For reasons I cannot understand, our recommended eye gaze direction for the squat – looking down at the floor in front of you – is controversial. This is odd, because looking up at the ceiling (apparently the Right Thing To Do) results in your neck being placed in extreme overextension. This, coupled with the bar sitting on top of your traps just above T1, seems to me like a foolish place for both your neck and the bar. But your football coach told you that “You gotta look up to go up!!” and who can argue with that logic?
Certainly not me. I’ll just tell you that the squat makes much more sense as a hips exercise than as a knees exercise, that to make it about the hips, the hips must be loaded, that to load the hips there must be enough moment arm on the hips, and that the moment arm is produced by a back angle that is horizontal enough to generate some distance between the bar and the hips. In other words, you have to bend over enough to get your hips back so you can maximally involve the posterior chain muscles – the glutes, the hamstrings, the adductors, and the spinal erectors (the quads being involved enough already). In other other words, this position places a long moment arm on lots of muscle mass that can effectively adapt to moving heavy weights with this moment arm.
And for the vast overwhelming majority of the human species, this position is impossible to assume while looking up at the ceiling. You can only overextend your neck a certain amount, beyond which the posterior parts of the vertebrae lock together and impinge. If you look down at the floor in front of you,this eye gaze direction places your face at 90 degrees to the eye gaze, which results in your neck settling comfortably into normal anatomical position, a nice place for its intervertebral discs to be when you squeeze all the neck muscles tight to keep it stable with a valsalva, and when you tighten your traps under the bar. Therefore, it makes more sense to look down at the floor in front of you.
Remember that the squat derives a lot of its value from the skill required to not fall downwhile you’re squatting. Balance must be learned to squat. Humans use the ground as a reference for their position in space. We look down when we walk, when we move around in an unfamiliar environment, and when we pick things up off of the ground and carry them. The ground is a reliable place: it’s usually not moving, the part of it you train on is smooth and level, and it’s always just a short distance from your eyes. It’s the perfect stationary position reference for squatting down and standing back up, and looking at a nearby fixed place on the ground provides real-time proprioceptive feedback for your body’s position as you move down and up with a heavy load on your back.
In contrast, what do you see when you look up? A ceiling or a wall that might be hundreds of feet away. Airplanes. Clouds. Birds. People walking around in the bleachers. Flags. Trees. Squirrels in the tree. Dust. Smog. Flickering lights. Billboards. New Yorkers. None of these things are nearly as useful to look at as the good old-fashioned level floor right in front of you, just a few feet away – and even closer at the bottom of the squat.
Prove this to yourself by staring at a fixed point on the floor in front of you and picking up one foot to stand in balance. Now try it again while looking up. You’ll see immediately the benefit of the closer-proximity position reference on the floor. It’s what your standing on, pushing on, balanced on, and not falling down on. Looking at it makes it easier to balance and stay balanced, and to more effectively squat a heavy set of 5.