Why Your Squat Sucks

Previously, I discussed at length why your bench press might suck. Today I’m going to go along the same lines and discuss the squat.

Squatting is one of the basic movement patterns that everyone should master in the gym. Truthfully, there is no perfect way to squat, but technique does exist on a continuum that goes from “really bad” to “adequate and safe.” First and foremost, squatting should not hurt. Contrary to popular opinion, you can squat safely and effectively without hurting your knees or your back, and you should be squatting as deep as you can to derive the most benefit from the squat for general fitness purposes.

Yet, some people still squat only a portion of the depth that they’re capable of or with poor technique. I can understand this. The squat is a multi-joint movement that can get technical.

There are many ways to squat, but as a starting point, here is what they should all generally look like:





Perhaps the biggest variation that you can incorporate into your squat is where you hold the weight. The load could be anterior: in front of your chest, across your shoulders, or by your hips. It could also be posterior: on your back as in the back squat. The loading can even be below you to take loading off your spine, as in a belt squat. We recently got a new piece of equipment called the kBox here at Halevy Life, and we fully intend on using it for squats like these:

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There are certain commonalities among these squatting variations that apply for any other type of squat. However, we still see some common mistakes when it comes to squatting, and here we’ll discuss these mistakes and how to fix them.

Mistake #1: Failing to properly screen and assess your squat

If you were back in school and had to take a final exam for one of your classes, how well do you think you’ll do if you didn’t study for it?

For a lot of people, this is exactly what is happening with their squat. By not screening or assessing it, they are already setting themselves up for failure as they try to squat more frequently or with more weight in their fitness routines. Pain and dysfunction might arise, which can throw a wrench into their plans to make progress.

Generally, their are two areas to worry about in your squat: the upper half and the lower half. They are also the basis for the technical errors that we see in the squat:

DO YOU CRUMBLE LIKE A DROOPY FLOWER WHEN YOU SQUAT? 🥀 — Try out this #SaturdayScreen to find out. The squat is one of the most crucial movements in the gym, and today we’ll be talking about the upper half in this Overhead Squat screen. We are primarily looking at two areas: 1️⃣ The thoracic spine/upper back 2️⃣ The lumbar spine/lower back Ideally, we want to see exactly what @dan_cerone demonstrates in his overhead squat. With the dowel held up over his head, he is still able to keep his torso upright throughout the squat. He certainly has the shoulder mobility, thoracic extension, and lower half mechanics (and the mobility) necessary to squat safely. 🌷 Meanwhile, @jrlaukinetics basically crumbles like a droopy flower in the overhead squat. He pitches forward, and his lower back rolls and rounds during this screen. 🥀 Can you imagine what he looks like doing a snatch 🏋? It won’t be pretty, and might even be dangerous. If you lack shoulder mobility and thoracic extension, we can expect to see you pitch forward. If you don’t have the right lower half mechanics, we can expect to see your lower back rounding as you squat. One of the squats probably needs extensive coaching and attention; the other one doesn’t. And we haven’t even talked about the lower half yet! Stay tuned for more. — #squat #olympicweightlifting #snatch #mobility #movement #fitness #fitspo #gym #gymtime #halevylife @jeff.halevy

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DO YOU CRUMBLE LIKE A DROOPY FLOWER WHEN YOU SQUAT? 🥀 (PART 2)
—
Try out this #SaturdayScreen to find out. Last week we covered the upper half in the Overhead Squat screen, and today we’ll be talking about the lower half.
We are primarily looking at two areas:
1️⃣ The hips
2️⃣ The ankles 
Once again, @dan_cerone demonstrates a proper overhead squat. For the purposes of this screen, you should have your feet shoulder-width apart with your toes pointed straight ahead. In this position, he is still able to keep his torso upright and squat deeply. Dan has enough hip internal rotation and ankle dorsiflexion to made this happen. On the other hand, @jrlaukinetics is unable to squat properly in this position and crumbles like a droopy flower. He doesn’t have the hip and ankle mobility to sit into a deep position, and compensates by pitching forward at the torso. But by turning the toes out and using a wider stance, he is able to compensate for limited hip IR and ankle dorsiflexion to demonstrate a better looking squat. 🏋
If you lack the hip and ankle mobility to squat deeply, play around with the positioning of your feet to help you work around your limitations. Give this screen a shot to see what you need to do!
—
#squat #olympicweightlifting #snatch #mobility#movement #fitness #fitspo #gym #gymtime #halevylife @jeff.halevy

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Testing your squat in a safe, non-threatening environment without any loading, as Dan and I show you above can reveal a lot about your squat and how much you need to work on it to make it effective for you. Try out the overhead squat screen and don’t overlook this step of the process.

Mistake #2: Compromising the integrity of your spine for more depth

Yes, there is a time and place where squatting too deep can actually be harmful. Squatting deep won’t hurt you in an unloaded movement like the overhead squat screen. However, it’s important to take stock of your limitations, whether they’re in the upper body or the lower body, before squatting with load.

In my case, I have issues with both areas in the squat. Limited thoracic (upper back extension) and poor ankle dorsiflexion causes me to pinch forward in my squat screen, and also causes me to flex my lower back to squat deep. Without any alterations or warming up beforehand, I can barely squat below parallel. With some coaching and prep work however, I’m able to do so and utilize the squat more effectively in my personal workouts.

Here are some of my favorite warm-up and mobility drills for the squat:

HIPS DON’T LIE — What’s your hip mobility like? Try out this #SaturdayScreen to find out. The Hip 90/90 position allows you to examine how much hip rotation you have. When you set up for the Hip 90/90, make sure that you can draw a straight line from your hip to the knee, and the knee to the ankle on both legs, just like Coach @dan_cerone is doing above. The front hip is in external rotation, while the rear hip is in internal rotation. To examine ER, lean forward towards your front hip, staying tall throughout the movement. Think about driving the belly button forward over your knee. The further you can drive forward, the more ER you have. You know you’ve reached end range when you feel a stretch in the front glute. To examine hip IR of the rear hip, drive down towards the ankle while simultaneously keeping the opposite leg pinned to the floor. The further you can drive towards the ankle, the more internal rotation you have. You know you’ve reached end range when you can’t drive down anymore. Test out the Hip 90/90 on both sides to see how much rotation you have in each hip, and don’t be surprised if these positions feel uncomfortable and restricted. Your #hipsdontlie to you! 💃 — #FRCms #kinstretch #controlyourself #fitness #fitspo #fitfam #nyc #gym #gymtime #personaltrainer #privategym #halevylife #mobility #shakira

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HAVE YOU EVER SPRAINED OR BROKEN YOUR ANKLE? 👟 — When a joint somehow ends up in a position that it has never been in before, injury is likely to result. Think of a basketball player inadvertently rolling his ankle upon landing on a defender’s foot, for example. 🏀 – The position that someone gets hurt in is often the one that is never practiced or trained. The goal of Ankle CAR’s is to take the ankle through its full range of motion. CAR’s will help you explore what you currently have so that you can address your mobility restrictions and prevent injuries. – The first step of this #SaturdayScreen is to slide the front foot forward until you can no longer keep your full foot on the ground. This is the maximum amount of plantarflexion that you have. From here, take the ankle through its full range of motion in a slow and controlled fashion, and think about drawing as big a circle as possible with your foot. Lift the foot up, turn it out, turn it in, and press it down, as Coach @dan_cerone demonstrates above. Be sure to rotate in both directions here. – To truly isolate the ankle joint, make sure no motion occurs in the shin bone. This is why Dan keeps his hands on his tibial plateau, which is the little bump below his knee. He’s making sure the bump doesn’t move while performing this. – Note any sticking points and restrictions that occur during the CAR’s. A hard tissue end-feel indicates a restriction due to anatomy; a soft tissue end-feel indicates tightness or restrictions that can be addressed with targeted mobility work and further training. Use it or lose it! 👊 — #frc #controlyourself #kinstretch #doanything #mobility #gymtime #gym #fitness #fitspo #fitfam #halevylife #privategym #basketball @jeff.halevy

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CAN’T SQUAT DEEP? THINK AGAIN. 🏋️ — Today’s #SaturdayScreen is one of our favorite exercises to both warm up and improve mobility for the squat. (Thanks to @quinn.henochdpt and @clinicalathlete for the inspiration!) – In a front squat or overhead squat, both of which are crucial for success in #weightlifting , one of the biggest challenges is keeping the elbows and chest up throughout the squat. This requires thoracic mobility in conjunction with hip mobility; combining the two is the goal of the screen here today. – The weight serves as a counterbalance that also allows you to sit deeper into the squat. Using a bumper plate instead of a kettlebell gives the shoulders more room to press upward and drive more thoracic extension. Finally, pressing upwards slowly and exhaling deeply builds the stability necessary to control these positions when it comes time to load these patterns up. – If you have trouble with your squat depth or positioning, try out this screen today and it will only be a matter of time before you start seeing improvements! 👊 — #mobility #gymtime #gym #olympiclifting #powerlifting #squat #fitness #fitspo #halevylife #privategym @jeff.halevy @rosstcurtis @jrlaukinetics

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The last drill is particularly powerful. Notice how Ross and I are able to maintain the integrity of our lower backs even as we squat, basically as deep as we can. The anterior loading of the plate creates the necessary core engagement to keep our abs braced and enables us to support heavier loading. Basically, the lower back is a joint that shouldn’t move in your squat, and you want to keep it that way.

With proper preparation I’m able to demonstrate a much cleaner squat, as you can see below. Don’t neglect this component of your training session and keep your lower back safe!

Mistake #3: Feeling it in the wrong places

This almost goes without saying now. With all that I’ve shown you, it’s important to make sure that you’re hitting the right spots with you squat. You definitely don’t want to feel it in your lower back, nor should you feel any pressure in your knees. The warm-up and mobility drills shown here will allow you to get comfortable with squatting and proper depth so that you can hit the quads, hamstrings and glutes, depending on the squatting variations you use.

As you continue to build your mobility and stability, and improve your technique, keep this in mind. There’s no perfect way to squat, and you shouldn’t sacrifice your spine to squat deep. However, you should aim to improve your squat and your depth to maximize the benefits you can derive from this movement.

Conclusion

The squat is one of the most oft-butchered exercises that I’ve seen in the gym, and because of this, many people are not unlocking their full potential when it comes to this valuable exercise. If you’re making these mistakes, you’re probably stagnating on this crucial movement as well. Make sure you’re assessing your squat and warming up for it appropriately, and you’re well on your way to making your squat suck less. Happy squatting!

by Jeremy Lau

Jeremy Lau is a Senior Staff Coach and Metabolic Lab Manager at Halevy Life.

Jeremy graduated cum laude from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a BSc. in Biomedical Engineering and received his Master’s in Exercise Physiology at Columbia University. In addition to his academic accolades, Jeremy is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS).

Prior to joining the team at Halevy Life, Jeremy completed a coaching internship at Cressey Sports Performance, where he coached both amateur and professional athletes, among whom were many professional MLB baseball players.

As an athlete, Jeremy has played baseball competitively for most of his life.