EYC Podcast #20 Text Breakdown
Arm Positioning in Squats
Arm positioning has a significant effect on the difficulty of a squat variation. This is because of the shift in balance requirements, and the demand for greater mobility. When starting out, it’s common to have the hands extended out in front. Bringing the arms closer to the body begins to shift the balance backward. A good example is the video I released recently of the deep squat with the hands behind the back. It may not seem like much, but that shift of the arms really challenges your mobility, and makes the exercise more difficult overall. As you develop strength and mobility, experimenting with different arm placements can take your squat proficiency to a new level. In the squat feature video, as an example, I place my hands on my hips for the elevated split squat, however you could also have the arms extended out front, behind the back, or one out front with the other around back. That’s the beauty part, hand placement can be tinkered with no matter what the variation, further emphasizing the limitless possibilities of progressive calisthenics.
One of the variations that I used extensively to improve my mobility in the deep squat is alternating the arm that goes behind the back. So instead of beginning and ending the squat with the arms behind the back, I’d begin with my arms crossed in front, get as low as I could, then bring one arm around back at the bottom of the movement and hold. The main thing here is that you be sure to alternate and give both sides equal attention. Over time, you can hold the bottom position of the squat, and begin to shift both hands behind the back for as long as you can. Note, you’ll want to make sure you are proficient at the deep squat with arms out front, and you can hold it for about 10 seconds before you worry about arm positioning. While you will improve your mobility by doing the squats for reps, this position is also a great stretch, and will help open up the hips. The yoga pose is known as the garland pose, and uses the arms at the elbows to push the legs out and open up the hips. The hands usually end up in a prayer position while holding the pose. You’ll also notice this type of squat work will help build strength in the tibialis anterior, or the shin, which is important in stabilizing during the movement. You might find that when you are holding the bottom position of the squat, the toes want to come off of the ground – that’s the tibialis anterior really helping put in the work to keep you from falling backward.
One another thing to notice is if you find your ankles are bowing inward onto the inside edge of your feet, or there is an eversion in the ankles at the bottom of the squat, you’ll want to make sure that you open the hips up as much as possible to develop that mobility. Ideally, you’ll also want to maintain a flat, upright back, with the scapula retracted, however this may take some time to build toward.
Another variant worth mentioning is placing the arms above the head. You can cross the hands behind the head, which is known as the prisoner squat, or extend the arms overhead. Not only does this shift the weight backwards, but it forces you to keep the body upright throughout the movement. This will add considerable difficulty to the variation, especially in more advanced techniques like the pistol squat. This makes it effective in creating elite level variations beyond the pistol squat. This is important because you might hear, well where do you go after the pistol squat? I can do 15 in a row, and they aren’t that difficult for me anymore. Well, adjusting hand positioning should add a brand new challenge for you.
The main thing I want to touch on in talking about arm positioning is that not only do we have different squat variations to progress with, but we can also use our arms and hands to mitigate or increase difficulty. That gives you more control, and even more options when looking to create a routine for yourself. Not only that, but it offers small ways to progress at your own pace, which I feel is the essence of progressive calisthenics.
Assisted Squat Variations
Another great way of using your arms to aid in your squat training is assisted squat variations. I rarely used them in my training until about a year ago, but have found that they can be a great addition to your repertoire. And, what I mean about assisted in this case, using your arms in order to mitigate some of the load on a working limb, or limbs. Some common ways to do so with the squat, especially for those early in training, are using a chair, a table, park bench, a smith machine bar, really anything stable, for safety of course, that you can get your hands on that is at about waist height. Assisted squats are very effective in working toward the all-important deep squat. It is common for those just getting into bodyweight squats to feel like they are falling backward when squatting lower than they are used to. Using something stable to hold on to can help break down the exercise so you can slowly develop the strength and mobility to progress.
The beauty of assisted variations is that you can make them progressive as well. Some of the things I am working on at the moment include figure 4 squats, and shrimp squats, and I am using assisted variations extensively, even if it is only using two fingers of one hand. Just a quick note, it’s important to keep in mind that assisted variations come in many forms, and aren’t limited to the arms. You can use a training partner to assist in an exercise, the legs can be used to assist you, in dips for example. In this case, I’m focusing the arms as related to squat training. Another way to look at it is, the first part focused primarily on how you can use the arms to make squats more difficult, whereas this part focuses on how they can make a squat exercise easier.
So just getting back to the progressive aspect, there are many ways to use the arms. Some common ones are using both arms while gripping something, using both arms, but keeping the hands flat on a surface, with no grip. You can decrease the amount of fingers that are in contact with the surface, or you can simply decrease the amount of assistance that you are giving yourself within each of these examples. Once you get strong enough, you can use only one arm for assistance, then decrease the amount of fingers used on that arm. If you want to mix it all up, you can place one arm on a surface, then put the other arm behind your back. There are so many possibilities and I really encourage you to experiment and see what works. Assisted variations can be used at all levels, and similar to what I said before regarding arm positioning, are another tool that you can add to your belt in order to customize your training to what you want. One final note I want to mention is paying attention to your technique. This applies to everything, and assisted variations are no exception. If you find that you are sacrificing technique in order to complete a rep, or so much assistance is needed by the arms that you really aren’t working the legs to their full potential, then regress to an easier squat variation and see if an assisted variation is a better fit at that level. The main thing is staying safe, and maximizing the benefit that you get from each variation.