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5 Reasons Why You Can’t Squat Properly

GABRIEL JONES PERFORMANCE

25 OCT 2023


Back in my early 20’s, I was the stiffest bloke on planet earth. I had a weak lower body from falling into the teenage trap of only focusing on upper body (‘football counts as legs right?’ - Wrong.) aside from the occasional deadlift and half-squats. I had no mobility, never practised squatting, and my body paid the price for it - as did my aspirations to play football at a higher level.

Nowadays things have improved - round here we don’t get older, we get better. I am more mobile than I have ever been (although my ‘better than ever’ is still screaming out for improvement), and my back squat is now a pretty deep one depending who I am comparing myself to. But what changed for me?

I am going to tell you 5 things I have learned on my journey which I see on a daily basis in the gym, and not just from clients who can’t squat, but also from trainers who might be struggling to teach their client how to correct their form. For the gym member it is often a lack of knowledge, training experience and guidance, while for the trainer/coach - they know exactly what a good squat looks like, can (usually) perform a good squat themselves, but they cannot articulate the process to the client.

This type of mastery can be referred to as ‘unconscious competence’, when you’ve had so much practice at a skill it becomes second nature, with the downside being that you can’t really explain how you’re able to do it. You just do it. But the reality is both PT’s and regular gym goers need to be conscious of these 5 things when squatting or coaching squatting that bring about a huge difference in depth, stability and overall quality.

Reasons you can’t squat properly:

  1. You're not addressing the fact squatting is a multi-directional task

Squatting involves lateral knee drive (to an extent) which is an outward movement, with an external rotation happening at the femur (thigh bone). But it also involves the knee travelling forward over toe line WHILE heel stays pinned to the floor and loaded to assist backward hip action and flexion (as well as the fact we are moving from an upright position downward. That is 4 directions we are trying to create movement in simultaneously - not easy!

The mistake most people make is not being able to create all 4.

With a stable foot, external rotation of the femur creates activation of the glute medius, a muscle group heavily important for stability of the knee (prevention of valgus - knee rolling inwards), so the lateral movement is important. Meanwhile, developing the ability to take the knee beyond the toe-line in a stable and controlled fashion is difficult, but the result is greater mobility and strength around the vastus medialis oblique (VMO) and quadriceps tendons, and capacity for creating a powerful extension of the knee to take you out of the deepest portion of the squat.

When the knee travels beyond the toe-line, there is a drastic increase in shear forces travelling through the knee joint, and when we consider the concept of levers and ‘moment arms’, the amount of torque generated is immense - this is where the common cartilage and ligament injuries tend to occur in sports.

However, knee beyond toe is not necessarily uncommon or even a problem (it is in fact a necessity for a good squat). The problem is that it is usually performed with an unstable foot in an excessively anterior dominant fashion (ie. All quads and calves, no glutes and hamstrings). A good squat utilises the contribution of the entire lower body in order to balance ourselves to the deepest position possible, so with the knee over toe thing, we are establishing whether we can create that action with a stable foot, lots of ankle range of motion, and in unison with all of the other actions

  1. You're placing too much emphasis on hip flexion, not enough on knee flexion

This ties in with the above. The simple fact for less-experienced squatters is they are not ‘prepared’ to bend at the knees, either psychologically or physically (psychologically - an unfamiliarity and slight fear of what will happen if we go into full flexion. Physically - the knee is joint is in an untrained state, with no suitable neuromuscular firing patterns developed for getting out of full flexion, meaning going full flex with too much load could spell disaster). Becoming physically and psychologically prepared to flex the knees as far as they can go is essentially the recipe for squatting the hips below knee depth and getting them as close to the ankles as possible at the bottom of the squat. This training can be done in a number of ways:

  • Mobility training is crucial, using the Spiderman exercise (also known as ‘worlds greatest stretch’)

  • Pole squats to teach your knee to be comfortable in this loaded, fully flexed state. The more comfortable you can become with your entire bodyweight loading through the knee at full flexion.

  • Small amounts of load can then be added in different contexts (goblet squat, rear foot elevated split squat, high box step up, eccentric step down), to practice back-squatting deep with a load on your back.

  1. You're missing the importance of ankle mobility

Although it can sometimes be overemphasised by S&C coaches, ankle mobility is often a glaringly obvious capacity to be developed to improve squatting ability. The average sedentary person is developing long and weak calf flexibility and strength. This will limit your ability to be strong in the ‘knee over toe’ position, but also reduce your strength in the ascent from the deep position, where a strong plantar flexion action is required at the ankle.

To improve ankle mobility, use the ankle mobility drill I have regularly written about, heel elevation strength exercises using a full range of motion, regular stretching, ecc. Strength training etc. on a regular basis, and this will massively improve a poor squat.

  1. You're seeing it as a 'lower body' exercise in isolation, rather than a 'total body' movement

One of the most underestimated ways of improving the quality of a squat is to observe what is happening at the spine, the core stabilisers, the latissimus dorsi muscle group, neck and trapezius. When we squat, we want the upper body to act as a vice for the bar. It shouldn’t wobble on the shoulders, or be an unpredictable element external to our body. We are trying to make the bar a part of our body, using the trapezius muscle group as a shelf, and the engagement of the lats to lock the bar in place on the soft muscle tissue of the upper back/shoulders.

In most poor squat executions, you will be able to see some form of collapse in either the position of the spinal posture or the contraction of the most important upper body muscle groups. Improving the creation of upper body stiffness prior to the descent (especially with the use of correct breathing techniques) is the platform for a quality squat being missed by many.

  1. You're not monitoring, focusing on, or correcting the function of the foot during the squat

Common pitfalls during squat technique are evident at the foot, to the extent that probably 50% of the time I am watching a client squat - I am looking at their feet and nothing else. It tells us so much about what is happening further up the chain, and they are essentially the foundation of the building that you are creating. Now if you imagine the foundations of a very tall building have a pillar missing, or a crack in the concrete, or are tilted diagonally at the wrong angle - how confident would you feel about staying inside it?

During a poor squat, it is common to see internal rotation at the heel, big toes, little toes or heels leaving floor, and a resulting loss of stability and foundation, which tends to lead to a collapse in strength at the ankle, knee or hip.

Speaking from personal experience, address these 5 important things and watch your squat performance skyrocket!

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