The squat may be a natural, functional movement for human beings; but somewhere along the way we begin to suck at it.
This is not completely our fault. Our culture, in America anyway, does a superb job of eliminating the squatting pattern after early childhood.
By kindergarten we are sitting in chairs for 3-6 hours per day + sitting on the bus or in the car going to and from school. Outside of sitting for transport and learning, electronics are a HUGE killer of movement. I suppose one could scroll Instagram or watch YouTube videos in a deep squat…but let’s be honest, it’s highly unlikely.
Sitting is NOT the same as squatting. It leads to a disengaged core, weak and inactive glutes, tight quads and decreased mobility. Joints need to be moved through their entire range of motion to keep that capability. If the ankle is not pushed into full dorsiflexion (knee driving over toe), it’s likely that the ankle mobility will lessen. Same goes for the hips. The hip capsule has the potential to move in all directions and SHOULD be able to do so under a load.
Which brings me to mistake numero uno.
It is ideal to AT LEAST squat until the hip crease is below the top of the knee (just past parallel). If you cannot squat below parallel you need to look at WHY. Because if you don’t have the ankle mobility, hip mobility or motor control to find stability in your end range, you need to implement some drills. A lack of ankle mobility or hip mobility is the most common reason I see in my practice.
In addition to actively working on ankle and hip mobility (tutorial coming soon), you can elevate your heels on 2.5lb plates which gives the illusion of increased ankle mobility. Play with your stance for the hip mobility. You can widen it and see if that allows you to sink deeper into your hips while keeping a neutral spine and avoiding knee valgus (knees caving in). I often have clients squat to a low box so they have a target to hit + a buffer if squatting deeper is a bit intimidating.
Most people think of the squat as a lower body exercise where the legs do all the work. #WRONG. The squat is a compound movement loaded through the spine. That’s a big deal. A compound movement is simply an exercise where more than one joints are opening and closing – in this case, the hips and knees. Being loaded through the spine requires, or should require, that your spine remain NEUTRAL – avoiding flexion and extension under load.
Think of pinning the ribcage down and squeezing the glutes before squatting to set the core. Keep the ribcage pinned down the entire time. Sometimes it’s easier to think of NOT letting the ribcage “flare” as your squat. When the ribcage flares, you have entered lumbar spine hyper extension. NOT GOOD. The video below is a great drill for learning to keep a neutral spine + engage the core.
During the squat the entire foot should remain in contact with the floor. This is all about force production. The more of your foot you have planted on the floor, the more force you can transfer from the floor to your squat. No rocking back and forth, from the toes to the heels back to the toes or vice versa.
Keeping your “whole foot” on the floor also eliminates any weight transfer from one part of the foot to another. Stay grounded, grip the floor with your whole foot and if you’re squatting in what I refer to as marshmallow shoes (shoes with a fluffy sole or running shoes), stop immediately, go buy flat training shoes, and proceed to squat. See examples below.
I say “eye” loosely. You are free to look forward or slightly down as long as your head does not crank up, causing the neck to hyperextend. In a front squat the eyes are straight ahead because the torso is near vertical. In a back squat, a vertical torso is rare to see.
So, for now, keep the eyes 5-8 feet in front of you on the floor. Close your eyes, get your head into a neutral position (not in hyperextended or flexed forward) and open your eyes. Now keep your head and neck in that position through the entire set. Never thought about your head or eyeballs during a squat? Today is the day my friend.
I saved the best and one of the most common for last. When you squat, your hips and knees should break at the same time. Your shoulders and hips should also move at the same rate. One reason for this is to keep the bar path straight and vertical. The bar should start and remain directly over the center of your foot if watching from the side. When your hips and knees break at separate times, or your hips drive up out of the bottom without driving your chest up, the weight shifts forward and you end up hip hinging the weight back up rather than squatting it. All of the things need to move in cohesion with one another.
A great way to implement these changes is to pick one or two at a time which specifically apply to you. Work on the changes with an empty barbell before your working sets. Then during your working sets, use less weight than usual and FOCUS hard on the movement pattern itself. The more often you’re squatting, the better. Read how to lift legs three days per week here.
This stuff is not sexy, I know. But it IS going to carry over into bigger strength gains, longevity in your movement pattern, and an increase body awareness.
I'm an adventurous introvert from Vancouver, Washington who lives on sleep + "me time." I'm a lover of lifting weights, dinosaurs, real talk and traveling with my husband. I am here to help you move better, lift more, bust the myths of the fitness industry, and inspire you to love the process.
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