Do you squat?
You should. And even if you don’t think you do, you do.
Every time you sit down and stand up, you squat.
And if you don’t practice it in the gym, chances are you’re getting it wrong in life.
I’ve already written about the myths that are associated with squatting and even challenged you to a medley of brutality in our Beast Mode Leg Day , but I’ve yet to give you a simple set of tips to help you be a better squatter.
Well here it is.
Problem 1: You’re wearing the wrong shoes.
The squat involves joints, muscles, and ligaments that start at your head and go all the way down INTO your feet.
So let’s start at the bottom. Right in your tootsies.
Most gym-goers are squatting in the wrong shoes.
When you perform a squat, the balance and focus begin where your body touches the ground, your feet.
During the squat, the tiny muscles in your feet (specifically your flexor digitorum longus) contract to create a stable base by keeping your arch firm, feet stationary, and arches upright. The majority of your weight is then distributed through the contact of your heel and through your great toe. In general this is an automatic process that doesn’t require anymore instruction than “Keep your weight in your heels”.
However the catch for many people is that significant “arch support” like the kind found in most running shoes or orthotic inserts interferes with this natural stabilizing contraction, causing the weight of the movement to be distributed along the outside of the foot, which causes the lower leg and even the hips to compensate.
Compensation is the enemy of your positive adaptation.
It has been said that only a foolish man builds his house on sand. You cannot condition, grow or tone your muscles on an unstable foundation.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a “barefoot running” acolyte. I mean really, guys, we may have evolved running barefoot, but we didn’t evolve running on CONCRETE. By all means, wear supportive shoes when you do activities that require thousands of repetitive, pounding movements (hiking, tennis, running, etc).
But when you do compound, lower-body resistance movements like the squat or deadlift, you should wear non-supportive, platform-like shoes that allow your foot to move and stabilize naturally (think Reebok Nano, Nike free beats, Brooks or Asics in the squat world).
Change your shoes, then watch your squat weight, balance and lack of negative joint impact improve twofold.
Problem 2: Your weight is in your toes.
Now that we’re in the right footwear, let’s move up the leg.
A little further up the chain from the foot is your ankle joint. The forces acting on this joint determine where your weight is distributed during the squat.
Ultimately, being in your heels rather than in your toes determines whether you rely on your quads while shearing your kneecaps to complete the movement (no Bueno) or you tap into your powerful glutes while saving your knees to move the weight (way more Bueno).
If you find yourself pressing into your toes during your squat, I have two fixes for you.
First, your calves are probably tight and overactive. Tight calves have a hard time relaxing to let the ankle dorsiflex thereby letting you rest in your heels under a heavy weight.
Foam roll and stretch the bad boys before your next squat session to see immediate change. Hyperice® them and stretch afterward to see the changes stick!
Second, the forces that act on the hip joint can affect how your ankle moves in a squat. That means you may need to teach your body to rely more on your glutes period. We’ll get those bad boys (or girls) in a minute.
Let’s save the best for last. First let’s talk about the knees.
Problem 3: Your knees don’t stay in line with your feet.
After you put the right shoes on and foam roll your calves, it’s onto the most common complaint in the squat world.
So many people say they can’t do squats because of their knees.
Newsflash, the knee extension machine puts more shear forces on the knees per pound of weight used than a properly balanced squat.
If your arches are stable, your weight is in your heels and your knees track in line with your third toe, there really isn’t a better exercise than the squat to strengthen the function of the knee joint.[i]
But therein lies the problem. Many knees turn in and many more turn outward while the body is lowered into the squat. Both of these movement patterns are maladaptive. But never fear, we can fix them!
If your knees fall inward toward each other, it is likely that your inner calves and adductors are shortened and need to be foam rolled and stretched! Easy fix. Additionally, your Gluteus Medius and Gluteus Minimus (the smaller siblings of Mrs. Maximus) could be strengthened with simple exercises like lateral cable leg lifts[ii] or fire hydrants[iii] (yeah, they look like they sound). Two sets, 15 slow reps on each leg twice per week and/or before each squat session should do the trick!
If your knees spread outward away from each other, the opposite fix is recommended. Foam roll and stretch your gluteus medius and outer calves. Then focus on strengthening your adductor complex with exercises like standing towel pulls or TRX lateral squats. Don’t fall into the trap of the ADDUCTOR MACHINE (. You need to strengthen these muscles in something other than a seated position!
Problem 4: Your Booty Doesn’t Work
You heard me. Your butt is lazy. Well, your glutes are lazy.
Don’t worry. It’s not your fault.
It’s likely the fault of most sedentary jobs where we are seated most of the day! This desk-bound position is one of hip flexion and glute extension. The glutes tend to get stuck that way so that when you do stand up and go about your life, your rear end doesn’t hold up it’s end of the bargain while the hip flexors, hamstrings and lower back tighten to compensate.
This is a bad state to squat in. So we have to fix it.
If you’re suffering from inactive glutes (your weight goes into your toes when you squat, you feel like you’re going to fall, or your back hurts during the exercise) there’s hope.
There are literally hundreds of exercises that help the glutes activate, my favorite include Floor Hip Bridges (focus on squeezing your glutes behind you, then progress to Swiss ball hip bridges when your back stops doing the lift), kettlebell deadlifts (then swings when you’re ready) and single-leg, Romanian deadlifts.
Master these exercises and use them as a warm-up for squat day. Heck, if I have to sit for a long time, I even break it up with one set every hour.
There’s no reason to let a desk job shut down your squat game.
Drop it Like It’s Hot
As one of the most basic and most frequent movement patterns, squatting needs to be an important part of your program in the gym.
Use these tips to practice this move and get the full-benefit of stable feet, cooperative calves, tracking knees and an active derriere!
I’ll see you on the fitness floor, not skipping leg day!
[i] Rafael F. Escamilla. Michael W. Krzyzewski. Knee biomechanics of the dynamic squat exercise. Human Performance Laboratory, Division of Orthopaedic Surgery, Duke University Medical Center Feb. 2000.