One way or another many beginners end up learning how to squat through the teachings of Mark Rippetoe from Texas. He is famous for his book Starting Strength and popularizing the low bar squat as well as the GOMAD diet.
One of the main principles of Mark Rippetoe’s squat tactics is to use your hips when you squat. He uses the term ‘hip drive’ in order to describe the hip movement during the lift.
However, many people just don’t get what the ‘hip drive’ really is and that’s why we are going to explain it as clear as possible.
1.The Hip Drive is initiated through the posterior chain
The so-called posterior chain consists of the hamstrings, the glutes, the back and the calves. During the squat the hamstrings and the glutes along with the quads lift the weight while the back acts as a stabilizer. In order to understand what hip drive really is one must focus on the hamstrings more than anything else.
The hamstrings are a muscle at the back of your leg and are often referred to as leg biceps, although they are no where near as popular as the arm biceps.
The hamstrings have two main functions – leg flexion and hip extension.
The leg flexion essentially represents the act of curling your foot – heels go towards the glutes. It’s like a bicep curl done with your arms. While that’s easy to understand there is not much leg flexion during squats and the hamstrings are primarily used as hip extensors.
The so-called hip extension is simply the act of moving your hips until your are in upright position. You bend over and then you ‘extend your hips’ and return to standing position.
Sometimes an easy way to understand hip extension is to think about how the smaller joints extend. For example, when you bench press there’s elbow extension. Your grab the bar and move it down towards your chest. At that point your elbows are in a flexed position. When you push the weight up you are essentially extending your elbows. It’s the same with hip extension except that it’s done at the hips.
The image above essentially illustrates what happens during deadlifts. You move your hips forward until you are in a standing position once again. Most people don’t have problem understanding that, but the hip drive is a little more complicated and to explain it fully we need to return back to the hamstrings.
The hamstrings have two attachments – one at the knee and one at the hips (right under the glutes). In order to understand what’s happening during the squat we need to look at both of those points.
The squat begins with bending of the knees which means that they move forward. At the same time the hips move back until you are ‘in the hole’. What’s absolutely crucial to understand is that you don’t want your knees to move forward after the first 1/3 of the movement has been completed. You want the knees to keep their initial bend. Then you have to reach the needed depth with the hips while stretching the hamstrings.
There are two main reasons why the knees should not move forward after the first 1/3 of the movement – to prevent knees stress and load the hamstrings.
Like we’ve already said the hamstrings have two ends – one at the knees and one at the hips. By keeping the knees at the same position after the initial part of the squat you are creating a stable point and then the hamstring are stretched like rubber bands through the hips. That creates tension and keeps your hamstrings engaged through the movement which makes you stronger and protects your knees.
Imagine that your hamstrings are an elastic band used for a slingshot. The hand holding the slingshot is the hamstring’s end at the knees and the hand stretching the hamstrings is the hamstrings’ end at the hips. What do you think would happen, if you move the arm holding the slingshot closer to you AFTER you have already stretched the band with your other hand? The tension will essentially die. That’s what happens when you move your knees forward after the first 1/3 of the movement.
Getting down this technique is essential for squatting heavy weights safely. One of the worst things you can do during squats is move your knees forward at the bottom. At that point all of the tension in the hamstrings is lost and you end up with a very weak ‘slingshot’ strike. However, there’s more to understanding the hip drive.
Another way to kill the tension in your hamstrings when squatting is to move your hips forward. That would be the hand extending the slingshot moving forward again.
In other words you would be releasing the hamstring stretch from the hip end. You don’t want to do that either. What you want is moving the hips somewhat back and UPWARDS.
At that point you are essentially riding that hamstring tension upwards. This is the hardest part of understanding the hip drive because to the untrained eye moving the hips forward and upward looks like the same thing. The feeling, however, is completely different. If you do it correctly, you will feel your posterior chain under serious tension and the weight will seem lighter.
Don’t try to confuse the deadlift with the squat. While both are hip extensions the execution is different and during deadlifts you should be thinking about moving your hips forward, but that’s not the case with squats.
While you want the hips to be moving upwards, you don’t want them to raise two fast to the point where your hips are so high that you are essentially doing the so-called good morning exercise. You shouldn’t bend over too much at the waist because at that point you are not doing squats.
In the video below you see the popular powerlifter Kirk Karwoski squat super heavy weights and he does use hip drive. Notice how he bounces out of the hole and his rear end sort of moves back and upwards.
Finally, to complete the hip drive execution you have to be careful not to lead with your chest out of the bottom position. The reason for doing so is that if you lead with your chest, most likely you will also try to finish the squat by moving your hips forward and this will once again release the tension in the hamstrings. Without tension in the hamstrings there is no hip drive.
Getting down the hip drive during squats is not as complicated as people make it to be but it definitely requires practice. Once you get it down, it will be second nature to you.
Key points to remember:
1.After the first 1/3 of the movement the knees don’t move forward.
2.You drive your hips upwards and not forward.
3.You maintain constant back angle in order to avoid turning the squat into a good morning.
Do the same principles hold true for the high bar squat?
Yes. The same principles apply to the high bar squat although the low bar uses the posterior chain more intensely. When you do high bar squats, however, the hip drive is somewhat smaller, the stoke is less noticeable and the quads get to do more work.
You still need to use hip drive and keep the hamstring tension in order to avoid injuries of the knee joint.
What about the front squat?
No. The front squat is a completely different beast on its own and there is much less hamstring involvement. When you are at the bottom of the front squat the hamstrings are essentially shortened and there is not as much stretch reflex. When you are doing front squats you need to lead with the chest and think about driving yourself upwards by using brute quadriceps and glute strength. The involvement of the hamstrings is much smaller.
Isn’t bouncing off the hamstring bad?
It could be bad if you do it wrong, but in general isn’t and is the safest way to squat when it comes to knee health. Without tension in the hamstrings the knee is vulnerable.
What about paused squats?
The whole point of doing paused squats is to remove the stretch reflex and use bruce force to get upwards. However, even paused squats require you to keep that hamstring tension although it will be much smaller. It’s just part of the proper squat execution.