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One could make a solid argument that the most important exercise in the gym is the squat. Unlike most other exercises in the gym, it is a normal everyday function. There are very few times we need to bench press something in our daily routines, but squatting is done regularly like when gardening, getting up […]
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There are very few times we need to bench press something in our daily routines, but squatting is done regularly like when gardening, getting up and down from a chair, or reaching for something low. With all this squatting we do, both in the gym and outside of it, faulty movement patterns can be strongly ingrained if performed incorrectly. This can lead to an injury, but it also prevents you from achieving the full benefits of this great exercise.
So why is it worth going through the trouble of perfecting your squat form and enduring that agonizing burn and fatigue that comes with it?
It’s not as simple as throwing some weight on your back and bending your knees. There are two very important concepts to understand about squatting. How to maintain a braced neutral spine and how to generate sufficient torque.
Understanding the braced neutral position will help protect your back and transfer weight through the joint optimally. It will also keep tension in the targeted area. This is when your abdominal wall is fully engaged and your spine is “locked in” straight with no flexion or extension occurring during movements at the hip.
Essentially you are locking and aligning your rib cage to your pelvis. To obtain this position stand with feet close together, and squeeze your butt and quads together simultaneously to get hips into a neutral position. Take a deep breath in and exhale, hardening your abs as you breathe out. This is a braced neutral core and the position your spine needs to be in for 95% of all exercises. A simple way to think of this is not allowing you back to arch or flex during an exercise.
Generating torque is something you should do in every squat. This is when all the joint capsular slack, tendons, and ligaments are tightened through an external rotational force while your legs are in flexion. Basically, you will be “screwing” your feet into the ground creating a stable hip position that allows optimal movement and power. Your knees will go outside, just past your feet if you have adequate mobility. By performing this external rotation of your hips you activate your glutes, protect your knees, allow for a greater range of motion, and it will be easier to maintain the aforementioned neutral spine position.
Perhaps you wish to avoid squats because of mobility issues or just plain laziness. This would be a big mistake. Machine substitutes are inferior compared to squats and will not build the same amount of muscle or provide the same hormonal benefits.(1) If you experience pain during squats, you need to address the underlying muscle imbalances by combining stretching, myofascial release, and corrective exercise. Avoiding the issue will likely lead to chronic pain or injury.
Let’s take a look at some common mistakes:
Sometimes it can be hard to distinguish if someone is performing a squat. This is often caused by not generating proper torque because of poor hip or ankle mobility, tight calves, or weak abdominals. Try foam rolling and stretching the calves, as well as the adductors and hips. Practice maintaining a braced neutral core during weighted planks.
At the bottom of a full depth squat weight lifters often have an excessive shift forward placing undesirable shearing forces on the knee. This is another example of poor expression of torque. Both tight hamstrings and quads can cause this so try to identify your pelvic position to determine which is the issue.
If you have a posterior tilt, then it’s the hamstrings. If you have an anterior tilt, its the quads. Also underactive glutes contribute to this, so roll and stretch muscles that may be compensating like the piriformis and TFL, then perform activation exercises like a lying clam.
Sometimes during a squat, once you get to the halfway point the knees begin to turn in towards each other. This happens when torque is lost possibly due to tight adductors, hips, or calves. Underactive glutes also play a large role. Focus on the screwing out the knees keeping the feet flat. Roll and stretch the adductors and practice things that force external hip rotation like curtsy lunges or the clam.
If someone lacks mobility in their feet, calf, heel cord, and adductors often their feet will start to turn out as the go deeper into a squat. Focus on loosening up these areas but pay special attention to a muscle called the posterior tibialis. If this or the associated tendon is tight, it is the most likely culprit and should be addressed first.
Most lifters tend to do this, but it is a pretty easy fix. Usually it’s simply a motor control issue. When you have extension in the cervical part of the spine, you lose the braced neutral position and compensate by flexing the thoracic spine and extending the lumbar. This can lead to back injury over time. Simply keep your head in a neutral position in alignment with the spine. Some people with poor spine mobility will find this tougher to accomplish. Try foam rolling the entire back and practicing spinal extension.
If you have very tight downstream arms or poor thoracic and shoulder mobility you may have difficulty getting into a the proper hand and wrist position. Some people go wide and flex the wrists over the bar while others go into an extension of the wrist. Both ways will cause you to lose the braced neutral position as the thoracic spine is in flexion. The load transfer is completely thrown off, and other compensations can occur simply because of hand placement. Focus on rolling the thoracic spine and stretching the pecs, delts, and downstream arm. Your hand, wrist, and elbow should be lined up.
This is what’s called lumbar reversal. The squat is typically initiated in a state of spinal overextension and as you descend during the squat. The femur comes into contact with the top of the hip joint driving the pelvis into a posterior tilt position. This is not good for your back and knees. It can be caused by a weak core, tight glutes, hamstrings, calves, or hips. Mobilize these areas and limit the range of motion if needed. If you practice perfect form with a shorter ROM you will begin to “teach” your muscle tissues and connective fascia the proper movement patterns. And you will soon be able to go into a deeper squat position without the compensation occurring.
This occurs in people who have pelvic rotation or torsion. This happens when one side of the pelvis is in an exaggerated pelvic tilt relative to the other. For example, it’s very common for someone to have a tighter hip flexor on the right side pulling that half into more of an anterior tilt. This causes one leg to be overactive in the quads while the other will be better at recruiting the posterior chain muscles (hamstrings and glute). If you find yourself shifting weight to one side try to stretch the tight hip flexor and roll the overactive muscles on the leg doing more work. This could be the quads and TFL.
Foot placement sets everything up, so it’s important to do properly. Feet should be pointed forward or slightly outward if you have hip mobility issues. Make sure one foot is not placed in front of the other (as often happens when weight is shifted to one leg), and the weight is dispersed evenly over the foot. It shouldn’t be solely in the heels, or on the outer edge of the foot. When you set up your feet correctly, you increase the amount of torque (and thus power and stability) you can generate.
This is a common mistake that is often overlooked. You shouldn’t dread doing squats.
Is there anything in life we fully apply ourselves to if we dread it?
You must learn to love the pain and attack the squat rack with purpose. If you are having trouble getting “up” for your leg day try supplementing with Sheer Strength Labs Pre-Workout. It will get you pumped up and focused so you can maintain intensity through the whole agonizing workout.
If you consider yourself a bodybuilder you must incorporate squats into your routine. If you experience pain when squatting you’re most likely doing it wrong. When form is perfect, the length-tension relationship between your muscles and joint is balanced, and there should be no pain other than the muscles burning in those quads. So no more excuses, lighten up the load, perfect your form, and perform those testosterone boosting squats with some intensity and the help of Sheer Strength Labs.
Jonathan Warren is a national level physique competitor and personal trainer with multiple certifications including NASM, NCCPT, and IKFF. His specializations include mobility training and corrective exercise as well as contest preparation.
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