Q: I have a problem going deep on squats, and I also tend to lean forward. I stretch my quads and hamstrings, but it doesn’t help. Any suggestions?
A: I’m a big believer in deep squatting. Just as you wouldn’t perform a biceps curl halfway up, it makes little sense to perform a squat through only a partial range of motion. Further, partial squats will develop what I call structural imbalances that can increase the risk of chronic knee pain, especially patella tendinitis.
Not being able to squat low is often just a matter of tightness in the calves. A simple way to determine whether that’s a problem is to put your heels on a board or thin weight plates and try to squat. If you find that you can go lower with a more upright stance, you need to stretch your calves.
You can accelerate the stretching process by purchasing a pair of weightlifting shoes. In addition to being very rigid and giving you a solid platform for squatting, weightlifting shoes will have elevated heels, usually about one inch. That causes the shins to incline forward further so that your back can maintain a more upright position during the squat. The rigid design of the shoe also helps align the bones of the ankle and foot so that it’s easier to keep your knees in proper alignment.
Bad squatting technique can also be caused by poor body awareness, or what sport scientists like to call proprioception. That issue is common among those who don’t have an athletic background. So during the squat they have a poor sense of where they are in space. They often lean forward from the waist, thinking that it’s the only way they can perform the lift, rather than sitting back. Having a platform to sit on can help you get a feeling for the appropriate depth and become accustomed to squatting properly. Here’s how to do it:
Set up the platform at a relatively high level, as if you were going to do a quarter squat. Step back so that when you squat, your glutes will touch the middle of the platform. Remove an empty bar from the rack, slowly sit down—that is, don’t plop—touch and come back up. Do not sit and rock back, as is often taught in powerlifting. Do about 15 reps. For the next set lower the platform a few inches and repeat. Continue dropping the height of the platform until you feel your form is being compromised. Do three to four sets. Continue the process over a series of workouts until you have the platform at the lowest setting and are performing a full squat. Also, after you’ve completed those sets, do one set with just the empty bar without the platform, going as low as is comfortable for you.
Because the range of motion is limited on the first set, you should be able to easily perform 15 repetitions. As the platform gets lower and your range of motion subsequently increases, you can progressively cut the reps down to 10 and eventually to five.
For the first workout just use the empty bar, and at the next workout repeat the process, but add a few pounds to the bar—10 to 20. Again, that’s primarily a teaching method for developing proper technique. Then add 10 to 20 more at the next workout. After three or four workouts you should be comfortable with going right to regular squats.
Editor’s note: Charles Poliquin is recognized as one of the world’s most successful strength coaches, having coached Olympic medalists in 12 different sports, including the U.S. women’s track-and-field team for the 2000 Olympics. He’s spent years researching European journals (he’s fluent in English, French and German) and speaking with other coaches and scientists in his quest to optimize training methods. For more on his books, seminars and methods, visit www.CharlesPoliquin.net. IM
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