Improve Your Squat… Backwards
Reverse patterning was first introduced by Gray Cook. It’s simple: if you want to make a movement pattern like the squat better, you need to target the whole movement instead of its individual parts. But if your squat is already troublesome, attempting to make it better by just squatting more is counterproductive.
That’s where reverse patterning comes in. Instead of training the squat from the top down (going from standing to squatting), you fix it from the bottom up. Why? Because your brain doesn’t really know what a great squat is supposed to be if you’ve ingrained a poor pattern on it already with shit squats. So your mind needs a fresh start, and the bottoms-up approach probably isn’t one you’ve explored yet.
Think about it. This is how you learned to squat to begin with. You didn’t pop out of the womb knowing how to stand and sit into a squat. You went from crawling, then half-kneeling, and then into a squatting position. So instead of spending months doing pointless mobility drills that won’t fix your squat, consider these reverse patterning progressions.
And remember, there’s no perfect squat technique. It simply needs to be best for your biomechanics. This includes tall guys who might lean forward more than what you’d see in textbooks.
Reverse Patterning Drills
Toe Touch Squat
In the toe touch squat, you’ll use a forward bend initially to keep the abs and thigh muscles “quiet” and allow you to access a deep squat much easier. That’s the primary issue you’ll run into when attempting to work on your squat from the top-down – the abs and quads will instantly jump in and halt you from trying to wreck yourself.
The heel lift, which can be accomplished with a 45-pound plate, two-by-four, or something similar, will reduce the mobility restrictions within your ankles and calves. If you can’t touch your toes, you should work on that first with some leg lowering and toe touch drills.
Once you’re in the bottom position, with your butt nearly touching the backs of your calves, think about tilting your shoulder blades down and back. It’s easy to have a rounded upper back when you first try this. Make sure your elbows are inside your knees, with the arms straight. One of the great things about keeping the arms inside the legs is it will draw your chest up without forcing you into a ribs-flared position.
Just work on getting your body familiar with being in that deep of a position. Aim for 2-3 sets of 5-6 reps as part of a dynamic warm-up.
Toe Touch Squat-to-Stand With Heel Lift
The next progression is standing up once you’ve achieved the bottom position. Keep the arms relaxed as you stand and just focus on maintaining your torso position. When you can hit 3 sets of 5-6 reps, take away the heel lift and proceed below.
Toe Touch Squat-to-Stand (No Heel Lift)
If you’re having trouble getting enough thoracic extension, there are actually a few drills you can do to fix it quickly.
Toe Touch Squat-to-Stand w/Overhead Reach
This movement reinforces proper shoulder blade positioning – tilted down and back. The key is to go slow and make sure you don’t compensate with forward head motion.
Toe Touch Squat-to-Stand Medicine Ball Overhead Reach
Now add weight to the overhead reach. This is a solid way to get the core to reflexively engage in order to counterbalance the weight going overhead, making it a catch-all for both improving thoracic mobility and your ability to control your rib cage. Exhale as the ball goes overhead. You’ll want to hold your breath, but make sure to exhale the whole way and then inhale at the top.
The Next Steps
Once you develop solid squatting ability, add these and try them in between sets of squats. They work particularly well for veteran lifters where there’s almost no such thing as too much mobility/stability work.
You’ve seen the squat from the bottom-up up to this point; now add in a walk-back prior to the squat. This is later in the progression because it’s going to involve a lot more of your upper-body and core. Make sure to crush walnuts with those glutes when you start off in the plank position and when you return. Don’t let your low-back and hips sag when walking back into the plank each time. Keep your feet as wide as needed.
The beast position is a subtly powerful way to train core, glenohumeral, and scapular stability. It’s essentially a slightly elevated, all-fours stance with the hands directly under the shoulders and knees directly under the hips.
In this drill, start in beast but then walk your hands back until you’re in a solid squat position. This is a progression from walking back in the plank position due to 1) not having as much room to walk back into the squat, and 2) the narrower stance. So don’t do this drill unless you’re comfortable with getting in the squat from the plank position with the feet just outside shoulder width.
Once you’re back in the squat, assess your feet. Are they flat? Often due to the narrower stance and decreased ability of the hips to internally rotate, the feet will roll outward. If this is the case, take your time and work on gripping your big toes and pinkie toes to the floor. That will keep your weight evenly distributed.
From here, add the same progressions as we did for the squat-to-stands by adding in the stand and an overhead reach. Include some of the toe touch drills for a couple sets of 5-6 reps as part of your normal warm-up. You can also do them in-between sets of squats. As you improve, switch out the toe touches for some plank-to-squat and beast-to-squat for a similar number of sets and reps.
If you want to fix your squat ASAP, do these every day, morning and night. Developing a new technique is best done with frequency.