In my years of carrying out movement assessments (22 clients and counting this week alone) and spending far too much of my life in gyms, I have seen more than my fair share of poor squat form.
The issues are pretty much the same for everyone: poor ankle flexibility, inadequate core stability, lack of glute activation—and in some cases, poor thoracic spine mobility.
Let’s take a look at some common squat mechanics problems and how to fix them.
Finding Your Baseline
To break down your squat pattern and figure out where your form is going wrong, you need to establish a baseline to check against for improvement. A simple body weight Squat performed with your hands behind your head works perfectly for this.
Ask a trusted training partner to watch carefully—or better yet, use a camera—and do a few reps using your natural squat motion.
Pay particular attention to squat depth, whether your chest is up (can you see the logo on the front of your shirt?), if you’re tucking your butt under in the bottom position, the angle of your back, and whether your knees are tracking over your toes or caving in.
Once you’ve taken note of your baseline squat pattern, it’s time to make it better! Many people assume that if their squat depth is too little or their torso leans forward or their butt isn’t tucked, they lack hip mobility. But they’re often wrong.
One of the most common causes of poor form is actually a lack of stability—or more specifically anterior core stability. Test yours by squatting with a light weight, held at arms’ length directly in front of you, as a counter weight. This automatically forces your anterior core to engage. If your squat form looks better, you know you have an anterior core issue.
Hammer your anterior core with exercises like Rollouts, Dead Bugs and Reverse Crunches and you’ll see your squat form clean up in next to no time. The added core strength will help you put more pounds on the bar, too!
Lack of ankle flexibility can be responsible for many off the same issues as a weak anterior core. The old trick of placing 5-pound plates under your heels when you squat can help your ankle flexibility. If it doesn’t improve your mechanics, see if elevating your heels improves your squat depth, butt wink and back angle.
If the counter weight does improve your mechanics, keep the counterweight but repeat with your heels elevated.
Just found out you need to improve your ankle mobility? Take a look at this video of wall-ankle mobilizations: Complete two sets of 12 to 15 controlled “bounces” on each side.
I also love this foam-rolling drill, courtesy of Tony Gentilcore.
If your knees aren’t tracking over your toes when you squat, you probably have glute activation issues. Lack of glute activation can also limit your squat depth, cause butt wink, and result in relatively stronger quads, creating a more profound forward pull on the femoral head, which in turn reduces the space available in the hip joint to squat.
Place a mini-band around your knees to force your knees out. If glute activation is an issue, this will improve your squat mechanics. But if you see little or no change, then glute activation is probably not the cause of your problems.
One of my all-time favorite drills for glute activation are Lateral X-Band Walks. Complete 4 sets of 8 strides to the left and right.
Thoracic Spine Mobility
After making the modifications mentioned above, if you’re unable to keep your chest up and squat with appropriate neutral spine in the upper back, then lack of thoracic spine mobility is usually to blame.
Simple test: can you still see the logo on your shirt throughout the Squat? If not, can you see the logo when you squat with your heels elevated, a counter weight and band tension forcing your knees out? If the answer is still no, you probably need to work on T-spine mobility. T-Spine Extensions on a foam roller are a great way to develop the mobility required to keep your chest up in the Squat.
Begin at just above the belly button. With the foam roller in position, do five crunch movements. You should feel the roller pushing the vertebrae slightly forward, in effect creating range of motion. You can do a series of these crunches all the way up to your shoulder blades.