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Love them or hate them, squats are unavoidable.
They’re a staple in every workout (uhhh…hello, glutes!) and even if you’re allergic to the gym, you probably still do them every day, because how else do you get out of a chair?
Despite squats being the blue jeans of exercises, many of us struggle with them and experience everything from hip stiffness to crunching knees and back pain when squatting, so, what’s going on and how do you fix this?
Common causes of pain and stiffness when squatting
Kids are known for having the “perfect” squat, but by the time we reach adulthood many of us have lost the range of motion and strength to do them well. What’s going on?
First, a child’s bone structure is quite different from an adult’s, so you can let go of the idea that you need to master the perfect kid squat. That being said, this is only one reason why squatting gets harder as we get older.
The real problem is that we don’t move enough.
Most of us, including active adults, spend a lot of time sitting. When we do move, it’s usually repetitive and limited in range. This means that we seldom, if ever, use our hips in their full range of motion, so we become weak in the unused ranges, like at the bottom of a squat.
There’s a few theories about this, but it’s thought that our nervous system recognizes this weakness, so it stiffens our muscles to protect us from going to far and getting hurt.
Add to that the loss of sensation in our feet from a lifetime in shoes and you get chronic stiffness in the upper back, hips, knees and ankles, which translates into poor movement mechanics, limited range and joint pain when squatting.
Mobility drills to improve squat form
If you experience difficulty or pain when squatting, you could have reduced mobility in one or more of these joints:
- Ankles – limited dorsiflexion (aka poor range when pulling your toes towards your shin)
- Hips – limited flexion and/or extension (e.g. bringing your knees to your chest or sending your leg behind you)
- Upper back (stiffness when twisting or extending)
You may also need better core engagement, which is responsible for stopping hyperextension in the lower back – a common cause of back pain during squats.
The good news is that improving mobility and core engagement is actually fairly simple.
All it usually takes is gently moving through increased ranges of motion with control to tell your body that it’s safe to go into a deeper squat.
Of course, no two people are stiff in the same places. However, because most of us lack mobility in general, improving how you move across the board will contribute to less pain and better squat form.
And if you’re not sure what I mean by mobility exercises, here’s a short video of specific moves to improve your squat.
Hip mobility exercises to improve squat technique
How to squat
When it comes to how to squat, there are A LOT of options and everyone will need to squat differently, because like snowflakes, no two people have the same bone structure.
However, here are a few general themes to help your squat technique.
Ideally, you’d start your squat from a neutral position or well aligned standing position to minimize restriction or overloading any one joint.
The problem is that most of us don’t live in neutral and we tend to initiate our squat with wonky alignment.
There’s more I could say on this, but for simplicity’s sake, I find most people fall into two categories: butt tuckers and back archers.
Butt tuckers start their squats with their pelvis forward of their ankles. This sets them up to drive their knees too far past their toes and lift their heels off the ground.
If this is you, then any easy way to fix your squat would be to send your thigh bones back as you start the movement (see video below).
This will decrease the pressure in your knees and allow for you to lower comfortably towards the floor.
If you’re a back archer, you have the opposite problem.
Back archers start with their weight too far back in their heels with locked knees and their butt sticking out, creating the appearance of a big arch in the lower back. Interestingly, starting in this position is what causes people to tuck their butt under (aka a butt wink).
If this is you, you can fix your set up by shifting your weight forward into your midfoot before starting your squat (see video below).
The shift might feel strange at first, but it stops you from locking your knees and helps you stay upright as you lower towards the floor.
Additionally, if your heels pop off the ground no matter what you do, you can try squatting with a small prop under your heel like a weighted plate, a half roller or a rolled-up yoga mat.
You’ll also want to work on improving your ankle mobility, so over time you can hopefully work up to squatting without a lift under your heel.
Additional things to try if you’re weak at the bottom range of your squat:
- Sitting back into a chair
- Holding onto a suspension trainer or pole, so your arms can help you move through the sticky spots
Common sense check. Don’t mess with your squat position with a big weight on your back. Practice with bodyweight first and then slowly add load.
Likewise, if something hurts, don’t push it. Consult fitness professional, or in the case of ongoing pain, a doctor or physical therapist.
Weighted versus unweighted squats
The last thing that I haven’t addressed is how the rules change when you add load.
If you’re squatting with weights, then you should only go as low as you can with optimal form and pain free range of motion.
This means that you want to follow these basic alignment rules when squatting:
- Low back neutral – keep a small low back space the whole time (no rounding or arching of the low back)
- Knees line up over the second toe – they don’t dive in or out*
- Foot stays connected to the ground – heels stay on the floor and no extreme rolling to the outside or inside edges of the feet**
**There are some natural, subtle movements happen with the foot during squats, so I’m not saying the foot shouldn’t move. You just don’t want extreme deviations.
More load = a greater risk of injury if you deviate outside of neutral alignment, so your range of motion and weight selection should be determined by your ability to maintain good form.
Unloaded squats are a little different.
While the basic alignment cues mostly hold true, less load = a decreased risk injury even if your form isn’t perfect. Assuming nothing hurts and you have a healthy spine, it’s cool to let your butt wink/let your pelvis tuck under as you go @ss to grass.
This is because there isn’t any additional load to compress your discs. Also, we were evolved to do this. Before we had chairs and toilets, we assumed this as a rest position and to eliminate.
Ultimately, squatting is one of the best activities you can do for both function and strength, so squat well and squat often. Just be mindful about how the movement feels as you play with variations and range!