Squats: The best exercise you’re probably not doing right

Squats… there are dozens of variations and most of them are terrific exercises. They work many major muscle groups across several joints and are a very functional exercise for building muscle, strengthening bones, and getting a firmer, shapelier rear end. However, they’re also one of the more difficult exercises to actually do well.

First, lets get a grasp on what a properly performed squat looks like. The back should remain straight, eyes straight ahead, shoulders back, butt back, knees somewhere over your shoe-laces, feet flat, belly in, weight pressing through your ankles (not heels), and your pelvis centered between your feet. Seems simple enough, right? But what does one usually see when they watch someone attempt squats? The heels lift off the ground, one or both knees buckle, the hips sway to one side or the other, the feet turn out and the low back rounds over. Why does all this happen, you ask?

Performing a proper squat requires, in addition to strength, a decent amount of flexibility. Flexibility in the low back, the hamstrings, and especially the calves and ankles. Inflexibility in any of these and other muscle groups, as well as various weaknesses will cause tell-tale compensations during a squat leading to a less effective, more imbalanced and possibly injurious exercise. Compensations during squats are such good predictors of imbalances in the musculoskeletal system that there is an entire assessment built around them called the Overhead Squat Assessment. The subject performs multiple squats with their arms overhead while a trainer or therapist observes from multiple angles, looking for specific compensations which then indicate particular muscle imbalances with a high degree of reliability.

What can you do about these breakdowns in technique? First, familiarize yourself with the proper squat technique detailed above. Then, make sure you’re doing your squats before a mirror and watch your form carefully. If these or other imbalances are present, you have a few options. First, consult a trainer for suggestions on a comprehensive flexibility regiment. Second, get some work done by a structural bodyworker such as myself to correct those imbalances in a more direct and lasting way. Lastly, if you don’t feel like spending money or you don’t think you require professional assistance, just stretch the living daylights out of your calves. It’s been my experience that restrictions in the calves and ankles are responsible for the lion’s share of compensations during squats and correcting them will often eliminate or at least lessen the compensations over time.

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