The strength and aesthetic benefits from squatting are immense. Want strong legs? Squat. Want a bubble butt and nice legs? Squat. The strongest people in the world and the best-looking legs and bottoms belong to people who squat. Squatting should be a staple in anyone’s training program (short of an injury). Unfortunately, it is often left to the waist side. In its place people lunge, deadlift, perform step-ups, or, Heaven forbid, leg press (yuck!). All of these movements are great exercises (except for leg press) but why do we leave out arguably the BEST leg exercise, the squat? The answer lies with its difficulty.
Chances are if you don’t squat it’s because you can’t do them well. You tried to squat for years but never found it to be easy and finally gave up. Either you didn’t take the time to learn or no one showed you how. You told your body to squat and you just couldn’t get it right. Well, I’m here to tell you why you failed. The reason for your failure lies with one, two, or all 3 aspects of a good squat: ankle mobility, hip mobility, and glute activation.
Many movement experts point to your hips and glutes as the starting point for improving your squat. I disagree. The ankle is the starting point. Why? If your ankles don’t have great range of motion then you will rarely go into a deep squat. Deep squats are necessary in order to activate more muscles throughout your hips and legs. In addition, deep squats keep your knees healthy and reduce knee pain. You can test your ankle mobility by placing your foot several inches from a wall. Now, try to move your knee forward until it touches the wall. If your big toe is 4-5 inches from the wall and your knee can’t reach the wall then your ankles are not mobile.
How do I improve ankle mobility?
Banded ankle distractions. Using a thick band, wrap it around a solid post. Place your foot in the band (around the ankle) and move your foot as far away from the post as possible (your other leg should be behind you helping you push your other leg away). Begin pushing the knee of the banded leg forward until you feel a stretch. Hold for 3-5 seconds then relax. Repeat this pattern for 1-2 min. Switch and repeat on other ankle.
Your hips are one of the most complicated moving parts of your body. Everything from how your hips tilt to how your femur (thigh bone) sits inside your hip sockets can determine hip mobility. For this article we’re going to focus on the hip flexor muscles (rectus femoris, sartorius, and iliopsoas). (PICTURES) These muscles tighten because of something you do all day, every day: sitting. Sitting weakens and shortens these muscles. If you squat with tight, weak hip muscles then you will lean forward as you lower into a squat. This forward lean means your glutes are shut off and your quads are doing most of the work. The more you lean forward the heavier the weight will feel on your lower back and lead to a weak lift and possible injury.
An easy ‘self test’ for hip mobility is to perform the Thomas test. Lie on your back on a high table. Bring one knee to your chest with both of your hands (don’t over arch your low back). If your other legs’ knee is not below your hip then it is too tight.
How do I improve hip mobility?
First, we need to perform the Thomas Test to see if your hip flexors are tight. Next, we will perform the couch stretch and frog stretch. Perform each one for 1-2 min. Focus on ‘tucking’ your tailbone (picture a dog with its tail between it’s legs) for both drills. This action will get the iliopsoas and rectus femoris to loosen up in the couch stretch and the sartorius to become more mobile in the frog stretch.
The glutes (butt muscles) are part of your hip complex. If you’re still leaning forward excessively or rounding your lower back in a squat that means your glutes aren’t working. A common method for teaching someone how to activate their glutes is to have them lie on their back, knees bent, feet on the floor, and perform hip bridges. At the top of the bridge you would squeeze your butt as tight as you can for 1-2 seconds for 10-15 reps. While this is a good method ‘wake up’ your glutes it is not the one of my choosing. We want to active your glutes in the squatting pattern. Hip bridges don’t do this. Goblet squats do.
How do I improve glute activation?
First, hold a kettlebell in front of you at chest level and slowly lower yourself into the bottom of your squat position. Once at the bottom use your elbows to ‘pry’ your knees apart while your knees push inward (knees are fighting the elbows). Do this for 15-20 sec. relaxing and contracting your knees inward and outward. Finally, push your knees outward as far as possible without the elbows assistance. Place the kettlebell on the ground and slowly raise to the top of the squat (keep pushing knees open). This will fire up your glutes in a squatting pattern and help your torso stay flat and upright.
These mobility drills are not the end-all be-all of squat corrections. As I said before the hips are very complex. It has been my experience that these drills work the best for the general population. Bone anatomy, injuries, and current movement ability will have a great impact on whether or not these drills will work for you. Test these drills by taking a front and side few of your squat. Perform each of these drills for 5-10 min. 3 days a week. After 4 weeks take another set of photos. If you see improvement continue until your squat is pain free and smooth.