It’s one thing to tell an athlete to squat lower; it’s another for them to be able to do it. Usually the problem can be traced to soft-tissue limitations – in other words, the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.
The fastest solution is to have a specialist do soft-tissue work to remove the adhesions or to resolve other issues that are limiting the athlete’s range of motion. Some great soft-tissue methods include Active Release™, dry needling, and the FAT-Tool™. Unfortunately, not everyone has access to skilled soft-tissue practitioners who are trained in these treatment methods and know how to identify and resolve these problems. In that case, there are alternatives you can use. Here are three tips that may just do the trick.
Tip 1: Use Lifting Chains
If you have a problem getting your athletes to squat rock-bottom, use chains. This method works on a subconscious level because the athletes will feel the load lighten as they go deeper. That is, they feel as though the exercise is getting easier. Let me explain.
A strength curve is a mathematical model that represents how much force an individual can produce at a specific joint angle. There are several types of strength curves, but the one that applies to the squat is what is known as an “ascending” strength curve. An ascending strength curve exists when you can display more force as you extend the joints. A barbell squat displays an ascending strength curve because the athlete can display more force as the legs are extended. In other words, the weight feels lighter as you get closer to the end of the concentric range.
The theory of variable resistance is that because you’re stronger or weaker at different points in an exercise, the best strength training devices should increase the resistance at the points at which you are strongest. If done properly, this means there would be no sticking points during the movement so that the muscles would be working consistently hard throughout the entire lift. Chains would be valuable for these types of exercises because the resistance increases at the strongest joint angles, thus making the exercise feel “smooth” through the entire movement. As a rule of thumb, you want to use chains that are roughly 10 percent of the barbell weight (bar + plates + collars). So if the loaded barbell weight is 100 kilos, each chain should weigh 10 kilos. But don’t get too detail oriented – even a 15 percent chain will do.
You should also consider that using chains means you are using more weight during the exercise, and as such you are also increasing the workout intensity. Further, chains also increase the time under tension, as the chains will slow down the concentric part of the exercise.
The best types of chains are those that are attached to a collar that easily slides onto the end of an Olympic barbell sleeve. However, for added safety it’s best to attach a regular collar to the outside of the barbell sleeve. A great place to acquire chains is Watson
, a gym equipment company in the UK.
Tip 2: Teach Your Athletes to Stretch the Piriformis
If an athlete comes to a dead halt at just above parallel and must rotate their heels inward to get greater depth, the problem may be tightness in their hip rotators. Most likely, the likely culprit among the hip rotators is the piriformis; the solution is to stretch the piriformis. To learn a variety of stretches for the hip rotators, I recommend my friend Frédéric Delavier’s book Delavier’s Stretching Anatomy
. The book is well illustrated, the instructions are very clear, and it has been translated into several languages.
Tip 3: Stretch the Achilles Tendons with Calf Training Equipment
Tightness in the Achilles tendons may also prevent athletes from squatting lower. In fact, one of the advantages of weightlifting shoes is that the higher heel helps compensate for tight calves. Here’s how you can properly stretch the Achilles tendons:
First, establish a marker of your flexibility by squatting down with an empty bar on your back. Once you reach the bottom position, pay attention to your body mechanics by assessing the angle of your shin in relation to the floor. Then proceed to stretch your calves maximally.
Conventional static calf stretches won’t just cut it. The calf muscle complex tends to be very hard to stretch compared to other muscles, such as the hamstrings. And you will need the extra resistance provided by weight machines. The best way to stretch your calves is to use two calf machines: typically the standing type and the seated type. Let’s start with the standing variation.
Start by positioning your shoulders under the pads of the standing calf raise machine. Lock your knees, and then lower your heels as low as possible, keeping your knees locked as you do so, as this will ensure that both the soleus and the gastrocnemius are fully stretched. If you unlock your knees, the gastrocnemius will not be stretched fully. Hold the stretch for a full 15 seconds. Bend your knees to lower the shoulder pads, and take a 5-second break during which you increase the weight by 2-3 plates. Repeat this “stretch-rest-add weight” process for another 3-5 reps.
When stretching the calves in an upright position, a great way to increase the stretch in the bottom position is to contract the glutes at that bottom-range point. Because the fascial planes extend throughout the entire lower body posterior chain, tightening the glutes enables you to feel the intensity of the stretch build up in the calf muscle complex. From here you proceed to the seated calf raise machine to give your soleus muscles a greater stretch.
Use the same training methodology for stretching the soleus: holding the stretch for 15 seconds, resting 5 seconds, adding weight, etc. Repeat this for a total of 5-6 reps. By this time, your calves should have achieved their maximum length for the day. Now go back to the squat rack and test your marker again. If your knees are moving farther than before your stretching routine, then your calves were certainly limiting your range of motion. In any case, looser calves will allow you to squat with a more upright trunk posture, thus reducing the stress levels on your knees and lower back.
The squat is considered the king of exercises, but to get the most out of the exercise you have to be able to squat deep. Next time you hit the squat rack give these three tips a try.