Modifications and Cues for Re-Learning the Squat
Squatting is one of the main exercises and human movements performed on two legs (other exercises, such as walking, lunging and stepping up are performed on one). When performed correctly, squats help build lower body strength and promote trunk stability. My previous post discussed the importance of proper squatting (getting out of chairs, picking things off of the ground, working out in the gym, etc.) while shedding light on the disconnect many of people have with this basic movement pattern. Just as a reminder, squatting is important When you break it down, a lot of things actually need to happen correctly to allow for a proper squat:
Proper movement in the ankles and foot so the heels don’t lift off the ground and the heels don’t splay out when you squat
Proper engagement and flexibility in the hips so you don’t drive the movement into your knees (driving forward or collapsing in or out) or lower back (flexing or hyper-extending)
Proper mobility in the upper torso so you don’t pitch forward or drive the effort into your lower back
And because the body is one big linked chain of movement, an issue with the ankle can eventually drive its way up through the knees to the hip and the lower back…and vice versa. So it’s not always as easy as saying “you have knee pain when you squat, therefore your hips are tight.” Many strength and conditioning specialists, physiologists and physical therapists are movement detectives, performing comprehensive assessments to determine what limitations are causing the poor movement pattern. It usually involves going through a range of different motions and tests to confirm the suspicion and then putting an action plan into place to correct the issues over time.
Below is a description of how to squat, a checklist to know where you should be feeling the effort, cues to imagine (or look at in a mirror) to make sure you’re squatting properly and finally, modifications you can do to make re-learning the squat easier. Sometimes just standing and squatting with your own body weight throws your body into the wrong movement pattern so using a modification, even for a couple of sets can “re-program” the mind-body connection to proper squatting technique.
Stand up tall with arms at your side and feet about hip width’s apart. Slowly lower yourself by “sitting back” through your hips and lowering your butt towards the ground. The key is to keep the chest tall, the spine in a straight line at a slight forward angle while supporting yourself with your butt muscles. When you get down to a position that feels comfortable, ideally around the point where the upper thighs are parallel with the floor, engage your butt muscles to push you back up to the starting position. When you’ve completed a squat (and you’re standing back up again), notice to see if either of your feet turned out, if so, there may be some chronic tightness or weakness in the hips or ankles. Try using some of the cues below to correct the issue.
Where to Feel It: Glutes/butt muscles, abdominals, possibly in the outer part of the hips, lightly in the quads towards the end of the set, muscles underneath the armpits (if holding a weight)
Where Not to Feel It: Lower back, knees, quickly and significantly in the quads (especially if you don’t feel anything in the glutes), deep in the shoulder (if you are holding any weights)
Chest tall, butt down.
Sit back into the squat, not forward through the knees. (Tends to happen with people who had back injuries, they lock up the back, and the hips by association, to try and protect the lower back from improper movement. It improperly drives all of the effort to the knees.)
Feel engagement in your butt muscles (glutes) as you descend. They are your brake pedals, making sure you don’t come down too far, too fast.
Stay rooted through your feet. You should feel both your heels and big toe are staying firmly planted on the ground. A cue from Chuck Wolf: “Imagine you are squishing a bug with your big toe.”
Keep the hips, knees and ankles in alignment, all about hip-width apart. Don’t let the knees or ankles buckle in or out.
Imagine a plane of glass extending up from the tips of your toes, keeping you from leaning too far forward with your head or knees. If you want to make this a real cue, do squats while standing six to twelve inches from a wall, facing it.
Keep the spine in a straight line, from the crown of the head through the tailbone. You may lean forward a bit in a squat, but the spine can still stay in a straight line. You don’t want to be looking at the ground at the bottom of your squat; the angle of your upper body should match the angle of your lower leg.
Inhale as you lower yourself down and use the beginning of your exhale to initiate your movement back up.
Push up through your feet (heels, big toe) and glutes/butt muscles.
As you start to initiate your squat movement back up to standing, imagine you are spreading the floor apart with your feet; you are creating a crack in the earth between your feet.
Start Small: Many of the issues with poor squat form – bending spines, lifting off the heels, knee pain – sometimes occur when you go deeper into the squat. See if you can perform the hip hinge (sitting back through your hips) properly first through doing “mini-squats” a quarter or half the way down and coming back up with proper form. Depth comes with time and practice.
Use Support: If bodyweight squats feel uncomfortable, lightly hold onto a stable counter, chair or railing for support as you perform the squat. As you get better, you can use a pole or door frame and slowly walk your hands down with you as you descend into the squat so you have a little support through the entire range of motion.
Use the TRX: This is a great piece of equipment to provide support for lower body movements. Hold the handles and stand at a distance that allows you to squat properly while not having your arms get pulled by the TRX as you get down to the bottom of the squat. To make a squat harder with the TRX, just move closer toward the hinge point. To make it easier, move further away (just not so far away that your arms/upper body get pulled as you squat). You can then use less and less support from the TRX by loosening your grip, then using finger tips, two fingers, one finger, etc. Use other cues listed above to keep your hips, knees, ankles and upper body in proper alignment.
To Encourage the Hip Hinge, Create a Counter Balance: For some, raising the arms or extending a light weight away from you helps provide a stabilizing counter-force as you lower yourself down into the squat.
To Prevent Knee Buckling, Use a Mini Band: You can place a mini-band around your legs, just above your knees to help engage the hip abductors to stabilize you as you squat.