Crafting a Successful Squat: Troubleshooting & Fixing the Squat

So you’ve been working diligently on your squat form.  You’ve read this and you’ve read that.  You’ve taken what you’ve learned and implemented the steps needed to achieve the perfect squat.  But something’s still not quite right.  Unfortunately, squatting doesn’t come naturally for everyone.  But you know this already.  So why can’t you squat successfully?

FLEXIBILITY

Lack of flexibility is the number one reason for your squat woes.  A tight lower back, tight hamstrings and hips, or inflexible ankles and calves are a hindrance and are symptoms of the following squat problems:

  • Inability to squat to parallel or lower – While squatting, it is easy to mistake bad squat depth for good.  It can feel as though you are reaching parallel even though you aren’t.  The best way to ensure proper depth is to record your squat.  Only then can you be sure your depth is low enough.
  • Forward lean/Incorrect bar path – Lack of flexibility lends itself to folding over in the squat, as opposed to squatting straight down, maintaining a straight bar path.  All of those tight muscles will not allow you to hit depth, and this directly affects your squat form.  Now, depending on your body proportions, some amount of folding over is going to happen, even as the bar path remains straight.
  • Sore knees/lower back – The inability to hit depth results in sore knees and/or lower back.
  • Butt Wink – This is when the pelvis tucks under at the bottom of the squat, due to the squatter trying to achieve a lower squat than their flexibility allows.

Flexibility Fixes

  • Warm up properly – If you are not currently doing a warm-up before squatting, you are doing your flexibility a disservice.  Not only are you impeding your flexibility progress, but you are also putting yourself at risk for injury.  You should be performing several warm-up sets of squats before you get to your working weight.
  • Incorporate stretching into your warm-up – There are many articles online that claim stretching the muscles before lifting can actually impair the muscles’ ability to handle the weight.  It is thought that lengthening the muscles leaves them weaker.  It can, but if held for a long period of time.  If you are trying to gain flexibility in your squat, however, there’s really no way around stretching.
  • Pay special attention to the calves and ankles – While you should focus on your overall flexibility, the calves need more attention than one might think.  If you are unable to push your knees out and far enough forward at the bottom of the squat, you will not hit depth.  Without calf flexibility or ample dorsiflexion, you’re not getting any lower than you are now.
    • Foam roll the calves – With a foam roller, you will be able to get rid of knots in the muscles, making them more flexible.  You may not feel like you have knots, but once you start rolling, you will quickly find you have many.  And they are holding you back.  (The following vids will explain foam rolling further)
    • squat-shoeConsider squat shoes There are shoes available specifically for squatting.  They have a slightly raised heel that enables you to squat deeper when your ankle/calf flexibility is just not there.  They can get pricey, and they won’t solve all of your squat problems, so I don’t advocate making this purchase on a whim.  Weigh all your options beforehand.

GREAT FLEXIBILITY VIDEOS:

Lack of Strength

Lack of strength will obviously directly affect your ability to squat successfully.

Forward lean/Incorrect bar path 

  • Thoracic/Abs Lack of strength in the thoracic area of the back and the abs will cause that forward lean.  If your upper back and abs are unable to brace enough to handle the weight, you will not be able to maintain a straight bar path.  Instead, your upper back will likely round and result in a “good morning” motion in order to complete the squat (see good morning video below).  Having a stronger core enables you to keep the chest lifted throughout the squat, avoiding the forward lean or fold-over.
  • Legs – An inadequate amount of strength in the legs can also affect the bar path.  In this case, the back and core are strong enough to handle the weight, but the legs are not.  So when your legs say, “Nuh uh,” the body defaults to the back (the stronger muscles) to get the heavy weight back up.  This results in your weight shifting forward onto the balls of the feet during the squat, and you have to “good morning” the weight up again.

Strength Fixes

  • Good Mornings – All this talk of good mornings being an indicator of an unsuccessful squat, and now I’m recommending you do them.  On purpose. The Good Morning will focus on the back strength you’re looking for.

  • Goblet SquatsThe Goblet Squat focuses on upper-back strength, and is also great for the abs.  The legs will get strength gains out of it as well, but nothing monumental due to the smaller amount of weight that can be handled compared to a barbell squat.

  • Front Squats – Front Squats are great for fixing upper-back weakness, abdominal weakness, and can increase strength in the legs (predominately in the quadriceps).  As an added bonus, the Front Squat will aid in increasing flexibility and help with getting into a good back squat position.  In the Front Squat it is easier to sink lower than in the back squat.  So focusing on the Front Squat, while still hammering away at the back squat, helps your body get used to the lower position you are trying to achieve.

  • Hip Belt Squats / Cable Belt SquatsThese two types of squats essentially take the back out of the equation and focus mostly on the legs.  These squats enable you to keep a more upright position with the back, forcing the legs to take up the slack and become stronger.

Odds & Ends

Still having trouble getting low?  That bar path still not quite right?  Don’t feel strong enough to get out of the hole?

  • Reassess your squat stance/toe placement – Finding the right squat stance can be tricky, even if you have done that little test I told you about.  Sometimes you have to play around with it, trying different stance widths.  Same with the degree to which you point the toes out.  Just experiment with it and see if it helps.
  • Squat with your bodyweight evenly distributed across the foot – There are many squat recommendations to put all your weight in your heels as you squat.  This thinking is to keep you from leaning forward, and it makes sense, but in some cases it can make you feel like you might tip backward with the bar.  Conversely, if you keep your weight evenly distributed through the feet, this keeps the bar path in line, and feels more stable overall.
  • Don’t squat in running shoes – Running shoes, or athletic trainers, are not the best to squat in because the sole is squishy (for lack of a better term).  When you’re at the bottom of the squat and about to push back up against the floor with your feet, that squish factor hinders the upward momentum.  Having a shoe with a firm sole, like Converse or squat shoes works far better.

 

Whether your squat issues are due to lack of flexibility or strength, it can be fixed.  Implementing the options listed above is the first step toward the successful squat you’ve been trying to carefully craft.  Just know that it takes time.  But stick with it, because it’s so worth it.  The cornerstone of a great workout, a great body, and mad strength is the squat.  There’s a reason it’s called The King of all lifts.

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