Trouble with your squat? If you’re struggling with any of the following, then this article series is for you:
Can’t squat below parallel
Keep falling backwards
Leaning forward when sqatting (overhead squats and snatches feel impossible)
Can bodyweight squat (air squat) but not with weight
One or both knees rolling in when squatting
Shifting weight to one side when squatting
Knee pain when squatting
This is the second article in a series about squatting, and ideas, techniques and fixes to improve your squat. In the first article we talked about the perception that “everyone should be able to hit a full-depth squat”, and how in reality the shape of your body can affect this. We looked at some of the structural variations of the legs and hip joints that can affect your squat - things like the length of your thighs and the angle of your joints. We also looked at some things you can do to work around these differences. Check it out here if you haven’t already done so!
Let’s say that you’ve read it. You’ve checked yourself to see if there are any structural issues, and you’ve either found none, or dealt with what’s there to the best of your ability. But you’re still having problems! That’s where this article comes in!
Before we continue, and 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.
On with the show! I’m going to divide the strategies described in these articles into either mobility or motor control fixes. This article deals with the mobility issues. As you read through this article you will notice that I don’t refer to stretching your hamstrings or your hip flexors at any stage. As far as I’m concerned, too many times people are told to stretch these when the real issue is motor control, not mobility. I’ll explain why.
Hamstrings first: a lot of people get told that a butt wink is due to tight hamstrings. The theory is that at the bottom of a squat your hips are fully flexed, and that tight hamstrings could therefore pull your pelvis forward into a butt wink. What this fails to acknowledge, however, is that your hamstrings also cross your knees, and as much as your hamstrings lengthen due to hip flexion when you squat, they also shorten at the same time due to the bend in your knees. So the relative length of your hamstrings stays pretty much the same throughout the movement. The hamstrings need to be able to contract in order to stabilise the hips and knees, and possibly to contribute to hip extension as you stand back up, but their length doesn’t really come into play in the squat. As I mentioned in the first article here, butt wink is probably more to do with your hip joints.
Okay, let’s move on to hip flexors. You have two main hip flexors, the Iliopsoas, which runs from your lumbar spine and the inside of your pelvis to the front of your hip, and the rectus femoris, which is one of the four muscles that make up your quadriceps. Now, tightness in a muscle will compromise range of motion. At the bottom of a squat your Iliopsoas is shortened, and your rectus femoris has maintained an even length (in a similar way to what I outlined with your hamstrings above - your knee has bent, lengthening your quads, but your hip has flexed shortening the rectus femoris at the same time). So tightness of the hip flexors won’t affect the bottom of your squat. Could they affect your stance at the top of your squat? Yes, possibly. But I think there are usually bigger fish to fry first.
So, what should you work on? I’The areas of poor mobility that can most affect your squat are:
Ankles (including calf muscles)
(The second and third will make their presence felt more in an overhead squat.)
1. Ankle mobility
If you have serious issues with ankle mobility, you will hit a rough patch. This is even more so if your ankle mobility is significantly different in only one leg (for example, as the consequence of a previous injury). Poor ankle mobility will mean your hips will have to travel back further to compensate, and you’ll either lean too far forward with your torso to get your centre of gravity back over your feet, or you’ll fall over backwards. How much ankle mobility you need for an effective squat will depend on the rest of your body. Long thighs and short calves, for example, are going to demand more range of motion from your ankles than if your waist starts just above your knees. A good rule of thumb, however, is the following test:
Measure out 13cm from a wall.
Kneel facing the wall, with the big toe of one foot at the 13cm mark.
Bend your knee forward to touch the wall.
A pass is if you can touch your knee to the wall without lifting your heel, twisting your foot, or letting your knee collapse inwards. A fail is if you feel pain, your heel lifts off, your knee collapses inwards in order to get to the wall, or you have to twist your foot to get to the wall.
If your ankle mobility is less than ideal, there’s a few things you can do. One obvious fix is to lift your heels - wear lifting shoes if you have them, or put something under your heels when you squat to lift them up a centimetre or two. But you can’t always do that. Maybe the workout doesn’t lend itself to wearing lifters, or you’re travelling and you’ve left them at home. So here are some good approaches to improving calf flexibility and ankle mobility.
1. Distracted ankle mobilisation: place a heavy resistance band around your ankle, and take up the tension as shown. Keeping your heel on the floor, take your knee as far forward as you can. Hold for up to 30 seconds, and do it on both sides. You can gently move around a bit in this position too, if it feels good.
2. Calf stretches: there are two main calf muscles - the gastrocnemius and the soleus. The gastrocnemius is the big muscle on the surface that forms a lot of the shape of the calf. It actually starts at the femur (thigh bone) and crosses behind the knee to run down to the heel. The soleus is underneath it, and this muscle doesn’t cross the knee. To effectively stretch your calf you need to hit both (although soleus length is probably more important at the bottom of a squat). That means you need to stretch your calf both with your knee straight and bent. There’s a number of ways to do that. A couple are shown below.
Stand with the ball of your foot up on the wall
With your leg straight, take your hips towards the wall until you feel a moderate stretch. Hold for up to 30 seconds.
Then bend your knee (more than you might imagine necessary), and take your bent knee in towards the wall. Hold again for up to 30 seconds.
Obviously, do this on both sides.
3. Calf mobilisations: you can do this with a foam roller or a ball. I’ve even done it with a barbell (that’s lots of fun, let me tell you…) The basic principle is get in and mash as much of your calf as you can. Move the ball or your position on the roller to get different portions. I find that rolling right down where the muscles attach to the achilles tendon is a particularly good place to work. You should only mobilise to tolerance (if it’s too painful, back off or move to an adjacent area), and never roll over bone or joint! Go for 30 seconds to a minute on each side. And remember to check your mobility before and after.
2. Thoracic spine mobility
The thoracic spine is the part of your back where the ribs attach. What we’re looking for here is how well your upper back can extend, or arch backwards. If this is limited you’ll probably have huge problems with overhead squats. You’ll struggle to keep the bar overhead, and you’ll either find it difficult to keep your balance at the bottom of the squat, or you’ll be really limited in how deep you can squat. Limited thoracic extension can also mess around with your front squats, making it difficult to keep your elbows up, so you might keep dumping the bar. Back squats can cop it too, as you’ll possibly find it difficult to keep your spine in neutral. You might lean too far forward at the bottom of a squat, and find yourself using your back muscles too much as you rise out of the bottom. This can set you up for injury.
How can you assess your thoracic mobility? It’s a little hard to do on your own, but give this a try. Sit down on a bench, and with a pipe or broom handle across your shoulders, turn your body to each side. You want to see rotation of at least 50 degrees. (You can measure this by placing sticks on the ground at right angles, as shown in the photo, and seeing if you can turn beyond these.) Hang on, you say, weren’t we testing extension? Well-spotted! In the thoracic spine, extension and rotation are related. If you can rotate to one side, then in general your thoracic spine can extend on that side too. Remember this, because it’s relevant for how we mobilise your upper back.
Speaking of which, let's look at that now. Following is a list of various stretches. Try them out, and choose the ones that get you the best results.
1. Lunging T-spine Stretch
Get into a deep lunge, with the back leg straight and the back heel off the floor.
Take the same hand as the leg that is forward, and place palm-down on the floor on the inside of the front foot.
Take the opposite hand and, twisting your torso, reach up towards the ceiling so there is a straight line between your bottom hand and top hand.
Hold for the count of 5, then repeat on the other side. Perform 3-5 times each side.
2. T-spine rotation in deep squat
Drop down into a deep passive squat.
Reach with one hand across the front of your body and grip your opposite ankle.
Leading with the other elbow, turn your body up towards the ceiling.
Straighten your upper arm.
Hold for the count of 5, then repeat on the other side. Perform 3-5 times each side.
Note: if you can’t comfortably achieve a deep squat, then stick to the other thoracic stretches for now.
3. T-spine seated rotation
Sit on the floor with your legs out in front of you.
Bend one leg and place the foot near your opposite hip.
Bend the other knee and place your foot outside the knee still on the floor.
By now you should have one knee on the floor in front of you, and the other in front of your chest, in the beginnings of a twist.
Place the elbow opposite your upright knee on the outside of that knee. Place the other hand on the floor behind you. Using pressure from your arms, twist your torso towards the upright knee as far as possible. Hold this position for at least 30 seconds, then repeat on the other side.
Note: if it is too hard to get into this position, keep the leg on the floor straight with the foot out in front of you.
4. T-spine extension on a bench
Kneel on the ground facing a workout bench, or surface of similar height.
Lean forward so you are resting your elbows on the bench.
Keeping your elbows bent, and your hands behind your head, drop your shoulders down towards the ground.
Using deep diaphragmatic breaths, on each exhalation drop your shoulders and chest further towards the floor.
Continue this for at least 30 seconds.
Important: make sure you maintain your lumbar spine in a neutral position throughout the stretch, avoiding arching your lower back. The extension should occur in your mid to upper thoracic spine. You may also feel some stretch through your shoulders. You’ll note that this is the only thoracic stretch in this series that uses extension instead of rotation.
3. Latissimus dorsi mobility:
Your latissimus dorsi will really only limit you in terms of mobility during an overhead squat. “Only?!?” You say? Well, okay, being able to hit an overhead squat with stability is pretty important if you are doing a lot of weightlifting. If you can’t overhead squat there’s a good chance you won’t be able to snatch. And if you’re weightlifting or getting in to CrossFit then you need to be able to. Being able to hold the bar overhead while you hit the bottom of the squat can be affected by your thoracic mobility, as I’ve said before, but your shoulder mobility can also play a huge role. One of the best ways to get the mobility required is to work on your latissimus dorsi!
First, let’s look at how you can know if your latissimus dorsi are tight. Lie down on the floor. Bring your knees to your chest. Straighten your arms overhead. You should be able to get your wrists and hands to the floor. If you can’t then there’s tightness somewhere in your shoulder girdle that’s stopping you. From here, straighten your legs out. If your hands now drop down to the floor, guess what? It’s lats! (If it’s something other than your latissimus dorsi then other approaches will be needed - that’s a topic for another time!)
If your latissimus dorsi are tight, one of the best ways to stretch them is as follows:
Attach a heavy band to a pull-up bar.
Slip one wrist through the bottom of the band and grip the band with your hand.
Sink down and back into a half squat and lean away from the band, so that you have a reasonable amount of tension in the band, and so there is a straight line from your hand through your shoulder to your hip.
Turn your torso to the opposite side from the lat you are stretching. Use your opposite hand on your knee to help if needed.
Hold the stretch for at least 30 seconds, or do 3 or more sets of 10 seconds each. You can move around a bit in this stretch to maximise it. Repeat on the other side.
Note: This stretch can be performed holding on to the upright pillar of a squat rack, or even on to a door frame (so you can perform it at home), although possibly less effectively.
That’s it for now. You may have seen or been taught other stretches and mobilisations for these areas. There’s no right or wrong. If something else works for you better, then do that! It’s also a good idea to approach all of these techniques from the perspective of testing what works. Try it, and see if it makes a difference to your squat. If it does, do it more. If it doesn’t, try something else.
If you’ve looked at and addressed any structural variations, and you’ve worked on mobility, but you’re still having problems, your issue may be about motor control. Next time I’m going to cover how things like balance, stability and co-ordination can affect your squat, and go through some great fixes for some of the issues that can come up. Stay tuned!
My sincere thanks to Kristy and Josh for willingly demonstrating the positions and techniques described in this article!