Over the next two weeks, I’m going to break down some common problems people encounter when squatting. Even though I consider my knowledge of squat form quite good, and I spend a lot of time with my clients perfecting it, it sometimes takes another person to point out a mistake I’m making. A few days ago, another trainer told me my tight hip flexors were interfering in my squat, yet I didn’t even notice until he pointed it out.
Let’s start with the basics. The most fundamental element of a squat which I always focus on perfecting first is the motion of sitting back. The majority of people do not sit back into the squat enough, resulting in their knees tracking too far over their toes.
The best way to practice is by squatting to a box or a bench. Set it far enough away that you feel like you’re going to fall over, and keep practicing until you have nailed it. Be patient and don’t skip ahead. For example, I have been training one of my clients for 10 weeks, and this week was the first time he did free standing back squats. Always progress to front squats after squats to a box, before attempting back squats.
Secondly, ensure you are pushing up from the bottom position with your heels. Too many people find strength in the wrong muscles by buckling their knees in to push back to standing. This also means that your glutes are not firing as they should be. Keep your knees steady and focus on pushing the floor away from you. If you’re not doing it already, foam roll your adductors (inner thighs) before squatting, as tightness in those muscles can cause them to dominate the movement.
Finally, make sure your chest is up (I look towards the ceiling) and your back is straight. Pinch the shoulder blades together and ditch the maxi pad.
For those of you that have nailed the basics, you might still find your squats are not perfect. The problems are likely caused by mobility issues or a lack of flexibility, which will prevent you from reaching full depth.
Enter my problem: tight hip flexors (the muscles at the top of the front of your thigh). Those of us that spend prolonged periods of time sitting have hips that are constantly flexed. For the hours and hours you spend sitting per day, how much time do you take to stretch your hips out? If you’re like me, the answer is not much. I do two hip flexor exercises during my warm up for my four-weekly workouts. That is hardly enough in the grand scheme of things.
When your hip flexors are tight, they prevent other muscles from firing correctly and will limit your squat depth. A tell-tale sign (and what is happening to me) is when your torso tips forward as you squat down, as tight hip flexors will pull you forwards. A good test is to hold your hands above your head in an overhead squat position, and see if you can keep your back upright.
Your back should be as upright as the genius in the picture above. If not, your hip flexors are too tight! The solution is fairly simple: lots of stretching and foam rolling of the hip flexors.
Every time you stand up after sitting down for a long time, you need to stretch your hip flexors. This can be done via a number of different exercises. My favourite is a reverse lunge while raising the arms overhead, and holding a weight plate or medicine ball to stretch the muscle even further. By lunging backwards, the firing of your glutes will simultaneously encourage your hip flexors to relax.
You can also try a basic groin stretch. Kneel on one leg with the other bent behind you. Place your hands on your front knee, and push your hips forward until you feel a mild tension in the back hip. To increase the intensity, raise the same arm as your back leg and lean to the opposite side. This can also be performed with your back foot raised off the ground, or hooked over a step behind you.
Performing regular overhead squats will also help, as they force you to remain upright as you open your hips. Use a very light barbell to begin with, and be sure to warm up your shoulders as well as your legs beforehand.
Finally, try standing in a split stance with your back leg turned slightly inwards. Lean forward until you feel the stretch in your back upper thigh. Raise the same arm as your back leg and bend towards the opposite side. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds.
Tight hip flexors are just another reason why I’m not a fan of office jobs! How many more desk-induced problems do I have to suffer?! Because of my dancing background, I’ve always taken my flexibility for granted. As someone who used to be able to perform splits in all directions until just a couple of years ago, I never thought I would ever have tight hips.
Next week I will discuss how other muscular tightness can inhibit your squat depth, and why you might not have the right type of core strength to squat.
Do you have any issues with your squats?