The squat is both a fundamental human movement pattern and one of the most heavily-prescribed exercises for almost any training goal. From rehab to hypertrophy, to strength and life itself, mastering the squat adds significant value to any training program.
However, in nearly equal measure to its potential are possible pitfalls. Errors in squat technique, if left unaddressed, may lead to plateaus in progress or injury. The first and most powerful piece of advice is to find a credible strength coach who specializes in teaching the squat. Barring that, here are five common squat mistakes and how to fix them.
Common Squat Mistakes
If you’ve ever stood up out of a heavy squat and watched your knees fold in, fret not. Collapsed, or valgus knees, are a very fixable issue in squat performance. When the structures of the leg fall out of alignment, a redistribution of force saps you of your power output. Two common explanations for knee collapse are a lack of hip mobility or hip stability.
How to Fix Knee Collapse in the Squat
The squat exercise requires both competent internal and external rotation — the ability to move the knees in and out — throughout the range of motion. When the trainee lacks sufficient hip rotation capability, the natural arc of movement and ability to generate force is diminished as the knee gets pushed around to wherever their flexibility allows.
To improve hip mobility, perform stretches like the pigeon pose, couch stretch, or drills like the front-foot-elevated split squat during your warm-up to mobilize any restricted musculature in the hip.
Knee collapse may also occur if the muscles responsible for stabilizing the knee are too weak to perform their job under the strenuous conditions of the squat. The glute medius is a primary lateral hip stabilizer in the squat and training it directly can have a direct impact on the position of the knee during the squat.
The “butt wink” occurs when the pelvis tucks underneath the torso, usually once the trainee approaches their end range of motion. While at times unavoidable due to anatomical structure, and generally not as hazardous as it visually appears, the butt wink does constitute a technical error and should be corrected when possible.
How to Fix Butt Wink in the Squat
If you find yourself suffering from the dreaded butt wink, it is wise to address two potential culprits — hip and thoracic spine mobility, as well as improper core bracing patterns. When any prong of your interlinked soft tissues isn’t sufficiently flexible, something will eventually move to accommodate it.
Proper core bracing is an integral aspect of good squat technique and requires activation of the entire trunk, from the lower trapezius to the abdominal wall and pelvic musculature. Poor core recruitment tends to mean improper pelvic positioning, as the abs help to “clamp” the ribcage and pelvis together. If there’s a weak link in the chain, butt winking can result.
To improve the core brace the core itself must be strengthened through drills and direct attention. Specific exercises like the plank, hollow hold, or V-up can help to develop a brace fit for a squat.
Unequal allotment of load may, on a superficial level, affect the size of your legs over time. If physique development is your goal, balancing your stimuli is crucial. However, repeated hip shift is also associated with rotational forces across the spine that may potentially contribute to discomfort or pain.
How to Fix Hip Shift in the Squat
Many hip shift errors can be corrected through mobilizing any movement restrictions that may be forcing the trainee out of position, strengthening the anti-rotation capabilities of the core, or introducing tempo work.
To improve hip mobility, we must find and correct any differences in flexibility from one side of the body to the other. Mobilizing the upper back through foam rolling, rotational drills such as thread-the-needle, or stretches like a child’s pose are great ways to reclaim any lost upper body mobility. Alternatively, if the lower body seems to be the issue, foam rolling the hip flexors and glutes in addition to the pigeon pose and couch stretch could help.
To improve rotational control, strengthen the core’s anti-rotation capabilities. Exercises such as dead-bugs, bird-dogs, contralaterally loaded split squats and single-arm farmer’s carries are fantastic ways to train the core to resist twists, turns, or tilts.
To improve the squat pattern itself, it’s important to remember that the hip shift may not be consciously noticeable, thus forming a habit that will require time to correct. A great way to reinforce proper squat patterning is to utilize slow tempo, particularly in the eccentric portion of the movement. A controlled, three-second minimum descent is a great starting point for reprogramming posture in the squat.
Many trainees find themselves up on their toes at some point in the squat. When the foot loses full contact with the ground, a smaller base of support can rapidly cascade into losing power output or just plain falling over with the barbell.
How to Fix Heels Raising in the Squat
Fortunately, heel flutter in the squat is one of the more straightforward errors. If you find yourself tip-toeing your reps, two likely culprits are limited ankle mobility or a poor sense of balance.
To improve ankle mobility, stretch them between your warm-up sets to loosen the tissues. Front-foot-elevated split squats with a conscious emphasis on driving the knee forward can help as well.
However, restrictions at the ankle are sometimes a consequence of anatomical structure, and cannot be remedied by soft tissue work. If mobilizations don’t seem to be working, you can compensate by limiting your squat range of motion or grabbing a pair of Olympic lifting shoes — the elevated heel will adjust your mechanics to simulate greater ankle mobility.
To improve foot pressure, look to your technique first and foremost. While old-school cuing suggests driving through the heels, midfoot pressure is the way to go for creating a balanced, technically sound squat. Some tempo work during your warm-up sets can be a good primer. Alternatively, standing directly atop a pair of change plates such that both your heels and toes are off the ground is an aggressive but potent drill for reinforcing midfoot alignment.
The proverbial “squat-morning” describes a technical error whereby the hips shoot up faster than the shoulders in the ascent of a squat, creating the appearance of a good morning exercise.
How to Fix the “Squat-Morning”
While it may look good on the dance floor, shooting your hips up in the squat rack can be a recipe for disaster. The error is often due to a multitude of possible factors — an improper setup, ineffective bracing, or weak quadriceps. Without a rigid, airtight torso, the legs cannot effectively transfer force into the barbell.
To improve setup and bracing, strengthen the upper back with rowing, pulldowns, or front squats. To help prevent a loss of position once strength has been addressed, be sure to reinforce a proper brace via proper breathing and core activation drills.
To address weak quads, they must be attacked both in isolation and as part of the squat. Accessory training like the leg press or lunge can help bring up the quads if they’re lagging, while tempo or pause squats can help bring your legs back online during the movement itself.
A qualified trainer or coach will always be the best source of wisdom in the weight room. That said, you don’t need to seek out sage advice to begin working on your technique in the squat — or any of the big barbell lifts, for that matter.
While these common errors may seem varied and unrelated, there are threads that weave between them. Pulling on one may have the unexpected but welcome outcome of addressing another.
Dedication to proper technique, prioritizing mobility and bodily maintenance, and spending time where you’re weakest are the rules of thumb when it comes to mastering the squat. A well-made training program incorporates all of these elements and may prevent a problematic squat from arising in the first place.
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