The squat is one of the biggest exercises in fitness. It is a huge compound movement that can help to improve your fitness and strength in a number of ways. But what if you can't squat properly? How can you improve your squat?
Why can't I squat properly?
Squatting is a natural, functional movement that humans have been doing since the dawn of time. When we were young we would squat perfectly and naturally without even thinking about it. Just take a look at a child playing around, they'll drop into a squat and get back up again without a second thought. As we age, we get less and less good at it as we lose mobility and become sedentary in our lifestyle.
If you can't squat properly, it could be due to lifestyle or it could be due to your personal physiology. If you haven't done a squat since you were a child, you can't expect to do one perfectly first time you try. Like everything, exercises take practice, and you should ask an expert or fitness professional to give you guidance the first time you try to squat.
Some people have more reduced mobility than others, which may also affect your squat capabilities. If you have stiff or weak ankles, you will struggle to squat. Again, practice makes perfect, and with the right physio training, you'll be able to do a full, proper squat in no time.
Squats are a compound movement, meaning they use multiple joints and muscles to happen. A simple body weight squat utilises almost every muscle in the body and arguably once weights are added, no muscle gets left behind. It's a good idea to get well acquainted with the body weight squat before you add weight, so that you can be sure you have good form.
How to do a squat
- Begin with feet just outside shoulder width and toes pointing very slightly outward.
- Find a point to focus on looking straight ahead, don’t look down as this will compromise your spine.
- Head up, sink your weight back into your heels and bend your knees.
- Sink your bum down as low as your hips and flexibility allow.
- Your chest should stay upright and your back remains flat, the knees should follow the toes.
- Driving off your heels, straighten back up to the start position.
How to improve your squat
Lack of Range
A lack of range in your squat is usually caused by stiffness, inflexibility or even ankle instability. If your heels lift off the ground towards the bottom of your squat it is likely that you have either tight hamstrings, ankles or both. Stretching the ankles and hamstrings will help to achieve the full squat depth.
Knees collapse inwards
Your knees caving inwards during a squat is a common sign of weak abductors and gluteus medius, although there can be many other reasons as with any imperfection. Exercises which focus on activating these muscles such as lying clamshells, banded squat walks and single leg lunging can help to activate these areas. This being said, there are olympic athletes whose knees collapse inwards as they compete, who clearly don’t suffer from ‘weak’ anything. So it is not the only cause.
Back caves forwards when squatting
A weak posterior chain can lead to bending forward as the lower back attempts to make up for the weakness and ends up pulling you forward. Strengthening the hips, glutes and hamstrings will enable them to engage better and pull your body back to the correct alignment.
An arched back when squatting can be caused by a multitude of problems, a weak chest, poor posture, a weak trunk or even simply too great a weight can cause the shoulders to arch, compromising your squat technique. Trying to establish the cause of this imbalance can often be the most difficult task, but then there are simple steps which can be implemented in order to address the issue. A weak chest can be worked on by focusing on exercises such as flyes and pullovers, whilst fully engaging the pecs by forcing the shoulders back. A weak trunk can be improved by working on core strength using exercises such as the plank and hanging leg raises.
The barbell squat
Olympic squat, weighted squats, whatever you want to call it, this is when the squat becomes a game changer and has the greatest effects not only on strength but on weight loss, fitness and body composition. Weight training has a whole article of benefits of it’s own which you can read under “strength training”.
The first battle, do I use a neck wrap or not? To barbell squat you will need an olympic bar, collars and a rack. You will not need: Chalk, lifting gloves or a neck pad for the bar. If you hold the bar correctly you don’t need to use a pad to support your back, that’s what you’ve got traps for. What’s more - wearing a neck brace can damage your proprioception, you need to be able to feel the bar properly for effective balance. Padding makes the bar thicker, moving it upwards which causes a more forward lean and emphasises lower back stress. As your weight lifting gets serious and your strength increases a bar pad won’t be any help anyway. Heavy weights hurt.
Setting up to barbell squat
This is another common trait many will miss, despite the fact they’re in the gym, we can still call these people lazy, as they’re the ones who don’t want to faff with moving the rack to fit them properly, which can lead to poor technique. As someone who is 5 ft 2, I physically HAVE to set the bar up every time, as at most people’s height, I’d be trying to lift it over my head! The bar should be set at a height somewhere between your breast and collar bone. It needs to be low enough that when you stand with knees locked, the bar lifts off the rack, without you going on tip toes. It’s a squat not a calf raise.
Once you’ve set the bar up, it’s time to step under it, place the bar across your shoulders and select your grip. This is another vital piece of the puzzle. Follow these steps:
Step up to bar. Duck under bar. Make sure head is central. For a high placement, the bar sits across the neck, resting on your traps, for heavier weights the bar is usually placed slightly further down, so the weight is more central and therefore less likely to cause damage to the lower back. Keep your hands as close as possible without causing strain, which will flex the upper back and provide “cushioning”. Point your elbows down, straighten your wrists and keep your elbows in.
That’s the setup, so this is the moment where you have a stern word with yourself, big yourself up and then go for it. You should be able to straighten and un-wrack in just two steps, if you have to lift the bar any further out you could put yourself at risk.
The squat technique itself is almost identical to a bodyweight squat, except now you’ve got a badass weight on your back. The main factor here is to make sure you keep your head facing forwards rather than looking up, as this will cause compression at the top of your spine.
Once you have the basic squat perfected, the possibilities of where you can take it are endless. In our next post we will look at squat variations, so keep your eyes peeled!
Functional training is all about movements not muscles. Instead of focusing on a muscle in isolation, functional training looks at how the muscles work together to improve the way we “function” in everyday movement.
What is Functional Movement?
Author, speaker, and pro trainer Nick Tuminello explains what is meant by functional movement. “Many personal trainers define “functional training” as exercises using three-dimensional movements or standing on unstable surfaces. Many strength coaches feel that “functional training” has to do with just getting stronger in the basic lifts. Many physical therapists and corrective exercise-oriented trainers think that “functional training” is about regaining your muscle balance and fundamental movement ability before you begin doing either 3D exercises or the basic lifts.”
In truth, functional training is a combination of all these skills. Functional training is training to improve for a purpose. What this means is that functional training will differ slightly for every individual, however there are principles of movement which mimic the way the body is built to move, and these tend to apply to almost everyone.
Functional Movement Patterns
Exercise, at its very simplest, is just movement. These movements are primal; our bodies are designed to move. There are 7 basic movement patterns, which most exercises will fall into. Practising exercises which develop and master these movement patterns will build functional strength which can be transferred into all other aspects of your life, from sport to daily function. If you watch a child, they will naturally learn these moves as they develop their range of movement.
The squat is one of our most primal movements, we are designed to be able to move in this position, which is why you will see many toddlers playing in a squat.
To complete a squat, your head should remain facing forward to keep your spine in a neutral position and you should sink your weight back into your heels and lower towards the floor. There are many arguments as to how low you should go. Your range of motion will depend on your flexibility, but it can (and should) be worked on.
The lunge is a single leg exercise, where one leg takes the lead and the second leg bends as it remains stationary. Originally we’d use this movement for functions such as stepping over obstacles or as we threw a spear to catch our dinner. Now the move is popular for building leg strength as well as to improve sports performance.
When lunging, you should keep your front knee tracking over your foot, but not in front of it. Hold your head high and make sure your back stays straight (try sticking your chest out if your shoulders arch).
The push range of movement requires you to move something away from your body, or move your body away from a force, ie the ground. We have two primary pushing movements, the vertical and horizontal push. A vertical push lifts something above your head and a horizontal press pushes it forward.
The top tip for correcting your push up is to keep your back straight and not let your chest drop; you can do this by squeezing your shoulder blades together. If you can’t keep straight, drop to your knees to make the exercise easier.
Pushups - Indoors or outdoors. Take them anywhere.
Pulling is the opposite movement to a push, bringing an object towards you. Much like with the push up we have two pulling motions, horizontal and vertical.
An example of the pull motion is a pull up. If you can’t do a full pull up you can start with negatives and work your way up.
This is where our third plane of motion gets involved and the movements become more functional. Here we involve the transverse plane.
If you think about lunging down and reaching across your body, or throwing a ball, running, or even walking, most human movement has some element of a rotation involved.
You bend your torso by hinging at the hips. This is one of the most commonly used movements; think of how many times you may bend throughout the day, to open a drawer, pick up your bag, tie your shoes.
Taking the weight through your hips, glutes, and legs is the key to lifting weight in a bent over position. This is done by keeping your low back in a neutral, to slightly arched position, as you bend over to lift an object off the ground.
Arch your back and you're prone to all sorts of injuries, in particular a herniated disk. Ouch.
Walking, jogging, running and sprinting all require a combination of movement patterns which we define as gait. This covers all our movement patterns required to keep the body in motion.
In order for our bodies to move in these particular ranges of motion, our muscles have to work together to create movement. Where bodybuilding isolates muscle groups, functional training brings them together in what we call muscle slings.
Anterior Oblique System:
External and internal oblique with the opposing leg’s adductors and intervening anterior abdominal fascia.
Posterior Oblique System:
The lat and opposing gluteus maximus.
Deep Longitudinal System:
Erectors, the innervating fascia and biceps femoris.
Glute medius and minimus and the opposing adductors of the thigh.
The systems tell us which muscles work together, and help us to analyses how to notice gaps in the sling to develop improved movement.
Anterior Oblique System
The obliques help provide stability and mobility in gait. They are both important in providing that initial stability during the stance phase of gait (running etc.) and then contribute to pulling the leg through during the swing phase. This system is important in helping the body create more stability as speed increases in activities such as sprinting, but also as important as the body tries to decelerate during change of direction.
Posterior Oblique System
This is most commonly used during gait movements where the glute max of one hip works with the lat of the opposing side to create tension in the thoracolumbar fascia. The action of these muscles along with the fascial system is thought to fight the rotation of the pelvis that would occur during gait as well as store energy to create more efficient movement.
Deep Longitudinal System
This system uses both the thoracolumbar fascia and paraspinal system to create kinetic energy above the pelvis, while the biceps femoris acts as a relay between the pelvis and leg. What is also important to note is the relationship between the biceps femoris and anterior tibialis, which creates stability and helps build as well as release kinetic energy to help more efficient movement.
The lateral system provides lateral stability. The lateral system is often used to create stability in the pelvis during walking, stepping, etc.
Squats - a pulse-raising exercise you can do anywhere
Functional Training is training for life
If you haven’t tried functional movements or training slings, try adding moves which challenge these areas into your routine to improve your training.
This exercise builds strength and increases mobility in both your shoulders and hips. Using the TRX provides assistance to help pull yourself up from your squat, so you have no excuse not to sink it down ass to grass!
Benefits of The TRX Squat to Star (Y Stand):
The Deep Squat
- Full, deep squats build bigger, stronger legs by targeting the glutes, hamstrings and quads. Taking your squat all the way down exposes more muscle fibres to mechanical and neural stimuli which forces growth.
- Full squats increase your vertical jump by targeting the hips and glutes and increasing the force to traveling throughout the kinetic chain for a greater height jump.
- Deep squats increase your back stability and prevent unnecessary compressive force on the spine.
- Deep squats build stronger knees. Strengthening the connective tissues which work as a ‘wrapper’ to protect the knees and enhance the distribution of load over the joint.
- Full squats develop your flexibility and encourage dynamic mobility.
The Star (Y Stand)
- The star works your upper back, shoulders, core and calves as you raise onto your tiptoes.
- The Y stand builds stability in the shoulders through the isometric hold.
- The Y stand works your core as your body is under constant tension to stabilize whilst suspended.
How to Squat to Star
- Grab both handles and stand facing the anchor point.
- Sink down into a squat, aiming for the full range of motion with your bum below your hips (ass to grass).
- Drive up and extend your hand over your head into a Y position whilst coming up onto your tiptoes.
- Keeping the TRX tension tight, sit back into your deep squat.
If you like this, why not check out our other TRX exercises.
Using kettlebells is a great way to keep your training fresh and interesting and to challenge your body. Read on to find out why you should incorporate the kettlebell goblet squat into your training and how to do it properly.
Why do a Kettlebell Goblet Squat?
By holding the weight of the kettlebell in front of you, it is easier to balance in a deeper squat. Performing squats with as much depth as possible is always preferable as it will work your muscles better and really target your glutes, a muscle group that can often go neglected.
It’s better for those with back injuries
Unlike the traditional back squat, the goblet squat is executed by keeping the body in an upright position, which results in less strain on the lower lumbar and spine.
It adds variety to your routine
Adding different squat variations challenges your body to stabilise during new movements to develop greater strength and function.
It mobilises the hips through a full range of motion
Goblet squats are great for developing better hip mobility, improving strength through the full range of motion.
Goblet squats are volume friendly
Goblet squats aren’t designed for your one rep max. Instead, they are volume friendly, meaning you can do several repetitions for hypertrophy or endurance training. Keep your heart rate up by working to time rather than a set number of repetitions.
Develop grip strength
Goblet squats require you to develop grip by holding the weight in front of your chest. This static position loads the forearms and increases grip strength.
Statically train the biceps
Holding the kettlebell in front of your chest to perform a goblet squat is technically isometric loading of the biceps. Whilst they won’t take the full brunt of the load as they are supported by other muscles, it all helps.
How to perform a Kettlebell Goblet Squat
- Grab your kettlebell by the horns and hold it with your biceps flexed, in front of your chest.
- Take a wide stance. Your feet should be just outside shoulder width, with your toes pointed slightly out.
- Sink your weight back into your heels and drop into your squat. Focus on keeping your chest lifted, draw your shoulders back and don’t let your back arch.
- Go as low as you can in the squat without letting your heels come off of the floor and keeping the kettlebell in a static position. If your heels lift, try taking a slightly wider stance.
- As you reach the bottom of your squat, allow your knees to point out before driving up to return to the start position.
Kettlebell Goblet Squat to Press
For a more advanced version of the goblet squat, try the squat to press exercise. To perform this move, repeat the steps above but this time instead of holding the bell with both hands as you drive up, set the bell down on the floor at the bottom of the movement and grip it with only one hand.
Now, as you explode up, flip the bell to sit on the back of your wrist at your shoulder and drive it up above your head. The bell should be dragged halfway diagonally across your chest and then flip to the back of your wrist just before you reach your shoulder.
Flip the bell back down and grab with the other hand to goblet squat, before repeating the motion on the other side.
The better you get at this the less likely you’ll be to bruise your wrist, although it’s probably best to move your watch out of the way.
Kettlebell Training Progression
Squats lie at the heart of any good workout routine. Whether you are looking to lose weight, get fit, or train for a specific sport, you should be incorporating squats into your training. It's always good to mix up your training so that you can be sure you're working your muscles thoroughly, so try some of these squat variations to keep your workouts interesting and work your body in a different way to get better results.
Adding plyometrics to any routine sends your heart rate through the roof and super-sizes your calorie burn. In it's simplest sense, plyometric training is any movement that involves jumping.
How to do jumping squats
Start in a regular squat position with your feet just outside shoulder width. Sink your weight back into your heels ready to perform your squat, sink your bum back as low as you can but instead of driving up as normal, jump. Explode upwards using all your strength and then land softly. As soon as you land, sink into your next squat and continue the momentum.
Pistol squats are a 3 in 1 exercise, training strength, balance, and mobility all in one killer exercise. Pistol squats are also great for eliminating imbalances. Naturally, we have one leg stronger than the other and what tends to happen when we squat is that the stronger leg takes charge and puts in more work than the weaker one. Isolating each leg individually in exercises like this one not only increases the intensity of the exercise but promotes a balance in strength as the legs learn to work independently of one another in the lift.
How to do pistol squats
Stand on one leg and extend the other leg out in front of you, keeping it straight. Now, maintaining your balance, extend your arms out in front of you and sink down into a squat on the supporting leg. Your arms and leg should be out in front of you as your hamstring touches your calves at the bottom of your squat. Driving off your supporting leg, stand back up, without using any help from your arms. This can be made easier by performing half reps onto a bench, sitting on the bench being the bottom of the movement, or by holding onto a TRX suspension trainer.
Pause squats utilise the isometric principle of holding a movement and keeping the muscles under tension for longer periods of time. By pausing at the bottom of a squat, you will not be able to bounce out of the bottom of the movement and therefore have to work your glutes and legs much harder. It also gives your body a little longer to develop lactic acid which will promote faster muscle growth.
How to do pause squats
Set up the barbell and rack for a regular squat. When you reach full depth, pause and hold in this position before returning to the start. Beginners should pause for 2 seconds and work their way up to pausing for as long as 10 seconds. If you have only recently started exercising, do this movement with no weight to begin with and just use body weight.
Barbell overhead squats
Taking the bar over your head requires a strong core, good shoulder flexibility, and exceptional mobility. The overhead squat is also good as a corrective exercise for those with tight pecs and over-extended shoulders as in order to perform the lift correctly, you’re required to stretch and work on the flexibility and strength of these areas. It's also a great tool to mobilise your thoracic spine, ankles, and hips, and will help you feel more comfortable at the very bottom of a squat, front squat, or snatch. This is a very advanced move and is difficult to execute, so start with a very low weight before you attempt anything heavier,
How to do an overhead squat
Take a wide grip of the bar so that your hands are right near the end. Take the bar overhead so it's in line with your heels, extending your shoulders and pushing your chest forward. Imagine the bar is an elastic band and stretch it as tightly as possible above your head by pulling your hands apart as they hold the bar. Pulling at the bar forces you to stretch out your arms and lock the elbows. Your squat form doesn’t change from that of a body weight squat, however now you have a weight overhead to focus on. As you sink into your squat, don’t let the bar move forward or behind your heels and make sure you still reach below parallel before you rise back up to full extension.
Box jumps take plyometric jumps and add a height target. Box jumps improve your speed, power, and strength. The only problem with box jumps is that they require something to jump on. Though, this isn’t limited to your gym's plyometric box stack, you can use a gym or even park bench and even stairs if need be.
How to do box jumps
Stand with your feet shoulder width apart. Sink into your squat to load the legs into a quarter squat, use your arms to add momentum and launch yourself up onto the bench/box/step. Bend the knees to cushion your landing and squat before then jumping or stepping backwards off the bench and onto the floor, again landing softly.
A wall sit is an isometric exercise which means your muscles are under tension while not moving. This builds up lots of lactic acid and will condition your legs to have better endurance.
How to do wall sits
Push your back against a wall in a seated position and hold your arms out in front of you. Hold the position for as long as possible, a beginner would do well to hold for 30 seconds.