The squat may be the king of all exercises, but it's also the one that's screwed up the most. Are you making any of these mistakes?
The King of Messed-Up Exercises
Whether or not the squat is the "king of all exercises" can be debated, but one thing is certain: The back squat is the most commonly screwed-up exercise on the planet. Here are the 11 most common ways lifters mess it up.
1 – Lack of Tightness During Lift-Off
It's called a set-up for a reason. If you set up like shit, you get shit back. If you set up tight, well, you get tight!
An untight set-up can cause pretty much every problem you can imagine. The tighter you are from the get go, the better it is for both your performance and your health. Getting tight activates and builds muscle mass, and it makes it far less likely you'll collapse.
This is a lack of focus issue. Not taking the proper time to get into the right positions is a common problem. Being more present during the set-up and taking time to build-up tightness will cure a lot of squat ailments.
2 – Asymmetrical Bar Placement
It's hard to believe, but many lifters place the bar asymmetrically on the back. The problem with this kind of set-up is that the more the bar is placed towards the left or right of center, the more weight you shift to that side. This will of course lead to one side taking more of the load, and it can also cause rotation.
Lack of focus when gripping the bar is the primary cause of this. The photo above is an exaggerated example of an asymmetrical grip on the bar, before lift-off, but it happens a lot, especially among beginners.
3 – Heels Coming Off Floor
If your heels start coming off the floor during a squat, even a little bit, put the bar back into the rack and learn to get properly grounded! The heels are one of the key pressure points and it's important to transfer force effectively from the ground, through the body, and to the bar.
Heels coming off the floor will cause problems (lack of structural integrity) with your joints and muscles under load and you'll increase the chances of hurting your knees and lower back. Furthermore, when your heels are off the ground, you've got an off-kilter center of gravity and you can't properly use your glutes or hamstrings, which are key players.
This problem is often accompanied by – or caused by – the knees moving forward. Typical quick fixes for this are the use of weightlifting shoes with high heels or weight plates placed under the heels. While either of these fixes can help, they're just covering up the real problem.
Instead, learn what a proper center of gravity is and keep it. A good center of gravity during a back squat for general purposes should be approximately in the middle of the foot or a bit towards the heels.
4 – Exaggerated Knees-Forward Movement
It's often stated that it's really bad for the knees to move beyond the toes. While it certainly can be a problem for some people, it isn't always the case. People are different and we each have our own unique bone structure and body type.
The forward movement of the knees in itself isn't the problem. The problem is getting to a proper depth while maintaining structural integrity (safe positioning of the joints). When the ankles tell the knees to stop moving forward, you can really only continue the downward path by sitting down and back. When you force the knees forward, you'll also risk losing involvement from the hips because you're favoring knee movement.
Also, when trying to reach depth with this style of squatting, you have to get the hips even deeper than you have to if you had kept the shins more vertical (not allowing the knees to move forward too much).
For some people, it's close to impossible to reach proper depth (based on powerlifting rules) with a knees-forward type of squat. While that might not be important for people not competing, the point of keeping the whole body tight is certainly crucial to consider. This squatting style will often disengage the backside and make it harder to stabilize the hips and knees.
Basically, knees moving forward will make your squat pattern weaker and potentially dangerous for the joints, especially for the knees and lower back.
5 – Knees Moving Inward
While there's been a lot of debate about shoving the knees too far out, most agree that pushing them too much inwards isn't a good thing, at least if you want to keep your knees healthy. This inwards-knee thing leads to what's called a valgus position and leaves the knee joint in a vulnerable position, especially under a heavy squat.
This is one of the most common squat problems, and while many point to weakness in the quads as the reason, it's not necessarily so. When you look at the attachment of the quads and how they work, you see they have little effect on how the knees move from side to side and in rotation.
Most of the time, the knees moving inwards have to do with either weak hips, and/or lack of proper technical understanding of what's supposed to happen during a squat movement. Furthermore, when you see knee problems, you almost certainly will detect hip problems as well.
To remedy this, train with some bands around the knees to make it easier to activate the hips during the squat, do banded walks, or do hip abduction exercises.
6 – Sitting on the Thighs Instead of Between Them
While some people have bony structures in the pelvis and thighs to allow for a good and deep squat with the knees pointing straight forward, many people don't. In people who have hips and joints structured for other things, bone will sooner or later meet bone, or the movement will simply stop. When this happens, something has to give, namely the pelvis by going into posterior tilt.
This is invariably accompanied by a flexed lower back. There can certainly be other reasons for this type of compensation, but by not moving the thighs at least a bit to the (out)side, you risk putting your lower back in a compromised position.
Lower back flexion might not be as bad as previously preached, but under big loads you'd best avoid it and get the knees out of the way.
7 – Asymmetric Lift-Off
The purpose of the set-up before taking the bar out of the rack is to get stable. But how stable can you get when attempting a staggered stance lift-off? While some will say very stable, most people should do whatever they can to be symmetrical during the preparation and set-up.
If you're super tight and easily able to create needed stiffness, there's no real concern with an asymmetrical lift-off. However, most people lack stiffness during a regular set-up, so throwing in asymmetry of the hips during the lift-off can transfer forces to the least tense area and cause problems.
Obviously, with lots of iron on the bar, it's best to create a good base of support and approach the lift-off like it's the top part of your regular squat. Elite lifters can do whatever they like. If you see them lift off asymmetrically, they probably have a reason behind it. If you see a beginner or even intermediate do this, they're probably just in a hurry to get the bar out.
8 – Ballerina Lift-Off
A ballerina lift-off sounds kind of nice, but it's really just silly, and potentially problematic. It refers to the "technique" of performing a calf raise during the lift-off process, where you "reach" for the bar.
When squatting, going up on your toes is one of the last things you want to do, at least if you want to keep an alignment that supports your body during the movement. Doing this, while at the same time getting the bar over the J-cups is, well, a problem. First, you have to balance. Second, it creates a reduced base of support.
Setting the barbell up at about sternum height/middle chest area is a safe bet for most people. Setting up correctly will lead to a quarter-squat type of lift-off, which also makes it easy to get tight during the set-up, rather than having to "reach" up to get the bar down.
9 – Limp Feet
Most people position their feet under the bar... and that's it. There's no thought put into positioning of the feet, other than the angle of the foot position.
Consider, though, that the feet are similar to the hands. A lot of sensory stuff is going on, and in a world where the feet literally have lost touch with the ground because of shoes, they've become a squatting afterthought.
There's a huge difference between active and passive feet, where the latter can be a big problem. When the muscles in the foot and lower leg are shut off, you're leaving the stabilizing work to the more passive structures, like the ligaments. While strong, they aren't active structures like the muscles.
When you have passive feet, the ankles are prone to collapse into a position called pronation. You obviously don't want to load a collapsed structure. Doing this over and over will lead to something giving in, and that something is usually the ankles themselves, the knees, the pelvis, the lower back, etc.
Energy leakage has to happen, which is the last thing you want during a squat. You want a seamless energy transfer.
While the "limp feet" position can result from structural problems, it's often functional, meaning you simply have no muscles performing stabilizing work for the ankles and feet. It's kind of how weak or "inactive" hips can lead to collapsed knees, and how hips and core dysfunction can lead to a collapsed lower back. In such cases, learning to use the right muscles (again) is the key. Ground yourself!
Note: A bad choice of shoes (wiggly and unstable) can also create this problem.
10 – Not-So Good Mornings
While an exaggerated knees-forward movement isn't a good thing for your health and squatting performance, shoving the ass too far back and leaning forward isn't good, either. This movement, done intentionally, is called a "good morning," and can be a great supplemental exercise for the squat. But done unconsciously, it can lead to problems.
Now, some people do favor a very hip dominant squat pattern, and with long femurs and a short torso, that kind of movement strategy can look somewhat similar to a good morning. The difference is, when a good morning is done purposely, you can still reach below parallel depth.
When people do half squats, they still say that they go deep enough (at least they think they do). The feeling of the movement is therefore based on assumptions. A good morning squat can come from the same type of wrong assumption.
Often, compensations like this won't be realized until the person actually sees himself squat. Filming technique is an extremely valuable teaching tool.
11 – Half Squats
One of THE most common technical mistakes is to not reach proper depth – proper depth as dictated in powerlifting rules, that is. That means it can't really be considered a mistake if you don't compete in powerlifting, but if you want to report your squatting numbers, we need standards and rules.
Half squats almost always reflect lack of an ingrained understanding of what proper depth is. If the lifter isn't used to going to a proper depth, and has locked down the feeling of joint positioning, the reps will be inconsistent. The solution is to spend more time in the bottom position through paused reps, isometric work, etc.
Of course, you can train in whatever range of motion you want, and if you want to be good at half squats, quarter squats or what have you, that's perfectly fine, as long as you're doing them with a specific purpose in mind. Since we're all stronger in the top portion of the squat, we can choose to overload this specific area by implementing specific training in this area through methods like partials.
You don't have to limit partials to stopping short in the squat, though. You can also use high boxes, starting with the bar on the pins in the top positions, etc. There are many methods to explore if you want to go that route.
Sometimes the lifter simply lacks the capability to reach the powerlifting standards of proper depth. It could be stability issues, mobility issues, or both. When that's the case, there's no reason whatsoever to push for full back squats too soon in training. By using partials and distance training where you progressively lower the bar in subsequent training sessions, you can reach new depths very quickly.