Have you been doing CrossFit for a while and are still struggling with squatting below parallel? By now, you should be a pro, right? Or at least you should feel more comfortable. But maybe that’s not what’s happening. Maybe it’s the opposite and feels like you’re doing something wrong while squatting or experiencing some sort of back, knee or ankle pain.
When my coach teaches how to do air squats properly, he always says “don’t fall on your butt at the bottom”. But understanding what this means took me a long time. And even now, I need to focus in order to squat well. Why is this seemingly simple movement so hard to master for some people? What is causing your poor squat? And more importantly, what are the solutions to fix it? Squat S.O.S., help!!!
For answering these questions, we are going to review this article published in the CrossFit Journal. Russell Berger, former chief knowledge officer for CrossFit, and Pat Sherwood, a Certified CrossFit Coach (CF-L4), shared their experiences coaching air squats, and offer some tips to athletes who fall backward.
On the path for the perfect squat
Before digging into the causes and the solutions, here are some very interesting facts about squatting. Maybe you will think about them during your next workout.
- Squats are a natural, functional movement. Think about the movement you make to get in and out of your car or rising from a chair. Yep, you are squatting.
- A lot of sports specialists state that the overall best total body strength movement is the squat. It promotes more muscle growth across the whole body than any other movement.
- Squats build your leg muscles – quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves. These drills also create an anabolic environment, which promotes body-wide muscle building, improving muscle mass.
- Squats make your whole body stronger. This includes everything from your muscles, to connective tissue, to your bones. By performing squats you can increase mineral density which helps fight diseases such as osteoporosis.
- Performing squats produces endorphins in the body which are your body’s natural way to relieve pain.
The causes of a bad squat
For Pat Sherwood, the main reason why the hips go back and down but the chest falls while squatting is ankle mobility. Without proper range of motion in the ankles, an athlete is going to fall backward.
In a good squat, athletes should try to keep the foot flat on the ground and the chest up to maintain a neutral spine. Russell Berger says a big problem that he sees is athletes pulling themselves to the bottom of the squat first and then trying to arch their backs as much as possible. Can you relate? Russell says that this is a very unbalanced position and “an unrealistic way of gaining better movement.” In short, it’s a balance/mobility problem with a lot of pressure on your back at a bad angle. No wonder why you are in pain!
Russell also mentions that, quite often, athletes try to raise the chest at the bottom of the squat without pushing the hips forward to right themselves.
Pat and Russell agree that athletes with long legs normally have more trouble getting a beautiful squat. If this is your case, don’t blame your mobility. Pat says it won’t be impossible, but the odds are stacked against you. Sorry for the look of your squat, but long strong legs are already a beautiful feature!
For getting a beautiful and proper squat, begin by correcting these common faults:
- Keep the chest high during the descent. You could also grab onto a pole, pull-up rig or squat rack while squatting to keep your torso upright or hold a weighted object while squatting.
Remember, your goal is to keep the chest up and drive the hips back and down.
- Ankle mobility. In the picture below, note the difference in angle at the ankles. On the left, the athlete is able to flex at the ankles and keep the chest upright. On the right, she is struggling to maintain balance and keep her chest up. If her ankle mobility is very poor, she will have difficulty getting into the correct positions.
- To solve the problem of poor ankle mobility, use this stretching sequence:
- With your back toward the wall, squat as low as possible with the wall supporting your butt. Your feet can be anywhere from 1 to 6 inches away from the wall, depending on your build.
- Keep the heels up off the floor enough so that a finger could easily slip beneath.
- Then take a dumbbell, rest your elbows on your knees and hold the dumbbell with one head of the dumbbell in each hand.
- You will see that slowly your heels begin to come down
- For getting better at your squats, stop wearing Olympic weightlifting shoes. Why do you feel you squat better in Olympic-lifting shoes than in your regular shoes? It’s because of the heel. Don’t cheat yourself! Improve your ankle mobility first, then return to the weightlifting shoes for more stability.
- Wall-facing squats can be very helpful, just make sure that your toes aren’t close to or touching the wall. If this is happening, your knees simply can’t go forward, therefore you will have a bad squat.
- Hip mobility. Adequate hip extension and resisting an internal rotation moment is important for safe and effective squatting. For helping you improve your hip mobility, I strongly suggest you to check these 3 hip mobility drills that our friends from WODprep have prepared.
Whether air squatting or squatting with weight, we should always be trying to squat efficiently. Squatting help us having strong core and lower body muscles that can make our everyday movements easier. Not only that, but a strong core can improve our balance, posture and ease back pain. Researchers found that squatting can reduce the risk of injury and boost athletic performance. So follow the tips we have shared with you but don’t forget to also ask for your coach’s help. Your coach is like your mirror. It’s hard to know where your body should be while performing a squat. Ask your coach for cues that help you.
Now go out, get down and do a beautiful squat!
Giuliana is a yoga instructor and Crossfitter from Peru who is currently living in Chiang Mai, Thailand with her Crossfit Coach (and husband) Tim.