• Timothy Steward

Squatting Mini Handbook

## Squat Depth - Part 1 - Coaching Cues ##


We all want to (or should be wanting to!) hit that depth in our squats and get to that parallel line (where your hip crease is in line with your knees).

This is part 1 of a 3 part miniseries on things to help you get there. Part 1 is going to cover Coaching Cues that are used and if they are right/wrong or interpreted incorrectly. Now while there are quite a lot of coaching cues out there as every coach might use different ones. I am going to focus on 4 main ones that go around that seem to be the most common.


The first one is “chest up”. This isn’t a bad cue, in fact it was quite a good one. The problem with this is it is interpreted incorrectly ALL the time. What this cue is designed to do is to stop people performing what has been nicknamed “the stripper squat”, where their hips shoot up when coming out of the bottom of the squat but the rest of their body doesn’t move. How this is interpreted incorrectly is people try to keep their chest vertical through the whole movement. What ends up happening is this causes their spine to go into something called Hyper-Extension. Because you are now in this position it will actually be quite difficult for you to squat to full depth due to the position your hips have been put into now.


Second coaching cue is “knees can’t travel over the toes”. Oh lord, this cue needs to be taken out back and shot. It has to be one of the worst cues out there. I’m not sure how/when this started but it consistently hangs around the fitness world. The problem with this is there is absolutely NOTHING wrong with your knees going over (past) your toes in a squat. In order for someone to achieve the coveted “ass to grass” squat their knees will have to go past their toes. With this in mind however, it is worthy to note that while knees over toes isn’t bad, we do not want to excessively push our toes past our knees.


Our third coaching cue isn’t so much a cue coaches use anywhere near as much as it should be, but a lot of people tend to do this in their squat. It very closely relates to “knees over toes” but is enough of a cue to warrant its own section, and this cue is “Break at the hips, not the knees”. So what this cue is meaning is the very first thing you do when about to start the decent in a squat is to push the hips back (break at the hips) slightly first. Starting the descent of a squat like this will help stop your knees excessively pushing past your toes (and reducing most knee pain associated with squatting). Like our second cue this movement isn’t to be performed to an excessive degree.


Our final cue today I am going to discuss today is “maintain a vertical trunk”. So this is in reference to being told to keep your trunk (torso) in a completely vertical position. This is a really bad cue for a couple of reasons. The main reason this is bad is due to physics (yes that subject no one took in high school). In order to make our squat the strongest and safest squat we can we need to keep the load (the barbell in this instance) in our centre of gravity. In the context of a squat this means the barbell and barbell movement path stays above the centre of our feet the whole time. If we were to try to keep our trunk in a completely vertical position, our centre of gravity would then shift backwards causing us to become off balance and fall backwards. As you can start to see, all these coaching cues discussed today relate to each other and work within each other in some way. Anterior (forward) trunk lean in a squat is normal and will differ from person to person depending on their personal bio-mechanics (tibia, femur and trunk length in relation to each other) as well as if they are squatting high bar or low bar.


Just remember that these are only a few cues, there are many others which might allude to the same thing but just worded differently. This was just my personal top pick of cues. Coming up in Part 2 I will delve into the mobility side of squats and ways to increase that.



## Squat Depth - Part 2 - Mobility ##


We all want to (or should be wanting to!) hit that depth in our squats and get to that parallel line (where your hip crease is in line with your knees).

This is part 2 of a 3 part miniseries on things to help you get there. Part 2 today we are going to cover mobility and mobility drills we can use. Like anything in fitness there is no “best” way here. What sort of mobility work you will need will always be independent to each and every person and based on their own needs. Something to note here as well, some of today’s mobility won’t necessarily help to increase your squat depth but should just help your squat feel more comfortable in general.


Ankle Flexion

Ankle flexion is the anatomical definition of your shin moving forward and creating a smaller angle (a1). In context of a squat, if we have poor ability to create ankle flexion then that will directly hamper our ability to squat to depth. When we attempt to squat deep our ankles are going to need to be able to sufficiently flex forward. Without sufficient mobility in our ankles, the sort of squat you can expect will be one where you come down to roughly halfway and then fall forward. If you were to watch side on you would see your ankles no longer bend forward but the rest of your body to try compensate. The fallout from this is you will find yourself very off balance and almost falling forward at the bottom of your squat.


Hamstring Tightness

This is a big myth out there. People will often say their inability to squat deep is due to their tight hamstrings. This anatomically can’t be the case. The role of the hamstrings are to extend the flex the knee AND extend the hips. What this translates to is there isn’t a point in the squat where the hamstrings are going to be fully stretched out as opposed to a movement like a Romanian Dead Lift.

Tight Hamstrings can however be a cause of Posterior Pelvic Tilt (PPT), or what has been called “butt-wink”. This is where the hips try to tuck underneath at the bottom of the squat. Now this is still a much debated issue in the coaching world, is this good or bad or should we not bother worrying about it? Like a lot of things when it comes to lifting, there is context behind it. Now excessive PPT is a bad thing and should be looked at being correctly instantly, but a tiny bit of PPT isn’t going to be inherently bad. It is however something that should be looked at being corrected.


Foot Tripod

This is something that is not commonly known or taught (I myself having only recently learnt about it properly). Making a tripod with your feet refers to keep your feet planted on the ground at all times. In a squat people can quite often become off balanced throughout their feet, their foot might roll in or they put all the weight through their toes, I’ve even seen toes lift up and it’s all through the heels. The Tripod helps fix this balance issue, because if your base or a building is not strong then the rest of the building will be weak (in this case the base being your feet).


But what exactly is the tripod? It involves your big toe, little toe and heel.


We also want to slightly scrunch our toes or try and grip the ground with our feet to ensure we have a nice arch. Another lessen known part of the arch of the foot interacts with the rest of the body.

“When we squat, we need the foot to be stable and maintain its natural arch. When we look at the main arch of our foot, we notice that it moves in relation to the rest of our lower body. If the ankles, knees and hips bow outward – the entire foot moves into a full arched position. When the ankle, knees and hips fall inward – the foot subsequently collapses and the arch flattens out.” Squat University

Shoulder Mobility

You won’t be able to get under a bar properly and with sufficient tightness if you lack shoulder mobility. When grabbing the bar and having it on your back, your hands should ideally be placed as close as possible to your shoulders WHILE being comfortable. The wider your hands sit the harder it will be for you to create tightness across your upper back. This can lead to bar instability when squatting which can lead to you becoming off balance. Being able to bring your hands in closer to your trunk will also help increase your body’s ability to produce tightness through the lats, traps and upper back. This leads to creating a “shelf” for the bar to sit on making the squat a lot more comfortable. Without this upper back tightness there is a very high chance at the bottom of the squat you won’t be able to maintain a more upright torso which is then going to lead into your back taking the load, something we most definitely do NOT want to happen.



Mobility Drills


Banded Ankle mobilisation


I am placing this up the top as the first go to exercise (on a personal ranking). This exercise directly targets the area between the Talus and Tibia bones. What we need to do is grab a resistance band, tie it off at one end. We are then going to step into the band and place it directly over the talus bone, if we put the band up too high this exercise will do absolutely nothing at all.

We are then going to put our foot on a raised box, plate or bench so the band is pulling back and down and go far enough out that the band is actively pulling backwards. Once in this position just lean forward as far as possible while ensuring your ankle stays flat. You want to try to apply some pressure to your leg, whether that be from you leaning on it or grabbing a kettlebell and putting that on top of your knee.

Now there are two ways to do this. The first way is just holding this position at the most extreme position your mobility will allow for 20-30 seconds OR you can perform 20 reps of moving in and out.

Calves Now that the front of your ankles have been fixed it’s time to shift focus to the calves. One of the main functions of the calves is plantarflexion (increasing the angle between the foot and the leg). If either the Gastrocnemius or Soleus are tight then this can also hamper your ability to squat deep.

This first fix would be to try foam rolling your calves to help address any soft tissue soreness/tightness in your calves. Put all your weight onto one calf at a time and use your other leg to apply a little more pressure on top. Slowly move up and down the calf and when you encounter a tight spot, hold the foam roller on that part of the calf for at least 30 seconds.


After we have foam rolled the next objective is to then stretch the calf out. This can be done practically anywhere. All you need to do is lower yourself slowly and let the calf get that big stretch in at the bottom of the movement.

I recommend holding this stretch for 10 seconds and doing this 5-10 times (depending on how your calves feel)




Shoulders

We can’t forget these guys. Your shoulders while indirectly wont influence your squat depth, they will affect your squat in quite a big way. Doesn’t matter if you are performing high bar or low bar squats if you have mobility issues in your shoulders then it will be difficult to generate tightness through the bar and upper back.

When we squat, we want our hand placement (ideally) to be as close to your body as possible while being comfortable. However, in saying this, we don’t want to be too far away from our bodies. If our hands are too far away from us it can lead to instability through the bar because we are unable to generate any real tightness. When squatting we want to “force” the bar into upper back/traps rather than just having it sit there. To do this we need to be able to “pull” the bar down and drive our elbows back, and from personal experience, if you have any mobility issues in your shoulders this is very difficult and can often feel pain.


One very simple exercise I prescribe to people is the “Shoulder-Breakers”. I’ve used this one for years now in my warmup routine for squat day. This can also be performed with a broomstick but I prefer the band as you get more out of it. Using a band there is constant resistance from pulling the band apart, this has the added effect of working muscles surrounding the shoulder.

What we are doing with this exercise is pulling the band apart so are arms are locked out. We then want to move the band overhead and as far down behind your back as possible WHILE your arms not losing that locked out position. You may not be able to get all the way over and around at first, but as always just go to where you can get to and work on it from there.

The second exercise I like to directly after the “shoulder-breakers” is figure 8’s. Holding the band apart again we will use it to draw figure 8’s around our body. This can be quite a difficult one in learning how to do this, but once you figure it out its easy. Alternately you could just make windmills with your arms, the point here is to just get the joints moving. Again the band adds that little bit extra to it.





Latissimus Dorsi

Your lats can also play an important part of your squat. Apart from helping to create that upper back tightness they can also affect how your bar sits across your back. If you have one lat that is tighter than the other side this might show through in how the bar sits. Let’s say for example your left lat is tight but the right side isn’t, when you try to squat the bar may actually angle down to the left.

This is because that lat is so tight it’s constantly pulling down. The biggest problem here is that there is a very high chance you will not feel this ever happening outside of extreme tightness. But it may be one of the reasons why you tend to shift to one side when coming out of the bottom of a squat sometimes (although there are other and more prominent reasons for this).


To stretch out your lats this is a super easy stretch. You can do this with or without a band. You just need to hold onto something, slightly bend over and try to “pull” your arm and lat apart. If performing this correctly you will feel your whole lat pulling all the way down the side of your body.



## Squat Depth - Part 3 - Mechanical ##


We all want to (or should be wanting to!) hit that depth in our squats and get to that parallel line (where your hip crease is in line with your knees).

This is part 3 of a 3 part miniseries on things to help you get there. Part 3 today we are going to cover more mechanical reasons. Like anything in fitness there is no “best” way here. This is where we start to get a little more technical and break it down a bit more. But don’t worry there will be pictures.


Core Strength / Stability


Stripper Squat

Now you may or may not have heard this term being used before. When someone talks about a stripper squat, what they are referring to is when someone is coming out of the bottom of their squat and their hips shoot up first and then the torso catches up (Hench the term stripper). The reason this takes place could be a couple of reasons. It could be from a strength imbalance between glutes and quads, bad movement pattern or even something as simple as bad coaching queues.



Let’s first address the strength imbalance between your posterior chain (glutes/hamstrings) and quadriceps.

All these muscles need to work together in order to achieve a good ascent in your squat. When the posterior chain is more powerful it will be hard for your hips and torso to raise together. This is when the ascent of your squat turns into the stripper squat. It is worth noting however that if your quads are stronger than your posterior chain then it is not an opposite reaction. You will more than likely stand up quite well from the bottom of a squat. Now this sounds good in theory, but in practice that imbalance could come to affect you in other areas of your training or possibly lead to injury concerns.


Secondly there could be a bad movement pattern causing this. What I mean by movement pattern is this. You have squatted like this for so long that it is just engrained into your body to squat like that. It’s not that there is a strength imbalance or something else, it’s just purely that’s what your body knows to do. This is however an easy but sometimes length fix. It just requires you to retrain how you move in a squat. This would very likely mean dropped your weights right back down, possibly to even a bar on its own or bodyweight and forcing yourself to squat properly without going back to the stripper squat.


Lastly bad coaching queues. Unfortunately there are coaches out there who just give out bad advice/coaching queues. A very common one is they tell people to squat to ass to grass no matter what (blatantly ignoring lack of mobility which can lead to other issues). Rather than guiding someone with a good queue like lead with the head and shoulders they just yell “Up! Up! Up! Up!” Queues like that do nothing for beginners when squatting. All they will hear is to get up no matter what. The reality is there are numerous coaching queues out there, some will work with certain people but not with others. It is all about trying to find what works best for you. If you have a coach and they are yelling something out and it is not making sense, then speak up and say something. Don’t just sit there trying to blindly follow what they say.


Knee Valgus

Oh I like this one. This is one of my favourite areas to help address with peoples squats. So what is knee valgus exactly?

Knee valgus is what we call it when your knees collapse inwards at any time during your squat. This could be on the ascent or descent, valgus is valgus. Knee Valgus in the squat is causes by one main thing. Glutes.

Now this can be broken down and expanded a little more. It could be from a weakness in the glutes in relation to your quads, could be something called glute amnesia, maybe like above with the stripper squat its purely a movement patterning issue.

A really simple but effective way to help correct these issues (strength imbalance will take a bit more work) is use a booty band when squatting. You might have seen social media influencers using these all the time for their squats, but despite what they appear to be doing the band itself has been shown to not produce a considerable difference in glute activation in TRAINED individuals (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5534145/), but what it has been shown (both in studies and anecdotally) is to help increase your glute activity in untrained individuals as well as increasing their physical response to the band.

Personally I use the band with my clients to help with proprioception (perception or awareness of the position and movement of the body) when squatting. Having a band around the distal thighs (just above the knees) helps to increase the awareness of the individual squatting and reinforce a movement pattern of external rotation through the glute medius (think knees out).


Weak / Underactive Glutes

If even with the band on you are still finding your knees are wanting to collapse, that could be leading to a problem that your posterior chain is just weak. This is when you would need to look at putting accessory exercises into your training program to help bring up the strength of your glutes/posterior chain. Great exercises to do this would be glute bridges (both banded and non-banded), hip thrusts (both banded and non-banded), Romanian deadlifts, stiff leg deadlifts.


These would have to be my top of the chart exercises to specially focus and strength the glutes. You could look at doing something like pause and box squats. But I look at it like this, if you don’t have a good base to begin with then those sort of accessory exercises aren’t going to have much benefit. From a movement patterning yes they would be fantastic, but if the problem is just strength then no.

Following on from under strength glutes we could also possibly be looking at a strength imbalance between quads and glutes. If our quads are far more dominant this will cause them to want do more work and push our knees inwards creating that knee valgus issue. A good way to tell if your quads are doing more of the work in a squat is if you are constantly having to foam roll and trigger point your ITB Band (Iliotibial band) before every leg session

or just every day in general. While this length of tissue helps to extend, abduct and rotate your hip, it should also be being helped out other muscles. If the ITB Band is solely doing the


work it will be extremely tight and painful and can possibly lead to ITB Syndrome (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iliotibial_band_syndrome).

A big take home here when it comes to knee valgus is if left unchecked it can lead to quite bad injury concern. As such this is something which should be addressed and fixed as soon as possible.


Trunk Lean

Should we stay perfectly upright when squatting? Should we be bent over at 90 degrees? How far should we bend over in a squat?

The answer is…. It depends. How much trunk lean you get in a squat will always depend on the individual squatting. It will depend on if you are squatting high bar, low bar or front squat. It will then depend further upon the relative lengths of your Tibia Femur and trunk lengths, depth of sockets in your hip sockets as well as hip and ankle mobility.

Quite a lot right?



There is no simple answer for this one. It is also even harder to put down into words on how to work this out. This is something you will have to just play around with on your own unless you have a professional next to you who is watching and assessing. But in general terms if your Tibia is longer than your femur you will have a more upright trunk. Whereas it will be opposite if your Tibia is shorter than your Femur.

Now again, it’s going to be extremely difficult to work this out on your own. My advice would be to just squat in whatever way feels comfortable for you. You will be able to feel it out. If you try keep a very upright torso but then feel like you are always falling backwards then put a little more forward trunk lean in there instead.


However you look when squatting, whether it be more forward trunk lean or more vertical trunk, there is one variable that we want to stay the same, and that is the bar path. We want the bar to always move in a directly vertical line that stays in our center of gravity. To make this simpler, our center of gravity should always be in the middle of our feet.

So now depending on your body you will have to either lean forward or stay more upright. But if that bar stays in that invisible line then your squat will feel good regardless.






Article written by Timothy Steward

· UFQ Strength & Conditioning Coach

· UFQ Sports Nutritionist



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