion with the joints stacked one on top of the other.

The mechanics of the Olympic squat more closely mimics how our body naturally accomplishes that motion.

This takes advantage of natural bone rhythms and allows all the muscles to work smoothly with each other.

It also allows for the full development of the leg musculature.


The Olympic Squat vs. The Powerlifting Squat

In general, there are two ways to squat: Olympic or powerlifting style.

Both styles of squatting involve putting some weight on a barbell, placing it on top of your shoulders, and then dropping your butt down.

But there are some significant differences between the two.


Differences Between the Two Squats

Learning the Olympic Squat--man doing a powerlifting squat

These differences are mostly related to two items: bar and foot position.

Olympic squats are typically performed high bar with a narrow stance.

Powerlifting is usually done low bar with a wide stance.

 The bar rests on the upper traps and the heels are below the shoulders or slightly closer.

The knees should be pushed outside of the heel on the way down.

The Olympic squat tends to really work your quads and trunk stabilizers, while still using the power of your glutes.

With the powerlifting squat the bar is positioned below your upper trap, resting more on your rhomboids.

Your stance is also significantly wider.

This causes you to lean forward more in the squat and typically have less depth.

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In powerlifting competitions, athletes only need to hit parallel or slightly below it for the lift to count.

This style of squatting was developed to maximize the amount of weight that could be lifted within those parameters.

You utilize more of your glutes, hamstrings, and adductor muscles when you widen your stance and stick your butt back more.

The total range of motion is also reduced a bit but that translates to heavier weights.

Oftentimes the world’s heaviest squat records were achieved using a powerlifting-style squat.


Harder to Learn

Technically speaking an Olympic squat is usually much harder for us to learn unless you started training properly as a child.

In general the powerlifting squat will let you squat more weight.

It also doesn’t require you to have a lot of the mobility required to hit a full-depth Olympic squat.

With the powerlifting squat you don’t need to have the same level of dorsiflexion.

If you ever need to specialize in a particular squat for competitive reasons then keep this in mind.

It’s much easier to transition from an Olympic squat to a power squat, rather than the other way around.


Learning the Olympic Squat: Full Depth

Man squatting down without weights

The depth of an Olympic squat is full depth–not parallel, nor is it breaking parallel.

It is squatting to the lowest position possible while maintaining correct posture.

Depth is measured by the position of the hips, and this can be affected by the:

  • position of the knees,
  • degree of dorsiflexion of your ankles,
  • lengths of the upper and lower leg,
  • horizontal position of the hips relative to your feet,
  • width and degree of external rotation of the feet,
  • mass of the upper and lower legs

These factors all work together so changing one item will typically affect change in other areas.


Learning the Olympic Squat: Many Parts Working Together

If the knees can’t move forward over the feet, then the hips must travel farther back behind the feet.

Learning the Olympic Squat--bar resting on back of Olympic squatter

With the hips behind the athlete’s base, the torso must lean forward more so your center of mass remains balanced over the feet.

If the hips are lowered now, flexibility will restrict the spine’s ability to remain correctly arched.

Instead, it forces the athlete to curl forward, again to remain balanced.

Neither of these positions will allow the safe and effective support of a barbell in the positions needed for the snatch and clean.

Moving the knees in front of the toes allows you to reach the depth and trunk positioning needed.

Lack of ankle flexibility can also result in the knees remaining too far back.

This is why Oly weightlifting shoes have a lifted heel—the elevated heel effectively increases the ankles’ range of motion.

Femur length also affects the depth of each athlete’s squat because it affects how far away from the knees the hips will be.

Athletes with great flexibility and long femurs can get into deep squat positions.

Those with shorter-femurs will appear higher even when at their maximal depth.


The Olympic Squat for Core and Quads

Olympic squats allow for a greater range of motion

They take the focus off the low back and glutes and puts the emphasis on the quads.

Olympic squats improve your posture even as you squat.

The narrow stance, upright torso, and high bar result in powerful legs and a stable core.


Rock-bottom Squats

Olympic lifters tend to have rock-bottom squats.

A snatch pull or clean involves fast activation of the posterior chain, so you’re catching mostly on your quads.

These are the mechanics of a movement that will allow you to get really deep under the bar as fast as possible.

You use your posterior chain to get the bar off the floor.

O-lifters are hitting their posterior chains when they clean.

The quad dominant Olympic squat tends to give lifters some pretty impressive thighs.

Although the same lifter will be able to move more weight with the power squat the Oly squat is better for building legs.

If you’re squatting as a leg exercise, you definitely want the Oly squat.

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Their cushioned palm padding and enhanced durable grip ensure that you won’t feel pain or discomfort while lifting.


How to do an Olympic SquatDark Iron Fitness weightlifting gloves

Most people don’t have the flexibility to just jump into a full Olympic squat.

If you are relatively fit and have lifted for about a year, then learning to do an O-squat might take six or eight weeks.

  1. Stand under an empty bar and place your feet between hip and shoulder width apart.
  2. Put the bar high up on your traps, use the closest grip you can.

It’s OK if your elbows wind up behind you as long as your grip is close and your upper back is tight.

A closer grip will help you remember to tense your upper traps so they act as a cushion to rest the bar on.

  1. Break at the hips, just like a power squat, and lead with your tail bone as you lower down.

Compared to the power squat there’s a lot less tension in the hips and low back because the external femoral rotators are doing less work.

This allows you to stay more relaxed.

  1. Keep your spine long and try to extend it. At the bottom of the lift, your hamstrings should be on your calves.

But if this lift is new to you, chances are they won’t be.

  1. From your bottom position, stand up, fully extending the hips.

You should feel this far more in the fronts of your legs than a power squat.

Related: Accessories to Help Perfect Your Squats


Better Flexibility for Better Squats

These movements will help increase your flexibility to help you master the Olympic squat.

For the ankles:Man lunging in front of wall

  • Drop into a lunge position with your front shin vertical and your front toes against a wall.
  • Now move your knee forward, and try to get it to touch the wall.
  • Keep your foot facing forward with a good arch and don’t let your knee track sideways.

For the upper back:

This is an area people often struggle with, so this area might need some more work.

Lie on your back on top of a basketball.

Shift so that the basketball is under the middle of your T-spine, between your shoulder blades.

Place your hands behind your head and draw your shoulders up, then try to curve your upper spine backward, around the basketball.

When that becomes easy, try it with the basketball against the wall.

Then try doing it in lower and lower positions until you’re doing the basketball stretch in the bottom of a squat.

For the hips:

You might find the goblet squat helps more than anything else.

You can find good videos of how to do a goblet squat on YouTube.


Learning the Olympic Squat: Additional Exercises

The Olympic squat requires the whole body to move as one piece.

You need specific drills to build your squat. Here are some worth trying:

Arm pull:

  • Set up with the bar on the floor. If you deadlift, you can do a couple of these in between sets.
  • Bend at the hips as if you are going to deadlift the bar, but with your feet in your O-squat stance.
  • Grab the bar double overhand, then use your arms and your hip flexors to pull yourself into a full squat.
  • Extend your T-spine and make a high chest, then return to the bend-forward position and repeat.

Hip flexor pull:

This is a mobility drill you can do at home.

  • Stand in an open doorway.
  • Put your hands on either side of your shoulders and pull yourself down with your hip flexors into your O-squat position.
  • Stand up and repeat a few times.

If that’s too easy try putting your hands overhead with your elbows on the side of the doorway that’s actually behind you.

This will give you a guide for upper back positioning and remove the balance requirement while you learn to squat.

The next step is simply to squat, but with light weights.

You need to go from learning to squat, to learning to squat with some weight, before actually “working out” with this new movement pattern.

So don’t overdo it for the first couple of months.

You can use the first 90 days to stay under 50 percent of your body weight or 25 percent of your 1RM.

Work with whichever number is lower, and just practice the movement.


Final Thoughts on Learning the Olympic Squat

The Olympic squat reinforces good mobility and postural alignment.

It will elevate your strength to the next level.

There are many options available when it comes to squatting and more than one right way to do it.

Just make sure you’re making your decisions for the right reasons.

Now get out there, watch your form, and go squat something heavy.


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