Squat Like You Mean It: Tips for a Deeper Squat
Ask anyone who knows me well enough what some of my biggest pet peeves are, and you'll undoubtedly hear things like:
- People who talk or text during a movie.
- People who honk their horn within 1/16th of a second of the traffic light turning green.
- People who knowingly go through the express line at the grocery store even though they clearly have more than seven items in the their cart.
- Keanu Reeves.
Throw me into a commercial gym setting, however, and you're bound to see that list grow exponentially. Admittedly, I live in a strength and conditioning bubble where I and the rest of the Cressey Performance staff are able to control everything that's either pressed, thrown, hoisted, or lifted under our watch.
Every now and then though – whether it's because of travel, or I just happen to have a day off from work and am unable to make it to the facility - I'll make a cameo appearance at a local commercial gym.
Not surprisingly, I immediately get tons of great material for article ideas (like this one), not to mention I have to fight the urge to gouge my eyeballs out with a safety pin to save myself from my own personal hell.
Between guys doing every biceps curl imaginable for an hour straight, trainers doing more texting than training, and Katy Perry playing in the background, it's a wonder that I'm not taken out in handcuffs.
The biggest culprit, however? Squats. Specifically, the lack of squatting to depth.
If I had to guess, I would say that out of all the times I've ever trained at a commercial gym (and that's a lot), I could count on two hands the number of people whom I would say had great squat technique, which is to say they performed a nice, clean, deep squat.
Squat Like A Man!
The ability to successfully perform a deep squat is a fairly good indicator of one's overall fitness level and movement quality. Is it the end all, be all? Absolutely not, but it ranks right up there.
Squatting, for all practical purposes, is a complex movement that requires stability of the trunk and mobility of the extremities through constantly changing tension and position.
Moreover, the ability to perform a picture perfect (deep) squat pattern demonstrates that someone has proper ankle dorsiflexion, hip flexion, thoracic extension, and glute activation, which, as my good buddy and ass-Jedi Bret Contreras has noted, helps counteract or "undo" much of the musculosketetal issues we see in every day society: low back pain, anterior knee pain, hip pain, hamstring strains, and groin strains, to name a few.
Lastly, the ability to perform a deep squat demonstrates one's obvious ninja-like qualities. But that goes without saying.
Yet some people just aren't ready to head to the gym on any given day and squat. They could have really stiff ankles, poor hip mobility, poor core stability, or something more structural in nature like femoral acetabular impingement – all of which can play a role in whether someone can squat to depth.
What follows are some simple strategies that we use at Cressey Performance on a daily basis to help improve one's squat technique, and to a larger degree, depth. Some are corrective in nature, while others are bit more specific to the squat itself. Either way, I think many reading will walk away with some ammo they can instantly apply to their training.
Lets get to it!
But first, a brief reminder...
At the risk of preaching to the converted, I can't emphasize enough that squatting deep is not dangerous for the knees.
A deep squat requires that the anterior surface of one's thigh drop below knee level on the descent. If one has the ability to go lower, great! But I find the above criterium to be a fair starting point, and tends to be far lower than what most trainees are used to in the first place.
Just to clarify, I'm not saying that everyone needs (or has) to squat "ass-to-grass." I'm not that na•ve nor pigheaded. The fact is, not everyone can (or should) squat below parallel without considering their training history, injury history, postural deficiencies, and/or mobility deficits. I'd be remiss to state otherwise.
Incidentally, what I find ironic is that most people (personal trainers included) think that squatting with a limited ROM is a safer way to squat. Epic fail.
Furthermore – and this should put the nail in the coffin – in a study titled Patellofemoral joint kinetics during squat in collegiate women athletes by Salem and Powers, it was shown that there was no discernible difference between three different squat depths (70, 90, and 110 degrees of knee flexion) with regards to patellofemoral joint reaction force and patellofemoral joint stress. (Clin Biomech (Bristol, Avon), June 1, 2001; 16(5): 424-30)
In other words, and I'm just paraphrasing here, you're retarded if you go around telling people that squatting below parallel is bad for their knees. Most likely, you just don't know how to teach it properly.
So How Can I Squat Deeper?
Having said all that, the question then becomes, Tony, will you just tell me how I can squat deeper?
Well, as much as people aren't going to want to hear it, I'm going to say it anyway – how you prepare to squat is arguably one of the most important components that you can focus on.
Warm It Up!
Several common musculoskeletal issues tend to pop up repeatedly with many (if not all) trainees I work with. These include, but aren't limited to:
- Poor Ankle Mobility (specifically ankle dorsiflexion)
- Poor Hip Mobility (specifically hip internal rotation deficits, short/stiff adductors and/or hip flexors)
- Poor Thoracic Mobility
- Lack of Core Stability
Many of you may remember a video that Eric Cressey and I did for his "Show and Go" program launch a few months back where we demonstrated some of the things that we do at the facility to help correct many of the issues mentioned here.
What follows are highlights from that video, as well as a few new drills that might come in useful.
1) Poor Ankle Mobility
To perform a proper squat (or lunge for that matter), the ankle needs or requires roughly 15 degrees of dorsiflexion (think pointing the toes towards the shin). However, because we often wear cinder blocks for shoes, many trainees have really limited ankle mobility.
While admittedly an oversimplification, lack of dorsiflexion can lead to a cascade of events when squatting: anterior weight shift, pronation, tibial internal rotation, femoral internal rotation, knee valgus, heels coming off the ground, squat technique that makes my eyes bleed.
Luckily, there are a handful of simple drills you can do to help improve ankle mobility (again, specifically, ankle dorisiflexion) that will clean up your squat technique.
Wall Ankle Mobilization (Multi Planar)
Here, you'll simply start with your toes 2-3 inches from the wall. From there, gently tap your knee to the wall with each repetition. Of note, if you feel your heel coming off the ground, move your foot closer to the wall. Perform five reps pushing the knee inward, five straight ahead (over the second toe), and five with the knee moving outward, for a total of 15 repetitions (per foot).
Knee-Break Ankle Mobilizations
Standing on two 5-10 lb. plates (toes on the plates, heels on the ground), simply "push" your knees over your toes, without pronating or allowing the knees to collapse into valgus (caving in). For some, you may find a significant restriction, but it's important not to force range of motion. Use what ROM you have, and just rock back and forth.
Perform 10-15 repetitions.
Insert Knee-Break Ankle Mobilizations video
2) Poor Hip Mobility
A significant factor preventing many trainees from successfully hitting proper depth on a squat is that many have the hip mobility of a crowbar. This can mean any number of things ranging from lack of hip internal rotation to short/stiff adductors to short/stiff hip flexors.
One problem is called Hip Internal Rotation Deficit. Counterintuitive as it may seem, having the ability to internally rotate the hip is important. As physical therapist Charlie Weingroff has stated on several occasions "the body needs to know that it can do something before it can prevent it."
One needs a certain amount of hip internal rotation to go into deep hip flexion. The problem arises, however, when most trainees have a significant hip internal rotation deficit.
A great drill we like to use at Cressey Performance is the knee-to-knee mobilization:
Lie on your back, feet preferably flat, and rock your knees back and forth. A great starting point would be to shoot for 8-10 repetitions per side. For more serious cases, however, I'd be inclined to have them hold the stretch for a bit. That means that instead of mobilizing the knees, the trainee would just hold the stretch by holding the knees together for a specific amount of time – anywhere from one to two minutes (sometimes as high as twenty)!
Another problem is short/stiff adductors. The adductor complex (adductor longus, adductor brevis, adductor magnus, gracilis) is a fairly dense area of muscle that's a common trouble spot for most trainees.
Often overlooked due to their attachment points, the adductors play a major role in both hip extension and hip flexion. Outside of some aggressive foam rolling or even manual therapy (trust me, NOT fun) in that area, there are a few exercises you can perform that will definitely help.
Split Stance Adductor Mobilizations
Making sure to maintain a neutral spine throughout. It's important to go into both hip flexion and extension on this exercise. Be sure to not allow the lumbar spine to flex as you sit back!
Half Kneeling Adductor Dips
Very similar to the one above, this exercise is another great movement to help open up the hips and target the adductors.
Prone Hips Flexed Hip Rocking
This is a great exercise I stole from strength coach Kevin Neeld that helps mobilize the hips into both adduction and abduction.
Starting in a quadruped position, flex one hip to 90 degrees. From there, simply "rock" side to side making sure to limit movement from the lumbar spine and focusing more on the hip capsule itself. It's important to note that this is a self-limiting exercise, meaning don't be too concerned with range of motion here – just use what you have and try to improve on that as you go.
Hip Flexor Tightness is extremely common. Everyone has "tight" hip flexors. Considering that the vast majority of us spend 10-15 hours per day in front of the computer, at class, commuting, playing video games, or watching American Idol, it should come as no surprise.
To that end, there are a handful of valuable exercises/drills that we have our clients implement on a daily basis that hammer the hip flexors, but the one we use the most at CP is the wall hip flexor mobilization.
Wall Hip Flexor Mobilization
Specifically targeting the rectus femoris (which crosses both the hip and knee joints), kneel in front of a wall and rock back and forth. Seriously, it's pretty self-explanatory.
3) Poor Thoracic Mobility
While poor t-spine extensibility causes a plethora of issues up and down the kinetic chain (cervical pain, shoulder pain, anterior pelvic tilt, etc.), particularly regarding squatting, limited shoulder mobility and/or thoracic extension will hinder one's ability to get into proper position.
Some basic drills one can implement to address this include:
While considered a progression from your typical quadruped extension-rotation, this exercise incorporates a bit more anterior core engagement (see below) as well as a little more serratus recruitment, which is always important for optimal shoulder function. 8-10 repetitions on each side should suffice.
This is an exercise that Eric Cressey popularized and targets both glenohumeral mobility and scapular stability simultaneously.
Simply stand flush against the corner of a wall (or a power rack) with your elbows at your sides, bent to 90 degrees. Abduct your lower arm, making sure to keep your shoulder blades down the entire time – be sure not to compensate by hyper-extending your lumbar spine! Perform 8-10 repetitions.
4) Lack of Core Stability
With all this talk of mobility deficits, many often fail to recognize that what prevents someone from having the ability to squat to depth is a lack of core stability. Put another way, and as I noted in my last article, the body is essentially shutting down, not because of tightness or restriction, but rather because it perceives a threat due to the lack of stability.
I see this all time at the facility when I take an untrained 16-year-old or 40-year-old weekend warrior through an assessment. I'll have them perform an unloaded bodyweight squat, and they'll undoubtedly struggle to get to parallel without compensating to some capacity.
At first glance, one would think either of the two has a mobility deficit, when really they're just so weak and unstable that the body is essentially telling them, "Oh no you didn't!"
I'm definitely not opposed to including some direct core work as part of a warm-up, in this case chops, lifts, pallof presses, etc. Go crazy!
Likewise, another "trick" you can use is to anteriorly load the squat pattern. Using the example above, have someone perform a bodyweight squat with their hands above their head. Usually, it's not going to look pretty.
Now, have the same person grab a 10 lb. plate and hold it straight out in front of their body (arms fully extended), and squat again. Almost like magic, you'll probably see their form (and depth) miraculously improve. Why?
In short, you've forced them to engage their core, which in turn provided some sense of stability for the body. Again, it's not always a mobility issue; lack of (core) stability is often a culprit as well.
More Bang For Your Buck Drills
In case you're not picking up what I'm putting down, you can easily take all the above exercises and put together a kick-ass warm-up before your squat session.
Nevertheless, I'm not stupid, and recognize that most people are going to skip this anyway because they feel they're either too busy or just don't have the time to warm-up.
In that case, here are two more drills to throw into the mix that do a superb job at hitting all components listed above – except for your sore vagina. (Seriously, a good warm-up takes 5-10 minutes, maximum). If nothing else, you pudknocker, perform these two drills and call it even.
Squat to Stand With Reach
Not only does this exercise provide a great stretch of the hamstrings at the top and a nice adductor stretch at the bottom, but it also really helps to groove rock-solid squat technique to boot. What's more, it also helps to improve thoracic mobility by using the arm to drive scapular mobility (posterior tilt).
Insert Squat to Stand with Reach - video
Walking Spiderman w/Hip Lift and Reach
Here, you're working hip extension (stretching hip flexors), hip abduction (stretching adductors), lengthening the hamstrings, and facilitating thoracic mobility – all of which will translate to a more efficient body prepared to squat.
And Finally, the Part You Skipped To Anyways
With the meat and potatoes out of the way, now we can get to the fun stuff: Pimpifying your squat technique so chicks will want to hang out with you.
Woe Be Unto Ye Who Doesn't Learn to Use Box Squats.
As a coach, I feel that box squats are the perfect tool to teach someone how to squat properly. For starters, it keeps people honest: I always find it comical when a young athlete who's followed nothing but his high school football coach's programming comes into our facility for the first time.
Predictably, his proclaimed 450 lb. squat suddenly shrinks to a paltry 205 lbs. when he finally gets a taste of what squatting to depth actually feels like. Weird how that works, huh?
Here are some bullet points pertaining to improving depth:
• The beauty about box squats is that they allow the lifter to use whatever ROM they have available. If they're unable to get to depth, at the very least I can use a high(er) box to help groove the hip hinge pattern I'm looking for. As they become more proficient and comfortable with the movement, I can gradually lower the box to the desired height.
Conversely, for those who can get to depth but form is still a little suspect (tucking of the lumbar spine for example), I can use the box squat to keep them in a "usable" range of motion which allows them to perform the movement successfully, albeit without promoting aberrant motor patterns. Similarly, as he or she improves, I can adjust the height of the box as I see fit.
• Many trainees tend to set up with too narrow of a stance, which hinders their depth. When setting up for a box squat, I like for trainees to assume a slightly wider than shoulder-width stance (sometimes wider). Doing so helps to "open up the hips" more.
• I also like to cue the toes to point slightly outward (10-15 degrees). That way, on the descent, I can tell the trainee to "push your knees out to the left and right, relative to your toes." Much like above, this helps to open things up a bit, and makes it bit easier to attain depth.
• Keep the lats tight! Grab the bar and pull DOWN, and crush it with all your might. In doing so, you'll activate the thoraco-lumbar fascia. Tension is key here!
The more stable you are, the more efficiently you're going to be able to transfer force from the floor through your lower body, all the way on up through the "core" and upper body.
• Sit back!! Try to push your hips back onto the box. Don't break with the knees. As well, try to maintain more of a vertical chin angle (less shear stress on the knees) as you descend. A forward knee bend is necessary, but it shouldn't be excessive.
• And lastly, land softly on the box. While it has nothing to do with depth per se, your spine will thank you.
Ditch the Back Squats?
As noted earlier, due to thoracic and/or glenohumeral limitations, back squats may be problematic for some. If so, the obvious alternative would be to switch to front squats. Many of the same principles from above apply here; the only caveat would be to distinguish which grip is best suited for you: clean grip (ample wrist flexibility) versus cross-arm grip (not so much).
Notably, the front squat has a slight advantage over the back squat when discussing depth. Due to the anterior bar placement, it's generally biomechanically easier for people to squat deeper. As such, it's no coincidence that we like to start people off with front squats right from the get go.
Take Your Shoes Off
Ideally, we want to place a larger emphasis on the glutes and hamstrings while squatting. By getting rid of your shoes, a few things happen:
• By eliminating any heel lift (which shifts body weight forward, placing more stress on knees and quads), we're now able to sit back and activate the glutes and hamstrings more effectively. By learning to squat more with the glutes and hamstrings and placing more of the load on the posterior chain, we take much of the burden off the knees.
• You're essentially putting yourself 1-2 inches closer to the ground (less distance the bar has to travel). 'Nuff said.
• If you're unable to take your shoes off because the pencil necked personal trainer who wears his collar up told you it's against gym policy, try to use a "minimalist" shoe such as the Nike Free or Chuck Taylors. Or, you can just punch the trainer in the kidney and go barefoot anyways. Your call.
• When in Doubt – Take Weight Off the Bar
You'd think this is common sense, but I'm amazed at how often I see people add weight to the bar when they weren't even close to depth to begin with. Before you know it, all they're doing is a max effort knee break ankle mobilization.
Many lifters would benefit from checking their ego at the door and realizing that those limited-range travesties they're doing are a complete waste of time and effort. Do yourself a favor and promise that you'll never, ever sacrifice technique/depth for more weight.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, you'll often hear powerlifters talk about how quarter squats help them "feel" heavier loads on their backs. Until you're squatting 500+ lbs, don't worry about it. Take some weight off the bar and do it right.
Bridging the Gap
No matter what, we'll still come across those who just aren't ready to squat. Regardless, it's still very important to introduce axial loading into their program.
One great exercise that we like to use to help bridge that gap until clients have the appropriate mobility to squat properly (i.e., without flexing the lumbar spine or getting stuck before full range) is the barbell reverse lunge with front squat grip.
As the video demonstrates, all you're going to do is set up as you would for a front squat (using whichever grip is most comfortable for you – clean grip versus cross-arm grip) and perform a reverse lunge. Make sure to keep the chest out and arms up! Also, I like to tell clients to pull themselves back up through the heels (emphasizes hamstrings more) and to finish with their glutes.
Another exercise we like to use (especially if you're a masochist) is the Bulgarian split squat from a deficit.
All the rules that apply to a normal Bulgarian split squat apply here, except now your front foot is going to be on an elevated surface (3-4 inches) to increase the range of motion.
• You Can Always Deadlift, Too!
Piggy backing on the above, if I'm working with a client or athlete who just isn't ready to squat, another option to help bridge that gap would be to include deadlift variations.
In my opinion, deadlifts lay the base. If nothing else, we can drill the proper hip patterns we're looking for with the squat by having someone deadlift. The trap bar deadlift, for instance, is more of a quad dominant hip dominant exercise, and is a fantastic way to groove the hip hinge pattern we're looking for when we squat.
Furthermore, since it's generally done from an elevated position, one's center of gravity is improved due to placement of the handles and it doesn't require a lot of hip flexion, not to mention it's a much more "user friendly" variation that can be easily coached.
With just deadlift variations we can still maintain a significant training effect in the lower body while working on everything else in the meantime.
Congrats on making it this far! I know I threw a lot at you, but I hope you were able to pick up a tip or two. While it's certainly not an exhaustive list, I feel that if you follow the tips discussed above, and more importantly, are consistent with them, you'll see a marked improvement in your squat depth in no time.
Best of luck!
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Tony Gentilcore is a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) through the National Strength and Conditioning Association, and one of the co-founders of Cressey Performance located just outside of Boston in Hudson, Massachusetts. For more information, check out his website at www.tonygentilcore.com.