Learning the squat 4: Tips, tricks and troubleshooting

Few people can knock off a perfect squat on the first try, or even the first several tries. Learning the basics of a squat is relatively simple, but perfecting the technique takes time and practice. Technique must always take precedence over weight. Don’t be scared of adding weight once you get the hang of things, but never add weight that you can’t handle. Don’t cut the depth to be able to add more weight, either. Santa is watching and he frowns on bad little girls who cheat. Never let your ego get in the way of using good form.

squat stance

In the beginning you will likely be focusing on not falling over, so you won’t be terribly concerned with your squat stance. However, eventually you may be interested in experimenting with squat stances. Perhaps you want to find the one which is most advantageous for you, or you are thinking of competing in powerlifting. Whatever your reason, it is helpful to know what each stance involves. Bear in mind that everyone is different, and there’s lots of room for variation. There are no hard and fast rules about which one is right for you. For example, many people with longer legs find that they prefer a wider stance, and it makes it easier for them to hit full depth, but there are exceptions, such as my giraffe-legged husband who can do a rather astonishing narrow stance squat.

Here are the two basic back squat stances. Since I took these shots at home, and since my husband persists in being unreasonable about my idea to remove all of the living room furniture and install a complete home gym in its place, I am demonstrating this with my trusty broomstick.

The wide stance, low bar squat is the powerlifting style squat. Feet are placed quite wide apart, and toes are often turned out. The bar sits low on the traps. It puts people with strong hamstrings, glutes, and hips at an advantage, since hip extension provides much of the drive. The wider your foot placement, the harder it will be to hit depth, since the hip joint will eventually limit how far down you can go (compare my depth at the bottom of the wide-stance and narrow-stance squats). Powerlifters use this style because it helps them hit parallel but no lower, and a lot of weight can be moved this way. It looks like I’m really hyperextending my back in the photo on the left, but I’ve just started sitting back into the descent a bit.
The narrow stance, high bar squat is the one that I use. The bar sits relatively higher up on the traps, and the feet are roughly shoulder width apart. Full depth is easily achieved as long as hamstrings are flexible and lower back is strong. Toes may travel slightly beyond knees, but it’s not usually a problem. This stance is good for people with strong quads, and/or for people who also perform Olympic lifts. Knee extension is more significant in this squat than in the wide stance style, which means that more work is done by the quads.

squatting stretches

Here are some stretches that will help you squat more easily, effectively and correctly. All stretches should be executed after a good warmup. Since these stretches are intended as remedial work for the squat, you can break the “no static stretching before weights” rule and do them before you squat, as well as after.

The best squat stretch of all is squatting (there’s a zen truth in there somewhere). To do this stretch, simply squat down and sit there in the squat position for 3-5 seconds, letting your own weight push you into the stretch. Ascend as normal, then repeat. Do this a few times every day, or every workout, and within a couple of weeks this should be a piece of cake. You can also put a bar on your back for this one, and the added weight will also help to push you further into the stretch. To get a deeper hip stretch from this, squat down with no weight on your back, then once you are at the bottom, take your elbows and use them to push your knees outwards. Hold for 5 seconds, then ascend. Repeat as desired.

Tight hamstrings are often to blame for rounding out the lower back at the bottom. Many people stretch hamstrings incorrectly, using stretches such as the sit-and-reach stretch (not to be confused with the sit-and-spin), where they bend from the waist. It’s much more effective to stretch the hamstrings while bending from the hip. For a beginner stretch, simply bend forward from the hips, keeping an arch in the lower back, as shown in the picture on the left. Once you’ve gotten good at this, progress to the deeper stretch shown in the middle picture, with foot elevated on a step, bench, or chair. Keep bending from the hips, not the waist, and push butt back as your upper body leans down. You can also stretch the hamstrings while lying down, using a towel looped around your calf, as shown in the picture on the right.

Tight hips can be stretched out with this version of the classic yoga pigeon pose. To get into this pose, sit on the floor with your left knee bent in front of you (knee bent about 90 degrees; don’t overbend), and the right leg straight-ish in front of you. Roll on to your left butt cheek, and swing the right leg back as far as it will go. In the beginning it probably won’t go very far, and you’ll have to keep the right knee bent. Roll back towards the center so that weight is evenly distributed. The farther you roll to the right, the deeper the stretch in the front of your right hip. Sit up straight, push chest out, and press right hip forward. The farther up you sit, the more you’ll feel the stretch in the front of your right hip. The farther forward you lean, the more you’ll feel the stretch in the outside of the left hip. I like to do this as a two-step stretch: get into position, then stretch first in the upright position shown, followed by leaning forward (you can go as far down as resting your forehead on the floor, if you like). Repeat on other side of course. I like this stretch a lot because it’s a good one-two punch. You stretch out the outside of one hip, and the front of the other. Don’t forget to breathe deeply and relax for this one, because it’s a deep stretch.
If this stretch is too much for you at first, try a simpler stretch for the outside of your hip. Sit on floor with both legs out in front of you. Bring left knee towards your chest, and cross your left foot over your right thigh. Hug the left knee to the chest and hold for several seconds. Repeat on other side.
For the front of the hip, try the stretch shown to the right. Step forward with one leg, keeping upper body upright and tucking pelvis under very slightly. Drop rear knee straight down until a stretch is felt in the front of the hip. You may find that you need to tuck the pelvis under a fair bit to make this stretch happen. Keep front shin and rear thigh approximately vertical, and do not hyperextend the lower back. If you like, you can hold a railing for balance during this stretch.
If you find that your heels are rising off the floor while descending, you likely have tight calves. First, make sure that you are using a full range of motion for your calf exercises, getting the heel all the way down on the descent. You can even pause at the bottom of each rep if you like, letting the heel sink down.
Second, try the following stretches. Stand facing a wall. Place hands on wall, slide one foot back, press heel down, as shown in picture to left. Hold for 10-30 seconds, then bend knee and continue pressing down on heel, as shown in the right hand picture.

Another good stretch is to stand on a step, holding a railing. Slide one foot off the step, so that the heel is off the step while the toes are still on the step. Press that heel down and hold for 10-30 seconds.

Pain on the outside of the knee is often alleviated by stretching the iliotibial band, which is a long strip of mostly connective tissue that runs down the thigh from hip to knee. Though the tissue spans the length of the thigh, it is most often felt in the knee area, outside and just above. Runners especially are likely to be familiar with the pain of IT band irritation. This knee pain is actually relieved by stretching hip abductor muscles, the glutes and the tensor fascia latae. The hip stretches described above will help, as will this stretch. Cross left leg over right as shown, straighten both legs, then push hip out to the right like Mae West workin’ it.

Another handy tip for self-treating knee pain is massage with a rolling pin. While seated watching TV or whatever, stretch your leg out in front of you and rest it on your coffee table, footstool, or helpful golden retriever. Take the rolling pin and roll it down the length of your thigh, working in small areas about 6″ square. Use gentle pressure at first, then increase. Work along the entire thigh, wherever there is soft tissue, particularly along the outside. This rolling pin massage also feels great on the front of your shins. If you don’t have a rolling pin handy, try just using your thumbs to work along the outside of the thigh from the knee upwards, making small circles about 1-2″ in diameter, and using a firm pressure. Do this self-massage for several minutes, once or twice a day.

therapeutic squatting variations

The squat itself can be modified to correct problems in technique. A common problem is allowing the knees to cave inwards. This can signify, in part, a weakness in hip abductors, but it can also be just poor learned form. To un-learn this as well as focus on strengthening hips, try this trick. Take a piece of elastic tubing or exercise bands (you don’t have to use this; you can use any piece of cord you have lying around, but the elastic stuff works really well). Tie it into a loop, then place the loop around your knees while standing. The loop should be long enough so that it allows you to stand normally, but short enough that you have to press your knees outwards to keep it from falling down. Then, using light weight, execute your squat as normal, making sure to press knees outwards throughout.

Knee pain can sometimes be treated using this squat modification. Squat as normal, but hold a basketball or soccer ball between your knees. You’ll have to focus on pressing inwards or the ball will drop. This is often prescribed by physiotherapists who identify a hip abductor or vastus medialis weakness.