In the opinion of many titans in the strength and conditioning field, the barbell back squat is the single most beneficial of the compound movements for athletic development. It’s application can have significant benefits for the development of relative & maximal strength, hypertrophy and rate of force (speed, power).
In this short article, I will be discussing some technical details for maximising glute recruitment in the barbell back squat. The aim here is to develop the above strength qualities which will transfer into faster, stronger and more explosive performances in fight athletes. Although I am borrowing from techniques and modalities seen in the powerlifting community, my desired outcome is not necessarily to only maximise the 1RM of the lifter, but specifically to develop athletic qualities which transfer into better performances in the cage/mat/ring.
The glutes (gluteus maximus, medius and minimus) are the powerhouse which really drives hip extension, with the help of the hamstrings and surrounding musculature. Hip extension is a vitally important movement pattern for most sports involving running, throwing, jumping, climbing, grappling, kicking - basically every total-body athletic endeavour has some demand for hip extension. The combat sports are certainly no exception. The stronger, more explosive, more stable a fighter’s hip extension movement pattern is, the more resilient and potentially dangerous that fighter will be. With the development of stronger and more explosive hip extension a fighter’s punches, kicks, bridges and takedowns will become stronger and more powerful. The barbell back squat is an essential lift for developing hip extension in a fight athlete.
The beauty of the barbell back squat is that the mechanics of the lift itself can be manipulated to create either a glute/hip dominant pattern (hip break) or a quad/knee dominant pattern (knee break). While both major variations of the barbell back squat (glute dominant and quad dominant) have important roles in the development of athletic qualities for a fight athlete, for the purpose of this article I will be discussing the glute dominant, ‘hip break’ barbell back squat.
For lifters blessed with long femurs in relation to the tibia and torso length, the ‘low bar’ back squat will generally serve you better, whereby the bar sits across the upper back on the spines of the scapulae (shoulder blades) slightly below the upper traps, toward the middle point between the top (acromion) and bottom crests (inferior angle) of the shoulder blades. Lifters with long femur/short torso might also consider taking a wider stance to optimise the first lever length or the distance between the centre line of gravity (the bar) and the hip joint.
The reason for this is to force the lifter to push their hips back further away from the centre line of gravity than that of a ‘high bar’ back squat. The aim here is to optimise the first lever length or the distance between the centre line of gravity (the bar) and the hip joint. The further back the hips travel, the more glute dominant the lift becomes before the lifter loses balance and falls over backwards.
In the “hip break” squat we must manipulate mechanics of the lift to best support the outcome of moving maximal load. The important factors here are that the hamstrings, glutes and adductor magnus are recruited to drive the pelvis up out of the “hole” by what is known as “horizontal hip drive”. These three major muscles when used in conjunction can move much heavier loads than that of a quad dominant squat.
Maximising the involvement at the hip (hamstrings, glutes and adductor magnus) is the name of the game here. We are trying to manipulate the mechanics of the lift to increase torque loading at the hip.
Maintaining vertical bar path is vital to both the quad dominant and hip dominant squats, however the sequence of the movements are completely different. In the hip dominant squat, the lifter must drive their hips back and away from the vertical centre line of gravity in order to overload the glutes/hamstrings/adductor magnus and create a “bow and arrow” effect whereby increasing the moment arm increases torque and drive from the hip. In the quad dominant/knee break/Olympic style squat the lifter drives the knees forward to allow the pelvis to drop straight down toward the center of gravity.
While there are several components to the mechanics of the barbell back squat, and several different cues for ensuring that the lifter is creating enough tightness and tension throughout the entire body to potentiate the most amount of strength expression - for the sake of this article I will share some cues which will help optimise the recruitment of the glutes in hip extension. Some important tips for maximising glute recruitment in the hip break squat are:
* Spread the floor: once you have found the right foot position for your individual biomechanics in this lift, practice driving your feet apart and trying to spread the floor. A lot of gym floors these days are covered with square rubber mats. Imagine you are positioned with one foot on each of two adjoining square rubber mats - through the squat pattern imagine you are pushing the two rubber mats away from each other with your legs and feet. This is what is known as a peripheral control strategy, and will force the recruitment of the gluteal muscles to increase tension, tightness and stability throughout the squat pattern. Which in turn will help the knee to track optimally through the movement and prevent cumulative injury cycles.
* Knees out: drive your knees out over your lateral toes throughout the movement. If you look down at your own foot, imagine a line drawn to separate the left half of your foot from the right. Through the squat pattern practise driving your knees out over that drawn line into the lateral half of your feet. Aim for between the 3rd and the 5th toe. This is another peripheral control strategy which will force the recruitment of the adductor magnus and gluteus medius to create more pre-tension, tightness and stability through the movement which will potentiate higher levels of strength output.
* Hips back: drive your hips back as far as your are able to, while maintaining balance. The further away from the center line of gravity the hips are, the more torque will be created at the hip joint, this is optimal for maximising glute recruitment through the movement. Additionally, this will create more pre-tension, tightness and stability through the hamstrings which are another of the prime movers in hip extension.
* Foot position: For those who cannot maintain a proper arch in the foot while squatting, try to pick up your big toes and maintain a neutral arch in your feet, this will help stabilise the pelvis and allow the hip and knee to track properly throughout the squat pattern.
* Neutral pelvis and abdominal bracing: throughout the movement, maintain a neutral pelvis, not anteriorly rotated so that the lumbar spine is hyperextended, and not posteriorly rotated so that the lumbar spine is flexed. We want to see a neutral pelvic angle and flat/neutral lumbar spine through the squat pattern. This will allow you to brace hard through the mid section or abdominals, creating as much internal pressure, tension, tightness and stability as possible during the lift.
Once you have become accustomed to putting all the above strategies together and find your glutes behaving like the powerhouse they are, a main focus of the lift should be ‘horizontal hip drive’ from the bottom position. From the bottom position or the ‘hole’ the aim is not simply to stand upright, but to propel the hips forward with as much force as possible. Using the ‘bow and arrow’ analogy, imagine the hip joint is the string being pulled back tighter and tighter from the center line of gravity (or the bow in this analogy), upon release the hips propel forward with force commensurate to the pre-tension being created.
In the eccentric (downward) phase of the squat movement, the hips are moving backward as they drop down toward the ground, creating a massive amount of pre-tension and tightness which explodes toward the center line of gravity during the concentric (upward) phase of the movement.
The above is a very effective set of strategies for developing maximum glute drive and explosive hip extension through the barbell back squat for strength qualities and athletic development in fighters. If you are interested in knowing more about what we do at The Unknown, have any questions or feedback - please don’t hesitate to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment below.