We recently had the pleasure of hosting strength coach Tom Hibbert for a great seminar on ‘How to fix your clients squat’. The personal trainers at CoActive we’ve always been a big fan of squatting so any information on how we can improve our clients squat was always going to be of great interest to us. In this article we’ve outlined some of the key take home lessons that can help you to fix your squat too!
Benefits of doing Squats
If performed with good form the squat is the king of exercises and has positive carry over to almost every other major lift. Olympic style high bar squats done with perfect form will produce the following benefits:
- Huge central nervous system stimulation leading to massive strength gains
- Excellent flexibility and joint mobility
- A strong ‘core’
- Great lower back strength
- Performance carry over to all other major lifts
The Full Squat
There are many different styles of squats from box squats to zercher squats, however for the purpose of this article we are going to be addressing full range Olympic high bar squat.
If you want to reap all the benefits of a good squat you must move through the entire range of movement, squatting low enough for your hamstrings to cover your calfs. As Tom pointed out – partial range means only partial results.
It is a complete myth that your knees must not travel past your toes when squatting. If the knee was designed in this way, we wouldn’t be able to walk up stairs let alone squat 3 x body weight like the strongest athletes can do. The reality is that the knees should continually move forwards during the descent of a squat. If not the torso leans forward and every 5% forward lean results in 50 lbs of extra pressure on the L4 L5 vertebrae.
It is also necessary to go past 90% at the knee as it is at this angle that the knee ligaments are most ‘lax’ and unstable. Going into a deep squat will fully activate the VMO muscle which is a key knee stabiliser, the compressive forces on the knee in a deep bend will also nourish the cartilage helping to keep the joint healthy.
What inhibits good squat form?
It’s reasonable to ask why isn’t everybody doing squats? The reality is that most of the general population don’t move well enough to perform an Olympic back squat straight away. This can be down to:
- Poor joint mobility – the most common area of restriction is the ankle joint.
- Lack of flexibility – specifically the hip area. People spend far too much time sitting down leading to chronic tightness of the rectus femoris.
- Lack of strength. When performing an Olympic high bar squat, many lack the strength in their quadriceps and lower back necessary to be able to execute the movement correctly.
- Lack of co-ordination. Many have not been exposed to full range squats since they were in pre school, this means they lack the muscle co-ordination and ‘skill’ to fire the correct muscles in the correct sequence in order to execute the movement.
During the seminar Tom did an excellent job identifying these deficiencies before offering some great techniques and advice on how to fix them.
Ankle dorsi flexsion or ‘lack of’ is the most common mobility restriction you see. It is necessary to have a minimum of 45% dorsi flexion with a bent knee. Many females initially fail with this test as they spend too much time wearing high heels.
If you need help then the best way to fix this issue is a combination of fascial release and weighted stretches. Fascia is often the cause of faulty mobility. Healthy fascia has 3 layers to it all gliding smoothly over each other. Injury or trauma can cause the fascia to ‘stick’ together, once this occurs no amount of stretching will remedy.
For quality fascial release work you will need a qualified personal trainer, such as those here at CoActive Health. However, a simple drill that anybody can do is rolling the soles of your feet. This will help release the facia of the feet as well as stimulating the reflexology points of the foot thus up regulating the central nervous system. Start with 60 secs on each foot.
For the weighted stretch you can use a seated calf machine. This will isolate the soleus muscle which is the muscle mainly responsible for restriction around the ankle in the squat. Aim for a set before squatting of 6 reps with 6 sec holds in stretch position.
Many wrongly presume it is having tight hamstrings which lead to a limited range of motion in the squat. Where’s tight hamstrings are a contributing factor more often than not it is tightness in the hip complex and more specifically the ‘rectus femoris’ which is the main culprit.
The rectus femoris is a unique muscle of the hip as it also crosses the knee joint. To best stretch this area, perform the following dynamic stretch between sets, x 5 each side.
The Piriformis complex is another common area of tightness that effects the range of movement in a squat. These muscles sit on the outside of the upper glutes. You can clearly identify tightness here if your feet externally rotating outwards when squatting below 90%. You can help target this area with the following dynamic stretch between sets, perform 30 seconds each side.
Lack of strength
If you notice that your hips are shooting backwards during the concentric motion of a squat, then it is likely that there is a strength issue. The two most common areas of weakness are the VMO and the Erector Spinae.
The oblique fibres of the vastus medialis muscle or ‘VMO’ plays a critical role in knee health and stability. This muscle is activated in the last 15% of knee extension and also the first 15%, because of this many clients initially lack strength here. A great exercise to strengthen the VMO is the Quad Squat.
To perform the Quad Squat you need to significantly raise your heels. The aim is to squat without hinging at the hips, you therefore need to drive the knees forward and stay very upright. Aim to perform 12 reps with a 4010 tempo with bodyweight before progressing to a barbell.
The Spinal Erectors (lower back muscles) are another common area of weakness in beginners. Poor posture and too much sitting are the main culprits to us having a weak lower back.
A great exercise to start building strength in this area is the 45% Back extension. This exercise has great carry over as it matches the torso angles needed in a back squat. Aim to maintain the lumber curve throughout this exercise, moving exclusively through the hips. Start with 12 repetitions with a 3011 tempo before progressing to holding a dumbbell across the collar bone.
Co-ordination and skill
We are all able to do a full squat perfectly well as children. Due to lifestyle factors such as too much sitting and partial range movements, many are left with faulty co ordination when they first attempt to squat again with full range. Here are a few ‘cues’ to help smooth out technique and become a more efficient squatter.
Grip on the bar is really important. Depending on how wide or narrow you grip the bar effects where the body holds tension. A narrow grip will aid quad activation and help keep a more upright posture thus taking stress off the lower back. Where as a wide grip provides less tension and tends to force the lower back to work harder. You need to bring the hands in as close as comfortably possible. The bar should sit below the 7th cervical (prominent vertebrae you can feel on your spine).
From here you need to consider wrist position. Many will hold the bar with their wrist too far forward. You need to roll your wrists under the bar to again create tension across the back.
Feet should be turned out between 5-15% to aid range of movement through the hips, you should start with feet hip width apart.
- Try to initiate the movement through bending at the hips and knees simultaneously.
- Keep the head in neutral looking straight ahead.
- Think of the feet as tripods – keep equal weight distribution through the front, the back and side to side.
- Knees should travel out over the toes and continue moving forward as you descend.
- Torso should remain as upright as possible, keep elbows under the bar.
If you are not used to some of these technique points then it can take a while before they become autonomous especially if you’re an experienced squatter. Squatting is a skill so in order to see significant results you need to practice regularly. When programming you need to prioritise volume over intensity as repeated exposure works best. Start light and get a qualified personal trainer to assess your form for best results.
If you would like additional support with your squat or any of your health and physique goals, don’t hesitate to contact us using the form below. You can learn more about Tom Hibbert by visiting his website.