The squat is a fantastic exercise! It works your gluts, quads, hamstrings, back and abs all at once- truly a ‘compound’ exercise. It’s a functional movement so transfers across well into daily life and really is one of the fundamentals in any physio/EP/ personal trainer’s repertoire. That being said, there are a lot of variations in squat from person to person (not everyone’s anatomy is the exact same). Usually this is completely normal but the fact is that the squat is the 2nd most commonly reported cause of injury at the gym. Many shift some serious weight when doing so and there are a few very odd techniques out there. The focus of today’s piece is to address a few of the fundamentals that can go wrong in a squat for beginners and how to correct them.
1. Knees Over Toes?This one has had a lot of debate over the past decade or so and as far as I am aware it comes from a bit of misinformation that had been disseminated in the physio community. We found that the further your knees went over your toes, the more force you put through your knees. So physios out there rushed to treat their painful knees by changing the squat so knees never go over toes. Seemed nice but what happened is people would get better and then never go back to a normal squat. This means they can’t load up appropriately when the time comes. Now some people who aren’t very familiar with the motion can have their knees fire way over the toes too early in the squat movement. This is usually a technique issue though can be associated with glut weakness. If you are a seasoned squatter this has normally been drilled out of you pretty earl as you’ll have no depth to your squat.
It’s normal and fine for your knees to go over your toes- in fact it’s necessary to get deep! Have a look at any powerlifter and their knees definitely will be at the bottom. So long as this is not excessive, it’s ideal.
2. My Bum Sticks Way Out / I Can't Get DeepThis one’s really common. Usually driven by one of two things- weak/poor control of gluts or tight ankles.
Poor glut max control/weakness is really common- particularly in those who have not squatted before. What will happen is instead of sitting deep into the squat like you would when going to sit, you may find yourself folding in the middle. Try putting the bench between your legs. Practice the motion by gently touching your bum against the bench on the way down the same way you would if trying to sit on a chair. Have a look at other exercises to target your gluts (Hip thrusts/bridges/lunges) and slowly take the bench away.
Reduced ankle ‘dorsiflexion’ limits how far your knee can go over your toes. This means you’ll likely compensate by folding more in the middle (and feel it more in your back) or you will stay shallow. Try these stretches or consider widening your squat stance. Lifting shoes have a bit of a heel raise in them while maintaining a solid platform for shifting weight. So if you have stretched to death or previously had a fracture that impaired your range then maybe consider a pair of these (be warned they’re not cheap).
Specialist lifting shoes with a heel raise
3. Why Are My Knees Buckling Inwards on the Drive Back Up?We’ve all done this at one point. On those last few lifts you can see one or both of your knees fall inwards. It’s usually caused by poor form or weak gluts (gluteus medius/minimus). The key to getting this away is getting your ‘hip abductors’ stronger and really focusing on maintaining good form. Try an elastic band round your knees so you have something to push against on the lift back up.
4. My Neck HurtsBar placement can be a big component in this if it’s just pinpoint tender the morning after where the bar has been. Try slightly varying where the bar rests (easiest), doing a low bar squat instead (if you’re flexible/confident enough) or using a bar with padding- many gyms will have these. The issue with these is they will raise the height of the bar by a few cm and many lose adequate bar placement. Get someone to check your bar placement from behind and what happens at your neck from side on if using a pad.
Padding for the Barbell
If your pain is more globally around your neck rather than just a tender point after or during your squat then this is could be related to technique. What is common to see is that as somebody squats, their head comes out of a neutral position and hinges back and round the bar when they go to lift. They Protract and Extend the neck. This can be more prominent with the cushioned bar due to its increased size. Try to keep your neck and head in a very neutral position throughout the movement.
Neck protraction and extension. Picture source: Olive Branch
Try to maintain a neutral neck position throughout the lift. 90 percent of the time this is related to technique but occasionally if somebody is shifting serious weight, neck strength can play a factor. Most specifically the muscles that retract your neck. Try building strength using this exercise- gradually build how much resistance you give your neck and take it from there.
Overall, there’s an awful lot that you can do wrong in a squat but there’s a whole lot of right in doing them! This is a fundamental in any powerlifter’s program and by squatting you’ll hit an awful lot of your muscles at once.
Here are just some of the groups working:
- Quadriceps (front of the thigh)
- Hamstrings (Back of the Thigh)
- Adductors ( inside of the thigh)
- Gluteus maximus (Bum)
- Gluteus Med/Min (side of your hip)
- Lumbar Extensors (Back)