Big On The Basics: Squatting With World-Class Powerlifter Jay Nera

Team Animal
Written By: Team Animal
April 24th, 2015
Updated: June 13th, 2020
Categories: Articles Training
26.8K Reads
How To Perform The Basic Squat With Perfect Form
Follow these quick tips on form and bar placement, and learn what it takes to execute the perfect squat with Animal-sponsored powerlifter Jay Nera.

I have received a lot of positive feedback on my recent "Big On Basics" squat tutorial video, that I wanted to expand on some details that I think might be helpful. Before I do, let me first say that it's very important that everyone understands that not all squat styles can be applied to everyone.

Some people will squat better squatting like Sam Byrd, some will squat better squatting like Dan Green, some squatting like Malanichev, and so on. I squat like Jay Nera. We are all built a little differently, with different leverages, so it follows that all of us will not squat the same. One style of squatting cannot be blanketed over everyone. What works for one person will not necessarily work for another.

That being said, here are some of the points presented in the video along with other details and cues not in the video. Again, these are some more of the things that I am thinking/visualizing while squatting and they may not work for everyone. I do hope that at least some of these points will help fine-tune your squat.

Set Your Body "In Stone"

When squatting, I like to think of the upper body as "one piece" - the bar and the torso move up and down in a similar fashion to an elevator. There should be no leaning or changing of angles between your torso and the floor once the squat starts. This applies to all efficient squat styles. For example, watch Sam Byrd or Dan Green squat. They too keep very tight in the upper body even though the angles are slightly different (this "elevator" concept).

So set your upper body "in stone" by pulling your head tall or standing tall, driving your elbows down to engage your lats, and locking everything into place by squeezing your shoulders down and back. This will help everything stay locked up together so that there is less likelihood of bending the spine (rounding) during the squat. A bend in the spine is not only hard on the back. It is also a loss of tension in the posterior chain and a loss of potential power in general.

Bar Placement

Place the bar in a position where it will not move/roll around and also where it will least likely push you around throughout various positions within the squat. I place it behind my traps and on top of my rear delts. With it there, even during a heavy squat, if I break technique and lean forward a little bit coming out of the hole or if I bend a little bit losing my neutral spine, at least the bar is less likely to roll and make the squat even worse.

A high bar squatter will fall forward with just a little lean. A lower bar placement, as I stated in the video, will force a more forward lean at the start and thus calls for a wider squat stance in order to make depth. This approach works great for Dan Green but not for me. I am not as strong a squatter with a lower bar and wider stance as I am with my current bar placement and neutral stance.

Bar Placement for Proper Squats

Foot Placement

When I walk out my squat, I am thinking of putting my heels under the outsides of my hips - this is really more like shoulder width than hip width. In my head, I am thinking of stepping back and placing my feet just outside of my hips, with feet straight down and out a bit. This is something that will vary along with bar placement on an individual basis. See if you can squat with an empty bar and a neutral spine at various bar and foot placement combinations. Does the bar move straight up and down or at least stay over your feet? Does the bar roll around? Does it feel like the bar will force you forward onto your toes? Are you able to make depth? Are you able to keep your weight on your whole foot?

Play around with it, videotape it and analyze it. Or, you can get a good set of eyes to help you decide. Just find out what works for you. Sam goes with a higher bar placement and a wider stance while Dan goes with a lower bar placement and wider stance. Both are two of the best squatters in the world and they each use a different combination.

Whole Foot & Grab The Floor

Make sure you are balanced on your whole foot. I like to think 60/40 heel-to-toe while descending just to make sure I have heel contact on the floor. Not only is this important for balance, it is also important for maintaining involvement of the posterior chain at the bottom of the squat. When ascending, I like to think about grabbing the floor with my toes as I mentally push through the floor.

Let The Hips Drift Back

Before starting the squat, focus on this: with your upper body set in stone and the bar placed where it won't budge (once your feet are set up), relax your glutes and let your hips drift back. You shouldn't need to force them back because with the upper body set in stone and the bar position set, your hips will drift back to an optimal position so long as you don't force it.

For example, a high bar squatter will feel the tension get terrible and get off balanced if the glutes drift too far back. The low bar squatter will have a hard time squatting if the hips are too forward because the bar and balance will feel off. Don't force it. Let the bar placement and footing dictate your torso angle. Go to what feels natural and balanced within your specific setup.

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Big Breath & Break Your Belt

The Valsalva maneuver, more commonly known as "blocking", is very important. Your ability to create pressure to help you stay solid can make or break a squat. Take in a big breath and press your midsection out in all directions. It is not enough to just take a big breath into your belly or push your belly out. Create pressure all around as if you are literally trying to break your belt.

Knees Up

Initiating the descent, I like to think about pulling my knees up and bringing my thighs to meet my bottom ribs - they don't actually hit but that's what I'm visualizing during the squat. This is a cue for quad-dominant squatting only. Hip-dominant squatters should be thinking more of screwing their feet into the floor and keeping their knees out.

Spring Out vs. Bounce Out

Some lifters like to dive bomb down and others like to go very slowly (as if they are wearing a squat suit). I like to go down as fast as I can while both maintaining positions and collecting tension. I would rather spring out of the bottom than bounce out of the bottom. Bottoming out at the bottom and losing hamstring tension will not only make it very hard to stand up with when squatting maximal weights, it will also very likely to injure your lower back and your knees if you aren't careful. So descend as fast as you can while anticipating that you will need to aggressively stand up. So again, I like to think of a spring collecting tension rather than a ball bouncing off the floor.

Stand the F&#k Up!

A lot of people like to focus too much attention on the knees during the squat - on the valgus knee action when changing directions in the bottom position and then forcing the knees out once you're out of the hole and trying to bring the hips forward. It's good to think about these things and great to learn where to place the tension but remember that the goal isn't to push your knees out hard. The goal is to STAND UP.

So don't place too much of your mental energy on this aspect of the squat. Focus instead on standing up and standing up with authority - especially when lifting heavy weights. The technical habits should be learned with submaximal weights so that when it's time to move some real weight, you can naturally focus on moving the weight, on standing up, with tunnel vision. So build the habit with lighter weights. When lifting heavier weights, you should always be trying to move the weight as powerfully as possible.

Correct And Proper Form That Help While Squatting

Practice Like You Play

Treat every set and setup the same. During foul shots, basketball players are taught to do the exact same routine before shooting foul shots. There is a reason for this and it's all about consistency. Do the same things in practice that you will do in a game or competition. Not only does this help you with one-mindedness when competing, it also makes sure that you set up properly and don't miss any technical/mental cues. Also, do not half-ass your set - not a single rep. Half-assing is not what Animals do, so unless you plan on half-assing a competition lift, perform your lifts with technique and controlled aggression and power.

Package Deal Your Cues

Rather than going over each mental cue one at a time during your setup, group the ones that work together. For example, Big Breath, Head Tall, Lats, Shoulders Down and Back, and then Break Your Belt. Or pulling your knees up and going down as fast as you can while collecting tension. The better you can package deal your cues, the less there is to think about.

Every Rep Is A Single

This speaks for itself. Even if you are doing a set of 10, perform every rep one at a time so that each and every lift is consistent.

Lose The Ego

Gravity has no friends.

Embrace The Process

Even if you are Sisyphus, smile.

Remember guys, everything here written may not work the best for you. Take these principles I have written and apply them next time you step under the bar. Until next time, train hard.

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Posted on: Mon, 06/01/2015 - 15:52

This is a great example on how to set up for the squat.

Court Kayser
Posted on: Tue, 05/12/2015 - 11:31

This is one of the best videos I've watched on setting up the squat.

Thank you for explaining each little detail and showing an example!