Squats are hands down my favorite exercise. They bring the full package – they can make you strong, huge AND athletic. They’re the exercise equivalent of the perfect woman – smart, funny AND beautiful.
The problem is, squats are rarely beautiful. In fact, if you walk into the average gym, nine of out 10 squats are gonna be downright ugly. And ugly squats can be dangerous if you load them up heavy enough for long enough.
Bad form is also a big reason why people stray away from squats. They’re afraid of getting hurt or they hate the general discomfort associated with squats. And this fear is standing between them and some tremendous strength and physique gains.
So how can we be sure that we’re squatting correctly? If you don’t have a good coach to teach you how to squat, it can be hard to know for sure. And even if you can spot your technique flaws, how do you fix them? Where do you even begin? This article will lay out a four-step self-assessment – using the overhead squat and its variations – that you can use to spot your flaws. Then I’ll discuss a step-by-step, joint-by-joint approach to attack your weaknesses with the proper technique fixes and corrective exercises.
THE OVERHEAD SQUAT
The overhead squat is a tremendous assessment tool that has become increasingly popular with the rise of “functional” fitness. While it’s great for assessing movement quality, that’s about it. People like to load it up and show the world how “functional” they are, but they’re missing the point. Like a lunge or split squat, it should be treated more like a mobility drill than a strength movement. We’re trying to build big, strong, athletic people – not just get good at a movement screen. Like Kenny Powers said…
It takes a lot of coordination, mobility and stability to execute a proper overhead squat. It’s one of the best ways to immediately expose your squatting strengths and weaknesses and give you some direction toward perfecting your technique.
Here’s what we’re looking for with the overhead squat:
- Upright torso with arms straight overhead (not learning forward too much)
- Hands shoulder width apart, holding a dowel (optional)
- Flat back (upper/lower back not rounded like a scared cat)
- Good depth (crease of the hips passes below the top of the knees)
- Heels stay flat on the floor
- Knees track over (but don’t go past) the toes
The overhead squat pictured above meets all of these requirements and looks pretty damn good. So what happens when things go wrong? You look more like this (I volunteered to demonstrate a bad squat because, well, nobody’s perfect):
We see a laundry list of problems here…
- Torso leaning too far forward
- Chest doesn’t stay up
- Not squatting low enough
And if I continued to sink down into the squat, we might see some more common flaws…
- Heels popping up
- Low back rounding
- Knees caving in
- Fall on my ass and embarrass myself in front of the entire internet
With so many issues going on at once, it’s hard to pinpoint what’s causing the problems. Luckily, there are a few tricks we can apply to nail down the culprits.
OVERHEAD SQUAT WITH HEELS ELEVATED
By propping the heels up on a couple of 5-pound plates, we get some “forgiveness” at the ankles. It creates some “artificial” mobility that allows us to get more dorsiflexion (e.g. brings the foot closer to the lower leg) than we normally would. If this cleans up the squat, we know that the ankles are the issue. Here’s what I look like when I prop my heels up:
We can see right away that the depth is much better – but at a cost. We now know ankle mobility was keeping me from getting ass-to-grass, but there’s still the problem of leaning too far forward and the arms not pointing straight overhead. And more importantly, with this added depth comes the dreaded “ass wink.”
Ass wink is a compensatory pattern that substitutes lumbar flexion for hip flexion and ankle dorsiflexion. In English, this means when the hips and ankles can’t sink the ass down anymore, your lower back makes up the difference by curving underneath the hips. Body weight squats with ass wink are one thing, but loading up a heavy barbell and squatting repeatedly with a rounded low back is asking for trouble. The spine is great at handling compressive forces (e.g. stacked from top to bottom like a totem pole), but sheer forces (e.g. vertebrae sliding front-to-back and side-to-side) are much more likely to cause injury, especially when heavy weights are involved.
The next step is to fix the torso lean and low back rounding.
Holding a weight at arm’s length can also clean up the squat. Here’s how my squat looks with just a counterweight and no heel elevation:
Now we see that the upper body stays more upright, depth is decent and low back rounding has decreased. The reason for this is that by holding the weight out in front, it forces the anterior core muscles to engage. The primary purpose of our abs is to stabilize the trunk and keep the spine in a neutral position, not flex or twist or whatever other spine-destroying exercises you see people doing on a stability ball or cable machine. That’s why planks, ab roll-outs, farmer’s walks and other ab exercises that resist movement have a much better carryover to lifting and athletics than dynamic ab movements like crunches, Russian twists or side bends.
By moving the arms out front rather than overhead, the upper body position is better. This points to a lack of shoulder and upper back mobility, which is crucial for proper positioning of the bar on the back (or on the shoulders for a front squat). If you can’t get the bar in a good position, you’re doomed from the start. And if you can’t keep your chest up during a squat, have fun getting stapled to the floor when you try to squat back up from the bottom position.
So now we know…
- Ankle mobility is limiting squat depth
- Core stability (or lack of core activation) is causing the low back to round
- Shoulder and upper back mobility are causing the torso to lean too far forward
And if we learned this much with two separate exercises, what happens if we combine them?
COUNTERBALANCE SQUAT WITH HEELS ELEVATED
By combining the counterbalance squat and the squat with heels elevated, we can see if the previous combination of flaws can be cleared up together.
Looks pretty good! Depth is solid, the torso is upright and the lower back is flat. In with the good, out with the bad.
Here’s a video summarizing everything I just covered. If you read through everything up til now, kudos to you. If not, it’s your lucky day ‘cuz you’re still gonna learn something.
WHAT WE DIDN’T SEE
What we gather from my specific case is I need to mobilize my ankles, mobilize my shoulders/upper back and activate my core if I want to squat safely and effectively. But because I’m just one case, I don’t represent the entire population. Two more common issues we didn’t see here but might see with others are…
- Toes turning out
- Knees caving in
Turning the toes out is another way to make up for a lack of ankle mobility. However, “out-toeing” can also compensate for issues at the hip. While we certainly want to improve any hip mobility deficits, we probably want to turn the toes out anyways once we actually get under the bar to ensure proper knee tracking over the toes. Here’s a front view of what the counterbalance squat with heels elevated looks like when we turn the toes out.
ATTACK YOUR WEAKNESSES
Once you’ve pinpointed the problems with your squat, you can take action. Here’s a seek-and-destroy approach for each aforementioned problem:
- Ankles: mobilize, stretch and soft tissue work
- If you feel tightness in the front of your ankle when you squat, it’s a mobility issue. Do wall ankle mobilizations and standing knee-break mobilizations to improve dorsiflexion.
- If you feel tightness in the back of your ankle, it’s probably a flexibility issue in your calves and Achilles tendons. Some static stretching is in order, as well as some rocking ankle mobilizations.
- Also, massage the bottom of your feet with a tennis ball or lacrosse ball. You’d be surprised how much this can improve dorsiflexion range of motion.
- Core and Low Back: STABILIZE and ACTIVATE!
- Do more core exercises that resist movement at the spine. Planks, farmer’s walks, ab-rollouts and fall-outs are all great choices.
- Incorporate core activation into your warm-up. Short-duration planks, dead-bugs and bird dogs are good exercises to get the abs “turned on.”
- Learn to get your core involved when you squat. Take a BIG breath into your belly and hold it. If you’re wearing a belt, push your abs out against it to create a rock solid foundation.
- Shoulders and Upper Body: Improve T-Spine Mobility
- Most people are incredibly locked up in their thoracic spine (section of the spine from the base of the neck to the bottom of the rib cage) from sitting at a desk all day. Improve thoracic spine extension to get that chest up. Do t-spine sit-ups on a foam roller, bench t-spine extensions and improve seated/standing posture (e.g. get away from the gosh dang computer once in a while).
- Improve thoracic spine rotation with quadruped extension-rotations and side-lying windmills.
- Hips and Knees: Strengthen the Glutes, Mobilize the Hips and Adductors
- The glutes are key in making sure the knees don’t cave in during the squat. This was one of my biggest problems for years, and once I brought my glutes up to par, my knees thanked me.
- Activate the glutes with supine bridges, x-band walks and seated band hip abduction.
- Strengthen the glutes with plenty of hip-dominant movements like deadlifts, hip thrusts and kettlebell swings.
- Mobilize the hips in multiple planes (front-to-back, side-to-side and rotational) with kneeling hip flexor mobs, fire hydrants and hip circles.
- Mobilize the adductors with split stance mobilizations and Cossack squats.
- Foam roll the hell out of your adductors. Warning – this is gonna hurt.
2 QUICK AND DIRTY SQUAT “FIXES”
Perfecting and correcting your squat is going to take time. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t squat during your workouts.
It would be silly to ditch the squat completely just because your form isn’t perfect. You’d be missing out on some of the best strength and size gains imaginable. The first step is, of course, to reduce the weight so you don’t hurt yourself. And use sensible reps ranges – high enough reps so you don’t go too heavy, but not so high that form breaks down. 5-8 reps per set will be the sweet spot for most people.
If you really want to maximize the gains you get from the squat while you continue to perfect your technique, there are two essential training tools that can keep your form safe enough to go hard and heavy: a good pair of Olympic lifting shoes and a quality lifting belt.
Olympic shoes work similarly to plates by elevating your heels and giving you some extra ankle mobility. This is partly why you see Olympic lifters hit rock-bottom with perfectly straight backs during cleans and snatches. For many people (myself included), Olympic shoes instantly reduce low back rounding in the bottom position of the squat.
Some people may argue that they can save themselves $200 and just elevate their heels on plates. But walking backwards out of the rack with a couple hundred pounds on your back and blindly trying to step on two tiny plates doesn’t sound all that safe to me. A pair of Adidas Adipowers is a lot cheaper than an emergency room bill or jacked up insurance premiums.
I can already hear the cries from the “super raw hardcore” internet lifters. “Belts make your abs weak.” “Belts make you lift more than your naturally could.” You shouldn’t use a belt if you’re not a powerlifter.”
The occasional and proper use of a belt (e.g. on sets with 85 percent of your 1RM and above ONLY) teaches people how to activate and brace their abs to protect their spine during a big lift. Most people just don’t get how to “fill their belly with air” and “push their abs out” without putting a belt on. Once they practice bracing with a belt, it becomes natural even without a belt. It’s a teaching tool, and as long as you don’t abuse it and strap the belt on for every single set, I fully support the use of a belt.
SHUT UP AND (assess yourself and then) SQUAT
If your squat technique needs work (and I bet you it does), don’t give up hope and definitely don’t give up squatting altogether. Try the overhead squat assessment. Use the heels-up and counterbalance variations to single out what’s making your form break down, and then attack the necessary mobility/stability exercises without mercy. While you’re diligently improving technique, Olympic shoes and a belt – while not a substitute for good form – can help you squat safely during training. Soon you’ll be on your way to mastering the king of all exercises and becoming more awesome than the leg-extension junkies that keep curling in the squat rack.