Today's post was modeled by the lovely Taylor Blume who so graciously offered to help me with the article. You could say this article was "Taylor-made" for her....aaaaaahhhhh bad joke. The squat can be a difficult exercise to gain a firm understanding of. It requires a high(er) level of body and spatial awareness as well as muscular control and coordination. Even if everything else on someone's body is functioning properly, one simple weakness or form error can throw off the whole movement. On top of that, people vary in how they learn: visually, audibly or physically, and in a busy class setting with fatigue setting in, this makes the process even more difficult. Plus, there is always some stud (or babe) rocking out perfect technique with heavy weight and that can make the process more frustrating when you compare yourself to them. So don't.
While it isn't possibly to take everyone aside and assess their mechanics and form and spend an hour honing their technique, a few simple cues and fixes can go a long way in helping someone squat right for their own body. Foot position and hand placement on a bar will differ from person to person and then each individuals anthropometry and mechanics will require different fixes. Despite all these differences, normally, a few simple verbal cues tend to help clean up most people's technique and then having them reinforce that through practice can solve a lot of problems.
Below, I will cover some of the most common technique issues I see in the gym and some simple ways to fix them. Remember, some people may not be ready to squat, but for most of us, there are plenty of ways to accommodate your particular situation.
No Posterior Weight Shift
The first and often most glaring technique issue is the lack of posterior weight shift. This presents itself as no backwards travel of the hips and just forward movement at the knees. While this puts unnecessary stress on the knees it also completely kills hamstring and glute involvement which are prime movers in the squat. Translation: You wan't to get your butt back.
You can see how she is attempting to get low but cannot get into a deeper position unless she just starts bending at the waist. Now, for some people simply saying "Sit back!" tends to work and they simply sit back like they are getting into a chair. If that is the case, then all is well and good.....for others, as soon as they start exercising they suddenly forget how they sit in chairs or on the toilet and just can't get the right position. However, if you truly can't sit back, we need to activate the anterior core more by adding a load in front of the body. Activating the core like this allows for more stability, posterior weight shift and internal rotation at the hips. Here's what it looks like:
Note how Taylor is now bracing to stabilize the weight and sitting back to counteract the weight in front of her. Now she is in a good position.
Somehow every time I read the words "knees cave" I think of Nick Cave, but that's my problem. Musician jokes aside, knees caving in is relatively common and can happen for a number of reasons. One is that a weight gets really heavy and as form deteriorates and fatigue sets in, it becomes harder to keep the knees in proper position. Second is an overall lack of glute strength (particularly glute medius) and third is simply lacking the awareness of how to push the knees OUT. I have said the words "knees out" so many times that I sometimes forget that not everyone understands the cue. Some people literally push their knees so far out that they are outside the foot. Sometimes simply saying "don't let you knees cave in" is better. Regardless, letting you knees cave in will limit hamstring and adductor involvement and will most likely not allow you to get low in a squat. If the knees cave in, the hips are so internally rotated from the start that they have no further room to go, so the lifter either A. Cuts the squat high, or B. Bends over at the waist. Here's Taylor letting her knees cave in:
This can happen here because the weight is too much and is bending her forward. If that is not the case, next check foot position. Too wide a stance will give the knees no other place to go but IN when you try to get low. Bringing the stance in to shoulder width or a little wider is good and then cueing the person to keep the knees out over the toes. Doing this gives you room in your hips to get low and in a way "sit between your legs" not just over them. Adding in a box and having the person sit back, push the knees out over the toes and keep their chest up should fix a lot of the issues.
See how her knees point straight out over the toes? That's what we want. Using the box often naturally helps people find the right amount of forward torso lean and posterior weight shift too. Three birds with one stone. Nice!
Cannot Get Adequate Depth
Finding depth is closely tied in with most of the other issues here. Too much forward torso lean, no posterior weight shift, lack of hip internal rotation and limited spatial awareness can all be part of the issue. Using the box as in the pictures above can really help with this. Adding in the plate held at arms length will squatting to a box could be even better as we are now covering all our bases. If form is not the issue, then limited ankle dorsiflexion can affect how the whole body moves above it. If the ankle cannot dorsiflex (or move up towards the shin) then most likely the lifter will simply cut the squat high or starting bending over at the waist. bending at the waist will be covered in the next section, so we'll just tackle ankle flexibility right here. This is a very simple but effective drill for increasing ankle dorsiflexion. Taylor has set her forward foot up anywhere from 3-6 inches from the wall with both hands resting on the wall. From there, she maintains an upright posture and attempts to touch her forward knee to the wall while keeping the heel pressed into the ground.
Ideally, she could stay on her toes on the back foot instead of keeping both feet flat but the main focus is keeping the front foot flat and pushing the knee forward. Start close to the wall (or touching) and work back over time as flexibility improves.
Only Bending Over At The Waist
I can admit to being guilty of this one for a long time. All my squats looked liked good mornings. Knees barely bent, butt back a little bit and folding over the the waist. While it feels like you are getting low because your torso is flattened out, your hips are in fact still pretty high and there is no way to properly recruit the glutes or quads. This wonderful combination of issues can be the result of one or more technique or leverage errors. Here it is in all it's hideous glory:
Her shoulders are low like they would be in a typical squat but the hips are way too high and her core is not activated as you can see from the rounded back. The first issue could be simply too much weight; the lifter cannot maintain proper form and the weakest muscle to give out first (the anterior core) gives up and you just bend right over. If that is not the case, teaching the lifter to sit back on the box can be really helpful but I have even seen people box squatting the same exact way. Similar to the knees coming too far forward, there probably isn't much of a posterior weight shift going on here. (Compare this photo to the first in the article and note how the knees in this picture aren't nearly as bad). Activating the core is next and we'll use the plate held at arms length squatting to a box for this one.
Although this issue doesn't look exactly like the squat in which the knees come way too far forward, they have similarities. One could be that the person just needs to learn how to sit back and the other might truly need to strengthen the anterior core to prevent bending at the waist. Strengthening the anterior core can be done with plank variations, squatting with the plate at arms length, front squatting(with goblet or bar), reverse crunches, Pallof Presses, ab saws and most bracing and anti-extension core exercises. That means NO sit-ups. Like this.....
(Side Note: I've met this guy and he's actually great. On top of that he is hilarious. Just don't do 400lb crunches. "Or it's gonna be clothesline city suckas!")
Improper Foot Position
The final technique issue covered is foot position. I've already mentioned how feet too wide will cause the knees to cave. Feet too narrow will limit hamstring involvement and you'll lose a lot of strength. Plus, most people cannot get into a deep AND narrow squat so going too narrow will limit depth as well. A quick and easy way to find the right squat stance for you is to get on all fours and push your butt back towards your heels. Start with knees narrow and then widen them as you go. You want the right width that allows you to get the hips far back with out rounding the back. Have someone watch you and tell you when you find the right position of deep squat with arched back. Here's Taylor showing narrow, wide and then ideal widths.
From the pictures, you can see that Taylor has good ip mobility regardless. However, in the first picture, she's too narrow and her back starts to round. In the second, she doesn't round but her knees are pretty wide and this would probably cause them to cave in as she squats down. The third is more conservative, knees a little wider than shoulders and she gets low with an arch in her back.
***Note on Forward Lean
Shorter people tend to maintain a more upright posture during squats because of shorter femurs. They don't have sit back as far(because their legs are shorter) and thus don't have to lean over as much. Tall people really have to sit back to load the hamstrings and glutes, especially with a wider stance. To keep the weight over the center of gravity, if the hips are really far back, the torso is going to have to lean far forward to keep the weight over the heels of the foot(where it should be). This is OK!. Your mechanics demand that you sit back and have a forward lean. Short people: you get the break here, nice work. However, the back must maintain an arch, with the chest up to ensure safe squatting. Even as you are sitting way back, the upper back needs to be arched.
This was quite a lengthy article but it touched on enough common issues in the squat that most people will identify with at least one or two. Implement these changes as needed until your form becomes rock solid and you naturally assume the right position every time. For example, if you are learning to sit back on the box, use the box until you are comfortable sitting back with knees out and back arched. Then use a slightly lower box. From there, try squatting without the box. You won't need all these techniques all the time and forever(what a commitment) but they will help keep you lifting and in a safe manner.
A follow up will be posted soon with mobility exercises for the squat (again featuring Taylor) so stay tuned!