We’ve all heard it before: The Squat is the king of all exercises. This often puts the Squat at the top of the programming food chain when athletes plan training goals for the new year.
And for good reason: The Squat engages more joints and muscles than nearly any other exercise. With correct squat form, athletes from every sport can enhance their muscular strength and power-generating capacity.
The relative benefits of Back vs. Front Squats, squat depths and Single-Leg vs. Bilateral Squats are heavily debated. The truth is that all Squat variations have their merits when used in the right situation for the right reasons.
That said, let’s look at a few common Squat mistakes and some strategies to improve performance.
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Falling forward during the ascent of the Squat can indicate weak or inhibited gluteals, back erectors or trunk musculature. To prevent this, work to maintain a ridgid, somewhat upright posture. I say “somewhat” because the angle of your back can change with the Squat variation you are performing—for example, front vs. back vs. low bar.
To maintain an upright posture, brace your trunk musculature and breathe around the brace. To create the brace, contract your core musculature and hold it as if someone were going to punch you in the stomach. This effectively clamps down your trunk musculature around the spinal column and gives it rigidity.
Bracing protects against unwanted movement in the spine. Learning to breathe in this posture is important. For sets longer than 1 rep, it’s inefficient to hold your breath to create this stiffness. So practice clamping down and taking deep belly breaths behind the brace.
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Switching to a Front Squat or Plate Goblet Squat, where the weight is in front of you, helps you to counter-balance and maintain a more upright posture. It effectively increases the use of your trunk musculature and forces you to brace. This subtle change can help you correct yourself from falling forward during a squatting pattern.
Limited Range of Motion
Correct squat form consists of performing the movement through a complete range of motion. If you have trouble achieving full range of motion, it may be caused by limited ankle mobility. Limited ankle range of motion can also cause you to shift your weight forward or backward. To determine whether ankle range of motion is the culprit, elevate your heels on 10-pound plates and perform a normal Squat. If your Squat cleans up and feels smoother, your ankles are probably to blame—since the only thing that has changed is the orientation of your ankle joints.
Elevating your heels can be an effective and safe way to train the Squat while you work to increase your ankle range of motion. An easy way to implement this is to purchase weightlifting shoes. They have elevated heels and rigid bottoms, so you can better position yourself during the Squat and Olympic movements.
You can also improve range of motion and tissue quality around your ankles by performing ankle mobility drills and using a foam roller and/or a massage ball (a lacrosse ball or softball work great). Some common drills include:
- Using a ball to roll the arches of the foot
- Foam rolling the calves
- Ankle rocking against a wall: Stand 2 to 6 inches away from a wall and rock your knee forward over your toe to the wall, maintaining a flat foot.
Performing these drills on a regular basis can restore fluidity to restricted ankles. This then allows you to return to setting PRs in the squat rack.
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Knees Caving In
Knees caving in during the Squat creates energy leaks. In other words, force is not being used in the right direction. To perform the most efficient Squat, you need straight lines throughout the movement. Your toes should be in line with your knees, which should be in line with your hips. This creates a strong, powerful lineup of the leg, ensuring that force being generated by the feet pressing into the ground is transferred into squatting the weight.
In my experience, this often means one of two things—or both: (1) the hip rotators lack strength to maintain proper position; and/or (2) the foot is overpronating.
Let’s tackle No. 1 first. If your knees caving in is due to insufficient tension or strength generated in the hip rotators, you can address the issue through exercise and cueing. Some simple exercises you can incorporate are Shuffles, Squats and Monster Walks with a mini-band or hip circle around the knees. These force the hips to push out against the band. Using a band around your knees works to strengthen and activate the hip rotators, which translates to a better squatting position. However, if you already incorporate this type of work and there is still a problem, you can try additional cueing. The cue we use here is, “screw your feet into the ground.” Exploiting this cue helps you generate great amounts of tension around the hip and effectively maintain a better knee position.
For No. 2, a good way to stop the foot from collapsing during the Squat is to wear an orthotic. If you have flat feet, it may be hard to maintain the rigid foot position you need for proper knee alignment during the Squat. As previously mentioned, weightlifting shoes elevate your heels and provide a more rigid surface, allowing for better knee position. Finally, employing the “screw your feet into the ground” cue during the Squat helps distribute weight to the outsides and heels of your feet, minimizing any collapse at the arch.