by Nick Delgadillo, SSC Starting Strength
When we teach you to squat, we are looking for you to bend over as much as possible while maintaining balance over the middle of your foot, and squatting deep enough that you take full advantage of the muscles of the posterior chain and balance the forces around your knees. When you squat, even with the bar in a low-bar position, you are able to pick any back angle you want. We want you to pick the one that gets you the most bent-over without perturbing balance, depth, or a consistent bottom position.
Bending over is important, because the way the forces created by the weight of the bar on top of your back are distributed is determined by the back angle you achieve. The common too-vertical back angle distributes these forces toward the knees, while bending over more distributes the forces toward the hips. The hips are better suited to lifting big weights because the structures that reside there are bigger, more robust, and designed specifically to propel you through your environment. You can produce more force with your hips than you can with your knees, so you can lift more weight when you bend over more and you can therefore get stronger.
Your body already knows all this. Since it’s a mechanical system, subject to physical laws, you will find that your body arranges itself in such a way that it will do things it needs to do if you make it produce a whole bunch of force. If you put the bar low on your back and then proceed to squat with your back angle as vertical as you can keep it, if the weight is heavy enough, your back angle will change as you come out of the bottom whether you want it to or not. To put it simply, your body will want to drive your hips out of the bottom of the squat despite you trying to screw it up. Now, you may still manage to screw it all up after the initial hip drive by lifting your chest once you’re on the way up, but that’s a discussion for another day.
So, why does it matter what you do on the way down if your body will fix itself coming out of the bottom? We don’t force you to squat with a certain back angle out of blind devotion to our leader, because we like to over-complicate things, or because we want everyone to be neurotic about their form. We want you to bend over because your body will make you bend over whether you want to or not. And if you’re not going into the bottom of your squat with the correct position, you are introducing a movement variable that doesn’t need to be there.
When you’re learning to squat, you have to master two things. The first is learning to drive your hips and the second is learning to achieve a consistent bottom position. Hip drive is a simple concept, but not necessarily an easy thing to do until you practice it. Learning the bottom position can be a bit more complex, since you have toe angle, knee position, back angle, depth, and other things to worry about. My point is that if you’re squatting 95 with a too-vertical back, you will stand up with a too-vertical back. But that’s certainly not the case when you have 225, 315, or 405 on the bar. The effort, control, and energy required to manage the extraneous movement of your ass as you enter the bottom position with your knees forward and back vertical and then come out of the bottom with your knees back and your back horizontal starts to become a problem when the weight gets heavy.
People who are good at doing things inefficiently get away with this all the time, but that’s not you and me. We have to hold on to every possible advantage we can. And if we can avoid wasting energy and the wear and tear on our joints by learning to go into the bottom exactly the same way every single rep, let’s do that.
So learn how to squat with a correct back angle. Practice a rock solid, consistent bottom position so that there’s minimal change in back angle as you come out of the hole. When you have the weight on the bar, life stress, fatigue, and achy knees to deal with, it’s prudent to avoid the inconsistency out of the bottom that comes with not paying attention to how you go into the bottom, since that represents just another variable in your training that needs to be accounted for.