Squats – they’re arguably the most important exercise you do. The reason? Squats work over 200 muscles, including muscles that stabilize your spine. When you do them, you get more bang for your strength-training buck. Plus, squatting can improve your performance in a variety of sports while helping you gain functional strength.
Functional strength gives you the ability to do everyday activities more efficiently and with less risk of injury. Think about how many times you squat each day. You might squat down to pick something up many times throughout the day. When your muscles are conditioned, there’s less risk that you’ll develop an injury. Not to mention, using so many muscle groups when you squat burns more calories.
Finally, squats are a compound exercise that works more than one joint and muscle group. This makes them a better calorie burner than isolation exercises that only work a single joint or muscle group. Compound exercises help you get stronger and leaner faster.
Now that you know why you need squats, you should know that not everyone squats the same. Some people squat with poor form and have problems doing deep squats. Some of the differences come down to anatomy and lack of flexibility in particular areas. Let’s look at some of these issues.
Ankle Mobility Issues
If you’re having trouble doing a decent squat, it may be due to poor ankle mobility. Next time you do a set of squats, have someone monitor your form. Are your heels coming up off the ground when you do squats? That may be a sign that your ankles aren’t as supple as they should be. This causes another problem. When your heels rise up during a squat, due to poor ankle mobility, your quadriceps are doing most of the work and you’re not getting much glute action.
Another sign that your ankles aren’t mobile enough is when you lean forward or your knees cave in when you squat. Plus, poor ankle mobility reduces the depth to which you can squat with good form. In some cases, tight calf muscles are the underlying cause of reduced ankle mobility.
Another reason to work on ankle mobility – when your ankles have limited range-of-motion, it affects your gait. When your ankles are restricted, your knees and hips have to work harder. Stress your knees and hips long enough and you’ll end up with knee or hip pain.
What can you do to improve ankle mobility? There are a variety of ankle mobility drills you can do to help correct this problem. Then add some calf stretching exercises to your routine since tight calves decrease ankle mobility. Finally, foam rolling the muscles in your calves may be beneficial.
Hip Mobility Problems
Lack of hip mobility is probably the biggest factor that limits the ability to do a squat with good form for most people. Tight hip flexors reduce your range-of-motion when you squat and force you to lean forward as you squat and round your back when you reach the bottom of a squat. Most people spend a third or more of the day sitting, which creates tight hip flexors. When you sit, your hip flexors shorten. Shortened, tight hip flexors are more susceptible to injury too.
Signs that your hip flexors are too tight is the inability to do a deep squat and leaning forward as your squat. When your hip flexors are too stiff, your quadriceps do more of the work while your glutes get a pass. So, yes, loosening tight hip flexors can indirectly help you get a better bottom line by increasing glute activation when you squat. On the other hand, not correcting the problem creates a muscle imbalance that can lead to back pain or an injury. Don’t forget, you naturally lose some mobility in your hip flexors as you age and this aggravates the problem further.
How can you correct poor hip mobility and tight hip flexors? Work on stretching out those shortened muscles with kneeling hip flexor stretches, spiderman stretches, or goblet squat holds. At the same time, add exercises to your routine that activate your glutes. Hip bridges are an excellent option.
A fundamental tenet of doing squats safely and without injury is keeping a neutral spine when you squat. That becomes harder to do once you squat below parallel. Where most people go wrong is they round their spine as they lower their body, thereby increasing the risk of injury.
Two types of forces are placed on your spine when you squat. One kind is compressive force. This type of force flattens the discs and vertebrae in the spine and push them closer together. In contrast, shearing forces are those that occur parallel to the vertebrae and discs.
In general, compression is of less concern than shearing forces since your spine is better equipped to handle compressive force than it is shearing. In fact, you experience some degree of compressive force when you walk and your spine has adapted to that. Shearing forces, on the other hand, it’s less capable of handling. Therefore, you want to reduce shearing as much as possible. The best way to do this is to keep your spine neutral and your torso straight and avoid leaning forward when you squat.
If you have a history of back problems, you’ll want to limit excessive shearing or compressive forces on your spine. Back squats place a more compressive force on your spine than front squats. The amount of weight you use is another factor that affects how much your spine is compressed – heavier weight means more compression. Fatigue also increases the compressive forces placed on your spine.
The speed with which you squat is another factor in terms of forces placed on the spine. You reduce the compressive and shearing forces on your spine when you squat in a slow, controlled manner. A good guideline is three seconds on the eccentric or lowering phase of a squat.
The take-home message? Letting your back and spine round when you squat is a sure-fire way to end up with a painful back injury and you may be doing it without being aware of it. The way to avoid this problem is to practice, practice, practice using light weight or even no weight until you’ve mastered keeping your spine neutral throughout the entire movement. It may be helpful to have a pal take a video of you doing squats so you can see where you need work.
The Bottom Line
The squat is one of the most effective exercises you can do to strengthen your body and improve your physique. Once you’ve mastered the art of doing a standard squat, you can increase the challenge by doing squat variations like overhead squats, Bulgarian split squats, goblet squats, and more. Just make sure you really ARE using good form on standard squats first.
ACSM Current Comment “Safety of the Squat Exercise”
J Strength Cond Res 23(1): 284–292, 2008.
J Strength Cond Res 2010;24:3497-3506.
Strength Cond J 2007;29:14-19.
Strength Cond J 2007;29:10-13.
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