Squatting A2G 3: Addressing Motor Control

For some people, squatting comes really easily. For others, learning to squat, and doing it safely and effectively, is not a smooth road! If that’s you, and you’re having difficulty figuring out how to fix your squat, then this article is for you.

This is the third in a series looking at the squat. In the first two I looked at the anatomical variations that can affect your squat (such as if you have really long thighs), and the areas of poor mobility that can mess you around. You can find the article about structure here, and the one about mobility here. This time, however, we’re talking about motor control issues.

As a disclaimer, I want to state that these articles are not meant to diagnose or treat any injury or musculoskeletal condition. If you are experiencing pain with your squat, I strongly recommend that you consider getting checked out by a health professional.

Now that’s dealt with, on with the matter at hand! There are times when issues with someone’s squat can be more to do with motor patterning than the shape of their body or mobility issues. What do I mean by that? Well, a motor pattern is the unconscious way you move your body to achieve any given task. How much and in what order you fire your muscles, the way you move around your centre of gravity, where you take the strain of the activity. For example, I bet you have a fixed way of brushing your teeth. You probably do it the same way every time. That’s a motor pattern. Or the way you move your jaw, lips and tongue to effortlessly produce intelligible words when you speak. That’s another motor pattern. We use motor patterns for everything we do. When we’re first learning a motor pattern we have to really concentrate and work at it. Over time it becomes easier and more instinctive. That’s when the motor pattern is established.

Sometimes we develop motor patterns that are inefficient. They don’t work so well, or put unnecessary strain on certain parts of our body. These habits become ingrained and we don’t even think about them, and they can lead to pain and injury. When that happens you have to relearn the movement. Sometimes from the ground up. 

A lot of the fixes outlined below are meant to do that - help you relearn a better way to squat.

First move well, then move often
— Gray Cook

Now, I believe in paying dues, so I want to mention that a lot of what’s here is stuff I’ve picked up from the Functional Movement Systems group, founded by Gray Cook, Kyle Kiesel, Greg Rose and Lee Burton. They discuss some awesome ways to address movement dysfunction! Quite a number of others have taken their material and applied it very well. One such example is Dr Zach Long from The Barbell Physio, who has written some excellent articles on this topic.

A lot of the fixes in this article are based on what these guys call Reactive Neuromuscular Training (or RNT). It revolves around putting some stimulus into the system to actually make the existing problem worse. They “feed” the problem! When you do this, most people will reflexly work against that input and self-correct. Do it often enough, and a person relearns the skill with a more efficient motor pattern. Pretty simple, huh? Alright, let’s get on with it. 

Because these exercises are aimed at improving your motor patterns, it’s good to check to see what’s changed. That means squat before and afterwards, and check what’s different. You may feel the difference - for example, more balance, greater ease, improved positioning. It may also be worth videoing your squat, so you have an objective measure before and after your rehab exercises. When you video your squat, it also gives you something to compare to down the track. Video your squat from the angle that will best show what you’re trying to fix - for forward lean, video from the side, for lateral hip translation or knee valgus, video from the front. 

Another very important point is how you work these exercises. They are meant to build better movement patterns, and to do that you have to drill the better movement. Now, I’ve given rough ideas on rep ranges for all the exercises, but these are meant as guides only. If you are performing one of these moves and you can’t move well (your forward lean or hip translation gets worse with the exercise), then you must STOP. Immediately! If you don’t, you will drill poor movement habits, and things will only get worse. If you can only perform 3 or 4 reps with good form, then it starts to degenerate, then only perform 3 or 4 reps. Trust me, it will get better with time and patience. If you can’t even perform a single rep, then you may need a less demanding progression of the exercise before you move on to the ones outlined in this article. (It’s also possible that there are other movement faults that need to be addressed first, and for that you may need the help of a professional.)

So, on to the fixes!

1. Posterior Chain Activation:

The first issue I want to look at is poor posterior chain activation. That means using your glutes and hammies when you squat. It also means having appropriate activation of your spinal muscles to stabilise your back. If you have poor posterior chain activation in your squat you might find that you tend to lean forward at the bottom of the squat. You might also find it’s hard to keep your spine straight. You will probably also be what’s called “quad dominant”. That means you use your quadriceps (the big muscles at the front of your thighs) to produce the power in your squat, rather than having a more appropriate and efficient balance between your glutes and quads. This can result in taking a lot more strain through your knees than necessary, and if you are squatting heavy then eventually this can lead to knee pain.

One of the best ways to activate your posterior chain is to hold a weight in front of you. One way to do this is to perform a goblet squat, which involves holding a kettle bell or dumbbell in front of your chest while squatting. Another approach is to squat while holding a light dumbbell out in front with straight arms. The placement of the weight in front of your body’s centre of gravity will force you to use your glutes more while squatting, You’ll also feel your spinal muscles working harder. Finally, it also allows you to squat with your torso more upright. In the video below you’ll see the progressive change in how upright your torso is from a simple air squat, through a goblet squat, to a straight-arm dumbbell squat. What some people find is that they can squat deeper when doing these variations. You might also find that you feel more upright after performing a few reps. Goblet squats and straight-arm dumbbell squats can be really useful to include in your warm-up. Do 2-3 sets of 10-12 reps, with a moderate weight for the goblet squats and a light weight for the dumbbell squats. You’re not trying to gas yourself out, it should be a warm-up.

Demonstration of the use of aids to activate the posterior chain while squatting. First is a body weight squat, followed by a goblet squat, and finally a straight-arm dumbbell squat. Note that the forward angle of the torso is reduced in each subsequent exercise, bringing the glutes more into play.

2. Spinal Stability:

Some people struggle with keeping their back stable while squatting. It can feel like it’s hard to seperate your hips from your back, so when you flex your hips you unconsciously bend your back too. Learning how to isolate these different parts of your body can be tricky, so sometimes you need outside stimulus to give your brain the feedback it needs to stabilise your spine while bending your hips. You may remember in the first article about squats I described performing a Bear Squat to test for hip mobility. This time we’re going to use the Bear Squat to develop spinal stability while we squat. 

The Bear Squat is performed by getting down on the floor on all-fours, lifting your knees off the floor, then rocking backwards. As a mobility test, you’re seeing if you can get your hips to your heels. To develop spinal stability, we add something. We’re going to put a stick on your back! It’s got to touch the back of your head, in between your shoulder blades, and your sacrum (the big triangular bone at the base of your spine, between your buttocks). The stick must keep touching all three points throughout the movement. This gives you instant feedback as you perform the movement, because you can feel and correct as soon as the stick shifts from your back. If you have issues with maintaining a straight spine while you squat, then at first you will find this really hard! Trust me, work with it, and over time you will gradually develop more range of motion and spinal stability through the movement. You should also start to feel more stable in your regular squat.

Demonstration of a kneeling squat in quadruped, using a pole to encourage spinal stability. The quadruped rock mimics the mechanics of a squat. The pole must maintain contact with the head, between the shoulder blades, and the sacrum throughout the movement. This is a good exercise for developing spinal stability in the squat.

3. Overhead Squat:

Difficulty with an overhead squat can be maddening. You might feel like you squat just fine in every other way, but this just doesn’t work for you. First, don’t beat yourself up. The overhead squat is the most challenging two-legged squat movement. It requires more whole-body mobility and stability than any other variation. I looked at a couple of mobility fixes in the previous article that can help with the overhead squat. If you haven’t already played with those, I suggest you do. If mobility isn’t your issue, however, you may just need to develop the necessary co-ordination and stability that this movement demands. 

A common issue with overhead squats is falling forwards, or dumping the bar forwards at the bottom of the squat. A variation of this is feeling like you’re going to fall backwards. That may seem like a contradiction, but they are often both due to the same thing - you guessed it, a failure of posterior chain activation! So a good fix for this is to perform an overhead squat with a dowel or broom handle, with a light resistance band attached to it pulling it forward. You’ll see in the video below how you will have to work to keep the bar over your head. In doing so you will get a strong activation of your entire posterior chain. Once again, use this as a part of your warm-up (2-3 sets of 10-12 reps at a LIGHT resistance), and try performing an overhead squat normally straight after this drill.

Demonstration of an overhead squat with RMT resistance on the bar, to encourage activation of the posterior chain, and help develop stability in the OHS.

Sometimes you just can’t put all the pieces together. When someone has this level of incoordination, it can be a bit like watching a baby giraffe trying to take their first steps! So, sometimes it helps to take things from the ground up. Literally.

Try this. Get yourself a broom stick and a low box. Sit down on the box with the broom stick wherever you want. Then lift the broom stick overhead. Now stand up. Repeat. Yep, that simple. What you’re doing is performing only the second half of the overhead squat. Most people will find it easier to stand up than to lower down into the squat. However, once you’ve done it a few times, it’s like your brain starts to realise that you can actually do it, and you may find that lowering into the squat becomes easier. Test it. As things start to work better, get rid of the box too. In reality, you can use this technique for any of the weighted squats. I just find it works particularly well with the overhead squat.

Demonstration of a strategy for developing stability with an overhead squat. With the bar resting on your shoulders, sit on a box. Take the bar into the overhead position. Then stand up. By working the portion of the squat from the bottom up, you begin to develop the stability required to perform an overhead squat.

4. Correcting Lateral Translation:

Lateral translation is when your hips or body weight shift to one side when you squat. This can happen for a whole bunch of reasons. Sometimes it’s to avoid pain in one hip or knee. If that’s you, then as I said at the beginning of this article you should probably see a health care professional (for example, a chiropractor or physiotherapist who knows how to deal with sporting injuries). If, however, it has nothing to do with pain, it can sometimes be an ingrained movement habit. In that case, try squatting with a light resistance band around your hips pulling you further in the direction you habitually shift. As with all of the above, use this as a part of your warm-up, and perform 2-3 sets of 10-12 reps with a light band. And test your squat afterwards.

Demonstration of a dysfunctional squat with a lateral translation, followed by a fix for the same, using RMT with a light band around the hips.

5. Correcting Knee Valgus:

Set-up for using resistance bend to correct knee valgus while squatting.

Set-up for using resistance bend to correct knee valgus while squatting.

A common fault with squats is when a knee or both knees fall inwards during the squat. It can happen for a bunch of different reasons. If it occurs when you are coming out of the bottom of a squat, particularly if it happens more under load, then it’s probably because you are using the wrong muscles to generate power in your squat. If it occurs throughout the squat, particularly if it’s regardless of load, then it can be a compensation for poor stability, impaired motor control, or even for injury (past or present). Again, see a professional if you’re in pain. If there’s no pain, then regardless of what’s causing it, and if you’ve eliminated mobility issues, then it’s worth trying some motor control fixes. That’s where the following exercise comes in. Place a resistance band around a narrow squat rack (or other object), and then around your thighs just above you knees, so that the band crosses over in front of you. Then squat, working against the pressure from the band pulling your knees inwards. Again, perform this unloaded (although if the knee valgus is only under load, then it may be useful to use an empty bar or even broom stick to replicate the movement). As with previous exercises, use this as a part of your warm-up, performing 2-3 sets of 10-12 reps, and certainly not to failure. Retest your squat afterwards.

Demonstration of the use of RMT with a light band to encourage knee valgus. This is a good exercise if one or both knees tend to fall inward when you squat.

In this series of articles I’ve tried to cover the most common issues that can arise with your squat. I’ve covered structural issues, mobility problems, and movement faults. If applied correctly, these fixes will improve a lot of squat issues. Sometimes, however, there are problems that need an outside eye to detect and correct. Never discount the value of a good coach, trainer, or movement specialist (chiropractor, physiotherapist, etc…)! If you’re still stuck with a problem, get some help. And you can always drop me a line, too.

Once again, thanks to Josh for demonstrating all the moves!

Happy squatting!