Think about the squat. Think about your body and the barbell as a combined system that has to be evenly balanced over your feet.
That means when viewing a squat from the side, roughly half the weight of the system needs to go forward and half needs to go backward to avoid falling over. I say "roughly" because the weight of the system can shift forward or backward onto your heels or toward your toes somewhat, but not outside of your footprint.
When you add weight on a bar, and that bar feels heavy, it starts to become a much bigger proportion of the overall weight of the system. In most squats, all that added weight is up high too. That really does mean it needs to stay over the middle of your foot since only a small shift will throw your balance off.
In a perfect world, that means the bar stays over the midline of the foot and half your body shifts forward while the other half goes backward to keep you balanced.
If the bar creeps forward a lot, your butt will shoot backward to counterbalance the whole system. The more weight there is on the bar, the smaller distance the bar needs to move forward to cause a big backward movement of your hips to counterbalance it.
This is why some people look okay when they use light weights, but fall apart as the load gets heavier. Your hips shooting back shifts more load to your back and creates a stripper-squat or something that looks like a good-morning squat situation. Then it becomes a very risky movement.
There are three things that make this happen, and it can be any combination of the three:
- Your ankle mobility sucks.
- Your hip mobility sucks.
- You're weak in the squatting positions.
Here's how to find your problem and fix it.
Ankle dorsiflexion (shins move closer to toes) is where your knee travels forward over your foot. In a squat, good ankle dorsiflexion is essential.
Why? The further forward your knees go, the more the weight of the system goes forward. But this is a problem if you lack ankle dorsiflexion because your hips won't be able to travel as far backward as needed to counterbalance the weight.
Note: Despite what you heard in the 90s, your knees CAN travel past your toes without repercussions, so don't worry about that.
The Knee-to-Wall Test
To find out if a lack of ankle mobility is holding back your squat, test your ankle dorsiflexion:
- First, kneel on one knee facing a wall. You're only interested in the side you're testing, so the kneeling side needs to be close enough to the wall so you can slide the pelvis forward and not limit the test. The test foot needs to be five inches from the wall in the start position.
- "Grip" the floor with your foot. It'll help you avoid mucking up the test. This activates your toes and maintains the arch in your foot, which is what you should be doing in a squat. You MUST keep this active foot throughout the test.
- Now push your knee to the wall. Do not let it move inward. Your knee needs to track straight, directly over your foot.
Results: If you can't touch the wall with your knee – or without your heel lifting, or without your foot collapsing, or if your knee moves inward – then you have limited ankle dorsiflexion.
Five inches is a good starting point for almost anyone, but there may be the odd outlier who needs a little more and many people will be fine with less.
Although some people will feel like their calf is the limiting factor, an awful lot of people will feel obstruction at the ankle.
Either way, sensible loading is the most effective way to fix it. That means calf raises done in a very specific style. This is a lot harder than it sounds.
You're looking for a new range of motion at the ankle that's also strong and stable. You need to feel the limitation during the calf raises in the same place you did in the test. That means doing calf raises with a focus on a loaded stretch at the bottom, but crucially with the same active foot and alignment as in the test.
This requires discipline and self-correction before every single rep:
- Find a seated calf raise machine. If you don't have access to one, then a Smith machine and calf block can be used. Go barefoot if you can. This will strengthen and condition your feet, which is great for your squat. Start light and be progressive. You don't want to hurt yourself doing this.
- With the ball of your foot on the step, grip the step hard with your toes. You need your feet aligned with your thighs. They might feel like they're turned slightly in, which is fine. Just don't let them turn out relative to your thigh during the rep.
- Start lowering under control. This is the tough bit. Again, you need to keep your toes aligned with your thighs through every rep. Doing so will reduce the depth you can reach, and that's the whole point.
You must hit the same limit you do in the test, then gradually push that limit back, over time developing a new range of motion. If you let your feet turn out and your knees drift inward in order to cheat and get deeper, you'll make things worse. That's what you'll end up doing when you're actually squatting if that's what you practice with this movement.
Do these at a high frequency. Try a set or two every day you're in the gym.
The final thing to do is a little balance work when you finish. So right after each set, balance for a few seconds on each leg and explore your ankle's range of motion.
Some people refer to this as "opening up the hips." Now, we've established you need to stay balanced over your feet to squat. If you can't develop good ankle dorsiflexion for any reason, you can compensate by taking a wider stance and pushing your knees out, abducting (spreading) the hips.
Essentially, to squat well you need either really good ankle dorsiflexion to get your knees far enough forward, or really good hip abduction to get your knees far enough out to the sides (or a reasonable combination of both).
The hip adductors, the muscles of the inner thigh, are laid out like a fan. The ones at the front do most of the work when you're upright, and the ones at the back do the most work when you're bent over.
To address the muscle group in a way that crosses over to squatting, and to address the other associated muscles simultaneously, you should use a specific technique to both test and improve things that mimic squatting, like the Chinese wall squat.
The Chinese Wall Squat Test
- Stand facing a wall with a wide stance and your toes touching the wall.
- Put your hands down in front of you.
- With your nose just about touching the wall, push your knees out until the inside of each knee touches the wall.
- Sit your hips back and down as far as you can without squirming, without your nose hitting the wall, and without falling over backwards.
Results: If you can squat down to parallel in this position you don't need to worry. You can open your hips up just fine, so that isn't the limiting factor in your squat. If you can't get anywhere near parallel, then improving your Chinese wall squat will carry over to an improved squat.
Load the Chinese wall squat with a kettlebell. Do slow, controlled eccentrics.
As with the ankles, the last thing we want is to develop a new hip range of motion that's weak and unstable. That would make things worse under a bar. Loading the stretch will make you flexible, strong, and stable in all positions you work through with the intervention.
- Push your knees out until they touch the wall and ease your hips down. Imagine you're in gravity boots and upside down, pulling yourself into position.
- Do ten slow and controlled eccentrics at the end of your warm-ups every workout. The range will come in time, and eventually you'll be able to do it with bodyweight alone. Don't get so aggressive you hurt yourself.
This is the most overlooked aspect of fixing a lift. I get a lot of clients who approach me to look at their mobility and turn out to be imbalanced or unstable in some positions. But being positionally weak doesn't mean immobile. This can be a tough to hear if you're generally strong.
How can you tell if this is the problem? If you can pass the two tests above, you should be able to hit the positions required... but that doesn't mean you're strong in them.
So think about your squat. If you can squat well with light weight and keep the bar over the center of your feet, but your form falls apart (heals come off the ground or knees cave in) once it gets heavy, then it's a positional weakness problem, not a mobility issue.
The fix for this is tempo training. Tempo training involves focusing on the timing of each portion of a lift.
On training programs, it's generally written as four numbers represented in seconds in this order: the eccentric (lowering) phase, the pause at the bottom of the lift, the concentric (up) phase, and then the pause at the top. The letter "X" is used for explosive.
So a 5350 tempo would mean a five-count eccentric, a three-count pause in the bottom, and a five-count concentric phase with no pause at the top between reps. This is the tempo scheme to start with to address positional weaknesses.
The pause in the bottom needs to be an active pause. You can't let anything relax and rely on passive tension to hold you there.
Clearly, tempo work will limit the amount of weight on the bar. That's fine since it's the control and activation in all positions you're looking for. Doing this slowly gives you time to correct your positions as you go and forces you to use and activate the muscles responsible for that movement.
If positional weakness is your limiting factor, start light with the 5350 tempo and then gradually add weight, session by session, until you reach a weight you can't move THAT slowly, but with which you can still maintain good form if you lift a little faster.
Just keep adding weight very gradually and moving slightly faster each session as long as your form remains tight. If it starts to fall apart, stay at the highest load you can lift well for a few workouts, then try progressing again. Over a relatively short period you'll naturally end up back at a "normal" tempo but with fantastic form.