The squat is one of, if not THE most foundational movement to increase strength, muscle growth, and sports performance. In this article we will discuss five (5) common back squat mistakes lifters make that can negatively impact performance, minimize strength and hypertrophy, and increase injury risks.
- 5 Common Back Squat Mistakes
- Exercises to Improve Common Back Squat Mistakes
- How to Integrate these Back Squat Solution Exercises
Be sure to check out our Back Squat Guide to review the key concepts and technical aspects of the back squat.
1. Knees Caving In (Valgus)
Inward collapse of the knees during the squat, in general, is an issue that can lead to knee injury, suggest hip and/or ankle mobility issues, and demonstrate lack of glute engagement.
While some elite lifters and max lifts will have the knees translate inwards, something referred to as knee valgus, it’s commonly accepted among physical therapists and trainers that this should not happen. Below are two (2) exercises athletes can do to minimize knee valgus and strengthen the supporting muscle groups.
Squats with Mini-Band
Using mini-bands during squats can help engage the gluteus medius and enhance knee stability in the squat. Using reactive neuromuscular training principles (see below) can help increase glute activation as the lifter works against the bands to resist knee valgus.
Try performing warm up and tempo squat work with a mini band around the middle shin and/or just below the knees.
Glute Medius Exercises
Gluteus medius specific exercises can help increase glute engagement, improve stability of the knees, and enhance squat patterning. Movements like clam shells, side lying abductions, and monster walks can all be used during warm ups and glute activation series to improve glute engagement and knee stability.
2. Lateral Weight Shifting
Lateral weight shifting in the squat can suggest lack of glute engagement, muscular imbalances, and/or mobility limitations at the hip, knee, and/or ankle. When left untreated, this can lead to overuse injury, rotational stress on the joints, and negatively impact squat health.
Determining if a lateral weight shift is occurring is fairly straightforward, and can be done so with the naked eye. Stand behind a lifter (and then do it again from the front angle) and watch the hips as they descend into the bottom of the squat. Often, the weight shift will happen at the toughest point in the squat. Below are two (2) exercises athletes can do to address lateral weight shifting in the squat.
Unilateral leg training is a great way to increase unilateral strength, address muscular imbalances, improve squat patterning, and more. Exercises like split squats, step ups, Bulgarian split squats, and lunges all should be a regular part of lower body training. Lifters looking to maximize their squat health and strength can integrate unilateral exercises with heavier loads to fully maximize strength and muscular development.
Start by performing 3-5 sets of 6-10 slow and controlled repetitions, with a moderate load. As you progress, you can increase rep ranges for greater muscle hypertorgy and endurance, or decrease them to increase unilateral leg strength and mass.
Reactive Neuromuscular Training (RNT)
RNT training works to increase neural-feedback to the muscle by “feeding the movement dysfunction”. There are numerous ways to do this, however in this case the lifter should place a resistance band around their hips with a coach pulling the band away from them laterally. The lifter should feel the hips getting slightly pulled in that direction, forcing the core and glutes to lock the spine and pelvis down during the squat.
Start by performing RNT squat work as a warm-up and/or activation exercise for 3-5 sets of 4-6 slow and controlled squats, per side.
3. Hip Shooting Back
Many lifters will make the mistake of allowing the hips to shift back and shoot up, resulting the the back angle moving closer to horizontal. While some squat variations utilize a greater horizontal back angle than others, the hips shooting up is generally a mistake that must be addressed to optimize leg growth, squat strength, and lower back health.
Below are two (2) exercises lifters can do to improve squat patterning and strength to minimize the hips shooting up and back.
Forward Facing Wall Squat
The forward facing wall squat is a good warm-up movement to increase hip and knee mobility, increase flexibility in the groin, and help reinforce a more upright torso in the squat.
To perform this bodyweight exercise, a lifter should stand facing the wall, with the toes 2-3 inches away from the base of the wall. The feet should be set where the lifter squats (feet about hip width, and toes turner out 15-30 degrees). Create tension in the core, and squat, resisting the urge to push your face into the wall in front of you and/or place your body on the wall. Start by performing 2-3 sets of 8-10 controlled, full range of motion squats before every workout.
The tempo squat is identical to a back squat, with the only exception that the lift is performed with a specific cadence to isolate areas of weakness. For lifters who find their hips shooting back, a slow eccentric and concentric phase would be beneficial, as it will force them to relearn proper positions and correct movement patterning.
Start by performing with bodyweight and lightly weighted (undr 50% max) tempo squats, using a 2-2-2-0 tempo.
4. Excessive Lumbar Extension
Proper spinal and pelvic alignment is critical to squat strength and hip and lumbar health. Often, lifters will go into lumbar hyperextension as a means to stand up under heavy loads. Instead, they should pull their core tight and keep the spine neutral.
In the event a lifter has a “butt wink”, pain in the lower back, or simply cannot engage the glutes and core during a squat, coaches must reinforce proper bracing mechanics and hip stability drills to maximize strength and minimize injury. Below are two (2) exercises athletes can do to improve their core strength and alignment.
Deadbugs are a great exercise to increase core stability and re-educate hip and shoulder movement while locking down a neutral spine. Many lifers will lack the ability to contract the core while simultaneously allowing the legs and arms to move freely, which can result in the lumbar spine being mobile during loaded movements (not good).
Perform 3 sets of 10-20 controlled deadbugs, either with resistance bands, mini bands, or tempos.
Begin the dead bug by lying supine on the back. Bring the arms directly above the shoulders and the knees up to a 90 degree angle.
Once you’ve got into this starting position, contract the core and ground the lower back.
Start the Dead Bug
To begin the dead bug, extend one leg and arm that are located diagonally from one another while maintaining a contracted core.
If you kick out the left leg, then the right arm will move above the head. The opposing arm can remain extended or move to the side of the body, and the opposing leg will remain in a flexed starting position.
Transition to the Next Rep
After you’ve hit the first position/rep, transition to the next rep by repeating a similar movement with opposing arms and legs.
Coach’s Tip: Make sure you core remains contracted throughout the full movement and the lower back is flush with the floor.
Bracing and Breathing Drills
Proper breathing and bracing patterning is key during squats, and can impact hip stability, squat patterning, and lower back health. Lack of tension in the core can create slack in the midsection, which results in weight shifting, joint issues, and decreased performance. Lifters should educate themselves on the Valsalva maneuver, proper spinal alignment, and breathing and bracing guidelines to maximise performance.
5. Incorrect Bar Placement
Placing the barbell incorrectly on the upper back/traps, having it not centered, and/or a combination of the two can cause shifting, excessive trunk flexion, and balance issues in the squat. Be sure to review the below squat placements and address any positional issues that may be occurring.
It is important to note, that however obvious this may be, lifters should make sure that their hands are placed evenly on the barbell. Use the markings on the bar to ensure your hands are equally spaced out from the center (with exceptions being made for lifters with limited mobility and/or injuries that impede this ability).
The low-bar back squat placement is a few inches lower on the back/traps than the high bar back squat, making the lifter lean more forward with the torso. If the bar is too low, this can increase strain on the elbows and shoulders, and often result in lifters collapsing too far forward. Remember, the lower the bar the more weight you will be able to shift off your quadriceps and onto the hamstrings, glutes, lower back, and back. Determine the best position for your goals.
The high bar back squat placement is higher on the back than the low bar placement, often resting on the traps. This allows the lifter to maintain a more upright torso positioning in the squat. Remember, the higher the bar the more weight you will be able to shift onto the upper back, quadriceps, and glutes (and minimize hamstring and lower back loading when compared to the low bar back squat). Determine the best position for your goals.
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