If you’re trying to get strong tree trunks for legs, squatting is the way to go. Initially overlooked by upper body bros who just wanted to train chest and arms, the squat is now coming into its own in popularity with the rise of sports like powerlifting, strongman, Olympic lifting, and CrossFit. While many can naturally build a huge amount of strength in the squat, some with awkward leverages may find it difficult in comparison to the deadlift. I’ve already done my troubleshooting the bench article, and the troubleshooting the deadlift article is coming soon, but for now you’ll have to settle with troubleshooting that good old squat. Without any further ado, let’s get at it.
Footwear and Ankle Roll
Footwear is a huge issue in large part because it’s a relatively specialized purchase that most people really aren’t going to make. Thus, most people squat in typical running shoes or other athletic shoes. The problem is, these shoes are designed to function as a cushion between your foot and the ground when running, absorbing the huge impact forces generated with each foot fall. With squatting, not only are there no such impact forces to absorb (your feet are remaining in contact with the ground the whole time) but also that additional cushioning can compromise stability, leading to a worse lift! I can’t tell you how many times I walk into commercial gyms and see guys squatting with running shoes, rolling their ankles terrifyingly inward with each rep because they’ve got no base of stability to push from. It is quite literally terrifying to me.
When it comes to shoes to squat in, the biggest thing to consider is that you have something solid and stable so you can push from a good base. However, dedicated squat shoes add something else - a heel. This heel puts you in a slightly more advantageous position, allowing you to squat a little bit deeper than you would otherwise by helping reduce the importance of ankle mobility. This is the same principle behind why guys will often squat with their heels up on a pair of plates - this raises the heel and helps accomplish the same effect.
Dedicated squat shoes are a relatively expensive and specialized purchase, so if you’re fine on hitting range of motion/depth in the squat, I’d recommend just sticking with a nice pair of flat, cheap, and solid shoes like some Converse. I myself frequently squat either in an old pair of Do-Win’s (I hear they have quality issues, but I’ve never had anything wrong with mine) or in a pair of beat-up Reebok Nano’s that I often use when it’s a lighter workout or when squatting isn’t the primary focus for the day. Fun fact: in a pinch, men’s dress shoes have a heel and aren’t the WORST option available, even if you’d look silly as hell. I may or may not have tried this personally, and you’ll never know.
If none of these is an option, even squatting barefoot may be preferable to squatting in running shoes, depending on how bad the stability is - even though this might feel a bit awkward at first. I recommend taking a video of your feet during a squat so you can see what’s going on down there. Really bad ankle roll can lead to the knees moving around undesirably, which can (probably) lead to injury or at the very least some really weird as hell looking squats.
Stance and Bar Positioning
When it comes to stance and bar position in the back squat, the two are generally linked. A traditional squat places the bar up on the trapezius muscles just behind the neck, which is typically referred to as high bar. In contrast, the less frequently seen low bar position places the bar on the back of the shoulders, where it rests across the rear delts and rhomboids.
The high bar position generally necessitates the use of a relatively close stance, with feet semi-parallel and turned just slightly outward. In contrast, the low bar position necessitates a much wider stance, with feet generally pointed further outward. The wide stance squat limits depth a little bit - this is an issue if you’re training for a sport that requires a lot of deep squatting (such as Olympic lifting and by extension CrossFit) but isn’t an issue if all that’s required is to break parallel (powerlifting). Thus, the high bar squat is often called an Olympic squat while the low bar squat is often called a powerlifting squat.
Depending on your training goals and physiology, it may be easier or more preferable to focus on one kind of squat over the other. Both feature similar amounts of muscular activation, but the high bar squat tends to work the knees through a larger range of motion, potentially being a bit better for leg hypertrophy. For some people, squatting one way or the other may cause or exacerbate pain or dysfunction. Thus, it’s preferable to try both and decide which is preferable within the context of your own needs.
One huge problem for beginners just starting out is that they don’t yet know how to hip hinge, which causes the hips to move backward and down at the same time that the knees are bending. For seasoned squatters, this is probably a no-brainer, but it’s definitely worth mentioning for beginners. Without hip hinge, the knees take over virtually all of the work of getting to depth, which leads to excessive forward knee movement and a lack of proper range of motion. Check out this video for an idea of what a good hip hinge looks like.
One way to cue for the hip hinge is to attach a band around the hips and then anchor it at a point behind you, either on the squat rack or something else, or having someone hold it for you. The band will give you that gentle backwards pull that forces your body to more naturally follow the movement. You’re looking to really make that booty POP.
Typically in the squat, you want your knees to be travelling forward, a little bit past the toes, but without excessive forward or side-to-side movement. If your knees are caving inwards, this can be due to ankle rolling from bad footwear as seen above, or it can be due to bad patterning or muscle weakness. You may want to do more dedicated hip/glute or abductor work in order to help this, or a favorite of mine is the squat with a band around the knees. Even then, knees caving inward a little at maximal weights usually isn’t a problem and is commonly seen in high level Olympic lifters.
If your knees are caving outwards on the other hand, that’s a little weirder, you weirdo. You may need to train hip adductors or practice a lot of self-cueing either via mirror or video. This is a much less frequently seen issue, but it can still occur, and would likely come with some ankle instability as well. I’d also look into your ankle mobility and see if that could be related, much the same as with footwear causing inward ankle roll.
There’s more than one way to squat! (Engrave that one on my tombstone, because I keep needing to say surprisingly frequently.) High bar, low bar, and front squatting are all different variations on a similar lift. The front squat is often overlooked because it’s not as necessary unless you plan on Olympic lifting, but it’s still a powerful exercise that may help strengthen the core and upper back to a greater extent. Consider varying your primary squatting modality from time to time in order to prevent stagnation and introduce variety into the program.
Like with the bench press, the addition of a pause may help build strength in the hole, which is particularly useful if that’s the part of the lift where you tend to fail. Unlike the bench press, powerlifting competitions don’t mandate the use of a pause in the squat, so there’s no need to stay down in the hole for too long, and it’s not mandatory to train with a significant amount of pause reps to get hella strong. But it can still be a useful tool to target a specific weak point.
As with the bench press, faster is usually better. Since the squat doesn’t require a pause at the bottom like a bench press does, it’s often useful to do a fast reversal at the bottom of the lift - this leads to a bit of a stretch reflex rebound, which can help you complete the lift. This effect may be more pronounced with the wide stance squat, since you have a slightly shorter range of motion to begin with so you bounce off of that end range a bit sooner.
Range of Motion
As with the bench press, a bigger range of motion is usually better, and will likely build more muscle. However, depending on your goals and how you have to squat, you may need to limit your range of motion for other reasons. We all know of the holy grail ATG or ass to grass squat, but many people’s bodies simply aren’t set up properly to go super deep without experiencing some kind of issue. Thus, while more range of motion is better, you don’t want to sacrifice joint health or do deep squats constantly if it’s just not jiving well.
If you have to do a wide stance squat either because you’re naturally stronger or it feels more smooth, then this is going to naturally limit your ROM a bit more than a close stance, high bar squat. This isn’t an issue if you’re aiming to train for strength, but may have a small impact on your results if you’re looking to train for size.
For most people, hitting parallel is enough. However, you can potentially spur more size growth by going as deep as possible, even if this means taking some weight off the bar to be able to handle the depth without issue.
Wrist and Neck Issues
For some people, frequent squatting can cause issues with the wrists or neck. I know that I myself, when I used to frequently squat shirtless at the squat rack in my garage, (ladies) developed a patch of really dry skin from the bar contact. I had to spend a lot of time moisturizing to get that skin to heal up, though that’s not quite the same thing.
It’s important to maintain a head position in line with the torso during the squat. Excessively looking up (at the ceiling) or down (at the feet) can potentially lead to the neck developing weird patterns of stress under loading. Instead, you want to look forward, at a point a little bit in front of you. This isn’t a perfect solution and some people can still develop neck issues, but it’ll probably help in most cases.
When it comes to wrist position, this is largely dictated by bar position. A high bar squat necessitates the wrists to be positioned closer together, while the low bar squat necessitates that the hands be a lot further out, close to the barbell sleeves. Either can potentially cause wrist issues, particularly if you’re squatting a lot. Anecdotally I’d say that the wide grip used with the low bar squat tends to cause more issues, because it’s a bit easier for the bar to slide down the back and place a lot of weight on the wrist. Unfortunately, since wrist position is tied to bar position, it may be hard to properly vary your grip width in response to issues. Instead, you may simply need to try a different kind of squat altogether.
As with the bench, I will harp again on the importance of a good program. Without a good program, your squat isn’t going anywhere, period. A mix of strength and hypertrophy work is ideal, and should produce maximal results. As with training for the bench, there’s plenty of free or semi-free programs online that will get the job done.
Depth is another issue that a lot of people struggle with, particularly when they’re just starting out and don’t have a proper head for form yet. When it comes to hitting depth, some people simply may feel really weak in a properly low depth, and may not have the strength to really get themselves out of the hole. In this case, it’s just a matter of needing to toss your ego out the window and deal with the fact that you’re going to have to start off with less weight and work your way up to a stronger squat. It sucks, but it’s worth it long term.
However, other people may actually find it physically difficult to actually reach depth. There can be a variety of causes for this. The most commonly cited one is ankle positioning. It’s well known that adding a bit of height to the heel can make it easier to hit depth on a squat. As noted in the section on footwear above, this is the biggest reason to buy specialized squatting shoes - because squat shoes are designed with a heel that automatically takes care of this. Another common tactic is to simply place a pair of 2.5 or 5lb plates on the floor inside the squat rack and place the heels on these with the toes on the floor, so that you can elevate the heel while wearing normal shoes. I don’t recommend this if you’re wearing running shoes or some other soft shoe, as this will likely lead to further compromise of ankle stability and thus lead to some goofy looking squats.
The (far lesser known) reason why this works has to do with ankle mobility and calf flexibility. If you have particularly tight calves or a lack of ankle mobility, this can prevent the shin’s ability to travel forward in the squat, thus limiting the knee’s ability to travel forward. If the knee can’t travel forward, this places a correspondingly greater strain on the hips to move backwards during the lift, which can prevent you from hitting depth. Hell of a chain of effect! In this case, sometimes calf stretching (or even calf strengthening!) can help you improve that mobility, thus leading to a deeper squat. The raised heel puts the calf/ankle at a further back angle relative to a flat foot position, meaning that it’s not travelling as far forward and thus doesn’t hit end range of motion as quickly - thus, allowing your knee to move through a greater range of motion in the squat and fixing that mobility issue.
However, I’ve also seen (bad) coaches act like the only thing that needs to be done for squat mobility is raising the heels. This is a mistake too, because there’s plenty of other things that can be causing the issue. In another example, Dean Somerset lays out an excellent article about why your squat depth may be struggling: because you lack the core stability needed to get down into the position without issue. Your body is a complex system, and a weakness or issue in one area can cause further issues somewhere down the line. Lack of proper core stability may cause compensatory movement patterns designed to protect your spine, which include limiting how deep you can squat. Dean also lays out ways to test for this issue, so you should check that article out.
Another good one: Planks are the Magic Bullet for Hip Mobility. In this one, Dean lays out how even a simple core activation exercise like a short plank can help you get deeper into a squat. Fun fact: it works. I’ve seen great success using it myself, as well as with my clients. Dean loves to show that one to rooms full of fitness professionals at seminars just to watch their shocked reactions.
Ultimately, it’s possible that you’re simply born with piss poor anatomy for squatting, and if that’s the case you may want to seek out other methods of leg training. However, you should try some of the above tactics first and see if they work. I would say that the vast majority of the clients I’ve worked with have either simply been weak in the hole, have core stability issues, or have ankle mobility issues, and these fixes can help with each of those.
Fixing Weak Points
With the squat, a lot of common tips and tricks can be particularly useful for improving your squat. Like the bench press, it’s important to assess where in the lift you tend to fail. I know that I myself used to have the issue of pitching forward - your hips shoot back, your legs extend, but you’re not properly pushing the bar upwards in the process, so instead you’re just leaning further forward and increasing the demand on your lower back and hip extension. This typically leads to failure because the demands quickly raise to an unworkable level. In this case, it’s important to work on the quads in order to increase their strength and your ability to extend in a good position. Pause squats may also help you develop some more strength and stability in the hole.
On the other hand, if you’re able to maintain relatively good form and get out of the hole a decent ways, but tend to fail before fully extending, it’s likely that it’s your hip extensors that are the issue. In this case, dedicated work for the low back, hamstrings, and glutes will help.
If it’s neither of these, chances are that it’s related to core stability. Unlike either the bench press or the deadlift, core stability is of much more importance in the squat in terms of maintaining good positioning and completing the lift. Thus, sometimes it takes a bit of good core work to get a strong squat. This can be achieved via front squatting, long pause squats, and dedicated core work.
(For a much better resource of specific weakpoint training for the three powerlifts, I’d highly recommend Greg Nuckols’ No Weak Links, which is far more enlightening than I could be. This isn’t an affiliate link, I just love Greg’s work.)
Wrapping It Up
The squat is a lift which can take a lifetime to master, but which will earn you respect in virtually every lifting discipline. Strongmen and Oly lifters don’t care as much about bench, and the deadlift is just too dang hard for a lot of people to care too much. But the squat is beloved worldwide, and that makes it a wonderful lift to train. It’s also more technically demanding than the bench or deadlift, if not as demanding as Olympic lifts, so it’s definitely the weirdest of the three powerlifts. I’d say that the squat has a lot more stuff to go wrong (and that frequently does go wrong!) than either the bench or the deadlift, so it takes a lot more finesse-ing to get it right. I’ve endeavored in this article to share as many of my fix-it tips as I can.
Now go out and squat.
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