How’s your form when you do squats? Squats are a pretty basic exercise and one that works most of the muscles in your core and lower body. Plus, they’re a compound exercise that gives you more bang for your buck than isolation exercises, like leg extensions. In addition, you burn more calories and get more of an anabolic response when you squat than when you do an isolation exercise. If there’s one exercise that needs to be in your routine, it’s the iconic squat. However, you’ll get more benefits and reduce your risk of injury if you do them correctly. Yet, it’s quite common for men and women to do them wrong.
Squats are for more than changing the shape of your body – they’re a functional exercise that helps you retain strength and stay mobile as you age. However, if you use incorrect form when squatting, you can end up with muscle imbalances or, even worse, with an injury that keeps you from training for a while. Let’s look at some of the most common errors people make when doing squats and how to correct them.
Rounding Your Back
One common problem is rounding the lower back too much when descending into a squat. The culprit? It could be that your hamstrings and glutes are too tight. Tight hamstrings cause your hips to push forward and your lower back to round as you descend into a deep squat. The best way to correct this is to regularly stretch your glutes and hamstrings to alleviate the tightness. Lack of core strength may also be a contributor to back rounding. Make sure you’re including a variety of core exercises in your routine, including planks for better core control and supermans for strengthening the lower back.
In addition, be sure you’re looking straight ahead rather than down at the ground when you descend. If you’re looking down, there’s a tendency to round your back. Why is rounding so bad? Not keeping your back straight while squatting compresses the discs in your spine. At best, you could end up with lower back pain, at worst, a herniated disc.
Heels Rising Up
Do your heels rise off the floor or mat when you squat? You may be holding your feet too close together. When your feet are too close, your place more of the burden on your quadriceps and less on your glutes and hamstrings. The best stance for a squat is feet at least shoulder width apart. Any closer than that and it can negative impact your form. If you widen your feet and still have problems, you may have weak gluteal muscles. In that case, work on strengthening them with focused glute exercises, including lunges, hip thrusts, modified clam shells, and glute bridges. Tight calves are another problem that can cause the heels to rise when you descend into a squat. One tip is to curl your toes when you squat. Curling your toes will help keep your heels in position as you squat.
Problems with Balance
More people have problems with balance with lunges than squats, but balance can be an issue with squats too, especially if you do deep squats. First, make sure your feet are at least shoulder width apart. If you’re tall, keep your feet just beyond shoulder width apart. A narrow stance makes it harder to stay balanced as you descend. Another possibility is your quad muscles are weak and need strengthening. Also, next time you do a squat, notice where you’re looking. If you’re looking up at the ceiling or down at your feet when you squat, it can throw your balance off. Instead, keep your head in a neutral position with eyes looking straight ahead.
Sometimes, lack of flexibility creates balance issues. Add hip flexor stretches to increase the mobility of your hips as well as stretches to boost the suppleness of your ankles and calves. Also, include dynamic flexibility exercises in your routine. Prior to your next set of squats, do a set of bodyweight squats to warm your muscles up and increase range-of-motion.
Leaning Too Far Forward
You’ve probably seen people who lean too far forward at the base of the squat. Doing this creates a strain on your lower back as you rise back up. It also takes some of the load off of the quadriceps so they don’t work as hard. How can you correct this problem? Focus on moving your chest up and don’t let your hips rise more quickly than your chest. As you ascend, keep your eyes straight ahead, so that your head is in a neutral position. As you come up, push your knees outward and keep the weight on the middle of your feet. It takes practice, so do it without using weights until you’re comfortable.
Knees Caving In
When you squat, it’s critical that your thighs are in line with your feet. If they’re out of alignment, and your knees cave or twist, you could end up with a serious knee injury. Weak hips and glutes are another reason your knees might be caving. When these muscles aren’t strong enough, your quadriceps have to do more of the work. This, in turn, places added strain on the anterior cruciate ligament in the front of the knee and places you at risk for knee pain or injury.
Take a look at the shoes you’re squatting in too. Running shoes with heels that compress don’t offer much stability. A better choice is some of the newer cross training shoes made for weight training. These shoes have non-compressible soles that provide more support and stability for squatting. If you’re serious about squatting, you can take it up a notch by investing in a pair of dedicated weightlifting shoes. The elevated heel of these shoes gives better ankle range-of-motion, enabling a deeper squat.
The Bottom Line
You can use a mirror to evaluate your squat or have a partner videotape you as you squat. The best way to correct problems and improve your squat form is to do bodyweight squats or squats with a light load until your form improves. By working with a lighter load, you’ll zero in on problems and remedy them without being distracted by the weight you’re using. Squats truly are the king of exercises because they work so many muscle groups. Get your form right and they’ll greatly enhance the strength in your lower body.
ExRx.net. “Full Squat Flexibility”
Poliquin Group. “Solving Squat Problems: Leaning Forward”