3 Ways to Improve Squat Form | Chesterfield Chiropractor

The need to improve squat form is a necessity as a sports chiropractor and strength and conditioning specialist.  It needs to be addressed whether you compete in cross fit or you find yourself squatting down consistently throughout the day for your job.  This article will discuss some common squat mistakes and how to improve them.

Things to Consider When Trying to Improve Squat Form

Do you buy into the myth that there is one, perfect way to squat?  Have you ever wondered why some people can squat easier than others?  One of the biggest mistakes I see in the fitness industry is not understanding that one’s anatomy should dictate their squat form.  And I hate to say it, not everybody is meant to be an effective squatter.  I am one of those unlucky individuals!  I have a short torso with longer femurs which creates a disadvantage in squatting.  It’s physics!  Check out this Article written by Dr. Ryan Debell of the Movement Fix for more information on the effects of anatomy on squatting mechanics.

Tip #1 to Improve Squat Form - Consider Sagittal Alignment

A simple way to consider the sagittal plane is to draw a line straight down the middle of the torso when looking at a squatter from the front.  Ideally, we should be able to squat up and down without deviating away from this line.  This becomes harder to do with the more weight you add.  There are three key areas that I look at when it comes to sagittal plane stability:

The anatomical planes of the body
  • Knee Alignment (bowing in or out)
  • Pelvic/Torso Weight Shifting
  • Foot/Ankle Pronation or Supination

As stated above, these faults may be due to anatomical variances or orthopedic conditions which makes a clinical evaluation even more important!  However, let’s just assume that these things are present due to weakness and/or motor control difficulties (the brain struggles to execute the right movement).  I like to use a technique called Reactive Neuromuscular Training (RNT) to trick the brain into the proper pattern.

Reactive Neuromuscular Training (RNT) to Improve the Squat

RNT is a simple technique.  It involves creating a stimulus that tries to push/pull a body part into the WRONG direction.  This requires a concerted effort to offset the bad position which leads to better firing pattern within the muscles.

Increased knee valgus while squatting
Improving squat form for knee valgus using a band

It is particularly helpful when your knees cave inwards (valgus) during the squat motion.  The goal of the band is to pull the knees inwards which requires more glute activation to maintain a neutral position.  This is a helpful technique any time you struggle to feel glute activity.

Weight shifting during a squat
Improving squat form for weight shifting by using a band

This technique can be applied in the same fashion for a weight shift problem.  Simply wrap a band around the torso and pull into the side of shifting.

Applying RNT to the foot and ankle is a little bit more complicated.  I first teach how to activate the foot.  Check out the video below on how to incorporate tripod stability.

Increased foot supination during a squat.
Improve squat form for increased supination using a band

I will now place a band under the big toe with the other end anchored by a weight.  As soon as my foot supinates (rolls outward), the band will snap away.

It’s all about creativity when using RNT.  There is no right or wrong way, only more effective ways.  Playing around with the approach will uncover better methods as you go along.

Tip #2 to Improve Squat Form – Maintaining a Neutral Spine

Everybody has heard of the “butt wink” when it comes to squatting.  It involves excessive lumbar flexion (rounding of the lower back) during the bottom part of the squat. 

Butt wink during a squat

It is certainly true that we do not want excessive flexion on a weight loaded lumbar spine.  However, I tend to see a problem over-correcting for the butt wink which results in over-extending the spine.

Over extension of the lower back when squatting

Extension/Compression Stabilization Strategy (ECSS)

Rich Ulm, DC, CSCS coins the dysfunction seen above as the Extension/Compression Stabilization Strategy (ECSS).  A perfectly functioning core will involve co-activation of the entire abdominal wall during movement.  We call this Intra-Abdominal Pressure (IAP).  IAP is created by the diaphragm and activates the core in an inside-out fashion.  For the record, the core is more than just the abs!  I had to get that off my chest.

Anti-Extension Exercises

With ECSS, the lower back muscles (erectors) tend to dominate the pattern and can lead to lower back pain, lower back tightness, and sub-optimal lifting patterns.  I like to use an anti-extension approach with exercise to help get the athlete to resist spinal extension during movement.  Below are some examples.  Other common anti-extension exercises are front planks, dead bugs (somewhat in the video above), and bird dogs.  Other ways to prevent lower back injuries can be found HERE.

Tip #3 to Improve Squat Form – Optimizing Torso Angle

I am sure many of you have looked at your peers at the gym and wondered how the hell they can squat “ass to grass” while keeping an upright torso.  There must be a trick!  I hate to break it to you, but these people are usually gifted with great mobility in the hips, knees, and ankles.  And these gifts are often genetic, or at least developed in our baby stages. 

To show different squat forms

The image above shows varying torso angles.  The lady in the front right is able to keep an upright spine at the bottom of the squat while the guy to the left has more of a forward lean.  I want to stress that the one to the left isn't bad. However, it can be optimized, especially if he has issues with pain or tightness.

Ankle Dorsiflexion

In my opinion, the most important factor in a perfect, deep squat is ankle dorsiflexion (bringing ankle/toes upward).  Tight ankles make it difficult to squat down with an upright torso.  Click Here for more about the specifics of dorsiflexion.  Ankle mobility can be improved.  But only to a certain degree.  Below are a few ways to work on ankle mobility.

Squat Modifications

Is there hope for those of us that don’t have freakish mobility or a prior history of injuries to the hips, knees, or ankles which limit our mobility?  My answer is Yes and No.  You can’t always stretch or lacrosse ball yourself to death to improve mobility (I’m looking at you Cross-fitters).  However, you can modify your lifts to make up for certain dysfunctions.  For example, lifting shoes can help neutralize limitations in ankle dorsiflexion.  Don’t have weightlifting shoes?  Just prop up your heels with something like a half-cut foam roller.

squatting with limited ankle dorsiflexion
Improving the squat by elevating the heels

The real reason why there are different squatting exercises (e.g. front squats, back squats, goblet squats) is to target specific muscle groups.  Your torso angle will change based on where you hold the weight.  Front squats will allow for a more upright torso angle and will target the quads more.  Back squats will involve a more forward angle and will bias the posterior chain more.

 I am a firm believer that you should marry the squat exercise for your body type.  Due to the length of my femurs and short torso, back squatting without excessive leaning forward is difficult for me.  I do much better with a goblet variation.  Plus, my knee doesn’t hate me as much.  For those of you that compete in weightlifting competitions, I suggest maximizing your mobility with treatment and optimizing core stability.

Improving Squat Form Conclusions

Evaluating one’s anatomy and mobility is vital to establishing a plan to improve their squat form.  Notice that your knees cave in or your shift to the right when squatting?  Incorporate some RNT to your world to help groove better patterns.  Do you struggle to maintain a neutral spine?  Work on diaphragm breathing and IAP for better core activation.  Is there difficulty with excessive forward leaning during the squat?  Look to optimize mobility in certain areas via treatment and exercises.  Or, better yet, modify your squat routine all together.

How Can Your Chesterfield Chiropractor Help?

Let’s say you don’t know where to start.  Let me help you out.  Your initial evaluation will be heavily detailed in screening out orthopedic pathology while also categorizing you into certain groups from a mobility perspective.  A functional movement assessment will be used to look at your global movement patterns such as the squat.  We look to develop a personalized treatment plan to not only eliminate pain, but also optimize function.  Oh, we also do FREE CONSULTS!  Help us help you by giving us a call today! (636) 728-8607.

An image showing ankle dorsiflexion and plantarflexion

The Importance of Ankle Dorsiflexion

What Is Ankle Dorsiflexion and Why Is It Important?

The act of bringing your toes upwards towards your shin is called ankle dorsiflexion.  It is important in many day to day tasks such as walking and squatting and happens to be a common dysfunction in the clinical world.  Ankle dorsiflexion can be limited for many different reasons but we will discuss the basics in this article.  For other issues related to the ankle, visit our ankle pain page.

What Causes Poor Dorsiflexion?

ankle dorsiflexion and plantar flexion

Two of the more common reasons for poor ankle mobility include restriction in the joint and/or tightness of the posterior leg muscles and achilles tendon.  However, the mechanisms for why these occur can vary.  

Genetics can play a role in your mobility as well as your previous injury history.  Individuals that have a history of consistent ankle sprains often have reduced ankle dorsiflexion.  This is especially true if the proper rehab principles were not applied at the time (which is common).  Bone spurs and other bony abnormalities can create impingement, and subsequently, loss of mobility.  Some things can be improved with treatment and exercise, while others cannot.

bruised ankle

OUCH!

Two Common Results of Poor Dorsiflexion

Poor dorsiflexion of the ankle can impact various functions in the human body.  Two of the more common functions are squatting and walking.  In addition to observing movement patterns, ankle dorsiflexion can be evaluated with some simple tests.   Click Here to learn how to perform the Weight-bearing Lunge Test.

Walking

Individuals that have mobility issues at the ankle may demonstrate an "early heel rise" while walking.  Since the ankle has limited dorsiflexion, the proper sequencing of our gait is off.  These people tend to walk with a "bouncy" gait.  In addition to poor ankle mobility, restriction of big toe extension is also likely in these cases.

Squatting

Many people wonder why they can't seem to squat deep while maintaining an upright spine.  They can't help but to lean forward as they squat down.  This is likely due to poor ankle dorsiflexion.  Other compensations observed during the squat include excessive pronation (flattening) of the foot and/or flaring/spinning out of the foot.  These are all examples of the body's workarounds at the foot and ankle and frequently occur in other regions and activities.  These compensations aren't necessarily a bad thing.  However, if they increase the risk of injury and/or decrease performance then they should be addressed.

squat with tight ankles
squatting with heels elevated

As you can see in the above images, I struggle to maintain an upright spine when squatting due to limited ankle mobility.  I typically have to compensate by flaring my feet outwards.  In the second picture, I am able to stay upright because I elevated my heels.  This is a quick fix to address poor ankle dorsiflexion but should not be the end goal.  Eventually, the person should learn to squat without the elevation (if their anatomy allows it).  I will point out, that the first image is not "WRONG".  I should be able to squat and pick up objects with no problem.  However, it is not OPTIMAL.  Once I start adding weight, such as with weight lifting, I may have an increased risk of injury.

How To Improve Ankle Mobility

We use a combination of myofascial treatment and joint manipulation/mobilization to improve ankle mobility.  This can involve tools and cupping or simply just our hands.  Functional exercises are implemented to address the mobility but also to improve stability and control. Below are some exercises drills that can be done on your own.

Passive Approach

Passive dorsiflexion of the ankle should be around 20 degrees (depending on the study). One way to improve ankle mobility involves passive stretching and/or mobilizing the ankle.  These are easy to perform and do not require special equipment.  I don't think that we are impacting the range of motion in the ankle with these drills but rather impacting the brain by making it comfortable to be in these new positions.  It is likely more neurological than structural.  In addition to the mobility drills below, you can stretch the gastroc (calf) and soleus muscles.

Active Approach

Active dorsiflexion while walking should be at least 10 degrees.  An active approach involves engaging the muscles that are responsible for ankle dorsiflexion.  We typically start the active drills in easier positions such as sitting and then gradually work our way up to weight bearing positions such as the squat.  The following drills incorporate a combination of concentric, eccentric, and isometric contractions of the ankle dorsiflexors.

How Can Your Chesterfield Chiropractor Help?

Wondering if your ankles may be a source of pain and/or dysfunction?  Give us a call (636-728-8607) to set up a free consultation.  We are your local Chesterfield Chiropractor that aims to not only get our patients out of pain fast, but optimize them so they never have to see us again!  That is the ultimate success.

Move Better. Perform Better. Better Than Before