Everybody squats. Seriously! Squatting is a vital part of almost ANY strength program for person. Whether you’re into fitness for the sake of health, or you’re an athlete, the squat is king. What a shame people in gyms across the world are completely screwing the pooch and struggling to get low.
Real quick, here are 7 reasons why you’re struggling and how to get your squat game on-point.
#1. You’re About As Flexible As a Tinman.
Squatting demands a certain degree of lower body flexibility and mobility. You don’t need to be able to do a side-split, no. But if you can’t seem to squat through a full range of motion you need to improve.
My favorite method of active stretching for squat flexibility is the cantilever squat. Just hold onto something you can use for balance (a squat rack is perfect). Next, squat as low as you can and sit there.
Breathe. RELAX. Try to sink lower with each breathe. Push your knees out. Push your knees in. Try arching your back, or you can even let it round over. Just breathe, relax, and try to move different parts of your body. I’ll update this article in the future with a sequence I use with my students to drastically improve flexibility and mobility. For now I’ll reiterate: Breathe, relax, and move.
#2. Your Trunk Stability Is Severely Lacking.
While a flexible lower body is necessary to execute a safe, effective squat, the opposite is true as far as your trunk is concerned. Stability and rigidity are our goals here – you don’t want your spine to flex much in either direction while you’re under load.
Spending some time each day nipping instability in the bud will improve your form, your strength, and will greatly reduce injury potential.
A great way to get your body ready to stay rigid is to perform a few sets of planks before your squat warm-ups. Hold for 20-30 seconds and make sure to actively engage your trunk by flexing your abs harder and harder each second. if you have a hard time “feeling” your abs, it helps to take a big breathe and slowly yet forcefully hiss it out like a snake. If you do it right, you may shake. That’s a good sign that you’re using muscles in a way that they aren’t used to.
Another way to work on trunk stability is to perform bent-over barbell rows. Barbell rows will teach you to resist spinal flexion and build up your entire posterior chain through static contraction of the spinal erectors, glutes, and hamstrings. It goes without saying that they work the upper back and lats as well…it’s a row! Make them a regular part of your training, perhaps a couple times each week to begin with, and you’ll reap the benefits in no time.
#3. Your Quads Are Weak and Small!
The quadriceps muscle group will fill the role of the primary mover in the squat. If you’re slow out of the hole and your strength is lagging, you most likely need more quad work. It will probably show in your physique as well!
Spend most of the year focused on moderate repetitions and high volumes of movements like front squats, lunges, and hack squats. Don’t put too much faith in leg presses and leg extensions. They can be useful if done properly but that’s beyond the scope of this article. I recommend sticking to barbell movements.
SIDE NOTE: People often to fall victim to popular “internet wisdom” laid down by multi ply powerlifters in the 2000s that hamstrings are the most important muscle group for squatting. Multi lifters don’t usually squat below parallel where the quads are stressed the most.
Yes, above parallel, you do need strong hamstrings to get your hips through and complete the lift. You shouldn’t NEGLECT your hamstrings by any means. But training the hamstrings excessively isn’t a great strategy for most of us, because most of us are not multi ply equipped squatters.
Save hamstring specialization for when you’re a late-stage intermediate, squatting over 2.5x your body weight at least, and focus on the quads until then.
#4. You’re Sitting Back Too Much…Or Not Enough.
There are two schools of thought for how you should initiate the squat. Some people suggest to push the hips back, then move your knees out and squat down. The idea is to limit knee flexion and emphasize hip flexion. This works pretty well for a low bar powerlifting squat where you aren’t required to squat ass-to-grass (you only need to go below parallel.) The reduced range of motion might translate into more weight being lifted, which is the entire point of squatting for powerlifting. Some people are born with longer femurs and I believe they will do well to utilize this style regardless of bar position or goal.
The second style is quite the opposite. You bend at the knees a little bit first and push them out instead of sitting back, then squat straight down. The idea is to maximize knee flexion, so this style works for a high bar “Olympic” squat utilized more often by weightlifters and bodybuilders. The extra range of motion is potentially superior for building the quads and should allow you to maintain a more upright torso akin to the positions of a snatch or clean & jerk. Again, I believe that some people are better suited for this movement pattern regardless of bar position. Short femur club where you at?
#5. Your Bar Position Is All Wrong.
I talked about bar position a little bit in the last point and how it relates more to what your lower body is doing during the lift rather than one or the other being superior. You do not need to squat low or high bar for any purpose. Most people just need to put the bar where it’s most comfortable and stable. That’s essentially all the information you need, but in case you’re skipping around…
Powerlifters and folks with longer femurs tend to favor lower bar positions because they help promote a more “hip dominant squat.” Because the lower bar creates a shorter lever between the hips and bar, your torso will lean forward a bit. You’ll sit back into the squat to keep the bar over your mid foot. This will minimize range of motion by limiting knee flexion and PROBABLY increase the amount of weight you can lift.
Weightlifters and bodybuilders, as well as people with shorter femurs, tend to favor a high bar position. A high bar position creates a longer lever between the bar and hips. It requires a more upright torso to keep the bar from rolling onto your neck, and thus encourages a more “knee dominant squat” in order to keep the bar positioned over the mid foot. Because of all of these factors, the high bar position often limits the amount of weight you can lift but that isn’t set in stone.
#6. You Aren’t Practicing Squatting Enough.
Your body adapts to the stimulus you expose it to. The more often you squat, the more chances each week your body has to get good at squatting! Hold up though; that doesn’t mean you should start squatting every day. I know it’s super-popular right now, but squatting 7 days a week is jumping the gun if you’re only squatting once a week right now.
You can get you started with increasing frequency and volume of your squatting by following this practical approach:
Take a look at how many sets of squats you do each week. Let’s say for the sake of example that you’re doing 10 sets of 3 every Tuesday. Go ahead and add a couple sets to that – now we’re at 12 – and do 6 sets on Tuesday, plus another 6 sets on Friday. Now you’ve increased volume slightly and doubled your frequency! The results will come quickly and in a few weeks, squatting will become second nature.
Taking that concept further, it’s a great idea to consider turning that new “second squat day” into a session focused on a different variation than you normally do. The front squat is a great place to start, so for example: you were doing 10 sets of back squats a week on Tuesday, but now you’re doing 12 sets a week. Now, 8 sets of back squats are performed on Tuesday and 4 sets of front squats are performed on Friday. Still 12 sets, but split up among two movements and with more total work on one day than the other. This will allow you to build more general strength and possibly avoid overuse injuries! Variation is practically always good!
#7. You Train Way Too Heavy.
You’re a beginner lifter if you’re still trying to develop a fundamental movement like the squat. At risk of being too reductive, beginners need to worry about two things when they’re training: building muscle mass and developing general strength at lower intensities of their 1RM.
There’s really no reason for you to max out every week – in fact, you’ll probably be served best by performing high volumes of submaximal work for the first 2-3 years of your training career before you start worrying about testing the upper limits of your strength.
You can still throw on some weight here and there and go for a PR, but your approach should be pragmatic; you should follow a program with built-in tests instead of just doing it “when you feel like it.” Even then, you should be focused on slow, incremental progression. In other words, you need to lift lighter and do a lot more of it!
BONUS: #8. Your Program Sucks!
Look at that – you made it all the way to the end of the article! Go you. For all that hard work, I want to let you in on a secret: without a good strength training program, you aren’t going to squat much this year or the next. That’s why I’m giving you an 8 week training cycle FOR FREE.