So last week I presented a Squatting seminar to our clients and members at Innovative Fitness.
I wanted to make all the basic information I covered available to those who weren’t able to attend and anyone else interested. So, here ya go:
The squat can be one of the single most important lifts you can perform in the gym and offers benefits throughout your entire body. It’s more than just a lift or an exercise, it’s an entire natural movement pattern.
Just by watching someone perform a simple bodyweight squat, I can get so much visual feedback about where they may be weak, what muscles are tight or overactive and where stability or mobility may be needed. Squats can tell you so much about a person’s overall strength and condition.
When done correctly, squats can:
- Prevent injury by strengthening your body and improving mobility
- Combat quad dominance and strengthen the glutes. Glutes are the powerhouse of the body – strengthening them will have an awesome carryover to all other areas of fitness including speed and power..allowing you to run faster and jump higher.
- Improve core stability.
- Build confidence – Squats are by no means easy and can be pretty brutal when loaded and executed properly.
- Undo a lot of the postural defencies and common issues we see in today’s society (usually as a result of some of the above benefits) – lower back, knee and hip pain as well as risk for hamstring and groin strains.
- Squatting heavy will lead to development of muscle in your glutes, hamstrings and quads. Supporting heavy weight can lead to upper body development as well. They also prime the body for muscle development or fat loss (diet dependent, of course) due to the release of hormones such as testosterone and HGH (ladies – don’t be put off by this, these hormones assist greatly in fat burning as well).
Going through a full range of motion squat can reinforce mobility through the hips, ankles and thoracic spine. Mobility is so important because of the mechanical advantage and maximal power output that a healthy range of motion allows you to have. Squats also strengthen your stabilizers and help you improve your mind-muscle connection to help you become more aware of your body and movement.
How to Squat
No matter what variation of a squat you are doing (bodyweight, squatting for powerlifting or performance, high or low bar back squats, etc) the foundation of how to perform a squat is the basically the same.
- Feet should be about shoulder width apart, toes pointed slightly outwards. You want your knees to track in the same direction of your toes, but not any farther than your toes.
- Chest up and upper back tight – pull your shoulder blades together, this is going to keep you tight and stable and is especially important if you have weight on your back.
- Spine neutral, keep a slight lumbar curve. You should be looking forward, not up or down.
- Start the movement by sitting your hips back, shifting your weight to your heels. Don’t allow your knees to cave. Your entire body should be tight, core engaged and you should have significant tension in your hamstrings and glutes, especially at the bottom of the movement.
- Squat down to at least parallel, meaning your thigh is parallel with the ground or your hip joint is lower than you knee joint.
- When you hit parallel, maintain tension, push as hard as you can through your heels and continue to push your knees outwards and use your glutes to power you back up and locking out at the top.
Make this a routine. Before squatting, every time go through this check list in your head of everything you need to do to set up to make a good squat happen.
Are Squats Bad For Your Knees?
It depends! How is your technique? As you just learned, squatting is a pretty technical movement, so if your knees are hurting while squatting or hurt from squatting, it’s usually not the squat themselves to blame, it’s probably your form. (Dan John represent!) When done correctly squats are actually great for improving knee pain and correcting some of the issues that can cause knee pain. I’ve had several clients who were long time sufferers of knee pain alleviate their pain while performing squats in their programming.
The following is a quote from a study involving patellofemoral joint kinetics during squatting, that was brought to my attention by Tony Gentilcore at the Cressey Performance seminar a couple weeks ago: “…No discernable difference at 70, 90 or 110 degrees of knee flexion with regards to patellofemoral joint reaction forces and joint stress.” The conclusion: There is no support for the idea that squatting below 90 degrees increases stress on the patellofemoral joint. BAM.
Plus, how did you learn how to stand and walk? Huh? You were a deep squatter since your first day on Earth. And what happened? You lost basic mobility and flexibility over time and lost the ability to reach a full squat.
Most knee pain when squatting can be attributed to:
- Shifting your weight to your toes
- Knees moving over your toes (usually a result of quads overcompensating for weak glutes)
- Quads and lower back doing most of the work instead of glutes and hamstrings
- Using an impartial range of motion (no ¼ squats!!!!)
I, personally, feel that 99.99% of people should be doing some variation of a squat at least once a week in their programming..and I know there are numerous people out there who agree. This is just based on the overabundance of awesomeness (technical term) the movement has to offer AND the fact that it can help offset a lot of imbalances and postural issues. When considering squats, it’s very important to choose the appropriate variation that suits your individual needs. It’s also improvement to progress the movement in a safe manner and that proper form is grooved while using a safe ROM.
How To Progress To A Full Barbell Back Squat
1. Wall squats – These are a great place to start because they teach the individual to maintain upright while working on core stability all while building base strength and mobility. This also helps to get used to the feeling of sitting back while keeping upright.
2. Box Goblet Squat – These again force the individual to engage their core, due to the way they are loaded. The box also helps keep the squatter “honest” about where proper depth is. This is perfect for those who really struggle to sit back into the squat. From here, we can progress by using a lower box or doing a free-standing goblet squat..
3. Goblet Squat – (One of my personal favorites!) Perfect squat technique groover! Great for learning how to sit back, again, but also great for learning how to push the knees out while squatting. Great for all levels of squatters.
4. Front Squat – Again, because of the way the weight is loaded, the individual is forced to engage their core to remain upright. This also brings more stability and allows a bit more depth. When done properly, front squats will be easier on the back than a back squat. A clean grip (pictured) or a cross-arm grip can be used.
5. Box Squat – Emphasizes sitting back and using the posterior chain (glutes and hamstrings especially). It’s very important not to unload your weight while sitting down, as this is pretty risky with a loaded bar on your back. Just tap your butt and always keep tight and maintain a neutral spine, don’t come loose at any time!
6. Back Squat – The king, or queen, of squats! There are few more badass things that standing up against gravity with massive weight pinned on your shoulders. Back squats are unfortunately not for everyone, though. Those with lower back issues or those who lack adequate thoracic spine mobility will benefit more from the previous variations. Without good mobility through the upper body, it’s risky to try and properly stabilize a bar between your shoulder blades and this could lead to a number of issues.
How Deep Should YOU Squat?
Basically, as deep as YOU are able to, while maintaining neutral spine and a good lumbar curve (NOT rounding out your back).
Common Squatting Errors
When something isn’t quite right with an individual’s squat form, it’s usually a compensation: the body is taking the path of least resistance because moving the right way is harder and requires more strength and stability. This usually leads to injury in one way or another…and just because you don’t feel the pain now, it doesn’t mean the movement isn’t causing harm and isn’t going to affect you in the future.
- Excessive Forward Lean – This is where the chest falls forward and the upper body collapses while squatting and you’re unable to stay upright. It’s usually a core stability issue where you’re not able to engage and maintain stiffness in your core so you collapse forward. It could also be that you just need to remind yourself and really focus on keeping your chest up and mid-section braced while squatting.
If it’s not a neural issue it could be a number of issues, hip or ankle mobility issue, weak glutes or lower back.
- Knees Caving Inwards / “Valgus Collapse – This could again be a coaching issue where the squatter just doesn’t understand that the knees need to be pushed outwards during a squat. This is a really excellent way to cause knee pain (look where the knees are in comparison to the ankles). If this is the issue, squatting with a mini-band around the knees is a great solution.
It could also be a technical issue caused by underactive hamstrings, adductors and/or glutes and not being able to properly engage and activate the glutes during a squat. These areas are weak and don’t allow the lifter to force their knees outward, so the quads overcompensate. Again.
To help fix this, mobilize and work on the soft tissue in your hips and adductors. Wake your glutes up and learn how to activate them with activation exercises such as glute bridges, lateral band walks and side lying clam shells. These drills will help build neural awareness and “train” your brain to get your glutes to fire properly and help you know what that feels like. Also include more posterior chain exercises into your programming to further strengthen the glutes and hamstrings.
- Tuck Under / “Butt Wink”
This is characterized by the lower back rounding and going into flexion during a squat. This is usually a result of an imbalance between the hips and core, meaning the hips are too tight and the core isn’t tight enough. The body is choosing lumbar flexion over hip flexion which puts a lot of stress on the lower back and increases risk of injury, especially if this happens during a loaded squat.
To fix this bad boy:
- Make sure you’re solid with being able to get into neutral spine – if you don’t have the neural awareness of what neutral spine feels like you’re going to struggle a lot with squatting and any other exercise. A great way to pattern neutral spine is with cat camel drills or practicing hip hinging with a PVC pipe or wall drills.
- Work on core stability – strengthen your anterior core and make sure you know how to engage and “brace” your core. Also, decrease that stiffness in your hips by foam rolling and performing dynamic stretching pre-workout (and throughout the day if needed). While doing any kind of stretching remember to maintain your neutral spine during the movements to increase neural awareness or else you’ll still be enforcing lumbar flexion (which is what we’re trying to eliminate!)
- Increase thoracic spine mobility.
- Find YOUR safe range of motion. Only squat to a depth that allows you to keep a neutral spine. If you need help finding your safe ROM, don’t hesitate to ask me for some helpful ways to find this.
Footwear, ankles and squatting.
Get smart with your shoe choices when squatting or performing any exercise, especially lower body. You shoes are your foundation. Standard athletic or running shoes (usually with a slightly elevated heel) are not a good choice for squats. They can cause your ankles to roll, feet to cave or for you to lose overall stability. Raised heels will also cause you to shift forward, putting a lot of stress on your knees. This will also work against you sitting back into your squat and using your glutes.
Be careful of high heels and any other shoes that cause your foot to be in plantarflexion.
These restrict your ankles and can decrease mobility over time which is why it’s important to include a bit of ankle work in your dynamic warm-ups and mobility routines in general. We want to encourage more dorsiflexion for better squats and happier feet.
I suggest flat soled or minimalist shoes, if you can’t get those there’s nothing wrong with just going barefoot.
Quick Tips for A Better Squat
- WARM UP. If you’re not performing dynamic warm-ups prior to your training you probably shouldn’t even be squatting, period. If you are, make sure you’re including drills to address ankle, hip and thoracic mobility as well as drills to help improve core stability and bracing.
- If you’re more advanced, switch to using box squats for a block in your programming to make sure you’re getting to proper depth. It also helps to either video yourself or have your spotter check your form.
- Squat with a wider stance and point your toes out slightly more to open up your hips and help you get deeper.
- Go barefoot or wear flat shoes (see above).
- Maintain stiffness throughout your entire squat. Stiffness=stability and more stability=more force, which then amounts to more strength and weight moved.
- GET ANGRY. Grab whatever weight you’re using, as hard as you can. Squats are not delicate, so act accordingly. Remember, that weight, wherever it’s loaded is trying to pull you down. Fight it!
Fun ways to Load Squats
These variations are especially great if you are including squats in any kind of circuit or conditioning work or if you can’t make it to the gym.
- Load with any heavy objects that you can hang on to in a safe manner: sandbags, kettlebells, rocks, etc.
- Positions to use: Shouldered, bear hug , zercher, front racked or overhead.
So there ya go, all the basics you need to get yourself on the right track for squatting. Feel free to contact me and ask questions!