"I can't squat lower than parellel without falling backwards or elevating my ankles".
Updated: Aug 10, 2021
I feel that this is a topic that has always popped up in conversation and I always see people in the gym trying to get lower in their squat, so I thought I would write about it.
If you are struggling to squat below parallel without feeling as though you are going to fall backwards then this blog is for you.
To save you the read, ever noticed how you can immediately squat lower when your heels are elevated on a plate? There is a simple answer, ankle mobility has a big impact on squat depth.
But if you're interested in finding out about the squat and what may be restricting you to squat lower in more depth then read on.
Let's start by understanding more about our ankles, knees and hips and hopefully after you finish the blog you will have more of an idea what you need to work on, or become aware of any restrictions that you may have.
Remember you can proceed to do a variety of mobility and flexibility exercises after you figure out what may be restricting you from squatting lower, or you may need to work on specific muscles to improve the strength for your squat.
Let's start with our ankles...
We have something known as dorsiflexion in our ankles, it is the motion of flexing the foot.
99% of the time the reason why someone can not squat below parallel will be because of their ankle mobility.
Ever wondered why people squat with their heels elevated on a plate? Why olympic lifters have a small heel on their shoes?
If you have limited dorsiflexion in your heel (heel flexion) then you are going to have difficulty with bringing your knees past your toes in a squat hence giving you the feeling as though you are falling backwards. The elevation from having your heels on a plate also allows you to sit your torso upright making the squat also feel more comfortable and natural.
If someone does not have good ankle flexibility or does not know how to create torque you will find that their feet will be positioned facing slightly outwards around the 2 and 10 O'clock stance, this allows for them to have a bit of a wider stance in their hips which allows them to be more open and it will demand less dorsiflexion in their ankles.
Now although this is not incorrect, If you want to ever increase the load in your squat you will find that your ankles might cave in, your knees may start to buckle which may potentially cause a injury in the future. Having a solid squat stance will increase your lifts and make you a stronger and better mover.
Your A Stance will be your strongest stance with your feet at hip distance apart.
Moving on, when squatting you have flexion in your knees. The knees do not need to be stretched. I tend to see people putting a band around their knees and using resistance to try and 'mobilize' them. The knee is a hinge joint it's job is to bend and extend.
Working on single leg stability and challenging the knee in this aspect will build strong and durable knees.
Please refer to my blog on hip stability and why it is so important for injury prevention. the blog will cover a lot of single leg exercises you can try.
The exercise in this video below will help in building a solid foundation for your squat.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZKYmwV6Zo5I - Incredible exercise to help increase lateral resistance for hip and knee stability. Skip to 1.46.
Lastly, the hip is a ball and socket joint (alongside the shoulder, ball and socket joints allow us to move all directions and planes of motion because all movement planes are available within this joint)
People have hips that point forward (more curved) and others have hips that are open more laterally and wider (flatter). Their femur (the thigh bone) inserts into your hip bone also has various shapes, some twisted forward or backwards.
A more internally rotated the femur is (twisting in to the body) called a anteverted hip and the more externally rotated the femur is (twisting away from the body) called a retroverted hip.
This will of course determine the way you move and rotate naturally, your natural stance, and the alignment of your knees all the way down to your feet.
This alone will most definitely effect your squat position, therefore sometimes forcing an athlete or a client to perform a stance that is preferable to a coach and how he/she might do things without taking into consideration each individuals personal movement patterns may not always be the right thing to do.
When squatting you should feel comfortable and not feel any pinching sensation or other discomfort, If you do it may be a clear indicator that you have to change your squat stance. This could mean that you may need to take a much winder stance or more narrow stance and pay extra attention to your foot placement.
You can try the exercise below to test your internal and external rotation, it's perfect for you to gauge what area may need more work on, you can also measure your active range of motion in the hips. Below I have attached a video for visual.
Step 1 Ensuring that your hips are square throughout this movement, lay on your back and lift one of your legs so that your knee is in line with your hip and is at 90 degree angle. If your body goes into a posterior pelvic tilt before your knee and hip is aligned then stop and regress back so your hip is at a more natural stance.
(Note* If you do have a posterior pelvic tilt in this position then be sure to work on your hamstring flexibility and release your glutes!)
From this position whilst keeping your knee in the same 90 degree angle, move the shin of the lifted leg sideways, away from the body and towards. If you have limited range either way then it may be best to defiantly start with some flexibility work. If your hip moves one way more so than another at least you can kind of get an idea of your mobility restrictions or what areas may need strengthening.
for a visual please skip to 1.58s in this video - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3OiJqAtPQUc
There are many other ways to test this, for example repeating this exercise sitting upright on a chair, laying on your stomach. It is good to do all the different ways in order to pick up on things that you wouldn't by just doing one.
I would recommend someone moving your leg for you.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UWi1wXBaav4 - Video for Visual.
Hip Flexion or Extension?
Now that we have understood about hip internal and external rotation, let's talk about hip flexion and extension.
Let's take a second to think about the movement. When you squat you have flexion at the hip. You are flexing the hip, bending at the hip, in simpler terms you are bringing your leg closer to you. Now ask yourself what part of that requires you to increase your flexibility for in hip extension?
Your hip is never in extension when you are squatting. Yet you find people in a lunge position pre squat stretching out their hip flexors.
If you feel a slight pinching sensation in your hips then that doesn't mean your hip flexor is tight, you may just need to change your squat stance slightly or work on your abduction, strengthen your glutes or learn how to create external rotation of the hip, in other words create Torque.
If your you go into a posterior pelvic tilt whilst you are squatting and you feel as though your back is rounding as you go lower. This could be one of two things:
You are not staying under tension and keeping your muscles active whilst squatting. If you relax mid squat your knees will cave inwards which causes the back to round. Ensuring that your glutes are fully engaged and you create torque and external force during your squat will diminish this problem.
Your hamstrings and glutes are very tight and need stretching/releasing. When we have tight hamstrings and glutes it will pull the bottom of the pelvis underneath the body causing the front of the pelvis to tilt up. Therefore tight abdominal muscles pull the pelvis up, while weak lower back muscles do not respond. This creates a posterior pelvic tilt.
Now that we have gone through each segment of our body from our hips down to our ankles you may have a clearer understanding of what might be restricting you in being able to squat deeper.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PkQb2LJtLgo&feature=youtu.be - Here is an excellent video to see how deep an individual can squat and to see if their anatomical structure allows them to move freely in that range.
I would highly recommend giving this a watch!
What's most important.
What's most important is that you understand what works for your body and what is needed to makee the right adjustment, and as any coach or trainer should do is prevent their clients/athletes from getting injured, squat the way you believe works for you and seek an experts help when needed.
Remember there are many sports in which you will have to use load and generate force in a squat position, therefore your stance will change depending on what you are wanting to achieve.
Programming your Squats
This is a hard topic to cover because everyone will have a different goal. However there are a few exercises I would recommend that you can try and implement into your training program to improve your squats.
Include front squats into your program.
Perform cossack squats (“side squats”) into your program these are great to change up the plane of which your weight is distributed.
Try single leg squats and work up to being able to achieve a pistol squat (I have a blog on progressions and regressions for this)
If needed pick a day that you isolate muscles in order to improve your squat, same goes with mobility and flexibility.
Anatomy: The way our bones are formed and aligned (the skeletal system)
Mobility: Being able to move freely/easily. How our muscles and tissue effects how we move. When we become stiff and tight it can effect how well we move.