Well if I have you reading on to Part 2 of the Perfect Squat Series then great! You are going to love it as there is a lot of squat information here for you!
In this blog I have briefly explained the squat flaws a little bit more in depth, but most specifically I show YOU how to address those issues.
Let’s rehash on part one, if you literally just read it then skip over this, otherwise use this to catch up to speed. In part one we talked about 3 common flaws you see in bodyweight, barefoot, and unloaded squats and what they can lead to when loaded:
- Restricted ankle range of motion: When this happens the knees can’t translate forward, which creates compensations up the chain. These compensations lead to other issues such as increased back and hip pain.
- Increased low back extension (arch): During this position the chest will rise and create an arch throughout the lower thoracic spine and lower back. Less emphasis is placed on loading the hips and more is placed on the low back muscles and joints.
- Inability to achieve pure hip flexion: Hip flexion is your ability to lift your leg upwards and doing so with a flat back position. Without this ability the back will round typically towards the bottom of a loaded squat. This creates further improper alignments and tight/dysfunctional hips.
You can imagine, none of these positions will feel good once an appreciable load is applied. So let’s attack the position before loaded.
***Side note: There are obviously a lot more issues seen in the squat, but I’ve kept this simple and stuck to the sagittal plane (front-to-back) so I apologize to all the functional scientists out there***
THE FIX: RESTRICTED ANKLE RANGE OF MOTION
So let’s jump right into it: How do we fix an ankle that is restricted? Without getting super in-depth, the ankle is composed of joints and muscle…."obviously, Phil!!"
One of these components, or both, are restricted. The reason for the restriction could be a million different reasons, however, let’s just look at the ankle as stiff and restricted on the backside. The joint can certainly be affecting how the tibia (leg bone) moves on the talus (ankle bone), and if this is purely the case then mobilizations will work and I will explain that coming up. If the muscles are tight then perhaps applied pressure and stretching may be sufficient to gain range of motion. Usually it is a combination of both techniques that will need to be utilized. Below I have included images of three simple techniques you can use for stiff/restricted ankles that allow your squat to be maximized.
**NOTE: Jason, the Element 26 CrossFit Expert and Coach, is the model below and demonstrates these techniques flawlessly! He got a gold star for this!**
1: The first technique is calf tissue massage and over-pressure. The ball pictured above is placed into the belly of the muscle to provide feedback to the tissue, allowing it to relax. Move the ball around to different parts of the calf tissue to get the most out of this activity. This should be done for 1-2 minutes.
2: The second technique is a simple calf stretch. In the image above note how Jason places the ball of his foot onto the edge of the plate, applying the most stress on the calf tissue. Perform this after the ball massage/over-pressure. You can perform this with a straight knee and/or a slightly bent knee.
3: Above is an ankle band mobilization. Perform this with a band that is not too thin and not too thick. The band is placed close to the ankle joint, like above, allowing the tibia (lower leg bone) to translate forward on the talus (ankle bone below the tibia). Provide over-pressure with your hands to the knee for increased stretch/mobilization. Keep the heel in contact with the ground.
THE FIX: LOW BACK EXTENSION (ARCH)
Now how about a squat with increased low back extension? Why does this happen?
There are several key points here. First, you have your body structure (limb length, bone size, muscle attachments). Secondly, you have what you do on a daily basis (it may be sitting at a desk for 10 hours, working construction for 8 hours, and/or lifting/CrossFit, it’s a mix of whatever you do) which contributes to stiffness and tone. Thirdly, there’s movement frequency, load, and volume throughout those daily tasks. Without getting too in depth, the body and brain gets used to everything you do and tries to keep balance. That means your body has stiffness and tone at certain areas of your body to live, breathe, and function based on what you tell it to do as it applies to your body structure.
**Tone refers to the neural output (nervous system) from the brain to the muscles which is why you might feel stiff and tight at rest. If you thought it meant looking lean and slender then you are not alone! You can certainly use it that way but note tone is really about how stiff your muscles are.**
Let's take a look at an example of how your daily life affects the gym movements: If you work construction for 8 hours a day bending and lifting, your hips and back will be tired when you go try to squat or do olympic lifts later that day. This can lead to increased tone or tightness in the hips and low back since the body is trying to protect the underlying joints as the body is fatigued. That’s when positions get out of whack and you start arching your back to find some sense of mobility and squat depth. As a result, performing that movement over time cues your brain to remember that pattern (although may feel fine at first), this leads to increased groin pain, back pain, hip pain, and/or tightness throughout. Then, when the pain sets in and the weightroom numbers start to decline, is when most people decide to do something about it.
So how do we break this cycle and begin to move well again?
- Start by diagnosing the “arched” pattern
- Apply pressure via massage and tissue work (“foam rolling”) as needed
- Loosen up specific areas such as the back of the hip joint and restore some lumbar flexion (round back)
- Incorporate specific abdominal coordination/strengthening tasks to limit back extension or "arch" (dead-bug exercise below)
- Incorporate proper movement mechanics into your lifting/prehab routine
- Practice this over and over and over again even if you are fatigued from working construction for 8 hours (same thing could be said for sitting at a desk for 8-10 hours a day)
- Control amount of load, volume, and frequency to ensure the correct pattern stays fresh (if you are tired then decrease the load and volume, do not push through it because that’s when poor patterns arise)
Below I have included 4 quick and easy techniques to ensure proper movement happens at the hips and pelvis to correct back arching.
1: Above are two simple foam rolling or pressure variations for the hips and thigh. Since the hips and thighs work together and are connected via a common myofascial chain, perform these techniques before moving into stretching or movement preparation drills. Note: the hip rolling can also be done with a hard ball like the image above for the calf.
2: Above is a variation of the dead-bug. Start with sliders to gain control of the movement. Note this is not a leg exercise, this an exercise for the abdominals and obliques specifically. It emphasizes the ability to maintain a neutral pelvis and spine throughout the movement of the legs. I progress to elevated leg taps in the video but only progress if you can master the slide with no issues. Also make sure you can breathe and contract your abs at the same time. You should not be turning red in the face.
3: This video details simple lower back and pelvic shifts to address an over-extended pattern. In the beginning of the video I go through a few squats where I "over-arch" the pattern. From there I demonstrate how I would reset my back to neutral and what that squat would look like comparatively.
4: The above exercise is one I use with a lot of athletes to regain how to feel their hips working while relearning how to use a more neutral back and hip alignment. Note how I hinge at the hips without arching the back (lifting the chest) while sitting into the stance leg hip. The leg that is tapping is just going for the ride. Focus on the leg you are standing on.
THE-FIX: ROUNDED LOWER BACK
Now let’s move on to a squat with a more rounded low back position. Similar to the back extension issue, the brain and body act together based on the muscle/bone structure and what stress your body is exposed to daily. If someone comes to you and says “oh you must have tight hamstrings and you probably sit too much, that’s why you round your back….”
RUN FAR AWAY!!
Seriously, those are just pieces of the whole complex system, not the complete answer to why you round your back in squatting tasks. This pattern is a little different than the arch pattern in the sense that the brain has a hard time opening up the hips/glutes and in turn the pelvis is basically “glued” to the femurs which is why it can be so difficult to sit back/into the hips. That’s another reason why you may have back tightness when trying to push your butt back, you’re back muscles are literally fighting against your body’s normal position and tone.
So how do we fix this flaw?
- Diagnose the position, basic squat test would suffice
- Apply pressure via massage and tissue work (“foam rolling”) as needed
- Open up the back of the hips via specific stretches aimed at that position, possibly incorporate a hamstring stretch as well (pigeon stretch below)
- Utilize specific abdominal coordination/strengthening tasks to reduce stiffness in the hips (dead-bug would apply here)
- Incorporate proper movement mechanics into your lifting/prehab routine (this may require paused positions and isometric holds at or above parallel so you are working with the stiffness versus against it
- Practice this pattern over and over and over again
- Control amount of load, volume, and frequency to ensure the correct pattern stays fresh
Below are three easy solutions to fix this pattern and ensure better squatting potential!
1: A pigeon stretch is great especially after you roll out with a foam roller or ball in the hips. Perform this after the rolling and before the warm-up. This will open up those hips to get them to “separate” from the lower back so you can use the hips more in positions such as squatting and Olympic Lifting.
2: If you are someone who "butt winks" in your squat or you know someone who winks then simple adjustments such as working with partial ranges of motion (aka quarter squats) while maintaining a neutral spine may work great. Otherwise if you have full motion of the back then try tightening your core and sitting between your heels with a flat back position. Attempt to "pinch" the front of your hips as you sink down.
Remember the body is a complex system and one thing that may work for one athlete, may not work for the other. Finding corrective exercises and muscle relaxation (mobility) techniques is specific to every individual and athlete based on how they move and what they do daily.
Coming up in part 3 I'll explain some helpful performance and rehab specific tools and gear that can take your squat to the next level once you have mastered the squat position!! Even if you still have some squat issues, don't worry at all! There will be some other techniques in there that will clean that right up!
I hope you found this information useful. If you have any questions or would like further clarification please reach out to me at one of the handles below:
- Dr. Phil (E26 Sports Physical Therapist)