Have you been diligent about your SUF Strength training programme, but squatting exercises are still feeling difficult, or a little uncomfortable? Good news- your mobility and mechanics may be the problem, not your strength. The bad news, however, is that like your strength, mobility takes a little effort and consistency in order to improve.
Squatting is a movement pattern that most of us take for granted, or just don’t even think about the mechanics of, especially as we do this motion a hundred times throughout the day. If you stop and think about it, we squat every time we sit, and hopefully when we lift heavy objects like kids, that 50lb bag of dog food, etc. But how many of us actually do it with proper mechanics? My guess is not very many. So my goal today is to provide a little education and make you a little more mindful of how you’re moving and just maybe inspire you to work on your mobility if necessary.
If you were to ask ten toddlers or young children to pick up a toy from the floor, chances are they’d all squat down and pick it up in a nearly identical fashion, which many would call “perfect” technique; feet shoulder width, butt low, chest up, back straight. Now if you were to ask ten adults to do the same, you’d see ten different movements; most will bend, some will squat, and everyone will move differently. Now we all know that you’re supposed to “lift with your legs, not your back,” but most of us will only squat to lift with our legs if we have something very heavy to lift….and even then, some will still bend over. But back to the main point about how we all move differently.
I’m not saying that everyone needs to squat like a baby because that’s simply not practical, realistic or even possible. There are many factors that have an impact on how each person moves and squats: the simple act of growing is a huge one, individual skeletal and other anatomical variations, as well as previous injuries and imbalances that occur throughout our lives. What I am suggesting, is that unless you’re born with some kind of physical anomaly, everyone should have the ability to perform the basic movement pattern with comfort, control and safety; feet flat, back flat, chest up and knees aligned with feet and hips and don’t collapse inward.
Why is this so important? Because restrictions in mobility can decrease your movement quality, increase your injury risk, decrease strength potential and decrease your enjoyment of exercises involving this movement pattern.
Basically, you should be able to perform routine tasks of daily living, pick up and play with your kids/grandkids/dogs, etc. without discomfort or fear of getting hurt.
So how do you squat “properly?”
- Heels should remain FLAT on the GROUND! Having the entire foot on the ground is important for creating a stable base.
- Heels lifting may be a result of limited dorsiflexion (flexing your toes up toward your shins) or poor motor control
- Limited dorsiflexion could come from a limited range of motion at the achilles, calves, hamstrings, glutes or lower back.
- Poor motor control may come from lack of strength or not enough practice with the exercise.
Feet should NOT rotate out AS you execute the squat. Some external rotation is ok when setting your foot position, but your feet should not move once beginning the movement.
- Outward rotation while squatting could be a result of dorsiflexion restriction, arch collapse, tight lateral hamstrings and/or tight IT bands.
The knees should not collapse inward (valgus), which is closely associated with injury potential. Collapse during the squat likely means the same will happen when running and jumping.
- Valgus collapse may be a result of tight and/or weak hips and glutes or poor motor control.
The hips can, (but do not have to) descend below the knees.
- This topic has been hotly debated, however research shows it is safe to squat below parallel as long as the other principles are maintained and mobility allows.
The chest faces forward (if there were a mirror in front of you, you’d be able to read the logo/writing on your shirt) but the low back remains in a neutral position with no excessive arching or rounding, which places unnecessary stress on the spine. Additionally, the lower back and pelvis should not roll into flexion and posterior tilt at the bottom of the squat.
- Inability to maintain a neutral spine may result from tightness throughout the posterior chain (achilles, calves, back, glutes, hamstrings) or it could be a balance issue.
If you struggle with squatting movements, here are some assessments that you can do to help identify mobility faults that limit your function and athletic performance.
Ankle Mobility- Kneel on one leg with the other foot about a palm width from a wall. Keep the heel on the floor and press the knee forward, trying to touch the wall with your knee. If you can do this from 3-5 inches or one palm width, you have good ankle mobility. If you cannot touch the wall in this position, then you can do some exercises to increase ankle mobility.
Banded dorsiflexion- Attach an elastic band to something sturdy at a low height and sit on the floor with one leg stretched out straight. Place the band over the top of your foot and pull your toes toward your shin. You should feel the muscle on the front of the shin working. Hold for 1-2s then slowly release and repeat for 10-15 reps.
Dynamic calf flexion/extension- Get into a down dog position. ‘Pedal’ your feet by bending one knee and straightening the opposite leg, then repeat on the other side. Perform 10-15 reps per side.
Assisted Deep squat- Perform a squat as best you can, while holding onto something sturdy in front of you. Keep both feet flat on the ground and your knees wide as you sink your hips as low as you can, using the support to maintain balance and shift your weight forward and back (while keeping heels down) to increase the stretch on the posterior chain. Hold for at least 60s.
Elevated toe low lunge- Kneel on one leg with the other leg in front you, bent at 90 degrees. Place a thin book or magazine beneath the ball of the front foot, leaving your heel on the floor. Press your hips forward toward the front foot so you feel a stretch in the bottom of the foot, achilles and calf. Hold for 30-60s or perform 10 reps pressing forward for 2-3 seconds, then releasing for 2-3s.
Hip Flexion- Supine knee to chest test holding shins. Lie on your back and pull your knees to your chest with your hands on the shins. If you can’t touch thighs to chest and calves to posterior thighs, check knee flexion.
Knee flexion test- Pull knees to chest holding behind thighs. If this is achieved (with calves touching thighs) then knee flexion is the limiter.
- Most people don’t have a problem with hip and knee flexion.
If your mobility checks out for all three of the tests above, check your motor control and muscle activation:
Do your knees collapse inward?
Perform the band around knees squat test. Step inside a resistance band and squat. If the knees stay in alignment, then glutes are weak or not activating. *The band will naturally help you activate the glutes as you squat.
- Correctional exercise: Squat with a band around the knees to cue glute activation and possibly result in further external rotation of the hip, allowing greater hip flexion.
Do you feel like you’re going to fall backwards as you squat?
Try a goblet or assisted Squat: Hold a light weight in front of your chest. If this helps you move better, then you have an anterior/posterior stability or balance issue.
- Practice squatting more often- practice and repetition are highly effective ways of learning and sometimes you just need to experiment to find your individual comfort and balance points.
- Perform more basic single leg movements (like standing on one leg while cooking or brushing your teeth) to gradually improve balance.
Spinal position: Cueing for proper position may improve movement, which indicates a motor control issue. Otherwise, it could be a position setup fault (overextended or over-arched low back), limited core strength or flexibility of posterior chain could be the issue.
- Start or keep going with The Sufferfest Strength Training and Yoga!
Additional ideas to improve squatting technique:
- Core strengthening exercises such as those in The Sufferfest Strength Training programme
- Soft tissue release to break up adhesions, scar tissue and other restrictions especially on the back, glutes, hamstrings, calves and feet to improve flexibility and range of motion, i.e. foam rolling, massage & muscle flossing.
- Assisted Squats with bands around the knees, or overhead squat pulling an elastic band apart
If you pass all of the tests with flying colors and still struggle, you likely just need more practice and to find just the right balance point. Everyone has different body proportions that affect balance differently. Some people need to hinge a little more, some a little less. Some need to move their feet wider, some narrower. Experiment a little, be consistent with your strength training and let us know what works for you!
Watch a video demonstration