I’m a big believer in deep squatting. Just as you wouldn’t perform a biceps curl halfway up, it makes little sense to perform a squat through only a partial range of motion. Further, partial squats will develop what I call structural imbalances, which can increase the risk of chronic knee pain, especially patella tendonitis.
One common reason trainees avoid squats is that they can’t do them properly. They lean forward excessively as they squat, and feel the uncomfortable stress on the lower back, with that little elf jumping down on L3-L5. They may try stretching their quads (by pulling their leg back) or their hamstrings (by touching their toes), but it doesn’t help. So it’s back to leg extensions and leg presses.
Not being able to squat low is often just a matter of tightness in the calves. A simple way to determine if this is a problem is to put your heels on a board (or under thin weight plates) and try to squat; if you find that you can go lower with a more upright stance, you need to stretch your calves.
When you are selecting exercises to stretch the lower legs, consider that there are two major calf muscles, the gastrocnemius and the soleus. Both muscles have a common insertion at the Achilles tendon, which attaches to the calcaneus, or heel bone. With exercises in which the knee is straight, such as donkey calf raises and standing calf raises, the gastrocnemius handles most of the load. With exercises in which the knee is bent, such as a seated calf raise, most of the load is taken by the soleus muscles. So when you stretch the calves, you need to perform movements in which the knees are straight and movements in which the knees are bent.
You can accelerate the stretching process by purchasing a pair of weightlifting shoes. In addition to being very rigid to give you a solid platform for squatting, the weightlifting shoe will have an elevated heel, usually about 1 inch. This heel enables the shins to incline forward further so the back can maintain a more upright position during the squat. The rigid design of the shoe also helps align the bones of the ankle and foot so it is easier to keep the knees in the proper alignment when squatting.
Another potential issue is a structural problem with the foot. When the arches of the feet collapse, this is referred as a valgus foot; when the feet rotate outward, this is known as a varus foot. When the feet rotate outward, the lower leg bones also rotate outward. This pattern continues upward, causing the upper leg bones to rotate outward, which in turn flattens the spine. Although there are corrective exercises for both valgus and varus feet, it may necessary for some individuals to consult with a podiatrist and consider an orthotic. After all, if the base of support from the feet is faulty, it will be difficult to squat correctly.
Settling into a Proper Squat
Improper squatting technique also can be caused by poor body awareness, or what sport scientists like to call proprioception. This issue is common among those who lack an athletic background, such that they have a poor sense of where they are in space as they exercise. During the squat they often lean forward from the waist, thinking that this is the only way they can perform the lift, rather than sitting back. As such, having a platform to sit on can help a person to get a feeling of the appropriate depth and become accustomed to squatting properly – and it can often resolve this type of problem in a few workouts. Here’s how to do it.
You set up the platform at a relatively high level, as if you were going to do a quarter squat. Step back so that when you squat, your glutes will touch the middle of the platform. Remove an empty bar from the rack, slowly sit down (don’t plop down), touch and come back up – do not sit and rock back, as is often taught in powerlifting. Do about 15 reps. For the next set, lower the platform a few inches and repeat, and continue decreasing the height of the platform until you feel your form is being compromised. Do a total of 3-4 sets. Continue the process over a series of workouts until you have the platform at the lowest setting and you are performing a full squat. Also, after you have completed these sets, perform one set with just the empty bar without the platform, going as low as comfortable.
Because the range of motion is limited on the first set, you should be able to easily perform 15 repetitions. As the platform gets lower and your range of motion subsequently increases, you can progressively cut the reps down to 10 and eventually to 5.
For the first workout just use the empty bar, and repeat the same process for the next workout but add a few pounds to the bar – perhaps just 10-20 pounds. Again, this is primarily a teaching method to develop proper technique. Then add 10-20 pounds for the next workout. After three or four workouts you should be comfortable with going right to regular squats.
Please do not consider the above method as an endorsement of box squats. While box squats have an application to powerlifting, they have little application to most sports because during this exercise the shins don’t travel forward. Also, there is a risk of causing extreme trauma to the sacral vertebrae if the trainee loses concentration and crashes down on the box. Again, what I just described is a way to resolve squatting problems due to poor body awareness.
Squats are a great exercise, but they must be performed properly to obtain the most benefit from them and to minimize the risk of injury. Give these tips a shot and then rediscover the joys of squatting.
Canada’s Paul Dumais, a junior record holder in weightlifting, performing rock bottom squats at the Poliquin Strength Institute.
*Additional resources for improving your squat: