Monday, August 9, 2010

Troubleshooting the Squat

Either she's doing a front squat
or she just cleaned the weight.

Mimi commented on Friday's post asking,
"That girl's squat was hardcore. Any tips for getting that low? It's embarassing, but I have to fight to just get parallel, even with a lighter weight."
Originally, I thought what could be the issue. The more I thought about it the more I realized the amount of factors that have to be taken into account. I'm better at an in-person evaluation due to the fact I can examine a few reps, change variable X, see a few more reps, and repeat until there's marked improvement.

What I'm going to resort to is what my History professor called the shotgun technique. It's where all of us wrote as much information - or anything we remembered from the class - for our exams in hopes of getting
something right. Hence the name "shotgun."

We'll be focusing on the low bar positioned back squat in 2 respects: set-up & execution followed by troubleshooting problem-causing areas.

Set-up & execution

A bad set-up can hinder performance and the ability to produce solid reps. I'll be brief with this since there are quite a number of articles on the subject.

First and foremost before you even get under the bar, you need to tighten your entire upper back. This means pulling your scapulae - shoulder blades - together
hard. This can be done by moving your arms back and bringing in your elbows close to your torso & glutes.

The end pose will have your chest sticking out, elbows pointed down to the floor, hands near shoulders, and your forearms curled in from the sides towards your armpits*. How close your hands get to your shoulders will depend on how good your shoulder mobility is. For this reason, it's advantageous to incorporate scapular wall slides in your dynamic warm-up.

Another good example here. Notice
how he's pulling his elbows in and down.

The end result is a "shelf" created by your trap muscles for the bar to rest on, indicated by the red line:

This image is used to describe the bench press, but you get the idea.
The elbows should be closer to the waist if this were a back squat.

With upper body tightened up, you're ready to get under the bar. Fit the bar to rest on your trapezius shelf and lift it upright. Now what?

With a stance roughly shoulder-width and toes slightly flared outwards, you're ready to squat. I always say break or hinge at the hips, but apparently no one knows what I mean by that. So think of it like this. Imagine someone with a disgustingly gross hand comes-a-reaching at your crotch and you want to avoid it - and for the sake of this cue you can't move side-to-side smart asses.

Squatting straight down a bit or bending at the low back doesn't really move your pelvis away from the creeper. However, pushing your hips backwards does. This is what I mean by "breaking" at the hips.

After you initiate the movement, squat as low as comfortably possible. If your lower back begins to round or you feel pain then that's where you stop. When you descend (the eccentric portion), don't simply drop down, but instead have control and keep muscular tension. The speed itself doesn't necessarily have to be slow or explosive. Rather, just work hard on moving the weight as efficiently as possible.

To squat back up, push through the back of your feet and lock your hips out by squeezing your glutes hard (example here, notice how his butt isn't protruding after each rep). Also "push" your legs outwards to the side. This keeps your legs from caving in on each other.

The last thing I'll mention is where you should think about pushing through your feet. I tend to say the back and outsides of the foot. The back because you won't end up on your toes and rounding your lower back. The outsides to effectively push your legs out to the sides. To be more specific, here:

Blue indicates where to focus driving through your feet.
And my paint skills ain't no joke.

Alright maybe that wasn't a brief description, but it definitely was thorough. That about covers the basics so let's move on to the second half.


There can be a couple of issues preventing you from getting a deep squat. I'll go through them one-by-one in order of easiest to try out. Try each with either your own bodyweight, an empty barbell, or some light weight on the bar.
  • What's your footwear like? You tend to want a flat shoe to be able to lift on an even surface. Running shoes are the least ideal. They're very soft and cushioned making it feel like you're pushing your feet into a mattress. It fights your push back.
  • Solution: Either squat barefoot or go for the cheapest gym-friendly alternative to purchase - a pair of low top Converse. Last I recall they run around $40. There are cheaper shoes, but I doubt your gym would allow them. (ballet slippers & cotton martial arts slippers)
Ankle mobility
  • Grab either two 5, 2.5, or 1.25 lb. plates. 2.5 is right in the middle so if that's available grab those first, but if not the 5's will suffice. Set-up like you normally would squat, but this time put each heel on top of one the plates. Now squat.
  • Has your depth improved? If so, your ankle mobility is restricting your squat.
  • Solution: Rocking ankle mobilizations - 1 set of 4-6 reps for a full one-thousandth count (he goes for 2 in the video) to start with if your ankle mobility is poor. When you become more proficient you can do 2 sets or 8 reps. After that, it's best to move on to a more challenging drill. You can continue to squat using plates as your mobility improves. Choose smaller plates every 4 weeks until you can squat without them.

Drill A is the one I referred to.
Hey look at that, Converse!

Hip flexors
  • Christine already recommended stretching the hip flexors. Sitting for long periods leaves them in a flexed position and as a result they become tight. We want to lengthen them to allow ourselves to stay as upright as possible during the squat. Their tightness contributes to use of lumbar spine throughout the movement.
  • Solution: Lunge stretch - Simply go into a long stride lunge and with the side of the leading leg, push your pelvic bone forward while squeezing the glute of that side and hold for 15s. Repeat for the other side.

You can simply hold the position for 15s per side instead of multiple reps.
Hey check it out, Converse again!

Hip Mobility
  • Poor hip mobility in the bottom position of the squat is another problem. If your body's not able to go that far down it can be practiced outside of squatting.
  • Solution: Kneeling rockbacks - Keep your torso parallel to the ground and use your arms to push back as far as possible. Don't let your lower back round and don't aggressively force the stretch more than you should.
Lance demonstrating the starting position.

Core Strength
  • If your abs aren't strong enough then you'll lose rigidity in your torso and lean forward.
  • Solution: The planks progression I outlined here is a great start.
And that folks is me shotgunning the squat. Hope that helps Mimi.

In the words of Boris Bachmann, good squatting!

Further reads & resources:
*If you flail your hands around you look like a retarded T-rex.

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