7 Squat Cues That Suck

Personal Trainer Keith Hansen in the bottom of a 405lb high bar squat wearing a strength over everything shirt

Everyone knows they should squat, but few know how to squat well.

Do you know why that is?

Because of bad instruction. Lots of bad instruction, and lots of bad cues from inexperienced lifters.

People that lifted weights in high school are the wrong people to learn from.

Chicken leg trainers at your gym are the wrong people to learn from.

Guys that can’t squat double their bodyweight are the wrong people to learn from.

People that use any of the following cues, again, are the wrong people to learn from.

1. Break at the knees before the hips

This is my least favorite cue. People use this cue when trying to correct a common squat error: knees breaking before the hips.

Knees breaking before the hips happens when the knees begin to flex and travel forward before there is hip flexion and backward travel of the hips. This is bad, and the cause for most people’s knee pain.

But breaking the hips before the knees is also wrong. In a perfect squat the knees begin to flex, travel forward & out at the same time that the hips flex and travel backward.

2. Don’t let your knees go past your toes

This is the number one reason people squat poorly.

And it isn’t the cue itself, but what happens when your knees don’t go past your toes.

Let me explain.

In order for your body to descend there must be flexion in the hips, knee, and ankle to allow for a balanced, deep squat.

100% knee flexion? No problem. 100% hip flexion? No problem. But these two joints will only allow you to go so deep. The ankle must flex as well.

The ankle is the last piece of the puzzle and if you don’t push(or physically cannot push) your knees past your toes then your body will make up for it somewhere else: your spine. This is bad. This is very bad.

The knees should go past the toes, and the deeper you squat the further they must travel to maintain a neutral spine.

3. Ass-to-Grass

This term has all but lost meaning. We will define it as this: your hamstrings touching your calves.

True ass-to-grass is a very weak position to be in, and always results in lumbar flexion, or more commonly known as “butt-wink”.

It also puts stress on the knee and will almost certainly cause you pain.

This is too deep to squat, and there is no benefit over going just below parallel.

4. Never go below 90

This refers to a 90 degree bend in the knee, or “parallel”.

We will define parallel as the depth you reach when the top of your knee cap is parallel to your hip crease.

This depth is deep enough for most people, and will build mighty thighs capable of squatting 500lbs.

Sometimes, though, you need to go deeper.

Front squats, high-bar squats, and overhead squats are all squat versions that should go deeper.

Low-bar squats are not for going below parallel. Ever.

5. Hip drive

This cue is popular with Mark Rippetoe, the author of Starting Strength. This guy is knowledgeable, experienced, and wrote a great book.

So I can’t understand how he got this wrong.

While most people’s squat is missing hip drive Mr. Rippetoe takes it too far. The squat he coaches ends up looking like a good morning and not a squat.

This pattern will only encourage leaving the bar behind as the hips come up, instead of the entire body rising as a unit.

Check out this video to see the disjointed pattern I’m talking about.

6. Look up

This is the famous football squat cue.

Step into any high school weight room and you will see teenagers craning their necks during the squat.

This cue is supposed to prevent the chest from falling which leads to the athlete losing balance and falling forward.

But a good squat keeps the neck straight instead of arched back, and good squat mechanics keep the athlete from falling over, not a neck bent like a horseshoe.

7. Feet parallel

This cue comes from Kelly Starrett, mobility guru, author of The Supple Leopard, and owner of www.mobilitywod.com

Like Mark Rippetoe, Kelly is an expert. He is a physical therapist and travels the world working with athletes.

But he got this one wrong. No professional lifter squats with their feet parallel and for good reason–the natural mechanics of the squat turn the feet out to align with the femurs.

The idea is that squatting with the feet parallel and driving the knees out has hard as possible adds stability to the ligaments of the knee.

Sure there may be some truth to that, but this is not the strongest position to squat, and turning the toes out is stable enough for the knee.

Aim for ~30 degrees of outward turn of the toes and be sure to align your femurs with your feet.

Check out this article if you are a squat noob and want to start learning the correct way to squat.