Fix Your Form: Squat Edition
The squat is an amazing exercise.
Anyone who says it’s bad for you doesn’t know squat (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun). In seriousness, squatting isn’t bad for your hips, knees, back, or anything else you’ve been told. But squatting with bad form can lead to injury.
Use the coaching tips in this article to stay safe and healthy while you build a stronger squat.
#1 – Mobility
Poor mobility at the ankles, hips, and knees could be holding you back from squatting heavier weight. When we reach a joint’s end range of motion (ROM) our bodies send out warning signals. End-ROM is where injury is most likely to occur, so as a defense mechanism, our bodies don’t like to be under heavy load (like a barbell) in those positions. Improving your motor control at end ranges will shut off those warning signals so that you can safely squat heavier weights through a full range of motion.
Limited ankle dorsiflexion
Limited ankle dorsiflexion can be caused by a lot of things, and I’m not here to diagnose you. But if you can’t get into a deep squat without your heels lifting off the ground, you could benefit from some of these strategies:
- banded ankle mobilization drill;
- foam roll and stretch your calves;
- wear lifting shoes with an elevated heel;
- stand on small weight plates to elevate your heel.
According to the joint-by-joint theory popularized by Grey Cook, your knee should be a stable joint, not a mobile one.
When squatting and lunging, you want your knees to track in line with your big or second toe, which should result in pressing your knees out toward the sides of the squat rack, thus activating your glutes and creating a more powerful drive out of the bottom position.
When deadlifting, you also want to drive your knees out and externally rotate your hips to activate your glutes and lock out your deadlift. Think of screwing your feet into the ground to achieve this.
In Olympic lifts and their variations, “knees out” is also an important cue. Anecdotally speaking, push presses feel lighter when I’m able to get me knees out; mechanically speaking, that’s because I’m able to generate more power through my glutes and hips to move the bar faster so that all my arms have to do is lock out the lift.
Bottom line, your knee position can make a big difference on lower body strength exercises, cleans, push presses, jerks, snatches, and even kettlebell work.
The hip joint should be mobile and strong for you to progress on all of your lifts. Problem is, most of us sit way too much and have janky hip mobility (technical term). Here are some drills you can incorporate into your routine to unlock your hip mobility and improve your ability to generate power through your hips:
- banded hip mobilization;
- 90-90 stretches;
- deep goblet squat iso-holds;
- band walks for hip abductor strength.
#2 – Core and bracing
You need a strong core to move heavy weight – period. If your lifts have plateaued, or you notice that you’re cranking out ugly reps as you approach maximum weights, it could be because your core just can’t stabilize your body under that much weight.
Solution: train your abs to fire before you lift and learn to breathe/brace properly I love deadbug and Paloff press variations for retraining athlete’s abs to fire.
Add direct ab work after most of your training sessions (3-5 times per week) and train every abdominal function from flexion/extension to rotation and anti-movements throughout the week.
#3 – Glute activation
We touched on this a bit in the mobility section, but your glutes are the most powerful muscle in your body. They should be doing the majority of the heavy lifting when it comes to major compound movements like squats, deadlifts, and cleans.
If you feel squats and lunges mostly in your quads, your glutes may not be firing effectively. Remedy this with glute activation drills like mini-band lateral walks and banded glute bridges.
You can also add accessory lifts like barbell hip thrusts, band or cable pull throughs, back extensions, and glute-ham raises to your program to build strength in your posterior chain.
#4 – Dealing with Pain in the Squat
If you experience any pain while squatting, fixing your technique should clear that pain. But, try as you might to fix your form, you still feel pain in your hips, knees, or back, there are ways to train around that pain.*
*Note: Consult a physical therapist if you experience pain while exercising. This guide is not meant to replace advice from a qualified medical professional.
De-load the exercise. Sometimes you need to check your ego at the door and take some weight off the bar. Forcing ugly (and/or painful) reps at 205-lbs isn’t doing your body any good; it’s far better to work with lighter loads that you can move pain-free and under control. Drop the weight, slow down your tempo, and focus on moving optimally.
Regress the exercise. There’s no shame in swapping out a traditional back squat for another variation that trains the squat pattern. Great alternatives include front squats, box squats, kettlebell front-racked squats, goblet squats, landmine squats, and split squats. Using unilateral exercises can be really beneficial if you suspect one side of your body is stronger/weaker and causing compensation somewhere along the kinetic chain.
“If it hurts, don’t do it.” Sometimes, you just can’t work around the pain. If you cannot find a pain-free squat variation, take the movement out of your rotation and consult a medical professional. You can still train legs with hip hinging movements like deadlifts and bridges or isolation movements like leg curls and extensions while you get sorted.
How Strong Is Your Squat?
How do you know you’ve succeeded in building a strong squat?
There are certain standards for comparing your lifts to measure your progress. These squat standards are based upon your bodyweight so that you can compare your strength to the only person who matters – you!
For a novice lifter with less than one year of training experience, a good starting standard is building to a bodyweight back squat. (Keep in mind that your front squat will be about 85% of your max back squat.)
For a more intermediate trainee with 1-2 years of lifting experience, building up to 1.5x bodyweight is a good target.
For experienced lifters with more than two years of training experience, moving to a double bodyweight squat and beyond will take a lot of additional work and manipulation of training variables like tempo, sets, reps, and the use of advanced training techniques.
Most people outside of aspiring powerlifters will never really care to get to that point, and that’s okay. If you can squat double your bodyweight, you’re pretty freaking strong.
Using the techniques in this post, you will be able to overcome the mobility and strength restrictions holding you back from maximizing your squat so that you build strong, powerful legs that can carry you up mountains and down black diamond trails with confidence.
Want feedback on your squat form? Film yourself lifting and send the video to email@example.com with the subject “fix my squat.” I’ll take a look personally and give you pointers to maximize your squat.