Learning the squat 4: Tips, tricks and troubleshooting

June 24th, 2008  |  Published in Exercise instruction  |  15 Comments

Few people can knock off a perfect squat on the first try, or even the first several tries. Learning the basics of a squat is relatively simple, but perfecting the technique takes time and practice. Technique must always take precedence over weight. Don’t be scared of adding weight once you get the hang of things, but never add weight that you can’t handle. Don’t cut the depth to be able to add more weight, either. Santa is watching and he frowns on bad little girls who cheat. Never let your ego get in the way of using good form.

squat stance

In the beginning you will likely be focusing on not falling over, so you won’t be terribly concerned with your squat stance. However, eventually you may be interested in experimenting with squat stances. Perhaps you want to find the one which is most advantageous for you, or you are thinking of competing in powerlifting. Whatever your reason, it is helpful to know what each stance involves. Bear in mind that everyone is different, and there’s lots of room for variation. There are no hard and fast rules about which one is right for you. For example, many people with longer legs find that they prefer a wider stance, and it makes it easier for them to hit full depth, but there are exceptions, such as my giraffe-legged husband who can do a rather astonishing narrow stance squat.

Here are the two basic back squat stances. Since I took these shots at home, and since my husband persists in being unreasonable about my idea to remove all of the living room furniture and install a complete home gym in its place, I am demonstrating this with my trusty broomstick.

The wide stance, low bar squat is the powerlifting style squat. Feet are placed quite wide apart, and toes are often turned out. The bar sits low on the traps. It puts people with strong hamstrings, glutes, and hips at an advantage, since hip extension provides much of the drive. The wider your foot placement, the harder it will be to hit depth, since the hip joint will eventually limit how far down you can go (compare my depth at the bottom of the wide-stance and narrow-stance squats). Powerlifters use this style because it helps them hit parallel but no lower, and a lot of weight can be moved this way. It looks like I’m really hyperextending my back in the photo on the left, but I’ve just started sitting back into the descent a bit.
The narrow stance, high bar squat is the one that I use. The bar sits relatively higher up on the traps, and the feet are roughly shoulder width apart. Full depth is easily achieved as long as hamstrings are flexible and lower back is strong. Toes may travel slightly beyond knees, but it’s not usually a problem. This stance is good for people with strong quads, and/or for people who also perform Olympic lifts. Knee extension is more significant in this squat than in the wide stance style, which means that more work is done by the quads.

squatting stretches

Here are some stretches that will help you squat more easily, effectively and correctly. All stretches should be executed after a good warmup. Since these stretches are intended as remedial work for the squat, you can break the “no static stretching before weights” rule and do them before you squat, as well as after.

The best squat stretch of all is squatting (there’s a zen truth in there somewhere). To do this stretch, simply squat down and sit there in the squat position for 3-5 seconds, letting your own weight push you into the stretch. Ascend as normal, then repeat. Do this a few times every day, or every workout, and within a couple of weeks this should be a piece of cake. You can also put a bar on your back for this one, and the added weight will also help to push you further into the stretch. To get a deeper hip stretch from this, squat down with no weight on your back, then once you are at the bottom, take your elbows and use them to push your knees outwards. Hold for 5 seconds, then ascend. Repeat as desired.

Tight hamstrings are often to blame for rounding out the lower back at the bottom. Many people stretch hamstrings incorrectly, using stretches such as the sit-and-reach stretch (not to be confused with the sit-and-spin), where they bend from the waist. It’s much more effective to stretch the hamstrings while bending from the hip. For a beginner stretch, simply bend forward from the hips, keeping an arch in the lower back, as shown in the picture on the left. Once you’ve gotten good at this, progress to the deeper stretch shown in the middle picture, with foot elevated on a step, bench, or chair. Keep bending from the hips, not the waist, and push butt back as your upper body leans down. You can also stretch the hamstrings while lying down, using a towel looped around your calf, as shown in the picture on the right.

Tight hips can be stretched out with this version of the classic yoga pigeon pose. To get into this pose, sit on the floor with your left knee bent in front of you (knee bent about 90 degrees; don’t overbend), and the right leg straight-ish in front of you. Roll on to your left butt cheek, and swing the right leg back as far as it will go. In the beginning it probably won’t go very far, and you’ll have to keep the right knee bent. Roll back towards the center so that weight is evenly distributed. The farther you roll to the right, the deeper the stretch in the front of your right hip. Sit up straight, push chest out, and press right hip forward. The farther up you sit, the more you’ll feel the stretch in the front of your right hip. The farther forward you lean, the more you’ll feel the stretch in the outside of the left hip. I like to do this as a two-step stretch: get into position, then stretch first in the upright position shown, followed by leaning forward (you can go as far down as resting your forehead on the floor, if you like). Repeat on other side of course. I like this stretch a lot because it’s a good one-two punch. You stretch out the outside of one hip, and the front of the other. Don’t forget to breathe deeply and relax for this one, because it’s a deep stretch.
If this stretch is too much for you at first, try a simpler stretch for the outside of your hip. Sit on floor with both legs out in front of you. Bring left knee towards your chest, and cross your left foot over your right thigh. Hug the left knee to the chest and hold for several seconds. Repeat on other side.
For the front of the hip, try the stretch shown to the right. Step forward with one leg, keeping upper body upright and tucking pelvis under very slightly. Drop rear knee straight down until a stretch is felt in the front of the hip. You may find that you need to tuck the pelvis under a fair bit to make this stretch happen. Keep front shin and rear thigh approximately vertical, and do not hyperextend the lower back. If you like, you can hold a railing for balance during this stretch.
If you find that your heels are rising off the floor while descending, you likely have tight calves. First, make sure that you are using a full range of motion for your calf exercises, getting the heel all the way down on the descent. You can even pause at the bottom of each rep if you like, letting the heel sink down.
Second, try the following stretches. Stand facing a wall. Place hands on wall, slide one foot back, press heel down, as shown in picture to left. Hold for 10-30 seconds, then bend knee and continue pressing down on heel, as shown in the right hand picture.

Another good stretch is to stand on a step, holding a railing. Slide one foot off the step, so that the heel is off the step while the toes are still on the step. Press that heel down and hold for 10-30 seconds.

Pain on the outside of the knee is often alleviated by stretching the iliotibial band, which is a long strip of mostly connective tissue that runs down the thigh from hip to knee. Though the tissue spans the length of the thigh, it is most often felt in the knee area, outside and just above. Runners especially are likely to be familiar with the pain of IT band irritation. This knee pain is actually relieved by stretching hip abductor muscles, the glutes and the tensor fascia latae. The hip stretches described above will help, as will this stretch. Cross left leg over right as shown, straighten both legs, then push hip out to the right like Mae West workin’ it.

Another handy tip for self-treating knee pain is massage with a rolling pin. While seated watching TV or whatever, stretch your leg out in front of you and rest it on your coffee table, footstool, or helpful golden retriever. Take the rolling pin and roll it down the length of your thigh, working in small areas about 6″ square. Use gentle pressure at first, then increase. Work along the entire thigh, wherever there is soft tissue, particularly along the outside. This rolling pin massage also feels great on the front of your shins. If you don’t have a rolling pin handy, try just using your thumbs to work along the outside of the thigh from the knee upwards, making small circles about 1-2″ in diameter, and using a firm pressure. Do this self-massage for several minutes, once or twice a day.

therapeutic squatting variations

The squat itself can be modified to correct problems in technique. A common problem is allowing the knees to cave inwards. This can signify, in part, a weakness in hip abductors, but it can also be just poor learned form. To un-learn this as well as focus on strengthening hips, try this trick. Take a piece of elastic tubing or exercise bands (you don’t have to use this; you can use any piece of cord you have lying around, but the elastic stuff works really well). Tie it into a loop, then place the loop around your knees while standing. The loop should be long enough so that it allows you to stand normally, but short enough that you have to press your knees outwards to keep it from falling down. Then, using light weight, execute your squat as normal, making sure to press knees outwards throughout.

Knee pain can sometimes be treated using this squat modification. Squat as normal, but hold a basketball or soccer ball between your knees. You’ll have to focus on pressing inwards or the ball will drop. This is often prescribed by physiotherapists who identify a hip abductor or vastus medialis weakness.

Responses

  1. Tina says:

    March 17th, 2009at 9:09 am(#)

    Oh, thank you great guru of Squatville!
    (I can now bow down without falling over!)
    My knees and hips appreciate your generosity in sharing your wealth of knowledge!

  2. madge says:

    April 11th, 2009at 10:26 am(#)

    hey mistress krista, i am having a recurrent problem with my squat form that i don’t see covered here … my upper body (including my ginormous chest) seems to want to come much further forward than yours does in these photos. i can tell this is throwing my balance off and making my weight shift further forward than it should, but in my experimentations i haven’t had much success in keeping my chest pointing up or even forward the way yours does.

    i can get maybe 50-60% depth before my boobs tip me forward — should i just concentrate on doing that much depth with perfect form and look for more depth over time? or is there something else i may be missing?

    i’ve been trying to keep my focus on keeping my chest out and driving up through my heels but i still feel as though i’m too far forward to go much deeper than flat hamstrings.

    if it helps, i’m tall – 5’10” with very long legs. i have been exercising faithfully 5 hours a week for a few months and am still 30-40 lbs overweight, most of which i carry in my gut.

    thank you so much for any guidance or advice you can provide! i love squatting and don’t want to retreat to the leg press machine for fear of screwing something up with my bad form.

  3. madge says:

    April 11th, 2009at 11:36 am(#)

    you know what, never mind … i just hit the lurn to squat e-zy page and realized that i really need to start with railing squats until my (skinny) legs are stronger. 25 of them kicked my arse!

    checking my wanting-to-squat-with-heavy-stuff ego at the door,
    madge

  4. Mistress Krista says:

    April 12th, 2009at 4:21 am(#)

    Great start Madge — also see this little video:
    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-6529481301858251744
    Check out around 5-6 min into it where he talks about “chest out” and “Buddha belly” as visual cues for helping the squatter stay upright.

  5. Rachel says:

    May 13th, 2009at 1:00 pm(#)

    You mentioned above about heels coming up off the floor – this is the problem I have. I can only barely get parallel before my achilles tendon starts to feel like it’s going to break, and my heels come off the floor. Even in just a casual squat (feeding the cats, for instance) I’m on my toes. Is there anything else I can do besides stretching the calves to help myself get down to a proper squat position?

    Thanks!

  6. Six Online Resources for Squats | 21st Century Amazon says:

    June 1st, 2009at 8:32 am(#)

    […] Learning the Squat, 4-Part Series (stumptuous.com) Part 1 – Debunking the Myths Part 2 – Why Squat? Part 3 – How to Squat Part 4 – Tips, Tricks,a nd Troubleshooting […]

  7. Phil says:

    February 17th, 2010at 5:28 am(#)

    I also like the pidgeon pose. this is how i use it in my sitting sequence. Start of in cobbler/butterfly to stretch adductor magnes-straighten one leg into bent leg forward stretch for hamstrings and back-swing the straight leg back into pidgeon, leen forward over knee then stretch up and hold- bend the back leg at the knee and hold foot with the same side arm or both if your flex enough to stretch hip flexors and quad-lower back leg and swing to the front up and over front leg- back leg now bent over front leg in half lord of the fishes pose-seperate the legs and settle back down to cobbler/butterfly pose and start again on the other side hold each for a couple of breaths and flow from pose to pose

  8. MG says:

    February 18th, 2010at 1:53 pm(#)

    Hi
    My problem when doing squats is that I lose my balance.
    I was wondering if you may have a trick for that. And also my knees tend to come in when I squat I think it’s because I lose my balance that my knees do that. Thank you kindly in advance. I should mention that I only do satic squats with my cardio workout.

  9. Mistress Krista says:

    February 20th, 2010at 8:26 am(#)

    MG: See here: http://www.stumptuous.com/lurn-to-squat-good-e-zy — see railing and potty squats.

  10. Bethany says:

    April 14th, 2010at 10:24 am(#)

    Hi Krista,

    I love your website. I’d like you to know that I started lifting heavy because of you, and it has really changed my life for the better.

    I can’t figure out how to squat for the life of me. I can squat down to about 90 degrees, like I’m sitting on a low-ish chair, but any further and I just fall flat on my ass. I have been trying for weeks and I can only squat deeply if I hold onto something. I hate cheating like that, but I feel like something is wrong with my body that I can’t hold my balance. I can go all the way down but I come up on my toes, and if I try to force my heels down, bam, flat on my ass. Should I just keep trying to rail squat and that will eventually build up my strength? I’m really frustrated.

  11. Mistress Krista says:

    April 14th, 2010at 10:29 am(#)

    Bethany, nothing’s wrong with you. It’s not cheating — it’s what you can do right now. Try widening your feet, for starters, and turning your toes out. Don’t try to keep the torso straight up and down; lean forward a little from the hips. Check out Lurn 2 Squat Good – E-zy and start railing squatting and box squatting.
    http://www.stumptuous.com/lurn-to-squat-good-e-zy

    Glad Stumptuous has been life changing! Wait till you start rocking the squat; then you will be INVINCIBLE!

  12. KCK says:

    June 9th, 2010at 9:03 am(#)

    Hi Krista,

    When you say that the wide-stance squats are “good” for people who have strong hams & glutes, does that mean they’re easier for those people because they use those muscles more? Or does it mean they are good for strengthening quads more to match ham/glute strength? I have the same question about your statement that narrow-stance squats are “good” for people with strong quads. I am in the latter group but would like to strengthen my back-side muscles.

  13. Mistress Krista says:

    July 24th, 2010at 5:28 am(#)

    KCK: It means that wide stance squats are easier and may be more comfortable for those folks with stronger hips/hams/glutes. In general many women have stronger quads relative to hamstrings and would thus benefit from wider-stance squats as well as specific glute/ham recruitment work and/or strengthening of the external hip rotators.

  14. SHF says:

    March 11th, 2011at 12:29 am(#)

    Dear MK! ur article is a godsend for ppl like me who love squatting but can’t…I have a q tho…I have neither strong quads nor strong hamstrings..I lean forward a lot while rising from backsquats/frontsquats..Have to use heel elevation as without it,my heels get off the floor (i squat barefoot)I also have a niggling knee prob as my knees turn inwards when squatting…Do you have any advice for me as to how

    1) i can strengthen my legs
    2)improve my form

    So that i can enjoy this wonderful exercise?

    Thank you!!

  15. Mistress Krista says:

    March 11th, 2011at 4:42 am(#)

    @SHF: See here: http://www.stumptuous.com/lurn-to-squat-good-e-zy

    Start with the potty and goblet squat. A forward lean is fine as long as it comes from the hips. Focus on pushing the knees OUT as you come up. A handy trick is to put a band around your knees so that you have to push outwards against it (otherwise the band will drop).

    Goblet squat shown here:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wbZac-6H9bs


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