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Understanding hip drive in the raw low bar squat

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by Yuan

Hip drive in the raw low bar squat lets you lift more weight and grow faster. It does so by effectively recruiting more of the posterior chain. This is an old concept that has been around for decades without being described in writing or explained on video. I think it was first described in detail by Mark Rippetoe in Starting Strength (2005), but it was misunderstood by a lot of people.

In this post, I want to go over 3 of the most common misconceptions and then talk about 3 tips improve your hip drive.

Misconception #1: Raising your hips before the chest

Raising your hips before the chest (squat morning) is probably the most common one. I believe this whole misconception originates from the following video:

The controversy comes from not understanding the context of this video. The video is not teaching the biomechanics of a perfect squat. It is a learning drill (just one step in the learning progression) to help beginners understand what it feels like to recruit their posterior chain for the first time. Once this goal is achieved, the next step would be to maintain proper torso angle coming out of the hole.

The video is not a representation of how you should squat heavy weights. We’ll go over some examples of elite raw powerlifters using hip drive with the low bar placement in the next section.

Misconception #2: Hip drive makes the chest cave in

The second most common argument is that you can’t lift heavy weights because hip drive makes your chest cave in (impossible to maintain back angle). While this is an issue for multi-ply geared lifting, it does not apply in the same way for raw lifting.

Greg Panora talked about his experience of transitioning from geared to raw squatting and how the strongest geared lifter is not necessarily the strongest raw lifter. Major technical modifications had to be made because you no longer have a multi-ply suit to push you out of the hole.

The weight used for raw squatting felt light and it was not a problem on the back. The ultra slow descent is no longer viable and he needed a more fluid bounce to get out of the hole. The stance had to be 2 inches narrower so that he can use the hips. When the stance becomes narrower, the torso needs to lean forward more to keep the bar over your mid-foot. With the help of a multi-ply suit, you are able to take advantage of a very wide stance with a very upright torso. Without the gear, you must take in the stance width and adjust the torso angle accordingly.

Everyone has different proportions, a different ideal stance width and the corresponding torso angle to keep the bar over their mid foot. The wider your stance, the more upright your torso can to be. The narrower your stance, the more you have to lean forward. It’s not about being as upright as humanly possible, it’s about using the ideal stance width and corresponding back angle for your physical proportions.

Let’s look at some other examples of elite lifters squat using hip drive without having their chest cave in:

Mike Tuchscherer squatting 735 lbs in training.

Blaine Summer squatting 849 lbs (on an ‘off’ day) in competition.

Dan Green squatting 783 lbs in competition without a monolift.

Andrey Malanichev squatting 993 lbs in competition.

Here is Captain Kirk Squatting 1000 for a double in a single ply suit.

Misconception #3: It hurts your back

Anything done incorrectly could hurt you, I’ve seen someone hurt themselves from opening a jar. There are guys that experience back pain from high bar squats. If you look around various forums, you’ll find guys that got rid of their lower back pain by switching from high bar to low bar squats. While it’s not for everyone, this style of squatting works better for certain proportions and certain goals.

If you’re trying a new technique, make sure you drop the weight and work your way up gradually. Handling heavy weights with bad technique is a dumb idea and your technique is always bad at the beginning.

If you’re learning the technique by yourself, read Starting Strength, take a video of your technique and get it critiqued on the Starting Strength forums. Otherwise, find a good coach that can teach you. If haven’t done either, there is a good chance that your technique is full of holes and the pain is from bad technique.

Now, let’s go over some simple tips to improve your hip drive.

Tip #1: Don’t dive bomb on the way down

Keep the tension on your posterior chain on the way down. As you descend, you should feel an increasing contraction of the muscles until you break parallel. Just as you are about to break parallel, combine the strongest part of the contraction with the stretch reflex to get out of the hole.

Kirk is in a single ply suit but you can still see this dynamic clearly in the following video at 2:16-2:19 in slow motion.

If you dive bomb down, you will lose out on the stretch reflex and overall tightness of your technique. While this can work well for high bar squats, the mechanics are not the same for low bar squats. It’s not a big problem with lighter weights, but it becomes less effective and more dangerous as you get close to the one rep max.

To get the most of your stretch reflex, attempt to rise faster than you descend (even if it’s not possible with a heavy weight). I find it works well with the training cue of driving the weight up as fast as possible. Prepare for this early in the movement, think about driving your hips up as you are descending.

It’s worth noting that Shane Hamman was able to ‘dive bomb’ very successfully (the only case I know of), but he was the exception rather than the rule. The guy was extremely explosive and he was still able to squat up with great speed.

Tip #2: Keep a neutral spine

Keeping a neutral spine is the safest position for beginners, looking up creates the risk of cranking your neck. Keeping a neutral spine also makes it easier to generate hip drive. In the previous clips, you’ll find that the lifters look diagonally down while others look forward.

When you’re starting out, I recommend Starting Strength guidelines of looking diagonally down to maintain neutral spine:

Low Bar Squats looking up vs lookding down

This image is from Starting Strength 3rd Edition

Tip #3: Drive your hips up, not back

If you drive your hips back, it will create a more horizontal back angle and turn the exercise into a ‘squat morning’. Driving the hips up while maintaining back angle is the right way to get hip drive.

Hip drive in the squat

This image is from Starting Strength 3rd Edition

The one exception is the slight back angle change as you’re coming out of the hole, this is addressed in my next post “Back angle at the bottom of the squat“.

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