Are their genetic limitations to how deep someone can squat – sure. Some people picked the right parents, possess advantageous limb lengths, have an anatomically versatile hip structure, and are able to squat until their butt touches the floor. Then there are those who can’t squat quite so low and weren’t as blessed by their parents in this regard.
But are individual genetic limits the reason why most people don’t squat to a good depth – rarely. In fact, in five years of personal training and 10 years of lifting, I haven’t met any physically functional person who cannot break parallel – i.e. the top of their thighs are parallel to the floor (or deeper) in the bottom position of a squat.
So what is reasoning for so many shallow squats? Is it laziness? – it can be. Is it fear of falling backwards or losing balance? – that is definitely a genuine concern I hear from time to time. However, the consensus seems to be more to do with mass flexibility and mobility restrictions. People in western culture do a lot of sitting – at work, on the way to work, on the couch, while they eat, while they ….. (you can fill in blank here). This prevalence of sitting definitely has a large impact on not just squatting but on most forms of exercise and physical movement in general. Being stiffened and stuck in a chair makes your body adapt to the shape of well… a chair! Rounded shoulders, lower back pain, tight hips, and fixated ankles are just some of the side effects of living life in a chair (see ‘Situps, backpain & the side effects of living in the 21st century‘). It is interesting to see how other cultures from East Asia to West Africa adopt a squat as part of their daily routine instead of sitting. Of even more interest, is the DEPTH that these people squat down to regularly. Rarely do people in these cultures complain of sore backs or tight hips.
Squatting is not just an exercise we do at the gym, it is as important as walking in our overall physical function. Squatting is involved in picking up a child, moving furniture, taking a seat (yes, insert toilet reference here), and a plethora of other daily activities and tasks. With such a high amount of squatting in our lives, it would make sense then that we should learn to do the movement properly and reap the benefits of doing the best squats possible.
The benefits of a good deep squat cannot be denied. Among other benefits, deep squatting produces: increased function, a better butt, develops and defines the legs, athletic transfer gains for sports, and less pain!
The squat is arguably the best exercise in the training world. Not only is the squat a highly versatile and transferable lift, it involves such a large amount of muscle mass and the body’s resources to perform the movement – particular with added weight. If we look closely at a barbell squat, we can see that there are a large number of joints involved and that need particular attention paid to – notably the hips, knees and ankles. It is also important to consider the shoulders and thoracic spine too. Immobility and dysfunction at anyone of the aforementioned joints can make your squats go from a productive exercise to a painful one. There can be a lack of mobility in one joint or even multiple joints that can contribute to a sub-optimal and even a painful squat. To break it down for you, here are some of the common consequences of joint immobility:
- Insufficient ankle mobility = knee pain.
- Insufficient hip mobility = low back pain.
- Insufficient thoracic + shoulder mobility = neck, shoulder and even pain lower back pain
Before we get into addressing these issues, it is important to establish the setup procedure for a squat. Without a proper setup position, squats can be not only sub-optimal but also unsafe. When setting up for a squat, assume a slightly wider than shoulder-width stance with the toes pointing slightly outward 10-15 degrees (this helps to open up the hips and allow more squat depth). Keep your spine neutral (this posture should be kept for the entire lift). Upon the descent, you need to push your knees out and imagine you are spreading the floor between your feet.
Once you have established the correct squat setup, you can now move on to pinpoint the common mistakes previously mentioned and see which mobility exercises may be required before you go squatting fanatically.
Potential Problem Areas:
1. Insufficient Ankle Mobility
Do your heels lift off the ground when you go to perform a deeper squat? You may even round your back in the bottom of a squat too? Chances are you have an ankle immobility problem. You see, we need the ankles to have around 15-20 degrees of forward range (ie knee in front of ankle) to descend into a deep squat. If the ankles are stiff and rigid, the body has no choice but to lean forward excessively and compensate. This forward leaning results in tilting the pelvis backward which makes the lower back round and tuck under at the bottom of the movement (also known as butt-winking). Stiff and rigid ankles can also lead to other problems too such as foot pronation and excess internal rotation of the legs (think valgus knees).
The ankle mobility flaw is often the result of immobile and tight calves. Try the following drills to help your situation:
3-Way Standing Ankle Mobility Drill
Perform half a dozen total reps or so with the knee directed inside the ankle, over the ankle and outside the ankle towards a pole or another upright target. Be sure to move your knee towards the target while not letting your heel lift off the ground. Proceed to repeat the exercise whilst gradually moving the foot further and further out. At the point in which the heel starts to lift off the ground you have reached your limit for ankle flexibility.
Elevated Forced Ankle Mobility Drill
Grab a bench or another solid flat surface that is roughly knee height or just below. Place one foot on of the surface top and while using your hands, pull yourself forward and down. Using the weight of your torso, force the ankle into greater ranges of motion. This exercise will stretch the base of the ankle and calf region. Do this drill for around 30 secs and repeat twice on each leg.
Foam Roll Calves
Notoriously tight calves are not uncommon. If you are a lady who wears heels a lot you most likely have calves like rocks. To help relieve the tension, perform the exercise below. Beware – you may feel agony in your lower leg synonymous to the ginger bread man under a rolling pin! However, it will get better with time and so will your squats – so keep doing them and push through!
First try this exercise with two legs on top of the roller and slowly roll between the heels/base of Achilles tendons and up towards the knees. If you don’t feel unbearable tension then place one leg over the other and try again – chances are you will find tight spots. Keep rolling the calves until you feel the tension dissipate.
2. Insufficient Hip Mobility
The hip joint is a very large joint that utilises a wide range of movements and muscle groups. During a squat, your hips should be mobile whilst your lower back should be stable and relatively flat. However, If your hips are rigid and don’t move, then your lower back will be the joint that compensates with movement – this is not a good outcome and very bad for the discs and joints around the lumbar and sacral regions (think pelvis and low back region). This flaw in squatting is often seen as a tucking under of the lower back in the bottom of a squat (also termed the ‘butt-wink’).
Although some people experience this tucking under because they are going too deep for their genetic limb lengths and structures, the majority however, are not mobile enough to get into a deeper position at the bottom of the squat and thus tuck under to compensate. This compensation pattern can be the result of a number of issues such as short/stiff hip flexors, short/stiff adductors, and lack of hip internal rotation. These limitations will all be addressed in the exercises that follow. Do these exercises regularly and your hips and squats will be a lot better off.
Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch + Tail Lift
Tightness in the front of the hips (particularly the hip flexors) is all so common in the western world due to the large amount of sitting we do each day. There are valuable drills that you can do on a daily basis that help release tension from the hip flexors. One stretch that is a must can be seen below.
The above hip flexor stretch targets the rectus femoris – a muscle which crosses both the hip and knee joints. This muscle is a powerful hip flexor and usually a notoriously tight one amongst desk workers. The longer the better is usually the best duration prescription with the above stretch. If you are after some more specific guidelines on this stretch then start with a few sets of two mins per side. However, don’t be surprised if you need more than this amount to restore your hip flexor length and reduce their tension. Be sure to keep your hips aligned and underneath your shoulders throughout the entire stretch and do not curve through the lumbar spine.
Short and stiff adductors (think groin muscles here) are a common problem area for a lot of people who squat. The adductor muscle groups is a fairly dense area of tissue. Outside of some aggressive soft tissue work in that area, there are a few exercises you can perform that will definitely help the cause. Cossacks are a tried and true exercise that have been used for centuries to rectify tight groins and promote hip mobility. Give them a go, and make sure to rotate the straightened leg out as you gradually drop down to greater levels of depth. Keep the knee and ankle of the bent leg in alignment whilst performing this drill.
Hip Internal Rotator Stretch – Wall
Hip internal rotation refers to the inability to internally rotate the hip. Your hips need around 35 degrees of internal rotation to go into deep squat without compromising your knees in the process.
To address a potential hip internal rotation deficit, do the following stretch:
To perform this stretch, lie on your back with your hips a foot from a wall. Bend both legs and place your feet on the wall in a squat stance. Now internally rotate one hip and place the other leg’s foot on the knee. The leg on top will naturally apply pressure along with gravity to stretch the inwardly rotated hip. Ensure your hips remain in contact with the ground throughout the entire stretch. Stretch each leg twice for 60secs and aim to get the stretched hip to 35 degrees of internal rotation.
Sumo Squat to Stand
To perform this movement, take a stance that is slightly wider than your normal squat stance. Now reach down and grab your toes with straight legs and push your butt up towards the ceiling (you most likely will feel a big stretch in the back of your legs here). From the top position, proceed to crouch to the bottom position and into a deep squat. Keep your arms straight and your hands in contact with your feet whilst doing this. At the bottom, ensure your elbows are inside your knees, your torso is as vertical as possible, and your back is flat. Do 10 reps of this exercise to really work your way into greater depths.
3. Insufficient Thoracic + Shoulder Mobility
Rounder upper backs whilst squatting are just like rounded low backs whilst squatting – ugly and dangerous! To rid yourself of the hunchback look, restore some health in your vertebral discs and free up your shoulders, give the following two exercises a go – you will feel better for it and reduce some pain in your life:
Thoracic Extensions – Foam Roller
Place the foam roller horizontally where the lower back meets the thoracic spine (where the last rib meets joins the spine). Place your hands behind your head and keep your elbows forward the whole time you are performing this exercise (this gets the shoulder blades out of the way and opens up the spine). Keeping your hips just off the ground, proceed to extend over the roller until you reach your most extended position (safely). Curl yourself back up and roll up to the next vertebrae. Repeat this extension movement all the way up the thoracic spine and back down again.
Shoulder Rotations – Broomstick
Grab a broomstick with a wide grip well outside of shoulder width. Keeping the arms straight, slowly rotate your shoulders backwards ensuring you don’t encounter any pain. If you do encounter pain, stop and rotate forward again – this is your limit of range for now. Once you rotate the broomstick all the way back to the spine and forwards again, move both hands in half an inch closer and repeat the drill. Keep doing this until you reach your mobility limit and stop the exercise there. To add an emphasis on creating a stable upper back and tight shelf for the bar to sit on whilst squatting, a pulldown movement has been added halfway through this rotation exercise to help prime the lat muscles (think under arm pit muscles) to contract and engage whilst squatting. Your elbows should be driving down towards the rib cage to enable this to happen.
(Above: the rack position for the barbell back squat – the pulldown inserted in the previous drill helps to establish this effective position. Notice how the broomstick is placed on top of the muscles of the shoulders and upper back and NOT the neck. Also, the arms and wrists are in alignment with the elbows being driven downwards to engage the lat muscles in order to create the stable and aligned spine necessary for effective squatting)
Putting it all together:
Now that you have utilised all the necessary exercises above, it’s time to test your squat technique and depth. To do this, we are going to use an implement of appropriate height such as a box or bench to ‘Box Squat’ down to and establish good depth. An adjustable implement is preferable here as squat depth may need to be lowered gradually over time as mobility and range of motion improves. Using an implement as a reference point allows you to practice your squats even if they are a bit far off the depth that you need. The premise is to squat to a depth until your form breaks down (e.g. lower back tucks under). As your mobility and range of motion improves, lower the height of the reference point and keep reducing your depth (all the while maintaining good technique). Once you have reached your genetic limit for depth, you can then proceed to add more weight to the bar.
Squats are a universal movement that we are all capable of doing to some degree. Whether you are in the gym or not, it is still plausible (and very healthy for your joints) to practice squatting daily even if there is no external load to be lifted. Not only will you free up your hips and other aches and pains, you will enhance your squats in the gym aswell. Remember, the best way to learn the squat movement is like learning anything in life – practice! To free up the hips and to get your body to a new squatting range of motion, try sitting in the bottom of a squat position for 30 secs each day. As mentioned earlier, this exposure to deep squatting has been used for thousands of years by many primitive cultures around the globe. It’s funny how none of these people complain about low back pain or stiffness either – no desk sitting prevalence in these areas of the world.
If you’re not squatting deep already then what are you waiting for? Get down and start practicing now!