Want to level up your squat? Make sure your form is on point and add in some fun variations. You gotta have the basics down first! Grab them all in this post!
Squats 101: How to Perfect your Squat
Squat, because no one ever wrote a song about a small butt.
Squats are a basic foundational, functional movement that every human should be able to perform. There is a basic set up – and variations of that basic set up based on anatomical set up, previous injury and more. There are also a host of different squat variations that can help you enhance and intensity your workouts.
Before we go crazy pants with a million different variations, let’s get the basics down first, sound good?! Please note, we are going pretty basic here. Subsequent posts will go into common dysfunctions in greater details. We are doing a basic overview today.
Remember the Corrective Exercise Continuum from last week? Inhibit, lengthen, activate and integrate? We are going to follow that same model for the squat!
BASIC SQUAT SET UP
First, start with correct posture. After going over all your postural checkpoints, begin moving your feet at least hip width apart. Feet can move as wide as shoulder width apart. Toes either forward or turned out slightly. Initiate the decent from your hips – sit them back as if you are sitting in a chair. Simultaneously, your knees should be begin to bend. Your entire foot should stay planted on the ground – gripping the floor to create torque, stability and an arch in your foot. Drive through heels, engage glutes and push floor away to stand, squeezing glutes at the top. Imagine being in standing plank position.
From the side, knees and hips should be at least at 90 degrees, if not slightly lower at the hips. Thigh should be parallel to the floor. Torso should be slightly forward, back flat (not rounded or arched). Knees should be just over the toes.
From the front, knees should be tracking just outside your pinky toe (not moving inward) and chest should be lifted slightly.
A note on breathing: Inhale as you begin to descend into your squad and exhale as you push the floor away.
Overhead Squat Assessment
The Overhead Squat Assessment is a very common assessment we are taught as a personal trainer and corrective exercise specialist. Dysfunctions with this movement have carry over into other movement patterns and care help identify a host of different muscle imbalances, not only with the lower body, but upper body and core.
You can check out the FULL Overhead Squat Assessment Compensation list here. We are going to cover the most common dysfunctions I see as a trainer and ones that you very likely experience.
The differences with the overhead squat assessment include:
- Feet remain at hip width apart (outside this assessment, foot placement will vary with each individual)
- Toes pointed straight. (outside this assessment, angle of toes will vary with each individual)
- Arms overhead
This is a common issue that is usually due to a lack of ankle dorsiflexion – meaning you have tight/overactive calf muscles that inhibit you from proper position.
KNEES KNOCKING IN
Probably the most common issue. A slight knee valgus – knees knocking inward – is not a huge issue. The big problem is when the knee moves inward during the entire movement. It’s an indication of weak glutes and overactive adductors (inner thighs). This is a common compensation for individuals that sit at a desk for a majority of the day.
Remember those rounded shoulders from last week? Issues with weak / overactive muscles that produce rounded shoulders are at work when we see a rounded back during a squat. An overactive core and weak back extensors are another common cause.
Part of the reason I think this occurs sometimes is due to poor curing for the squat. You should not be looking up towards the ceiling. Eyes should be looking directly in front of you or slightly down.
If the compensation is not corrected with that simple fix, it can be due to an overactive hip flexor complex, erector spinae and lat.
LACK OF DEPTH
I don’t believe everyone is able to get Ass to Grass in a squat without really working on their mobility. Hip structure, muscle weakness and just lack of body awareness on how to move into a deep squat are reasons why. And getting into a deep squat WITHOUT butt wink is a another issue as well. I’ll share some simple ways to practice increasing your squat depth below.
ASYMMETRICAL WEIGHT SHIFT
I have a client that exhibited this compensation and it’s been on of my favorite compensations to correct! The issue arises from tight / overactive muscles on the side of the shift and weak / underachieve muscles on the opposite side of the shift.
CORRECTIVE EXERCISE OPTIONS / HOW TO USE THIS POST
Now, each compensation has it’s own set of overactive / underactive muscles. To make it easier, the continuum is listed for every compensation. So, biggest issue knees knocking, scroll up a smidgen, and click on the title KNEES KNOCKING IN and it will take you to the continuum for how to correct this compensation. Make sense? Or you can just scroll down and check out the corrections for each compensation!
INHIBIT & LENGTHEN: RX for this phase is usually at least 2 minutes per side, taking deep breaths.
ACTIVATION: RX for this depends on the movement / stretch. You’ll usually be working with a mid-range number of reps and hold stretches for at least :30 seconds.
INTEGRATION: RX depends on exercise.
INHIBIT & LENGTHEN
As mentioned above, the main issue with this dysfunction is lack of ankle dorsiflexion, which essentially translates into tight calves. The SOLEUS muscle is the main tight muscle and I’ve got 2 simple ways to stretch it out.
CALF FOAM ROLL | Grab your foam roller. Move slowly from the base of your calf, to the top. Slow rolls. Take a few more rolls with a different foot position. You can see I’m moving my leg from left to right, moving my foot in a circle and pointing/flexing my ankle. All these movements help lengthen the muscle by switching up the angle.
CALF MOBILITY DRILL | You can do this one by placing one foot on a bench / box, other knee / foot on the ground. You will still put weigh on the foot on the bench.
A variation is doing this on the ground. Foot should be completely pressed to the ground, gripping the floor. Heel should not raise up. Move forward and back, in and out of the stretch.You can also do a calf wall stretch. Pretty basic and most people know how to make it happen.
The main weak muscle is the anterior tibialis – the front of your shin. Work on flexing your foot to help strengthen this muscle. Hold for 2 seconds and slowly un-flex (maybe 3 – 4 seconds).
KNEES KNOCKING IN
INHIBIT & LENGTHEN
Again, one of the most common dysfunctions I see. A super simple fix I’d use when I taught group fitness was to tell clients to ‘move their knees out.’ Or tell them to image their was a band around their knees that they are pushing out against. If they needed an extra visual clue, I’d put my hands on the outside of their knees and tell them that their knees needed to touch my hands.
These cues work in the moment, but they don’t necessarily address the overactive / underactive muscle imbalance.
The main overactive muscles with this compensation are: adductors (inner thighs), biceps femoris short head (portion of hamstring just above the back of your knee), and TFL (side of your thigh). These muscles are hip internal rotators. They are doing their job – just doing it a little too well. Vastus lateralus (quad muscle) and lateral gastrocnemius (calf muscle).
ADDUCTOR FOAM ROLL | This stretch can burn so good. You’ll set up as show in the photo. One leg is propped up on the foam roller. Like the calf roll, you’ll slowly move towards the inside of your leg. If you find a tender spot, move your leg around, continuing to breathe. Extend your leg out, engaging the quad. Keeping knee bent, rotate your hip & knee inward, lifting foot up.
ADDUCTOR STRETCH (SUPPORTED)| Spread feet wide – as wide as your inner thighs allow. You do not need a support, but it’s always great option. Bend one knee back as if you were going to squat, while keeping the other knee extended. You should feel a stretch in your inner thigh. Move in and out of the stretch, taking a couple breaths on each leg.
Basic hamstring stretches are great here too, just not pictured. You can do a forward fold and put cross one foot in front of the other to target the biceps femoris short head.
A handful of muscles are tight with this compensation: medial hamstring complex, medial gastrocnemius (calf), vastus medals oblique (quad muscle), anterior & posterior tibialis (shins) and gluteus medius and gluteus maximus (butt).
BANDED LATERAL WALKS | This is a staple move in ALL my client programs, and in mine. It is an excellent drill for building glute strength and targeting all the weak muscles for this compensation. You’ve got 2 options for band placement. Band on calves gives a bit more glute activation. You can always start on quads and progress to calves.
Place band on desired muscle group. Set up in athletic stances: feet at least hip width apart, feet forward, squat position, back flat. IF you are having pain or issues in squat position, you can always stand more upright, with just a slight bend in your knees.
Keeping feet placement roughly the same, take a step to the left and return legs/feet to starting position. Push out against the band, drive through heels.
BANDED MONSTER WALKS (top) | A variation of lateral walks. You’ll keep the band around your calves, feet a little more than hip width apart. Take a big step forward, pushing out against the band, ensuring knees do not fall in, and follow with the other foot. Feet should remain wide for this drill.
BANDED DIAGONAL WALKS (bottom) | Same set up as monster walks, except after you step forward, your other foot will follow by tapping BEHIND the lead foot.
Incorporate these banded walks into your workouts for an extra burn. I love including banded squats as a corrective exercise. The band will feed the dysfunction of your knees moving inward, but you using your weak muscles, especially your glutes to push the band out.
BACK ROUNDS & BACK ARCHES
These dysfunctions are nearly the inverse of each other when it comes to overactive / underactive muscles.
For ROUNDED BACK
- Overactive muscles: external obliques (abdominals), rectus abdominis, hamstrings and adductors
- Underactive muscles: glute max, hip flexors, lat, erector spinae
For ARCHED BACK
- Overactive muscles: hip flexors, lat, erector spinae
- Underactive muscles: intrinsic core stabilizers (abdominals), hamstrings and glute max
See, almost the inverse. So, how do we fix?!
INHIBIT & LENGTHEN – BACK ROUNDS
Adductor Stretch, Hamstring Stretch and core stretch.
Banded Lateral and Diagonal Walks, Hip Bridge, and Cobra.
Any of the moves in the Activation Phase can be added into workouts and progressed.
BALL SQUATS | Put a stability ball between a wall and you, ideally near the small of your back. Feet out in front of you, at least hip width apart – or your squat stance. Press into the ball as you lower down into a squat, quads parallel to the ground. Stand up and repeat.
INHIBIT & LENGTHEN – BACK ARCHES
COUCH STRETCH | This stretch is LIFE for tight hip flexors. LIFE. Assume the position in the photo. Easiest way to do this is to kneel next to the wall. Turn outside leg out, as if coming into a lunge. Side of the back leg should be up against the wall. Rotate that back leg, so shin is pressed against the wall. Squeeze glute and slowly come up until you feel a stretch. You may need to have both hands on the floor (back flat!) based on your mobility and slowly work up to being upright. This is NOT an easy move. Hold for at least 2 minutes per 1 hour of sitting. It’s LIFE CHANGING.
You can also do this standing. It’s a great regression if you are having trouble with the couch stretch. Just ensure you are squeezing your glute and pressing your hip flexor forward. Legs should be aligned – no knee forward or back.
LAT WALL STRETCH | Grab the photo here. Place hands on a wall, fingers wide. Slowly walk hands down, while walking away from the wall, hinging at the hips. You want to form an upside down letter L against the wall.
Adductor Stretch from above and hamstring stretches are great. Stretch those abdominals as well.
Banded Lateral and Diagonal Walks, Hip Bridge, Deadbug, Plank, Stir the Pot.
Same as BACK ARCH.
LACK OF DEPTH
I don’t have a sequence for this one. One of the dysfunctions listed above will likely be exhibited, which is causing lack of depth. First, follow the sequence for the observed dysfunction. Second, practice getting into a low squat.
Over the past couple weeks, I’ve been working on my squat depth. I mobilized everyday and practiced doing squats to a ball that put me in a position just past 90 degrees (you can use a bench like the photo). I did slow reps, held pauses, including some with weight and did ALOT of reps. Make sure that you are not plopping down on the bench, but rather keeping your muscles engaged and just tapping the edge. Repetition and practice WILL help, as long as you mobilize and ensure you are working on correcting any dysfunctions.
ASYMMETRICAL WEIGHT SHIFT
One of my favorite dysfunctions to correct – and learn more about. This is one correction I didn’t learn about until I became a corrective exercise specialist too!
INHIBIT & LENGTHEN
We all often have one side that is a little bit stronger than the other, but a significant weight shift to one side is indicative of muscle imbalance.
For this compensation, overactive muscles include the adductor complex and TFL (outside of quad) on the SAME SIDE of the SHIFT, calves, piriformis (lower back), biceps femoris (hamstring muscle) and glute med on the OPPOSITE SIDE of the SHIFT.
The underactive muscles include the glute med on the SAME SIDE of the SHIFT, anterior tib (shin) and adductor complex ON THE OPPOSITE SIDE of the SHIFT.
This is where single leg work comes in handy! You’ll want to do the adductor stretch / foam roll on the shift side, along with piriformis and glute med.
FIGURE 4 STRETCH | You have a few variations of this stretch. This is great for glutes and piriformis. You can also do this no the foam roller. Essentially, you are stacking the ankle of one leg on the quad of the other, then move the leg on the ground up toward your butt. Move hips side to side and breathe into this stretch.
Banded walks LEADING WITH THE WEAK SIDE.
HIP DRILLS | I found this one recently and it’s been a game changer for one of my clients. Place feet up on the wall so hip, knees and ankles are at 90 degrees. Place a foam roller in between your knees and squeeze to turn on the adductors. Lift hips about an inch or so off the ground. You will drop your WEAK SIDE HIP DOWN just slightly. The foam roller should roll towards the weak side. Hold a breath or two, then return to start. GAME. CHANGER.
BANDED SQUATS | Feed the dysfunction again with this move. Place a band on the squat rack or a study pole at the gym. Step into the band so your TIGHT SIDE is on the same side where the band attaches to the rack. Band should be hugging the WEAK side hip, at the hip flexors. The band will try to pull you towards your STRONG SIDE, making you have to work the WEAK side in order to avoid being pulled to the strong side. Sounds crazy, but it works!
A FEW NOTES
- Practice makes progress! If you want to correct muscle imbalances, you need to work on it. Practicing these stretches / drills / exercises at least a few times a week – stretches / drills everyday! – will help correct the issue. Depending on the severity, it will probably not feel great those first few times!
- Take videos and/or use the mirror at the gym. Do not be afraid to take photos or videos to ensure you are performing these moves with correct form.
- Work with a coach, if you need extra assistance. I program specifically for this muscle imbalance for all my clients that display this posture distortion during assessments. We gotta build a solid foundation first.
- If you have pain and/or something doesn’t feel right, take a trip to your doctor or physical therapist. Remember, I’m a not either of those, so I cannot diagnose or treat anything!
Well, that’s a wrap! Probably the longest post I’ve ever written and I could write more! Be on the lookout for more targeted posts on each specific dysfunction. More mobility and exercises on the way!
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HOW DOES YOUR SQUAT LOOK?
DO YOU NEED TO CORRECT ANY OF THESE IMBALANCES?