4 Steps to Fix Your Squat

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.

COUNTERBALANCE SQUAT 

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.

As you can see, the knees point over the big toes, allowing us to squat “between our knees.” This prevents the knees from crashing in, which places a lot of stress on the ligaments of the knee.

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
  • Hips and Knees: Strengthen the Glutes, Mobilize the Hips and Adductors

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.

Master's degree in Exercise Science, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, St. Michael's College baseball alum, strength coach, powerlifter, diehard Red Sox/Metallica fan

Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Posted in Tips and Tricks
34 comments on “4 Steps to Fix Your Squat
  1. Check, check, and check. I’m afraid that I have issues with ankle mobility, T-spine mobility, and hip mobility. All of these are most likely why I have a perpetual ass-wink when I get below 90 and why my back squat weight has been stuck at (and at one point decreased to) 135-140 for the past several months. Any words on which issue to tackle first? Is one “more important” than the others?

    • Thanks for reading!

      It’s tough to say that one is more important than the others, because if these issues are effecting your squats, they’re effecting your other lifts as well. I guess t-spine mobility (and more specifically keeping your chest up in the hole) would be the one thing that’s least temporarily remedied by the squat shoes/belt combo. But you can’t just set it aside because if your t-spine mobility sucks, your deadlift will suck as will all your upper back work and any hip or knee dominant movements with a bar on your back.

      Either way, all the issues can be attacked at once as part of a good warm-up. Two or three corrective exercises per issue, once as a warm-up and once as a separate session during the day should get you on the right track.

  2. kb says:

    real good stuff

  3. [...] Setting – Sean Skahan 9 Ways to do Cardio That Suck Slightly Less – John Romaniello 4 Steps to Fix Your Squat – Tony Bonvechio Simplifying the Squat – Glen Hotte Women, Training, and Misconceptions – Jennifer [...]

  4. J.B says:

    What I like the most is the fact that the pictures and video shows a person who actually has bad form. Most times a guy with good form tries to resemble someone with bad form..

    Did you follow your own advise or do you still have bad form?

    • I still have “bad” overhead squat form since I took those photos just last week. That said, I wouldn’t say I’m a “bad” squatter since I’ve hit 500 pounds with good form on two occasions now. That goes to show you that getting really caught up in having perfect technique in the overhead squat is “majoring in the minors” as Jim Wendler would say. It shows you the weak links in your squat pattern, but by no means do you need to have perfect OH squat form before you put a bar on your back.

      I’m a perfect example of this. Yes I’ve got some movement deficits like anyone else, but the OH squat shows me what I need in a warm-up to make sure I’m ready to squat. So after some foam rolling, stretching and a thorough warm-up (mobility plus activation), I’ve temporarily remedied some of these issues. Plus once you get a loaded bar on your back, you’re gonna get some added activation to keep the core engaged and hold everything else tight. If I just got under the bar completely cold, I’d be a disaster, but with a good warm-up I can squat safely. That’s my big argument against the people who say an extensive warm-up is a waste of time.

  5. Austin says:

    Love the squat video Tony, really helps me get a better idea of what the correct squat looks like. Especially since I can see your pecker flopping up and down while your doing heels elevated squat.

  6. [...] Awaken the Glute Monster! Why lack of shoulder mobility can cause knee pain The Best News Ever! 60 Days Of Paleo Shocked My Doctor (In A Good Way) Pass the Protein Shake: Digging into Pre- and Post-Workout Nutrition 4 Steps to Fix Your Squat [...]

  7. This article is the BEST! I need to work on all of those things, thank you for showing me how :)

    Question: I have a tendency to fall backwards if I keep an upright torso. I either lean too far forward to front squat or if I stay upright I fall down backwards!

    • Try to “sit back” into the squat. If you try to stay perfectly upright with your feet out in front of you (imagine what a Smith machine squat looks like), you’re going to fall over. Push your hips back to start the squat and your torso will lean forward a bit naturally. Just stay upright enough so you don’t round over like a scared cat.

  8. Oops, that was not a question. Question: do you have any advice on how to fix this?

  9. [...] wrote an in-depth article about the overhead squat and how it’s awesome as an assessment tool. But honestly, it’s not good for much [...]

  10. […] never doing cardio) until they get hurt. Proactive people attack their weaknesses every day (e.g. squat form or shoulder health) so they can train like animals (even bench press three times per week!) and […]

  11. […] Setting – Sean Skahan 9 Ways to do Cardio That Suck Slightly Less – John Romaniello 4 Steps to Fix Your Squat – Tony Bonvechio Simplifying the Squat – Glen Hotte Women, Training, and Misconceptions – Jennifer […]

  12. […] to fix your squat pattern? Squat every day. Not necessarily under load, but you have to practice. Have tight hips? Stretch […]

  13. Katie says:

    I’ve been having issues with my back squat. Front squat is fine, I only do 45-50#’s with crossed arms as the weight is a bit much on my delts. I did the assessment up above and everything looks fine but once I get to the back squat with the 135#’s on my back, upper traps, I feel too top heavy and I feel like my chest is going forward but stays up and my knees start to go over my knees a bit, not a lot though. My stance is a bit wider then shoulder width as I have wide hips and it is just more comfortable that way for me to squat. I do have tight hip flexors and have been working on stretching the ankles and hip flexors before squatting. I take at least 15 minutes to stretch. I have no problem squatting without the weight on my back, it just seems to be the amount of weight. I was able to do a perfect squat with the 135#’s but recently I have felt like my knees are going too forward for my liking. Any help would be helpful! Thanks :)

    • Katie –

      It’s tough to say exactly what the issue is without seeing you actually squat. Feel free to email me/send me a video and I can check it out.

      If your chest is caving on back squats, it could be a handful of things. It’s likely the weight is just too heavy. If 135 makes you pitch forward, work with 115 (or whatever weight allows you to keep good form) and hammer your upper back strength, thoracic extension and anterior core work. Your upper back will catch up eventually.

  14. […] like the overhead squat test I talk about in my 4 Steps to Fix Your Squat article, box squats serve as a constant evaluation of your stability, mobility and […]

  15. drewandy26 says:

    Tony, this was a great read. However, I’m wondering if you can diagnose me with my issue. I am able to squat deep, but my squat is compensated. So I am able to squat deep, but my torso leans excessively forward and i extend my arms for almost automatically and instinctively upon doing so, making my lower back round obviously. Is this mostly lack of core stability or the myriad of issues you listed, because I don’t think it’s my ankles anymore if I am able to squat so deep but something is preventing me to squat comfortably and upright. Thanks!

    • Thanks for reading!

      How does your squat look when you hold a weight out at arm’s length as a counterbalance? If that cleans up the lower back rounding, but you can’t keep your chest up and lower back straight with arms overhead, it’s likely a thoracic spine mobility issue.

  16. Alan says:

    Superb article. I have been squatting consistently for about 18 months now. But this article has been the biggest lesson. I always knew my form was not as good as it could be. I leaned forward too much as I descended. I tried the OH squat and I was shocked at how poor my form was. I practiced keeping my core tight and back upright. I went the gym last night and squatted deeper and with better form than i ever have. Not perfect but a big improvement. I could tell my back was staying in a more upright position, I was squatting pretty much ass to grass. Just being aware of your weaknesses can drastically improve form. Gonna have a mate video my form for me but 5 Star info.

  17. […] heel provides a little extra “fake” ankle mobility (much like the heels-up trick in my “4 Steps to Fix Your Squat” test) which can reduce the dreaded “butt wink” and protect your lower back. And if you […]

  18. Reblogged this on Norn Iron Fitness and commented:
    Excellent post on the king of all exercises – the squat! Perfect tips on not only how to fix your squat, but how to fix your posture and strengthen your core and entire body basically. Excellent starting point for beginners!

  19. Logan says:

    I really like what you guys tend to be up too. This type of clever work and reporting!
    Keep up the amazing works guys I’ve included you guys to my personal blogroll.

  20. This was awesome. Thanks

  21. B.C. says:

    I enjoyed the article but I do have a question. I went to the chiropractor recently and found out that my spine is crooked due to a childhood injury and wear and tear resulting from neglecting the injury. The Doc recommended no further squatting. I am aware of some alternative exercises for posterior chain development but enjoy squatting and the “bang for the buck” you get. What are your thoughts?

    • I’m not a doctor so I can’t say. But at CSP we have several clients with scoliosis who do a number of deadlifting variations and split squats with DBs or weight vests with no problems.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Enter your email address to receive notifications of new posts, coaching opportunities and new products by email and receive your copy of Top 10 Bench Press Mistakes.

Top 10 Bench Press Mistakes

Sign up for the Bonvec Strength newsletter and get your copy of Top 10 Bench Press Mistakes

The Supplement Goals Reference Guide

The cheat sheet to better health, a better body and a better life.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 277 other followers

%d bloggers like this: