Have you ever had trouble with your squat form? Maybe it’s a challenge for you to get to parallel? Your torso starts to lean forward excessively? Or your knees start to go WAY past your toes? All these are signs that are common among many fitness junkies, workout enthusiasts, and even some professional athletes.
Proper squat form is one of the most important things to have when doing a squat. Hell, form in any lift is the most important aspect, since it’s what keeps you from snap city. So when our form isn’t there, we put ourselves at a higher risk of injury.
A lot of people think the amount of weight is the problem with getting the proper form. While that may be true for beginners, weight is not the biggest factor when it comes to achieving the right form. Sure, going up in weight when we’re not ready can definitely cause a breakdown in form. Our bodies compensate in different ways and when it comes to weights heavier than we can handle, our form is the first to go out the window.
With that said, when bad form is detected even exercising with light weights, it should raise red flags that the form must be fixed before adding any more load to the exercise. This is crucial for 3 reasons, 1 of which we had already discussed:
- More weight + bad form = injury
- The form will stick, making it harder to learn the proper form later
- We won’t receive the full benefits from the exercise
It’s pretty obvious that proper form is vital for the squat. Not just because it’s one of the best exercises to burn fat, but because it builds extreme physical and mental toughness. Try doing some 5 sets of doubles or triples at 90-95% of your max and you’ll know what I’m talking about.
But before that, we need to know about the biggest hurdle for most of us when it comes to proper squat form.
Biggest Factor in Proper Squat Form
So what’s the biggest factor when in comes to achieving proper squat form? Want to venture a guess? We established that it’s not the weight. We see people squat with just their body weight and still not able to execute proper form.
If you’ve been reading my posts, you’d known right away the answer is mobility.
Having mobility in different areas of your body is what’s going to impact your form. Especially in a whole body movement like that of the squat, mobility is absolutely critical.
In spite of knowing this, there are still plenty of people who can’t squat properly. One common mistake I see is putting more weight on the bar when the form was never there to begin with. This is reason #2 from the previous section. It becomes much harder to “unlearn” something when we feel it works for us.
When we feel we’re able to lift more with the bad form, the initial feedback is that our form is fine. Even if we get over the conscious side of admitting that our form needs to be improved, our body has a mind of its own sometimes, especially when it comes to ingrained habits.
That’s just one of the important reason for having proper form before moving on to heavier weights. I think the other 2 reasons listed are pretty much self-explanatory.
There are 3 critical areas that needs good mobility for proper squat form. Let’s see what they are.
The ankles may seem to play the least important role when squatting, but it’s the determining factor in keeping our feet flat on the squat throughout the entire movement. Having good ankle mobility means not only having a good range of motion, but also expressing that range of motion during movement under stress. I reiterate this point here from my mobility article because it’s often forgotten what mobility really is.
Importance Of Dorsiflexion
When we flex our ankle so that we’re trying to touch our shins with our toes, that’s called dorsiflexion. We can feel the shins tightening up to pull our toes upward. When we’re going into a squat, the ankles go through the same exact motion.
We’re not purposely trying to pull our toes toward our shins in this case, but the ankle still has to go through that range of motion.
So what happens when our dorsiflexion is poor or non-existent?
Go ahead and try to squat down without flexing your ankles, keeping your shins completely straight. What happen? You either:
- Lean your torso forward to the point of touching your chest to your thighs
- Started to fall over backwards
- Lifted your heels off the ground and got up on your toes
For those of us without proper ankle mobility, one or more of these 3 things happen when we try to squat properly. Now imagine putting weight on your back and doing that. Doesn’t seem to workout too well, does it? Pun intended BIG time 🙂
Carry Over To Other Movements
I want to stress the importance of dorsiflexion not just for the squat, but also daily movements. Poor dorsiflexion can contribute to walking flat footed, with very little to no heel contact with the ground. While it’s good to stay on the balls of our feet and avoid heel strike when sprinting, heel contact should be engaged when walking.
This puts unnecessary stress on the arch area of the foot, and over time it can get overworked. The last thing you want is an injury or even soreness on the bottom of your feet.
Tripping is another hazard that can result from poor dorsiflexion. When the foot cannot raise high enough, the toes may catch the ground before we expect it. A stubbed toe would also be on the agenda if we’re around the house. And running with poor dorsiflexion could turn into a somersaut.
Ankles are obviously important for proper squat form. Working our way up the body, some may think the knees are the next important link in the chain. Actually, if we move up just a bit more, we have something far more important.
The hips in my opinion, are the most important element in the squat. The very motion of the squat involves opening up and closing the hips. This is not to downplay the other body parts involved but the hips are what makes or breaks your squat.
“It’s all in the hips.” – Chubbs from Happy Gilmore
When I talk about the hips, I’m not referring to just the area of the hip bone. I’m talking about the entire region in that hip area; lower back, buttocks, upper hamstrings and quads, hip flexors, lower abdomen, etc. Now you see what I mean when I say that squatting is a whole body movement?
General Area Tightness
With all those muscles and tendons and ligaments in that area, it’s very easy to get tight muscles there. I think I can safely assume not all of us can do full splits (me included). So a mobile hip doesn’t come naturally to us.
No matter if we’re workout maniacs or a couch potato, hip tightness are bound to creep up at some point. Especially if we don’t ever work on stretching or doing mobility exercises, they can get tight on us pretty quickly.
One of the worst activities that all of us do at least multiple times a day is sit. Sitting is necessary for a lot of us and this is not to scare you off, but you may have already heard that sitting is the new smoking. From a hip mobility standpoint, sitting keeps the hips closed, which keeps the muscles in a shorten state.
The most notable effects from prolonged sitting is tight hip flexors. These muscles lie below your inguinal crease and above the top of your thighs.
In the case of the squat, the hip flexors are actually antagonistic muscles, meaning they work against the motion of squatting. A trick to temporarily squat more weight is to stretch out the hip flexors right before a set. A long stretch over 30 seconds at least would be best. This temporarily weakens the muscles, which reduces the antagonistic effects and allows for more weight to be lifted.
But if the hip flexors are antagonistic muscles, then I should have to worry about them being mobile then! Wrong. I used the hip flexors as an example to illustrate how our hips in general can get tight over time. The lack of mobility due to sitting and other daily activities are not exclusive to the hip flexors only.
One of the most overlooked muscles are the hip adductors. These muscles are responsible for closing our legs together. If you squeeze an object between your thighs, you’re flexing your hip adductors.
Another muscle that can affect our squat form are our hamstrings. As much as some say they don’t affect our squats, a tight hamstring can pull your hips under and forward at the bottom of a squat. This is one of the contributing factors to the infamous “butt wink”.
Sidenote: The “butt wink” isn’t always due to tight hips or other mobility issues. Some people’s anatomy just works in such a way that it’s unavoidable if they squat deep. I personally have a bit of this if I go ATG (ass-to-grass).
So we see how much hip mobility can affect our squat form. Remember, the major movement in the squat is the opening and closing of the hips. This cannot be done properly unless our hips are mobile enough to be opened!
This is the part where some people get tripped up. As we move up the body from the hips, it appears there’s nothing else that really affects our squat form, right? I mean, the squat happens at the lower body so nothing above the hips really matter all that much, RIGHT?
You already know that’s not the case.
Easily the most overlooked problem area when it comes to the squat: thoracic region.
Easy To Miss
Because this area is so overlooked, any symptoms of poor squat form are usually attributed to everything else but this. Although we may be tight in other areas, poor squat form usually isn’t the result of a single culprit. Fixing the ankles and the hips will get us far, but the thoracic region is also critical.
If we consider some of the common symptoms of a tight thoracic region, it’s easy to see why this can be easily missed for inducing poor squat form.
- Excessive leaning forward with torso
- Rounded back
- The “butt wink”
- Weight shifting mainly onto the heels
Having a tight thoracic region can cause these symptoms. The problem is that these symptoms can also be attributed to other problem areas of the body.
The Most Overlooked
Another reason this area is easily forgotten about is how it relates to other exercises. “Thoracic extension? That’s for Overhead Squats only!”, “Opening the Thoracic? We’re not doing Front Squats!”.
Because opening up the thoracic area is so common with the overhead squat, front squat, and other movements that appears to directly involve the upper back and deltoids, the thoracic doesn’t get much love with the back squat.
But this almost goes against all logic and reason. If an opened thoracic region is vital for other variations of the squat, why would the foundation exercise for them all, the back squat, not require it?
Keeping the torso upright during the back squat is just as important as it is in the front squat or overhead squat. Each movement required us to look straight ahead with our chest up. And the only way to do that is to keep our thoracic region mobile.
Opening Up These Areas
Here comes the part you’ve all been waiting for. Enough talk about how these areas of our bodies are important, let’s get to the good stuff!
I’ve posted a video for opening each area that we’ve discuss above. These are just the most effective and useful exercises that I’ve found through research. There are more advanced versions that you can certainly try, but I suggest going with these when first starting out.
All the exercises can be done with equipment that you can find at your local gym. If you don’t have access to one, the only thing you’ll need is a medicine ball or a PVC pipe or something firm to place under your back while lying down.
Of course, to get the best out of these exercises, be sure to check out the mobility bands I used in the videos.
- Keep the heel flat as much as possible
- Okay for knees to be over the toes in this instance
- Supplement with calf stretches for better results
- Do it on both ankles (duh)
- Differentiate between discomfort and pain, do tolerate the former but never the latter
- Again, move slowly throughout this stretch
- Use a lighter band or no band for your first time
- Use a softer surface than a PVC pipe if it’s uncomfortable
- Learn to breathe naturally in this position
Make It Your Routine
Practice makes perfect as they say, and this is no exception. Starting out, doing these each time before you squat will show definite improvement. We can move onto doing these drills each time before we workout, regardless of what we’ll be doing. This will keep those areas mobile for any exercise.
Eventually, we can move onto more advanced exercises that requires a good amount of mobility to begin with. Some of them may not need to be performed everyday, just before each time we workout.
I hope you’ve found this article to be helpful. Happy squatting!