Unless you’ve been living in a frat house, you know that squatting is important.
Kettlebell front rack squats, back squats, front squats, sandbag squats, goblet squats-they’re all great. It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to get jacked and tan, lose a few lbs, or just get up and down from the john efficiently, knee bending should play a prominent role in your training program. If I need to explain why any further, then you might be in the wrong place.
I’ve covered this before, but I want to be clear: I don’t care what squat variation you choose. Find one that feels good to you, that you have the tools at your disposal to challenge yourself, and then just run with it.
Regardless of what squat you’re using, you’ve probably heard, read, or been coached with some of the following cues. Hell, they might be burned into your subconscious to the point that you hear them in your head on each rep. The fact is, they’re likely limiting your progress and holding you back.
Since they miss the mark, and since I’m a solutions guy, here are better alternatives for each.
Don’t Let Your Knees Move Out Over Your Toes.
If you’ve ever tried this, you’ll know that it’s damn near impossible without falling flat on your ass. The fact of the matter is, we want the load to move in as straight of a line up and down through the squat, regardless of which version we’re doing. By not letting the knees move out over the toes, the load will move behind the hips, essentially making it impossible to get to depth.
I actually think this is the cue that led to millions of quarter squatters across the country. I had a buddy that used to call these dudes jump shooters because they only bend their knees when squatting as much as when they shoot hoops. Don’t be a jump shooter, be a deep squatter and you’ll recruit a lot more muscle and not look like a dufus. Win-win.
The solution: The knees are supposed to move out front to some degree, and this requires sufficient ankle mobility to do so while keeping the feet flat. This is one of the reasons why squatting is so beneficial-there’s a lot of movement at a lot of joints. If your ankle mobility is the limiting factor, mix in this drill for dorsiflexion or this one for 360 degrees of motion.
Push Your Knees Out.
Pushing your knees out is a pretty common coaching cue, and one that I unfortunately used at one point as a correction to people’s knees collapsing in. The problem is, if we just focus on pushing the knees out, we lose tightness and our feet will start to rotate upwards, leaving us with less contact with the floor.
Not optimal for squatting heavy stuff.
The solution: The best way to ensure proper knee tracking, while keeping adequate tension and a straight path of the weight is by thinking about driving your knees to your toes and sitting straight down. The toes should be turned out some, so by driving the knees towards them, you already keep them from collapsing in, which is the biggest battle most people face.
When someone squats down and their heels come up as they roll up onto their toes, the sit back cue comes into play. Unfortunately, what tends to happen is an over correction where the person then sits too far back onto their heels and their toes rock up. Box Squats and low bar squatting aside, we don’t want to sit back, we want to sit down.
Say you’re doing a high bar back squat and you start by sitting back. In order to keep from falling backwards and still getting to parallel, you have to lean forward with your torso. This is going to put you in a less than optimal position of strength, while really ratcheting up the amount of shear stress on your spine.
If you sit back with a front squat, racked position kettlebell squat, or goblet squat, then the weight is going to move even further forward and you’ll dump the weight and get the lunk alarm sounded on you. This is no bueno.
The solution: Think about an imaginary line drawn between your heels, then think about squatting your tailbone down onto that line. You’re sitting between your legs, not behind them. I really like to use eccentrics and iso holds here when trying to get comfortable squatting this way while also getting a serious training effect. 3-5 second eccentrics followed by 3 second holds usually do the trick and people find the right groove pretty quickly.
Push Through Your Heels.
Pushing through your heels is another common squat flaw that is probably an over correction from the heels coming up. The problem is, there’s a real lack of stability when you only have pressure on part of your foot when squatting, which leads to a lack of tightness all around. Your odds of squatting any appreciable weight this way are slim to none.
The solution: Turn your toes out a bit-how much will vary depending on each person’s size and hip structure. Yours may be angled out anywhere between 10-30 degrees, just find what’s comfortable. Curl your big toes in and drive them into the ground. The rest of the toes will follow along if you just focus on the big toe. From there, break at the knees, drive the knees towards the toes, and sit straight down between the heels. The weight, wherever it’s placed, should make a straight vertical line through the movement.
I can’t even begin to estimate how many people I’ve trained over the years who told me on day 1 that they didn’t like squatting because it hurt their knees, back, hips, or pride, but, after using a comprehensive assessment to find the right squat variation for them, and utilizing the coaching points above, they usually make huge strides very quickly. As a bonus, when something isn’t as uncomfortable as an STD test, their attitudes towards squats as a movement change significantly.
Clean up your squat to lead to more strength and muscle all around, a less saggy tuchus, and a body that feels a hell of a lot better and less robotic. Before I wrap up completely though, here are a few miscellaneous points about squatting that I want to cover real quick.
- Please don’t use that black pad or blue plastic thing on the bar when squatting. Not only do you look like a dweeb but it creates space between the bar and your traps, making it impossible to get tight enough to squat anything significant. I’ve kept a running count over the years and I’ve never seen anyone squat over 155 with one of those on.
- Don’t squat in the smith machine. Leave that for inverted rows.
- Everyone wants to train barefoot nowadays, which I think is great for most things. When it comes to barbell squatting, though, I’d invest in some good olympic lifting shoes. The sole is hard and flat, but there’s a bit of a heel lift that helps with positioning. If you don’t want to wear those, use something that’s not super squishy inside like Chucks so you can get a good grip on the floor.
- I’ve had both knees operated on, and I started wearing some sleeves when squatting a few years ago and I rarely have the flare ups that I had previously. Mine are really thin so I don’t feel like I get much out of them in terms of coming out of the hole, but for whatever reason my wheels feel good, so I’m sticking with them.
- Use full ranges of motion, no matter what squat variation you do. I don’t care that the guys at Westside are doing high box squats or whatever. They compete in squat suits and that totally changes things. And if you can’t get to a full range of motion, then you shouldn’t be loading the exercise until you can.
- Do a light sets of some type of hamstring curl before you start squatting. You’ll feel better. 2-3 sets of 10-12 should do the trick.
Squatting shouldn’t be a chore, it should be a celebration of your body’s unbelievable abilities to move, produce force, and work in harmony. I hope these tips help to make them more “comfortable” for you, and lead to you incorporating them more frequently and with a better result than you have had in the past.