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The A-B-C’s of squatting for beginners and for those with limited mobility.

May 22, 2013
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Squatting to proper depth and with good form is a beautiful thing. Not everyone has the ability to do this, especially not right off the bat. But with a little bit of work and effort, you will be able to get yourself there.

I have had a lot of clients who were brand new to any form of exercise, most of them were used to sitting at a desk all day long. If I’ve learned anything from my years in personal training, I’ve learned that sitting at a desk job from 9-5 every day without doing any physical activity, is a recipe for anatomical disaster. Basically all of my clients with desk jobs came to me with extremely limited flexibility and were in need of a lot of mobility training.

I’ve also had people start up personal training after suffering injuries and who needed squat rehab. Following are some of the different tactics I’ve used in my own experiences with people, in helping them improve their flexibility and mobility to be able to eventually squat to proper depth and with good form.

Squat progressions:

Firstly, I am going to talk about squat progressions. The first progression I tend to use with beginners and those who are unable to properly squat to parallel or below without any issues, is to start with body weight box squats.

What you need to do is to start by squatting onto a high box (above parallel, but low enough that you have to work hard). For those of you who have very limited mobility, you might want to initially sit back with a wider than normal stance, although ultimately you want to shoot for getting your shin vertical (knee stacked over your ankles) and make sure you are pushing your knees out as best as you can and really squeezing your butt at the top.

If you are squatting to a box or bench, as in the video below, do not fully sit on it.  Just tap it and come right back up.  I usually tell clients to imagine it has glass or pins sticking out of it so they don’t put all their bodyweight on it, as relaxing onto the box will usually cause lumbar flexion (when the lower back rounds). You always want to keep tension as you descend into the squat. Notice in my video that I am maintaining glute and hamstring activation during the entire descent; not relaxing those muscles, but keeping them switched on.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qcqzXV9dOpA&feature=youtu.be

This should help in building some introductory strength, as well as help with making the neuromuscular connection. As your strength improves and your flexibility increases, you should be able to lower the height of the box slightly each week. When you can manage a lower (either parallel or just under) box, work on your squat technique without adding any weight at first. Then once you feel comfortable with your squat, I would suggest holding a weight in front, i.e. doing a goblet squat.

After a couple weeks of doing sets of 10-12 reps, then try out with an empty bar on your back. Maybe even just a training bar, just to the box as well. Remember to drive your chest up out of the bottom of the squat and force your knees out.

Once you start adding light weight I often recommend to do paused reps. This will help reinforce the squatting movement pattern in your brain. Start with a brief 1-2 second pause at the bottom of every rep. Everything else should remain the same as a regular squat. It's important to keep your core tight and to keep your chest up while you’re at the bottom of the squat to keep from falling forward, and you'll need to pay special attention to keeping the knees pushed out as you transition from the eccentric to concentric as they'll have a tendency to collapse inward if you're not careful (see more below on knees caving in).

Remember, don’t start trying to do weighted front or back squats until you can sort out your mobility and flexibility issues and get your squat looking good, to at least parallel. This is something that will take time. You shouldn’t rush to start squatting with heavy weight before you make sure you are squatting properly, or you will end up with injuries. Don’t bother with what other people are doing or how much weight they are squatting. Whether your goal is to eventually be able to squat big amounts of weight, or to just be able to squat properly, make sure you do your mobility and get your hip flexors, glutes and hamstrings firing for you, before you start adding weight.

Common squat mistakes and some mobility/flexibility drills to help fix them:

Not squatting deep enough:

I wrote about the progressions above (to help you get to proper depth eventually).  Not being able to reach a good depth is often the first problem someone will encounter when they begin squatting.  Here are some good hip openers to add into your program before you do your squats. If you can’t squat to parallel, do these every day until you can! They work if you do them every day. I've had clients go from no squats, to ass to grass squats, just from doing these mobility drills regularly.

Hip flexion case study

And another one:

Pre-squat hip opener

Not pushing your knees out hard enough (knees caving in):

If your knees cave in when you squat, the problem is usually weak glutes. It’s sometimes present on the descent of the squat, but I generally see it more often when people are coming out of the squat.

So what would the solution be?? Well for starters, grow some glutes! Or at least strengthen the ones you've got.

The knees cave in when there’s not enough strength in the glutes. The glutes are the major abductors of the hips, so when they aren’t up to par with your squat, the quads and adductors (which are typically stronger and more dominant), will try to take on the additional workload.

So what do we do about this? First and foremost, exercises that strengthen and develop the booty are in order. These include mini-band walks (or crab walks), glute bridges, band squats, etc. One of my favourite drills is to double up a mini-band around your knees, spread your feet and push your knees out and then squat. This will teach you to spread the floor and to push your knees out.  I like this because it's not *just* a glute exercise but it actually teaches you how to recruit the glutes while you are squatting. Start off with your bodyweight only and focus on forcing the knees out throughout the movement.

Here’s a sample of knees caving in during squats (bad):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VNDQ8k_7uGk

And the band squats to help fix it (much better):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4J-AYntCJB0

Here’s another good mobility drill to do to help strengthen both of your hip abductors at the same time: The crab walk.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nF20ZqdCC44

Not sitting back far enough (bending at the knees first):

I have found that usually this issue is a lack of awareness and understanding of how to sit back into a squat, more so than a lack of mobility or flexibility.

What has worked for me with beginners is holding a light dumbbell or KB at chest height while doing a box squat. A small weight plate works well also, if the dumbbell or kettlebells are too heavy to start with. This is a good way to learn how to sit back or hinge with the hips first. Holding a weight in the front will help with the hip hinge because it helps to counterbalance you as you sit back.  It is also a good way to help you get some extension in your upper back.  (A lot of people tend to bend too far over when they try to sit back into a squat, but if you are holding a small weight in front you will automatically need to be more upright.)  I often get absolute beginners to do goblet box squats, and have found this to work really well.

Another idea that works is to try squatting facing a wall (a wall squat). It helps you learn how to push your hips back and rely more on your posterior chain, rather than using the quads and adductors. The wall squat is also good for those who struggle to keep their torso upright during their squat (i.e. the people who tend to do “good mornings” instead of squats).

Here’s a video of a wall squat:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DhJvcO5m6-k

Lastly, here are some ideas of cues I’ve found helpful when teaching beginners how to “sit back” into the squat. When I say these things, I get a good response:

-Begin with “soft knees”.

-Start the movement by pushing your hips back and your knees out.

-Think about sitting “between your legs”

-Pull your shoulders back and down to help get your chest forward.  (I don't like saying "chest out" as I find they will forget about their whole posterior chain and just stick their chest forward without changing their posture.)

 

Pelvis rollunder (or buttwink). The issue could be a lack of pelvis control and NOT only tight hamstrings:

One big issue many people have once they are squatting to or below parallel is that their pelvis rolls under.

Often times a lack of hamstring flexibility is the culprit. But not always. I have found that a lack of pelvis motor control is the issue more often. The pelvis roll under (or buttwink) is a problem because it indicates full flexion of the lumbar spine and can lead to back problems.

So, how do we deal with it?? First of all make sure to only squat in the range that you don't wink. Eventually, your range of motion will increase as your ability to do so correctly increases.

Hamstring stretching may help, but you have to be careful with this because often hamstring tightness is a compensation for pelvic instability, and stretching the hamstrings more is often not getting to the root of the problem; but rather it's putting a band-aid on the symptoms. I would suggest focusing more on on lumbar muscle activation.

Since I’ve been a trainer, I have been intrigued as to how the pelvis roll-under occurs in individuals that have obviously good hamstring and glute flexibility. It definitely occurs often where hamstring flexibility is poor BUT I also had many clients who’s flexibility was well above average but still their pelvis rolled under quite severely when they squatted. I am convinced that the problem is poor motor control of the hips during the descent. Flexibility is a factor as well, but it’s more to do with its contribution to poor pelvis control rather than directly to the pelvis roll under. In a lot of my clients I have noticed it has more to do with a lack of lumber and pelvis control, rather than hamstring flexibility.

So if hamstring flexibility is there, take a look at your hip flexor activation. My hamstrings aren’t overly tight but I can still cause buttwink to happen if I don’t control my descent. (See the video bellow. I don’t have a severe buttwink in the first few squats, but you can still see the slight buttwink when I don’t maintain lumbar control during my descent. Then if you compare it with the  video after where I am controlling my descent and pelvis muscles you will see there is no buttwink happening anymore.)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tRKEJYqpQBQ&feature=youtu.be

Determine the point at which your low back and pelvis “winks”. If you can’t figure this out, have someone else place their hand on your lower back as you go down slowly and you should be able to feel the exact depth at which you "wink". Now, try doing it without letting your pelvis roll under. Use your hip flexors to slowly start pulling yourself down into a PERFECT squat. Stay nice and tight and maintain perfect form. Go to the point right before you start to break down and hold there for 5-10 seconds. Let gravity pull you down deeper into the bottom position. MAINTAIN TENSION THE ENTIRE TIME. Repeat a couple of times. Try doing this in the mirror or videoing yourself. You should be able to notice a difference. This will mobilise your pelvis and hips as well, and it will also help to reinforce kinesthetic awareness.

Remember, poor flexibility contributes to pelvis rollunder, but poor motor control is usually the cause. It is generally a combination of a hamstring stiffness, as well as a weak core which is affecting the ability to stabilize the pelvis.

Here’s an awesome article I found while writing this by Tony Gentlecore

Fixing the tuck under when squatting

Part 1:

Fixing the tuck under when squatting part 1

And part 2:

Fixing the tuck under when squatting part 2

Should everyone squat ass to grass?:

In my opinion there is no straight answer for this as it's not a black and white issue. I don't believe that everyone should necessarily squat to the same depth. There are many "ass to grass" diehards that believe if you aren’t touching your butt to the floor you are somehow cheating. I'm somewhere in the middle. I think you should only squat as low as your body structure and flexibility will allow before your pelvis tucks under and your lumbar spine begins to round. But of course the deeper you can properly squat, the more you will benefit from your squatting.

That point where people’s squat form begins to deteriorate will be different for everyone. Some lifters are just built to squat better. They are the ones who can go well past parallel without any problems. Others will struggle to make it even to parallel while maintaining proper lumbar flexion. For these people, forcing themselves to go into a deep squat, especially when squatting with weight, is just asking for back problems.

So, what do I suggest? Squat as low as you can until you lose your nice neutral spine, and then stop there. If it's ass to grass, then go for it. If it's higher than parallel, that's okay!! Start wherever you can, and keep doing your mobility and you will eventually be able to squat lower with correct alignment. The goal is to get to below parallel. I have seen so many people improve their depth over the months by performing my squatting progressions and doing their mobility and flexibility drills regularly. It’s worth putting the effort in to fix your squat.

Most people should be able to eventually get to the point where they can squat to parallel (this is the point where the top of the thigh is parallel to the floor). If you can't get that low, take it as a sign you should continue working on your hip, ankle, and/or thoracic mobility.

Remember if you have any form or mobility problems with your squats the solution is to lighten the load, master the form, do your mobility and flexibility work, and only progress as long as your form stays tight.

Hope this helps you on your way to becoming a squatting superstar!

Here's is some awesome reading material if you want to learn more about squats. :)

Squat like you mean it. Tips for a deeper squat. By Tony Gentlecore

Squats to a box. By Nia Shanks

How deep should you squat? By Jason Ferruggia

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