Five Innovative Ways to Clean Up Your Squat


Now this isn’t a set in stone thing.  Obviously everyone has their own opinion.  This is a simple guideline I use for cleaning up the squat.  I have tried to keep it simple.  If you have questions feel free to email me.  I have an open door policy and with email the door is always open.  That being said, the following are five ideas:

  1. Remove the Hamstrings
  2. Groove the Pattern
  3. Mobilize Blockages
  4. Lengthen Barriers
  5. Refine Proprioception

I once knew a woman who couldn’t pick herself up off the floor.  Her leg muscles were so weak that she couldn’t, physically, lift herself up off the floor.  She didn’t know this was a bad thing.  In all honesty, this woman thought it was normal for her age.  Weakness is NEVER normal, not even at the ripe old age of 38!  You read that correctly, the woman was 38 years of age.  She had no leg strength, no core strength and was in amazement that it wasn’t normal.  It gets better… She didn’t understand how that was causing her knee pain and her hip pain.  A loss of strength is a loss of life.  A person, who is losing their strength, is without a doubt in my mind, losing their life.  Day by day, gravity begins to win.  Once gravity wins, the joints loose and when the joints loose, the pain begins.

That was a hard tangent but a testimony that all my patients hear today.  In fact that woman is now doing lunges with weight on her back.  Her recovery is nothing short of a miracle.  Why do I bring this up?  Because when you begin your battle against gravity, I want you to do it correctly.  Many of you are doing it right.  Many of you are in between and have the potential to do it right.  I trust that this article may give you a small boost in the right direction.  To err is human to squat right is divine.

Let’s start with removing the hamstrings.  The text-book muscles to fire during the ascension phase of the squat are as follows:

  1. Gluteal Group
  2. Quadriceps Group

As many of you know when these are not working properly other muscles like to help out.  The human body is absolutely amazing.  It will find a way.  Just because you are not using your hips correctly does your body stop you, no, it will find a way.  In survival mode this is great; in repetition mode (i.e. the gym) this is bad.  Eventually this leads to wear and tear and micro-trauma.  Ultimately this causes pain and disruption to daily life.  The question is, “what muscles do we use instead?”  More times than not we use the following muscles as compensatory muscles to the above:

  1. Hamstrings
  2. Lumbar Spine

So how do we know if we are using too much hamstring?  Easy, follow the steps below.

  1. Perform a back bridge
  2. Feel you hamstrings during the motion
  3. If they are active throughout the motion then you are hamstring dominant.

Great, I am hamstring dominant.  What do I do next?  I suggest three things.

  1. Learn how to squeeze the gluts all on their own, nothing else should contract.  Easier said than done, just try it.
  2. Perform multiple back bridges with a band around your knees (pulling your knees apart)
  3. Stretch (PNF) the life out of your hamstrings (poor squatting is rarely a by-product of inflexibility, more than not it’s a strength or stability issue).

Double check your back bridge.  Don’t be discouraged if it’s not perfect, it can take a few days or a few weeks to get the gluteal groups firing right.

Re-Groove the Pattern

This is simply through figuring out what to correct (keep it simple) and repeating it over and over and over.  I personally find that I can get someone that isn’t overly weak in stability or overly tight around the hips, to become “re-grooved” in around 1-2 weeks time.  I use the following protocol:

  1. Modified Hip Hinging
  2. Back Bridging Repetition
  3. Sit to Stand
  4. Loaded Sit to Stand
  5. Serious Business (Squatting, Dead lifting, Hip Thrusters, Ect)

Depending on the persons total capacity (their ability NOT to fatigue or feel pain) depends on the reps however I like sticking to a total of 50-75 broken up into multiple sets.  If they are strong in another area we may insert the re-grooving into their program as a transition or superset.   For a simple example:

1A. Press Ups 12 x 3
2A. Standing Rows 12 x 3
3A. Sit to Stand 20 x 3

Another thing that is important to me is avoiding to OVER coach.  Over coaching for me is giving too many cues and too much information.  Give them one command at a time.  Let them master it and then correct the next invasive thing.  Start by correcting the most disastrous or potentially harmful error first then work from there.  For me, it’s usually correcting a large amount of spinal flexion.  If their eyes look glazed over or they are getting frustrated, rethink your strategy.  My approach for fixing spinal flexion is two cues (verbal and tactile).

  1. Verbal: “Keep your chest up and look straight ahead”
  2. Tactile: Pressure on the top of the chest (one or two fingers) and pressure on the lower back (hand).  Guide them into neutrality.

Again, the key is to break habits.  We are creatures of habit and we learn through repetition and mastery.  Empowering the client is so important.  I know that their form looks bad at first but I know what it will look like when we are finished as well.  I find some trainers are particularly good at overstating their assumption of what others are thinking.  For instance, I spoke with a trainer who felt embarrassed when she was training a client who had poor form.   This limited her ability to coach properly and resulted in termination of the exercise or movement in general.  I told her that you can’t expect your client to be perfect all at once.  It takes time, you can’t speed nature up or slow it down but you can improve its efficiency.  Trust what you are doing, don’t worry about anyone else.  She took her client a few steps back and gave the client instruction on why they were going back a few steps.  Two weeks later her client looked better than ever.

Mobilizing Blockages

This is important to complete prior to stretching itself and if you have an irritated joint, you will know why.  Stretching into a barrier with an irritated joint surface is painful.  If the joint is irritated because it’s not moving properly, then fix it prior to stretching.   The muscles and joints talk to the brain and each other.  They tell each other where they are in space.  This allows us to move and be efficient in our environment.  Without this unique communication system we would constantly be in a state of sloppy movement.

Three major areas to look at

  1. Ankles (need around 10-20 degrees of dorsiflexion)
  2. Hips (need around 80-90 degrees of pure flexion and 10-15 of pure extension)
  3. Thoracic Spine (in theory needs 25 degrees extension)
  4. Arm Flexion (should be around 170-180 degrees without back extension)

This is a generalization but should get you thinking.  If you or your client is lacking, have it check or treated.

Lengthening Barriers

What’s stopping you from getting all the way through the movement in a correct manner?  Tight hamstrings, tight hip flexors, poor joint stability?  Now there is a major emphasis put on tight hamstrings causing lower back pain and poor squatting technique but much of this is nothing other than circumstantial evidence.  I have worked with thousands of patients with tight, weak, long, missing, damaged, atrophies, and inconsistent hamstring musculature.  Number one reason is poor neurological skill.  The nervous system isn’t telling them how to co-ordinate the movement.  This goes for the abdomen, hips, knees, you name it.  They are not communicating properly.

The four point test for muscle length:

Modified Thomas Test:  Looks at Hip Flexors, ITB, Quads, Adductors

Leg should drop 10 degrees below horizontal (Hip Flexors)

Leg shouldn’t abduct any more than 15 degrees (ITB)

Leg shouldn’t adduct any more than 15 degrees (Adductors)

Lower Leg should be able to flex 100-105 degrees without hip flexion (Quad)

Active Straight Leg Raise:  Looks at active hamstring flexibility

Hip should reach 90 degrees

No lumbar flexion

No hip tilting

Standard Ankle Stretch

Stretching in Calf before 10-15 degrees (tight calves)

Tightness in front of ankle (under mobile ankle joint)

Thoracic Extension Test

Hands/Thumbs Should Touch Wall/Floor Behind Client

Lumbar spine doesn’t extend (Thoracic or Latissimus Dorsi Tightness)

I find that when any of these muscles are tight it’s usually because something else is weak or overused.  I have tested this concept clinically over the years.  I find that I only need to PFS or PNF stretch during the time strength is returning to the under facilitated muscle.  After that general maintenance is quite easy (dynamic work, static stretching).

Another point to note:

A muscle may be neurologically tight or anatomically tight.  If it is neurologically tight you will see major improvement in muscle length after a MET technique (PIR,PNF,PFS).  However, if it is actually (physically) shortened, it won’t dramatically change after the isometric contraction.  In this case you will need to be more aggressive with the muscle.  You should see a reasonable change in 2 weeks with 6 sessions a week (2-5 minutes each session), 1-2 sets of 2-3 reps of stretching (holding each 15-30 seconds).

Refine Proprioception

This is personally my favourite.  I feel it really give an individual a unique edge to their movement.  We have five primary senses:

  1. Touch
  2. Taste
  3. Smell
  4. Hearing
  5. Sight

I want to use an analogy here.  When your computer is running slow you may hit “alt+ctrl+del” to enter the task manager.  When you are there you usually discover there is a multitude of applications running that you don’t need running.  Closing these unwanted or unnecessary applications thus improves the speed of the computer by freeing up memory.  I want to do the same with my client’s memory and ability.  I want to remove unnecessary input into the brain to be more efficient in my learning.  However, the opposite is true as well.  I want to add what may boost power and performance.  I may add an application to help do that.  If I translate this into my coaching, I get something like so:

Touch:  Try to clean up input from the foot to the brain by removing the shoes.  I suggest changing your mind once you start loading up with weight (for obvious safety reasons).

Taste: Try and reduce this.  Often clients will be chewing gum or eating a mint.  Have them trash it and deal with their bad breath.

Smell: Reduce, No flatulence

Hearing: Try and reduce their auditory input.  Music and other people’s noises are distracting.  Ever try to study in a noisy place?  Libraries are quite for a reason.

Sight: Reduce by having the client close their eyes.  You will immediately see how clear the joints are communicating to the brain.

Now I realize I am being humorous on a few but the truth is removing some of these, will dramatically improve performance.  I save this for last.  Obviously if a person has their ears plugged they won’t hear my coaching.  However, in the clinic, there is no music during training.  I want my client focused on the task at hand.  The client doesn’t mind because saving time (being more efficient) saves money.

I suggest that after things are looking really good, remove sight and hearing.  It’s amazing what starts to surface.  When the eyes are closed and the ears are blocked, its remove heaps of chatter from the brain.  Now the joints will be communicating directly with the brain.  You will see that they have been shouting and yelling, not getting the complete point across.  This incomplete message comes through as wobbling, miscalculating distance, and potentially falling (so be aware of sharp edges).

In summary, I believe that these five points will really help redefine your squat.  If your squat is already perfect (in your mind) try the above anyways, I am sure there is room for improvement.  Like Gray Cook said, “practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practices makes perfect”.  We are all learning, all the time and while this isn’t ment to be a definitive guide I believe it may help.

-Anthony Close

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About doctoranthony
As a spinal rehabilitation specialist with over 7 years clinical experience in the areas of - Spinal Manipulative Therapy, Active & Passive Spinal Rehabilitation, Functional Movement and Orthopedic Assessment, Strength and Conditioning Coaching, Fitness Programming, Business Development, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Motivational Interviewing and Consultancy - you can feel safe knowing that I understand the worry and concern surrounding spinal pain. This is why self-efficacy lies at the heart of my practice. For more info: nz.linkedin.com/in/anthonyclose

2 Responses to Five Innovative Ways to Clean Up Your Squat

  1. Pingback: Five Innovative Ways to Clean Up Your Squat (via Doctor Anthony’s Insight) «

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