Can't Squat? Here's What Your Body is Telling You
Good squat form: Feet flat, chest high, back straight.
Despite the fact that squats are one of the most functional and primal movements, many people can’t squat with proper form. Poor squat form can be (and usually is) a combination of factors, such as immobile joints and weak core muscles. This article pinpoints common squat mistakes and common causes behind those mistakes, but knowing that all parts of the body are interconnected, improving whole-body mobility should be a priority for everyone who works out.
If: Your torso falls forward
Torso falling forward in the squat.
Then: Your T-spine might be tight
Thanks to the largely sedentary lifestyle of modern humans, many people live with tight thoracic spines (AKA T-spine). This part of your spine extends from the top of your rib cage to the bottom and exhibits a kyphotic curve. If that curve becomes too rounded or tight, you may struggle with mobility for squats.
Fix it: Practicing thoracic extension and rotation is the best way to relieve T-spine tightness. Foam rollers are great tools for improving T-spine mobility, and any rotational stretches, such as a forward fold spinal rotations, can help, too.
If: You can't reach parallel
Hips above parallel in the squat.
Then: Your hips and ankles need some work
Limited hip mobility is perhaps the most common culprit behind faulty squat form, with ankle mobility a close runner-up. For people who sit all day (a significant chunk of the population), hip mobility and ankle mobility are hard to come by. Poor posture combined with sedentarism often leads to tight hips and ankles that can’t squat.
Fix it: There’s no shortage of hip and ankle mobility drills to try. Start with the basics, such as hip flexor stretches, hip internal and external rotation, and ankle dorsiflexion, before moving onto advanced stretches like pigeon pose and frog stretch.
If: Your lower back hurts
In a good squat, your spine should remain in a neutral position without arching or rounding.
Then: You need to strengthen your core
Squats should not induce back pain of any sort, period. Proper squat form recruits your glutes, legs, and core more than your back—if your back is fronting the load instead, we have a problem. Back pain during squats usually indicates weak core musculature, which can put you at risk for back injuries (during all exercises, not just squats).
Fix it: Strengthen your core. Isometric core work, such as hollow body holds and planks, help tremendously. For dynamic core strength, focus on loaded rotational strength exercises (think: Turkish get-ups and windmills) to dramatically improve your squat form.
Also, practice actively engaging your core during squats. If you have a strong core but don’t know how to use it, it won’t help you much. Take a deep breath, draw your navel up and toward your spine, and create tension in your midsection.
If: Your knees cave in
Knees caving in at the bottom of a squat.
Then: You may have weak glutes
If you find yourself battling duck legs on the way up from a squat, there’s a good chance you need to strengthen your hip abductors. Your hip abductors include the muscles responsible for moving your legs away from the midline of your body. This group includes your gluteus medius and minimus. Weak abductors result in poor squat form at best and knee or hip injuries at worst, so it’s a good idea to work on this problem area.
Fix it: To stop your knees from caving in during squats, strengthen your hip abductors with glute-focused exercises and single-leg compound movements. Try adding banded lateral walks, banded air squats, walking lunges, and cable kick-backs to your routine.
Links for More Information
- How to squat? Effects of various stance widths, foot placement angles and level of experience on knee, hip and trunk motion and loading
- The back squat: A proposed assessment of functional deficits and technical factors that limit performance
- The Back Squat Part 2: Targeted Training Techniques to Correct Functional Deficits and Technical Factors that Limit Performance
- Knee Joint Kinetics in Relation to Commonly Prescribed Squat Loads and Depths
- Muscle Activation Patterns During Different Squat Techniques
- Quantifying the movement and the influence of load in the back squat exercise
- Muscle Activity Pattern with A Shifted Center of Pressure during the Squat Exercise
- Optimizing Squat Technique : Strength & Conditioning Journal