Written by Jay Stadtfeld for LiftBigEatBig.com
The stretch reflex is a big component to your squat. Without it, the squat would be a slow, painful, grind of a lift. Perhaps more than it already is for some. Grab your hamstrings, kids. We’re gonna learn just what occurs during the squat to garner this lovely reaction.
The squat is arguably the cornerstone of a good program. Karwoski has squatted 1,000 pounds for a double, Hatfield was the first to squat 1,000 raw, and Donnie Thompson squatted 1,260 in competition for a World Record. Huge numbers, and they had to utilize everything they had available to get that number. This means learning gear (in some cases), and learning how to utilize their body to control the weight. None of it possible without the stretch reflex.
The stretch reflex occurs in various positions of the squat, depending on the position of the bar.
Low Bar Squat
◦ In a low bar squat the stretch reflex occurs when you hit parallel in the descent, even though the hamstring is engaged throughout. The hamstrings provide a stable force of which to “rebound” from, assisting you in rising with the weight. They also assist in helping keep your torso from falling forward, which would inevitably make you either fail the lift or make it much more difficult. Most of the time, the rebound action for this particular squat is at or slightly below parallel.
High Bar Squat
◦ Typically you’ll see Olympic lifters use this style of squat, mostly because it utilizes the same musculature that a front squat will, and thus will help them get stronger without losing their ability to front squat. Due to the forward nature of the knee in this squat, hamstring tension is significantly less than the low bar, however shoving the knees out will engage them slightly. The stretch reflex in this position typically occurs much lower in position than the low bar squat, mostly because of the lesser hamstring tension and more upright torso position. You’ll often see people “ass to grass” this kind of squat and bounce out of the bottom. Due to the position of the bar, it’s much easier to achieve a lower bottom position as you won’t be thrown forward (presuming proper mechanics), and hamstring tension is ultimately lesser than its counterpart, the low bar squat.
◦ This bar position/squat usually is the same as the high bar squat in terms of position at the bottom and the stretch reflex. Most of the same musculature is required and activated throughout the duration of the lift. Again, it’s not uncommon to see people “ass to grass” this particular squat due to the lesser hamstring involvement.
With gear or without, knowing how to use squat mechanics will ultimately improve your ability to lift heavy weight. Personally, not “dive bombing” a squat works much better for me since I squat low bar. I hit parallel and can literally feel the hamstrings engage; knowing that it is then that I should bounce up. Figuring out what works for you will ultimately help you more than listening to a coach drone on about what works for lifter A, B, and C*. You’re a unique snowflake, after all.
In closing, use what bar position is necessary for your sport and use which works for your body mechanics. Learn how to use the stretch reflex in your squat if you haven’t already, get some good footwear, and prosper forth, lifters.
*Unless your coach knows what they’re talking about. Then listen to them.