How’s your squat? Does it feel good? Can you get your butt to your calves without the tailbone tucking under? Do you collapse forward in the upper body as you struggle to go down? How do your knees feel?
In this series we’ll look at how to properly perform squats with bodyweight alone as well as “front” loaded. Back loaded or back squats are a little different and since we don’t practice them at IronBody Fitness we aren’t going to touch on them.
Bodyweight only, or front squats, are the same – the movement starts in the hips. You drive the hips down and back at the same time and the knees flex with little movement of the shin. The torso should remain almost vertical and the spine should remain neutral. You can check your back position by placing a broomstick on your spine from head to tailbone. It should touch the back of your head, between the shoulder blades and the sacrum, and there should be a very small gap at the lower back. This position allows you to keep your center of mass over the mid part of the feet, which allows you to go deep and not fall over forward or back.
A good squat requires a lot of mobility (not flexibility) in the ankles, hips, and upper back. It requires a lot of stability in the knees, lower back and “core”. If your ankles are stiff, you won’t be able to flex them enough to get deep. If your upper back is stiff you won’t be able to stay upright. If your hips are weak or stiff you won’t be able to push them back and down as far as you should, your knees will collapse inward and you won’t be able to drive out of the “hole”.
Let’s start from the “Ground Up” (a really good book by Dan John) by looking at the feet and ankles.
Your feet should be about shoulder width apart and slightly turned out. Everyone is different so the foot placement may not be exact. Going too wide, which many do to get around hip mobility issues, will cause more stress on the hips and the knees. Conversely, too narrow a stance will not allow you to go down at all effectively blocking the torso from dropping through your hips.
The feet should turn out, but no more than about 30 degrees. Any more than that and your hips will hurt. Feet pointing straight ahead make it hard to get deep and can also aggravate your hips.
Your weight should be across three points of the feet. This “Tripod” foot keeps your weight evenly distributed. The ball of the foot under your big toe, the ball of your foot under the little toe and the heel. Check your feet, if they roll in and the arches collapse (pronation) you’ll end up with all kinds of issues from the ankle up through the knees, hips, back and shoulders. If the feet pronate, think about spreading the ground apart with your feet to force the arches up.
If your feet roll out (supinating) you’ll also wind up with problems. If the ball of the big toe is up, your balance will be off, so think about getting that part of the foot on the floor.
Your weight should be evenly distributed. If you find yourself grabbing the ground with your toes, your weight is too far forward and you’ll probably end up driving with the knees instead of the hips.
All this talk of feet brings up the issue of shoes and training with weights in general. Personally I almost always train barefoot, especially if I’m indoors. When I do wear shoes they are flat and firm. Why? “Cross Trainers” or running shoes are designed to absorb shock. The forces that are generated when running are enormous and the shoes are supposed to cushion you. The also usually have an elevated heel which actually changes your running mechanics by forcing the heel to strike first. In terms of lifting heavy weight the cushioning makes you weaker in a number of ways.
- They pitch you forward and make it more likely you’ll use the knees instead of your hips.
- They absorb energy. You are driving to push the ground away as hard as you can but the shoes are taking some of your energy and not allowing it to be applied to the ground, making you weaker.
- They can make your hips unstable, possibly keeping you from going as deep and may allow the knees to wobble
So what do we do for foot and ankle issues? First look at the big toe of each foot and if flexibility is limited work it by bending it and moving it around. If you have pain in that joint then you may never get full range of motion. Don’t work through or even into pain. If it hurts (pain) don’t do it!
If the toes are ok, how are your ankles?
You need to work the joints in the ankle and foot. Simply sit on the floor and hold one foot in your hand and move the foot around in circles and at different angles for about 30 to 45 seconds per foot.
Next, stand and place the top of the big toe on floor with the foot behind you and dig into the floor and pull the foot through the top of the big toe without actually letting the foot move. Do that for 20 seconds then change the foot position so the top of the foot across all the toes are on the floor then dig in and pull for another 20 seconds. The last one is to angle the foot so you are digging the base of the little toe into the floor and “pulling”. Do all three positions on each foot.
Another cause of tight ankles are the calves. If they are tight, you won’t be able to flex the ankle very much. The easiest way to stretch the calves is to stand in a staggered stance with the lead foot about 4 inches from a wall. Place your hands on the wall for support. Keep the heel of the front foot on the floor. Make sure both feet point straight ahead. Hold the stretch for 20 seconds and release repeat 3 to 5 times. Now lift the front heel off the floor and drive the rear heel down, locking out the rear leg. Lean into the wall and you should feel the stretch. Hold it for 20 seconds and repeat 3 to 5 times. Switch forward legs and do both stretches.
During the ankle stretch keep an eye on the knee of the lead leg in relation to the 2nd toe. Does the knee move straight forward staying over the 2nd toe or does it fall in. If it falls in your ankle is probably also falling in and will affect your squat. Weak or tight ankles and tight shins can all cause the ankle to pronate. Try your best to keep the knee lined up.
If you have a foam roller, lie face down so the outside of your shin is on it and roll out the shin. A better tool is the “Stick” or the “Tiger’s Tail” and rolling pin with handles will do however. Simply take the stick and roll it up and down all aspects of the lower leg, except the shinbone itself (trust me you won’t like it).
Now try squatting again and see if anything has changed.
Next up we’ll look at the knees and what they are supposed to do in the squat.