know that when we talk about squats, some people need a little more help. Luckily, one of our guest writers, Jim Smith, or Smitty, is one of the best trainers of the squat, and every other movement. Here's a great piece from him on correcting problems you might have with your squat. -Arnold
Here is an article that I originally published with Men’s Health, and I thought it would be perfect for this week’s theme of the dreaded ‘chicken leg syndrome’. Whenever a trainer designs a program to address a lower body weakness or to develop more muscle mass for the legs, squats are typically included as a main exercise in the program. This is probably because squats develop full body strength, elicit tons of muscle mass (hypertrophy or size) and develop a iron clad core. Squats aren’t called the ‘king of all exercises’ for nothing.
The problem is, most lifters don’t have good form and their body typically lacks the ability to perform an unrestricted squat movement - either because of poor mobility or poor stability. Mobility is the ability to perform the intended squat movement unrestricted. And stability implies that the lifter can control and ‘stabilize’ their body through the intended range of motion. That is why, even though squats are so great, not everyone is ready to actually do them.
Check out these 6 common issues with the squat and how you can address them in your workouts.
Squat Depth People fail to reach squat depth for a variety of reasons. Remember that a mobility issue in one joint (a joint that requires mobility) presents itself above and below that joint along the kinetic chain. So if you are experiencing knee pain, you want to look at your ankle and hip mobility. If you have lower back pain, you’ll want to look a the hips and upper back.
Three of the major reasons people struggle to hit a full squat depth are:
Reason 1: Tight ankles due to wearing rigid footwear all day at work or during pick up games on the weekend. Immobile ankles force the shins to remain vertical and will throw the lifter forward or backwards (see coming up on toes tip below) and will potentially reveal hip mobility issues. Performing ankle mobility drills will help you to re-establish proper squat mechanics. The most common movement is to stand facing a wall about one foot away. While keeping the foot flat, drive the knee (tracking over the toes) toward the wall in a dynamic fashion.
Reason 2: Inefficient hips can also inhibit your full squat potential. Tight and shortened hip flexors, tight hamstrings, poor pelvic alignment and weak glutes are a concern if you are sitting all day at the computer or are spending long nights on the couch. To address the tight hip fexors, the rear foot elevated hip flexor stretch can be done prior to your lower body workout. Striders can also be done to improve your hip mobility and dynamically stretch your hamstrings. Striders are done by setting up in a push-up position and then stepping your right foot on the outside of your right hand. Remain on the ball of your right foot and drop your torso downward dynamically stretching the hip. Repeat on the opposite side. We also want to activate the glutes to get them firing again by incorporating glute bridges, hip thrusts and lunges into your program. The combination of these simple actions will also help to realign your pelvis and improve your posture.
Reason 3: Perfect practice makes perfect and form is the key. Sometimes the issues aren't a physiological dysfunction, but a neurological or a cognitive issue. Many lifters just never been shown the right way to squat before. Instruction and simple repetitive cues can be used by the trainer to ensure proper full squat depth (and mechanics). Sometimes this will fix the issue immediately.
Dropping the weight, and even regressing back to bodyweight free or wall squats, is one way to get most lifters to hit the right depth in a full squat. Another tip is to have them squat to a box. This will ensure that they hit the same depth every time. This training tool should be high enough where the form does not break down during the movement. As hip mobility improves AND the lifter is able to maintain tension across the upper back and keep a fixed lower (lumbar) back, the box can be progressively lowered. As proficiency improves more, the box can be at its lowest point, less than 15" for most lifters. In fact, we still squat to a low box with our elite athletes who have been in the program for a long time. This is because when we squat to a low box it forces the lifter to maintain tension at the very deepest part of the movement. This is something that must be trained because this is the exact range of motion where most lifters relax.
Knees Caving In Knees kicking is sometimes just a technique issue. A simple cue of "push your knees out" can fix the problem immediately. A deeper issue might be weak hip abductors (i.e. the glutes are not functioning properly) or the lifter might have tight hip adductors. X-band walks, lateral side-to-side walking against the resistance of an elastic band, can help to get the glutes contracting (firing) again. Another great drill to work the glute is abduction is to loop an elastic band around the outside of the lower quads while you squat to a bench. You want to make sure you are forcing your knees out the entire time, maintaining equal distance between the knees. This activates the glutes AND drills proper squat mechanics. If your adductors are tight, the squat to stand drill would be a great addition to your warm-up. Standing in a squat stance, reach down and grab under the front of each foot. Drive the hips downward and force the knees out around the outside of your straightened arms. Extend the hips back up to the starting point and repeat. Finally, squatting in running shoes might also be adding to the problem. The thick, cushioned soles are not stable enough to provide a good base to squat from, so the knees might not track properly on the descent or drive of the lift.
Collapsing during the squat is sometimes caused by a lifter's inability to remain "rigid" and upright under load (weight on the bar). Keeping this required tension late in the set is also a problem as fatigue sets in. Fatigue is one of the leading causes of bad form. When bracing for a squat, you need to be able to coordinate your breathing, along with proficiently bracing the torso (isometrically coordinating the anterior / posterior torso stabilizers). This will allow you to keep fixed, upright and unwavering during your squats. Remember, more tension equals more stability and more strength. Compound, multi-joint movements such as dumbbell or kettlebell get-ups, ab roll-outs, weighted planks, heavy rack pulls or back extensions, lots of pull-ups and goblet squats will teach you intermuscular coordination, co-contraction (balanced agonist / antagonist contractions) and bracing proficiency.
When the lower back rounds during the lowest part of the squat it is an indication of tight hips and hamstrings. We discussed how to improve hip mobility and dynamically stretch the hamstrings when talking about improving squat depth. The back also has a tendency to round during the squat if the upper back is weak. Incorporating more volume for exercises that involve pulling (pull-ups, bent over rows, heavy shrugs, rack pulls), pressing (military pressing and close grip bench press) and shoulder health (elastic band stretches, face pulls, rotator cuff Y,T,W,L and various upper back foam rolling) will help allow you to have keep more tension in the upper back and maintain a firm grip on the bar.
Coming Up On Toes If you are coming up on your toes during your squat, first look at your form. Is the first movement of your squat setting your lower back and slightly moving your hips back? Or do you squat straight down? If you squat straight down and you have tight ankles, you will have more of a tendency to come up on your toes during the squat. Work on setting (bracing hard to maintain your natural arch) your lower back and starting the movement by moving your hips back slightly before you lower. You’ll also want to work on keeping your elbows pulled down (facing the ground) and your chest up. These important squat technique tips will ensure that the torso remains more upright throughout the lift and keep you from falling forward.
Many lifters typically put a 5-10lb plate under their heels to help them hit a deeper squat. By putting the plate under their heels they are compensating for a lack of ankle mobility. Ankle mobility is an issue for most everybody because of our reliance of stabile footwear during the day, at work or when we play sports. Losing this mobility will not allow our shins to move forward naturally as we squat down. They will remain more vertical. Ankle mobility drills can help restore normal ankle movement and better squat form. One popular drill has the lifter face wall in a staggered stance. The lead foot is planted flat and about 1' away from the wall. The lifter will drive their knee forward trying to touch the wall with their knee. The key is making sure the heel does not come up and the foot remains flat. Slide the knee forward and back tracking over the toes for several reps and multiple sets.