Squats for Tall Lifters - A Complete Set-up Guide

Squats for Tall Lifters - A Complete Set-up Guide

Whether it be at work or just in general conversation, I'm constantly asked, "How much can you bench?" But rarely am I asked, "How much can you squat?"

I've been competing in powerlifting for a little while now. Along this journey, being tall has been a small obstacle that I've had to overcome. My height has forced me to work harder, become smarter, and continue to study this sport on an in-depth level. This has allowed me to elevate myself into an elite level powerlifter.

My height may give me some strength advantages, but mechanically/physically speaking, there are still some major hurdles to overcome. Performing a proper squat when you're tall can be difficult.

Before competing, I never squatted to depth, I didn't bench with a pause, and surely I never knew the proper way to deadlift. Once I started training for powerlifting, I completely deconstructed each lift and began to build a foundation, starting with proper form.

It has taken time to develop a thorough understanding of a tall lifter's mechanics, range of motion, and leverages. They each function differently. So, when learning from great powerlifters like Ed Coan, Louie Simmons, Mark Bell, Dave Tate, and Jim Wendler (to name a few), it's challenging to apply certain techniques because they are presented from a shorter person's point of view.

These aforementioned men are extremely intelligent. They are pioneers in powerlifting to say the least and have many more years in this sport than I've been alive. I've taken various aspects from their wealth of knowledge, applied them and have been successful in further developing my squat, along with adjusting accordingly to my height.

The following exercises, set-up cues, and assistance work will apply to not just tall lifters, but those with long limbs as well. I'm in no means an "expert," but I feel that I can share my knowledge base and help out many lifters out there that are looking for assistance.

I have been blessed with the opportunity at times to train with experts in this sport, ask questions to some of the best powerlifters, and like all others, spends countless hours reading books, articles, studying, and continually expanding my understanding of powerlifting. There are articles covering lifting for tall guys or building mass for tall people, which have some great content. However, there aren't too many that really focus on the squat on an in depth level as a tall lifter.

By description, lifting weights is applying force against resistance. Those two create an action, work, which is defined in physics as force multiplied by distance. So the amount of force applied over a given distance shows how much work is done.

When applied to squats for the tall lifter, we have a greater distance to travel to hit depth. In a sense we do more "work." Because of this technique, breathing, and set up is critical to successfully completing the squat.

Setting up the Squat

Whether you walk out your squats from a squat rack or you're able to squat underneath a monolift, setting up should be the same every time. I train by walking out the weight in a squat rack, yet I compete in federations where I have to walk out or I can use a monolift.

No matter what federation I'm competing in, each and every time I'm setting up the same way, from hand placement to foot placement. With the wingspan of a Boeing 747, wide grip, low bar placement is unfortunately not the best setup for the tall lifter. It places unnecessary strain on our shoulders and prevents us from being able to have control of the bar.

In addition to this, the bar doesn't sit on the back of the rear delts as it's intended to. It sits on our back.

High-bar placement is best. The bar should rest atop your traps or even the middle of your traps. I've tried both and it comes down to personal preference. The bar should also be across the top of your shoulders.

Hands should be at, or just outside of shoulder-width apart.

With this hand and bar placement, we have the greatest amount of control of the bar. This helps in the event that we need to "muscle" through a lift or we misstep and need to recover without dumping the bar.

Having a shoulder-width hand placement allows us to maintain a tight upper back (squeezing/engage the lats) and were able to keep an upright chest.

I see many tall lifters use low bar and the squat turns into a good morning midway through the ascent. It places too much strain on the back, increasing risk of dumping the weight forward, and picking up a severe injury.

Foot placement/width

A wide stance is best when performing the squat, as our knees track differently. Foot placement needs to be wider to ensure that our fibula/tibia stays perpendicular to the floor as best as it can throughout the lift.

When you begin to squat, the quads/hip flexors engage first, followed by glute/hamstring activation. Having a larger, wider hip girdle allows us to sit back in the squat to maintain an upright chest position.

I like to have my feet pointed about 45 degrees outward and anywhere from 2-4 inches outside of shoulder-width. For those that are taller, you will possibly have an even wider stance.

Rob MerriweatherAs you squat down, spread the floor with your toes, meaning flex/spread your toes outward, sit back in the hole and as you begin to stand up, fire through your heels squeezing your glutes. If you ever feel that you sometimes begin to lean forward on your toes, try pointing your toes upward toward the sky and really driving your heels backwards into the ground.

I personally set up my squat with hand placement. I grip the bar, usually with my index finger on the outer part of the knurling rings.

Second, my breathing, I calm myself to slow down my nerves (usually in a meet, my adrenaline is going and I get anxious) and take some slow breaths to prepare. Third, I drive my neck/traps into the bar and get aligned (my spotter, if I have one will adjust me if need be to ensure I'm centered).

Fourth, (this is dependent on if I'm walking the weight out or under a monolift) If I'm walking the weight out, I bring one foot forward directly beneath me at shoulder width and bring the second forward. Again I'm controlling my breathing here and before I stand up with the weight I take my last breath. Once I've stood up with the weight, my first foot back goes directly to where it will stay, second foot back will come straight down and then I'll move outward accordingly.

I train walking out the weight and I'm usually spot on with foot placement by feel, but every now and then I'll have to adjust. If I'm under a monolift, then I'm able to set my feet exactly where they need to be width wise and can stand straight up.

I won't go into breathing too in-depth, because everyone has a different way/time on how and when they inhale/exhale. The main focus is to ensure tightness in your core, applying pressure through your abs, obliques, and lower back, through the entire lift.

If you're wearing a belt, that means forcing out pressure around the entire belt. A tight core is key in staying upright with the bar, keeping yourself safe, and successfully completing the lift.

Accessory Exercises for Tall Squatters

Every training day, I start with the primary lift (Bench, Squat, and Deadlift) then I move to my accessory work. Accessory work is just as important as the primary lifts. It can strengthen smaller muscles and in a matter of unilateral/bilateral training, it can help even out weak points found with having your dominant side stronger than your less dominant side (i.e. right-handed vs left-handed).

Regarding the squat, there are 3 accessory exercises that have helped my squat tremendously,
  • Front Squat
  • Box Squat
  • Anderson Squat

Front Squat

As I previously stated, having a wide stance engages our hip flexors and quads. The front squat focuses on strengthening the hip flexors and quadriceps. It also is great for working on posture by obliterating your core, which is key to staying upright in the squat.

Having the weight in the front, you're forced to keep an upright chest or you'll drop the weight. I like to cross my arms as the bar lies across the front of my shoulders and top of my chest, as oppose to the conventional hand placement.

It all comes down to having solid control of the bar, with less risk of the bar moving and less strain on your wrist, which allows for you to handle more weight.

Box Squat

A classic powerlifting exercise that works on increasing explosiveness, speed out of the hole, and another way to ensure you hit depth.

Some lifters like to set the box higher than parallel or just at parallel. I personally set it below. I want to hit depth in my meets and in training. Setting the box below parallel helps develop muscle memory so that your body is used to squatting to depth. Note that when you hit the box, don't lose your core tightness or collapse onto the box. This will wreak havoc on your low back and defeat the purpose of the lift since you are trying to maintain core stability from beginning to end.

Box squats want to be explosive, fast with limited rocking. You want to sit onto the box in a strong, athletic position. They can be performed with a regular bar or even a safety squat bar, all personal preference, I like using the safety squat bar if available.

The box squat is another tool that will help build hip flexor, glute, and quad strength. The other key benefit is sitting back in the hole and firing upward, allowing for a straight bar path. Maintaining an upright chest and tight core is important as a tall lifter and the box squat hones in perfecting those technical components.

Anderson Squats

My absolute favorite overload accessory exercise.

Originated by famed Olympic gold medalist weightlifting champion and strongman Paul Anderson. Anderson had created these as a "lockout" rack squat (setting the bar on the side racks) where the starting position was at the bottom of the squat and you fired out of the hole. Over the years it's progressed towards a rack squat, that allows you to overload the weight from 105-110% maximal range of your 1RM.

When I first added Anderson squats into my training program, I set the racks just above my nipple line as a point of reference and as I've increased strength, the racks were lowered. As you lower the rack height and increase the weight, they become increasingly more difficult.

Setting up for the Anderson squat, you're positioning is as if you're in the middle of the squat. you'll have a tight core, squeeze your glutes, and fire upward through your heels. This overload exercise can be performed by anyone, not just the tall lifter.

These are just a few technical cues, form adjustments, and accessory exercises that has allowed me to knock on the door of a 700-lb squat as a 6'5 powerlifter.
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