Brian Carroll, author of the 10/20/Life training book, helps you to weed through all the poor squatting technique advice, and improve your form, safety and gym results.

Build strength beyond your wildest dreams with Brian Carroll's best-selling training book 10/20/Life.

Referring to the “big lifts”—the squat, bench press, and deadlift—is a Catch-22 for anyone writing about them. Telling people, in article after article, that a solid program has to use these lifts as a foundation is somewhat played out at this point, yet the reality of the situation is that if you’re not squatting, bench pressing, and deadlifting, your program sucks.

These lifts—with the possible exception of bench pressing—are gaining in popularity in the mainstream world, in large part because of CrossFit. According to them, apparently, there are movements other than pressing and the Olympic lifts that can now be considered cool. In other words, everyone’s squatting these days, and that’s a good thing.

The problem, however, is that the vast majority of all these new people taking up the big lifts aren’t being coached properly. They have absolutely no clue about form, technique, lifting cues, equipment, programming, the mentality they need, or anything else. They’re walking in blindly, doing things the wrong way, and going nowhere fast.

This is the first installment in an article series covering these lifts, and I want you to read these with an open mind. I’m all over social media just like you, and I see the advice you’re getting every day—and it’s disturbing, because so much of it is sending you down the wrong path. The idea here, then, is to give you five things to think about—the top five mistakes I see all over the place—before you put another barbell on your back:

1. The absence of vital main lifting cues

Squatting can be dangerous, and there’s no getting around this. A lot of things can go very, very wrong on any given rep. The most important piece of advice I give everyone I coach is to lock down their form and technique before they start stacking serious plates on the bar. Here’s the list of cues you need to know before the next time you squat:

  • Sit back into your squats, not down. Think “hip hinge.” That’s the key to a powerful squat.
  • Grip the floor “like a monkey” to solidify your foundation when you’re ready to descend.
  • Try to bend the bar with your lats. Pulling your elbows down and locking in your back will create leverage advantages that will totally blow your mind.
  • Instead of looking down like so many so-called experts have been telling you, you need to be looking up. Get your eyes on the point where the wall meets the ceiling. This will both give you better leverage and promote a healthy squatting posture.

Brian Carroll

2. You're wearing the wrong shoes

The trendy thing to wear nowadays is a heeled Olympic lifting shoe, but if you’re doing this, there are some things you should consider. Heeled shoes will help if you squat with an extremely close stance, or if you have poor hip mobility, but if these scenarios don’t apply to you, you’re probably better off wearing a flat shoe.

With flat squatting shoes, you won’t be as prone to pitching forward onto your toes. Having a raised heel can turn the squat into a more quad-dominant movement, taking away a good bit of your glute, hamstring, and hip drive. Of course, this is an individual thing that depends on your particular set of biomechanics and levers, but the point here is to give you something to think about before you start blindly following the Olympic shoe crowd.

3. Poor programming

You’ll hear me talk a lot about how quality coaching trumps programming every day of the week, but the problem with most programming is that it overcomplicates the process. Contrary to apparent popular belief, programming the squat can be very simple if you follow the one principle I believe to be the most important of all: The concept of attacking your weak points.

Getting after your weak points is the key to making improvements. In 10/20/Life, I go into this in exceptional detail. If you don’t figure out where you’re lacking, then go after those deficits with a vengeance, you’ll never see your numbers go up. For the squat, exercises like close-stance squats, explosive (speed) squats, pause squats, and wide-stance box squats can make a massive difference. They’ll also teach you how to design your own programs like a pro.

4. Your mentality might be all wrong

I’ve squatted 1185 pounds in competition—a world record at the time—so I know a little bit about what it takes to get under the bar and go down with that kind of weight. The key to squatting properly is to conquer the weight before you eve feel it on your back. This entails developing the confidence to own that weight without fearing it, while still respecting it enough to do things right.

It’s a great idea to have a mental checklist to go through before you squat. Think about the cues I gave you above, then take your time and go through them in your head as you’re setting up. Be controlled and explosive when you squat, but take a calm and methodical approach. Turn yourself into a technician.

5. You're not staying tight enough

If you’re too loose when you squat, you’re not doing yourself any favors in terms of either your health or your ability to generate power. While you’re sticking to the above cues, you should also be pushing your belly out, keeping it firm, and generating plenty of stiffness and tightness from head to toe.

The way to do all of this is to maintain a stiff core, and the best way I’ve found to develop that comes from Dr. Stuart McGill’s “Big 3”—the rolling plank, bird dog, and McGill crunch. Exercises like stir the pot and kettlebell swings are also extremely valuable for this purpose. Keeping this in mind, doing some mobility work from time to time will keep your back and hips healthy. Throw in some goblet squats on occasion to keep yourself mobile.

This may sound a little counterintuitive, but having tight hips is a good thing for squatting. If you can get down to your desired depth without forcing things, don’t stretch. Tightness is part of what helps you explode and create power.

Putting It All Together

Your goal here should be to take every little tip you find and make yourself one percent better at everything you do—because all these minor things add up in the end. One minor correction can mean the difference between a new squat record and a horrific miss.

With so many people trying the big lifts for the first time, we’re seeing more misguided trainees than ever doing these lifts wrong. Powerlifters know these movements better than anyone else in the world. We do them every day, we’ve honed the craft for decades, and we know how to teach them correctly to get you stronger and keep you injury-free, because that’s just what we do.

Start with these five corrections, and you’ll be well on your way.

Brian Carroll
Posted on: Wed, 05/21/2014 - 10:37

Tim Copeland: for lacrosse, it can be a good thing, but from a power stand point and for squatting, that is not true. More tightness and more rigidness(within reason) is much better in my experience. A loose muscle places a lot of the force on the joint, instead of the muscle.

Tim Copeland
Posted on: Mon, 04/21/2014 - 19:34

"This may sound a little counterintuitive, but having tight hips is a good thing for squatting. If you can get down to your desired depth without forcing things, don’t stretch. Tightness is part of what helps you explode and create power."

I've had many many coaches tell me the opposite...when I played lacrosse I was told that greater flexibility allowed you to exert more power and most notably run faster. Is this incorrect?

Posted on: Sun, 04/20/2014 - 09:40

Ive been lifting for about 12 years now and have gone through a LOT of injuries. I have been a personal trainer for about 6 years. I pride myself on doing my research... you sir are the first I have ever heard recommend sticking your belly out. How did I miss this? Either way, keep the tips coming, this article is AWESOME!

Posted on: Thu, 04/17/2014 - 22:15

In terms of a flat soled shoe, I find that indoor soccer (futsal) shoes are just about ideal as a squatting shoe, also good for deadlifts.

Posted on: Thu, 04/17/2014 - 21:01

It could be a variety of things. The first things I'd look for are where are your knees tracking and are you getting your hips back from the start. As it mentions above, use the cues and get a coach that knows what they are talking about.

Brian Carroll
Posted on: Thu, 04/17/2014 - 20:32


Its not a matter of if you get to depth or not, but HOW? Is your form locked in? are your knees way over your toes? are they shooting in?

Make sure your form is locked in. Ice down your knees at night 10 on/10 off.

Hope this helps!

Get 10/20/Life here:

Brian Carroll
Posted on: Thu, 04/17/2014 - 20:30

Hey Robert,

It could be a lot of things with your elbows. Play with your grip and width of grip. I cover a lot of this in 10/20 and thanks for the props.

Push your belly out whether you wear a belt or not. A strong core ie obliques, lats, erectors, frontal abs, glutes etc should be your natural belt. Stiffness is key, and the exercises above, promote a safe back and a stiff core. They are truly more useful than a regular plank. Look into Dr. Mcgills work (ultimate back more to see how important. We cover this at length in this book as well as a full warm-up section!
And not a problem. Remember, my lifting age is much older than “true age” of 32. I’ve got a lot of miles, so that’s why I put this manual out there for a lifetime of PR’s and positive momentum!

Get 10/20/Life at:

Posted on: Thu, 04/17/2014 - 17:30

I'm starting to get knee pain when doing squats. The reason I started was to get
Rid of the knee pain, and it worked for a while. Now it seems the pain is getting worse,
and yes I do go parrellel. What could be off with my form?

Robert M
Posted on: Thu, 04/17/2014 - 17:13

Hey Brian,

Welcome to M&S! I've heard a lot of good things about your new book although I haven't had the chance to check it out yet. I'm a relative noob to lifting and have a few questions about some of what you've talked about in your article...

First, when I pull my elbows down and lock my back (part 1 of your article) I have lingering pain in my elbow joint (I'm not an anatomy expert so I can best explain it as the inside of my elbow when I stand with my palms facing up). What am I doing wrong?

Second, how do you feel about stationary planks as a core exercise, especially compared to the others you mentioned?

Third, you recommend sticking your belly out when squatting... is that assuming one is wearing a weight belt or does it matter?

Just FYI, I'm 33, 5'9", 105kg, have been lifting consistently for almost 8 months, and my best lifts are: squat: 5x140kg, bench: 5x117.5kg, DL: 5x130kg

Thanks for your article and time answering this question. Looking forward to seeing you again here or on M&B.