Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The 411 on Back Angles and Torque When Squatting

The angle of the torso, when squatting, is not a function of whether or not the bar is high or low on the back. The angle of the torso (and thus torque on the spine) is primarily determined by the angle of the shin, a.k.a how much the ankle dorsiflexes. AND IN MY BOOK, THIS IS THE KEY TO BEST BACK TRAINING PRACTICES. GET IT??? MAKE YOUR QUADS, HAMS AND GLUTES DO THE WORK. If your shin is perpendicular to the floor, then your torso will incline forward to keep the CoM over your BoS, regardless of how low the bar is on your back. And your back will be forced to handle higher torque.

A good, general rule of thumb, IMHO, is to keep the shins and the torso parallel, from an inclination standpoint. This could change with femur/torso length issues (tight adductors and hips in general can cause issues too), but this method is pretty good to help someone figure out whether or not they have decent ankle flexibility when squatting. And this will minimize torque on the back, as we will deliberately NOT use torso lean--and not preferentially recruiting glutes/hams--as the primary method of keeping the CoM over the BoS. There are lots of other things to do to train lumbar spine/pelvis awareness and glute/ham strength. I prefer not to do it with maximal squat poundage.

That said, I am not preparing anyone to compete in a powerlifting meet. Personally, I could care less about most people squatting or DL'ing 3 times their bodyweight anymore. If ya' want to, fine; be my guest. I don't believe those movement patterns are best for the majority of the general population or for most athletes. And I said "most" not all; we can talk about that in a different post. There are some weightlifters who need better absolute strength off the floor. However, for 99% of the people I come across, I will train and encourage people to move in a manner than relies on comprehensive leg mobility and strength, vs. a back and glute/hamstring dominant movement pattern that requires little ankle flexibility.


Joe P. said...

I'm not sure I'm buying into bar height not changing the torso angle. If the T-spine must become more kyphotic to accomodate the bar, then the torso angle has changed, no? Please bribe me with some dartfish video. A NIN soundtrack with help.

The Iron Maven said...

Well, Joe P., the torso angle might change with the bar lower, simply so the bar doesn't fall off your back, no? No convenient upper trap shelf. And I'm assuming no kyphotic t-spine with either movement. In my experience, the T-spine isn't normally an issue with low bar squats, but I suppose it could be. And if it is in high bar squats, then that person needs to do something else until they get it.

If one has good ankle flexibility, one can choose to incline the torso however much s/he wants wherever the bar is. If one does not have good ankle flexibility, the torso must incline forward, wherever the bar is.

Adam said...

Excellent blog, we are looking heavily into this for our program at Aspire - Athletics. I agree 100% with this, we have boys with different heights and limb lengths so squatting can be challenging. But overall ankle mobility is very important, we have now got shoes for all our groups and work hard on ankle mobility-flexibility exercises to decrease load on the growing spine as well as ensuring the correct movement pattern is being enhanced. Higher performance, less injuries!

Anonymous said...

Adam - I'm not sure what the shoes have to do with mobility and flexibilty.If you are working to increase flexibilty and mobility, I recommend not wearing any shoes at all. This gives you a better picture on how the individuals ankles are moving. You are adding some stability with the shoes on.

Ron B.

The Iron Maven said...


Like Adam, I'm a fan of weightlifting shoes--for lifting and squatting--to help body positioning overall and give the athlete a sense of where s/he should be going with the hips, knees and ankles. The athlete can then work on improving their ankle flexibility while in the shoe or out of it. But the shoe helps them "get" it from a proprioceptive point of view.

If the feet are pronating and externally rotating while barefoot, knee, hip & spine mechanics can be severely compromised. That has been my experience. There are those that have excellent ankle mobility and they can lift barefoot; but many people need a little assistance and stability with a proper shoe.


Nickel said...

Are femur/torso length problems more for those with long legs and short upper bodies?

Adam said...

Sure Rob, lifting barefoot is a tool and good tool at timmes. Like using this for running drills also. But squatting in lifting shoes can reduce loads on the spine, we do mobility exercises in between sets for the ankle with no shoes, but it is something that I will agree and use like tracy - lifting shoes with squats and all weightlifting movements. Agree to disagree Ronnie B

Fireman Tom said...


you need to get the new addition of Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe and it will clear up some things about squatting. This book has gotten rave reviews from some of the top strength coaches in the Nation, as well as being strongly endorsed and promoted by CrossFit.

Google it to find a link.


The Iron Maven said...


Thanks for the suggestion, but I actually have a signed copy of the 2nd edition that Rip sent to me. I really like the book and many things he says. It is a must for anyone who uses a barbell--one of the best there is out there. And I consider Rip a friend and a really, really good dude.

I just happen to respectfully disagree with him on the low bar squat. And I feel more average people need to develop quad strength vs hammie / glute strength, and develop the flexibility needed to move with a better torso angle.



Fireman Tom said...


my understanding of torque is that it comes from rotational force. The steeper back angle in a PL squat isn't about torque, it's about higher shear forces that your midsection has to resist in a PL squat as opposed to an Olympic style squat.

IMO, a person/athlete should be able to do both well. Each has its advantages. I think people with better natural flexibility gravitate to the OL sqt, and those with less tend to prefer the PL version. Those who PL have stronger backs and those that OL tend to have stronger legs. Basic adaptations needed to succeed. It's interesting to note that back in the '40s and '50s, most US Oly lifters did a lot of Back squatting to supplement their OL work -that was back when we used to win medals...

I'm a professional fireman and I know first hand the power of the back to either make or break your career. We find ourselves loaded down with equipment and being forced to lean forward to reach equipment and people. Both squat styles should be used because they hit different needs and areas. IMO, you shouldn't have a weak spot. You shouldn't just play to your strengths. My philosophy has been honed on the CrossFit model that "nature punishes the specialist" and it "rewards the generalist". Being good at both is better than being great at one and weak at the other.


p.s. the bulk of my training is done with Kettlebells, mainly the competition swing, snatch and 2KB clean and jerk. KBs emphasize building work capacity and strength-endurance, as opposed to limit strength or max endurance. The swing, snatch and clean are more hip dominant, while the 2KB jerk requires more leg drive. Supplemental training includes 2KB front squats which are deep, Oly-style squats and jump squats which emphasize jerk-like leg drive. To see these lifts in a competitive setting, you can go to YouTube and go to my account, which is firefire999 which can be put in the search function.

p.p.s. Met Rip at a CF cert in Feb '06 and just got a new signed copy of SS,2nd Ed. when he came to CFEastside to teach a BB cert. this Fall.

The Iron Maven said...


You make some great points about your occupation demanding movement patterns that require the back to be in less than an optimal position; thus your need to train in that manner. Some may consider the lifting demands of your job, as it relates to the back, more specialized--like a powerlifter or weightlifter.

I agree, people should, in an ideal world, be able to successfully use both lifting strategies. I'm just not sure they are absolutely necessary for most people.

Whether or not one chooses to use traditional DLs or low bar squat depends, I guess, on how one defines "weak" or "success" in the life/performance/fitness continuum.

I think I can get pretty good bank for my buck using methods other than low bar squats or heavier traditional DLs to train isometric torso/hip extension strength. And I can minimize the risk to the back during training by sticking with the leg dominant squatting/lifting strategies. That's my weightlifting and PT bias coming out. I guess I'd have to say I don't really include low bar squats and traditional DLs in my list of GPP exercises for most people. But there are definitely those situations where those training methods are quite appropriate.

Thanks for the comments, Tom. It is good to know there are fit, smart people out there who take their training seriously.


P.S. There's probably a little more to our decline at the international level in weightlifting than just a lack of back squats. Come on down to Birmingham this weekend and watch some lifting at the American Open! I'm sure we could round up a few of our more vociferous coaches to pontificate on that topic over a beverage or two. :-)

Fireman Tom said...

I have no doubt that there are a lot of different factors, but one thing that sticks out in my mind is that while the top Americans have great technique (as good as the others), they don't medal... Many have speculated on the strength aspect, and Bill Starr on the work ethic in his (in)famous Iron Mind article. The Russians never did much heavy squatting until Paul Anderson visited in the '50s. He brought some squat stands and "put on a show". Apparently after that the Russians made lots of racks and started heavy squatting. Again, not the only reason, but it's probably part of the puzzle.

The Traditional DL is one thing everyone should learn 1st and foremost, but not the way it's taught. I teach people to lift KBs, Dumbells (on end), medicine balls, boxes, sandbags, etc because they are doing it anyway, but without instruction.How do they pick up their kids, groceries, objects they've dropped? They squat down and pick it up. How often do people put loads on their upperback and squat down? Not very often. If you want to prepare people for real life situations, have them DL a weight, bring it up to their shoulder/chest, then walk a bit, then put it down on a table or back down on the floor.

Also, maximal weights are for competitors. I tell regular people that they shouldn't lift a weight unless they can lift it 5 times, and even then it's better to lift your 5RM for sets of 3 reps, rather than 1 set of 5.

I agree with CrossFit that the needs of athletes and regular people are differences in degree, not in kind. Everyone should be able to squat, DL, press, pull and push in various angles and carry weights. The intensity and volume and time commitment will be high for the athletes/competitors and low/moderate for regular people, based on their needs (jobs). But I think that the basic movements are essential for being able to live, work and play at whatever level you want.

It would be great to see some OL in person at that level. I've be a "loader" at some local Meets in Seattle, and have seen a 17 yo and a 57 yo snatch(World Masters Champ) around 300#. Very impressive indeed.

Take care and have a great weekend,


Gubernatrix said...

Well, a lot of that went over my head, but I have a back angle problem when I deadlift. I had a tendency to lift my hips first and my back was almost parallel to the floor. I have been working on correcting this.

If you were so inclined, you could see this in my video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gqOt1jJim9o

Unfortunately my shins seem to get straighter and straighter with each rep!

Any ideas on why it might be hard for me to get this? Have I got short arms?!

Fireman Tom said...


do you have Rippetoes book yet? (Starting Strength, 2nd ed.)
If not, get it.

You have longer legs, so your angles will be slightly different from shorter legged lifters, but your hips are above you knees, and your back is flat (neutral)at the beginning.

Couple of things to try....

1) Get your head inline with your spine (or closer to it.) You will be looking about 4-6 ft in front of the bar. You can look forward for balance, but try to get it more inline.

2) Practice maintaining your back angle from ground to just past the knee cap. Go up and down slowly with a light load, grooving this movement. Have a partner watch you.

3) Focus on driving thru your whole foot. You seem to push hard thru the heels, which can cause the hips to rise ahead of the shoulders. Think "leg drive" until you get past the knee caps, then think "hip drive" (squeeze glutes and drive hips forward) to finish it off.

4)Squeeze the bar like hell. It was hard to tell in the video, but you grip seemed a bit loose. While you do this, be sure to flex your triceps hard, so your arms stay straight.

Don't add weight if your form deteriorates, especially in regards to your low back... You'll miss it when it's gone! ;-)

Good luck and keep us posted how it works for you. Had a friend do some of these the other day and he added 30# to his max the following week.


Gubernatrix said...

Hi Tom,
Yes a few people have recommended the Rippetoe book. Might treat myself to an early Christmas present!

Many thanks for your very helpful comments. As it happens, today was a deadlift day and I've written the results up in my blog along with video clips here:


In short, it was a much better effort but I do sometimes still lead with the hips. I wonder whether this is partly habit, since I can do it properly sometimes? Perhaps if I'm tired I resort to the old form.

stef said...


I don't think the disagreement with Rip is where you think it is. It isn't really about what causes torso angles to change, it is about whether and when torso angle actually matters and what the purpose of squatting is.

If you push your knees/shins forward, then for any given bar placement, the torso will be more upright than it otherwise would have been. Rip and Lon show that in their book where they compare knee position and bar position for various squats.

Looks like you say: A change in shin position will force your body to accommodate by modifying torso angle. While Rip/Lon/SS say: changing bar position will force accommodations in torso and knee/shin position.

Seems that the difference between views is that you're concerned with knee/shin position setting up what you consider an optimal torso angle. So you're focusing on how a person CAN move their knees/shins and hips forward and change their torso angle.

OTOH, Rip and Lon start their movement analysis and recommendations from the perspective of hip drive and hamstring use in the squat. Torso and knee/shin position are not primary determinants for these goals. So they advocate a moderate knee/shin position (~just in front of the knee for most) and let the torso fall where it may-- as long as the hips are back enough to fully engage the hamstrings and adductors.

So I think it is more that you disagree with Rip/Lon/SS about the purpose of the squat and which aspects of safety you're more concerned with.

The question is why/when would one want to use a high bar position or a low bar position with a knees/shin/hips forced forward style? More knees forward will get more "leg" or quad into the lift, dramatically less hamstring and provide less back work. All well and good if that's what you need.

And when might you want to use the reverse? When you want more hamstring and adductor strengthening and less quad dominance (still lots of quad/leg in this style).

One might choose an upright style (maybe even front squats) when they have a back injury and favor a low bar style when they need to protect their knees from shear forces or try to let a case of tendonitis heal up.

Again, it looks like the real disagreement is:

Tracy: squat with more leg, less hamstrings and back training, less back stress, more knee stress

Rip: squat with more hamstring, less leg, more back training, more back stress, less knee stress**

**Of course, this is for a given weight. Since more weight can be used when more mass is involved, this column should also have "more weight". This would of course shift the final effect on each of these parameters.

Anonymous said...

Just a thought guys, recent MRI testing of athletes immediately after performing squats provides very clear evidence that hamstring activation is dormant throughout this exercise. The rationale is that simultaneous hip and knee extension contradicts the pull of the hammys (hip ext, knee flexion) - the nervous system will not recruit them from an efficiency perspective.

Gubernatrix: In relation to your deadlift issue i assume the problem is knee extension before hip extension? While this no doubt does increase loads on the lumbar spine, and the deadlift is in my opinion a notoriously risky ex... the quads are generally the limiting factor in deads. In other words when we straighten out legs we then allow for the recruitment of hamstrings (see above) and the accompanied slight hip ext may place glutes in a stronger anatomical position. A 2 phase pull such as this is not uncommon in powerlifting.. however again, not the safest option.