Here’s Why the Old ‘Keep Your Chest Up’ Rule for Squats Is Outdated—And Could Potentially Cause an Injury

Photo: Getty Images/Hirurg

Plant your feet. Engage your core. Look straight. Stick your butt out. Keep your chest up.

These are just a few of the most common squatting cues I tried to keep in mind as a newbie lifter, and yet, despite following them all religiously, my barbell squat always felt a little… off. While I was able to leg press 450 pounds without breaking a sweat, I could barely squat the barbell on its own. My lower back would cramp up after a single rep, and my hips would ache on the ascent.

It wasn’t until I started working with a lifting coach and began filming my workouts that I discovered the root of my squat woes: I was keeping my chest up too much. That’s right—in my effort to have a “perfect” squat form, I was actually hyperextending my spine, causing what’s referred to in the lifting community as a “butt wink,” or a pelvic drop at the bottom of my squat.

Experts In This Article
  • Joe Miller, Joe Miller is a USAPL powerlifting competitor, lifting coach, and the co-owner of North Dallas Strength in North Texas.

As it turns out, proper form actually varies greatly from person to person, and according to USA Powerlifting competitor, powerlifting coach, and North Dallas Strength gym co-owner Joe Miller, cues like “keep your chest up” aren’t exactly golden rules to lift by. Here’s why.

Why the “keep your chest up” squatting cue isn’t right for every body

When we keep our chest up too much during the descent of a squat, we tend to arch our backs and create a “C” shape in our spines in order to compensate for the unnaturally upright posture. This places an immense amount of pressure on the lower back, shifting the weight load from our legs to our lumbar region.

@ericrobertsfitness Everything you were told was a lie.. #squats #legday #legworkout #legdayworkout ♬ Morning Sky - Tundra Beats

According to Miller, this overcorrection actually places the barbell behind our center of gravity and can lead to the aforementioned dreaded “butt wink” on the descent—and can eventually lead to a nasty lower back injury.

“I actually think more often than not, it’s counterproductive,” says Miller about the chest-up cue.“I think a lot of people just make the mistake of believing that there's a one-size-fits-all squat form that involves a very upright torso. A lot of your problems could be solved by just thinking about it less and putting your body into a position that it's naturally going to want to be in, in order to stay balanced.”

Just as our fitness goals are wholly unique to us, so are our anatomies. While some people are comfortable squatting with their feet pointing forward, some of us have to place our feet at an outward angle in order to “open” the hips, depending on how our femurs connect in our hip sockets.

“If your femur bones are oriented to the outside of your hips, that's where your hip socket head is, and you're not going to comfortably squat with your legs straight forward at a shoulder-width position—and there's nothing wrong with that,” adds Miller. (Psst: If you need help finding out which foot placement is best for you, try this simple physical screening).

Instead of focusing on keeping your chest up during your squats, try these tips below.

4 squat rules to try instead of “keep your chest up”

1. Do a body squat to find your stance

Before loading up your barbell with weights, do a few body squats in front of a mirror, says Miller. Place your feet roughly shoulder-width apart, make your hands into fists and place them next to your shoulders as if you were performing a barbell squat. Adjust your stance as you perform the squats until you can comfortably reach a point where your thighs are at least parallel to the floor.

“Your body is more likely to end up in the right position than someone telling you what to do,” says Miller. “Practice bodyweight squats and see what feels good. If you can reach parallel without anything crazy happening during a bodyweight squat, that's usually a good starting point.”

2. Keep your head up, not your chest up

Keeping your head up and directing your gaze directly in front of you will help you drive your movement upward during the ascent without compromising the weight distribution on your lower half. If you’re squatting in front of a mirror, avoid watching your body while performing the squat. Keep your eyes locked forward and engage your abs, back, and legs as you perform the squat.

Those with longer torsos and shorter femurs may end up in a mostly-upright squat position, but those with longer legs and shorter torsos may have to slightly tilt their torso forward in order to keep the bar in its vertical path.

“It's a matter of your bone structure,” says Miller. “Different people have to squat differently.”

3. Imagine the barbell can only travel in a straight vertical path

Rather than contorting your posture to keep your torso straight-up-and-down, imagine that the barbell can only travel in a vertical path that’s perpendicular to the floor. Adjust your foot width, angle, and torso as necessary to stay balanced and to keep the barbell in this vertical path.

@deltabolic :x: STOP squatting with a diagonal/curved bar path! This can increase your risk of lower back injury and decrease your squat strength. :white_check_mark: Squat with a vertically straight path For a full training program with for tips and meal plan, visit the link in my bio! #squat #squats #squattips #squattutorial #squatform #workouttips ♬ Babel - Gustavo Bravetti

4. Push through the floor

Rather than focusing on your chest lifting up during your ascent, focus on pushing through your feet, as if you were trying to push the ground away from you. This will help you keep the tension focused on your quads, hamstrings, and glutes, rather than your chest and back.

If you still struggle with weight displacement during your squats, consider asking a professional trainer or lifting coach to watch you as your perform your squat. Remember: Proper form can vary from person to person, and if you’re feeling too much pressure on your lower back, you may need to adjust your stance to redirect the weight load back onto your legs.

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