The Cognitive Squat

The Cognitive Squat
By Mike Tuchscherer
I’m a very cognitive person. I think through everything – even when I lift I like to stay very mentally engaged. Lots of guys shout and yell before a big attempt. Not me. I even prefer silence as it lets me focus better.
One thing I’ve struggled with in the past is the depth of my squats in training. This has only rarely been a problem in a contest, especially in recent years, but it makes me wonder how much better of a competitive squatter I could be if I simply trained how I compete.
It took a lot more than this simple realization to make a difference in my training. At least for me, it wasn’t just “squat deeper” and voila. A whole array of technique cues needed to be lined up for me to squat well. I broke the lift up into a few phases and I developed a mental checklist that I think to myself as I execute each rep. That checklist helped my consistency immensely and that’s what I’d like to share with you today.
Each person has their own nuances to their setup under the bar, but the process is always the same. For me, the first thing I do is get my grip set right. This is my link to the weights and it needs to be perfect. Too far apart and I’ll have trouble keeping my upper back tight. Too narrow and it will bother my shoulders. The key is getting it just right. Then, I set my feet under the bar. Same thing here – I try to place them the same every time.

AP1_2588At this point, I take a couple of short breathes and duck under the bar. I place the bar perfectly on my back, squeeze my shoulder blades together, take a big breath, then lift the bar out of the rack.
Now is time for the walk out. I prefer a two-step walkout for myself. I really don’t care too much how many steps you take as long as you’re not walking a mile to set up. The key is simply to do it efficiently and precisely, and do it the same way every time. Make sure your foot placement is exactly where you want it.
This phase is where I can get over-cognitive sometimes, so learn what you can. Before I get into what I do during this phase of my squat, allow me to let you in on some of the problems I was having before I began thinking through my squats in this way.
In addition to cutting lifts high, my knees also shifted forward and in ever so slightly. I wouldn’t even say that my knees caved in as much as they just weren’t pushed out all the way. This caused me to get bound up in the bottom of my squat. My hips had no place to drop, so my knees naturally came forward. That may sound like a squatting disaster, but let me assure you that all of these problems (except for the depth) were minor. To be honest, they were so minor I didn’t even notice them until squat-master Jeff Lewis pointed it out to me.
To correct most of the technical errors, I focused on the Pre-Squat stage of the lift. I had already efficiently walked the weight out. Now it was time to get ready to squat. In a contest, you have a few seconds between your walkout and the “squat” command. The Pre-Squat stage of the lift only takes these few seconds. I shift the weight forward on my feet slightly. This is an ever-soslight change in pressure that allows me to get a better breath before the descent. With my weight just slightly forward, I take a few big breaths. I take the final breath in and hold it. At this point, I shift the weight back to my heels. At this same time, I begin pushing my knees out. This is important – I do this before I even start the descent. By activating my hips and pushing my knees out before the descent, I do better keeping my knees out during the whole lift. This gives my hips a place to go in the bottom of the squat, which results in sitting back into the lift and better depth. To paint a picture… the instant before I descend into the squat, I have a big breath, my weight is back, and I am already pushing my knees out.
The Descent
Most of my technique has been set up in the Pre-Squat stage so during the decent, I can concentrate on only the most important things. I think little about pushing my knees out. I am already pushing on the belt. Most of my thought is going toward being patient. Why patience? To answer that, I have to back up a bit. I have tried a bunch of stuff to get my squat technique on par. One of those things was speeding up my decent. This helped a little, but not enough. Recently, I’ve found that if I descend fast, I am likely to mess something up. If I descend quick, but in control, I have a tendency to want to come up early. I fix this problem simply by reminding myself to be patient on the descent. It’s easier said than done, though, and it requires a lot of focus.
DSC06645The Ascent
For the most part, once you reverse the weight and start back up, the biggest challenge is just finishing the lift. At this point, I’m thinking, “grind”. If it’s an easy weight, it will go up before I get the complete thought out. If it’s a tough weight, thinking through it helps me put 100% effort into the lift and complete it. If I’m doing reps in a set, I am now back at the Pre-Squat stage. If I’m just doing singles, I walk the weight back to the racks. Simple as that. If this sounds like too much to remember, it probably is. The key is finding your rhythm. Once you get into a rhythm, it’s easy to remember these things and execute them well. Then they really help you. There are some pitfalls associated with this style of training. One such pitfall is a lack of focus. Intense concentration is required to get this right with heavy weights. Discipline is also required to continue to concentrate even into your 6th set or more as is sometimes required to build technique. However, this is an exercise in mental toughness, and effort spent here will develop that strength as well.
This process is obviously tailored to me and my peculiar squatting problems. This applies to you by critical analysis. Think through your common squatting mistakes. Find some mental cues to fix those mistakes and work them into a process for you to use while squatting. Then, execute well on every rep of every set. After a while, it will feel natural and you’ll be doing it right. By then, there will be something else to fix!

About the Author
Mike Tuchscherer is the owner and head coach at RTS. He has been powerlifting since 2001 and since has traveled all over the world for competitions. In 2009, he was the first man from USA powerlifting to win a gold medal at the World Games – the highest possible achievement in powerlifting. He has coached over a dozen competitors at the world championships, a score of national champions, and multiple world record holders.