I’ve written about proper squat and deadlift form, but today we’ll talk about how to work your way into a deeper squat. (I’ve also written about how it’s not necessary to squat all the way down – in fact, it can lead to injury if you’re not ready for that).
However, it’s important to work on mobility if you want to perfect your squat form and get a bit deeper each time. When I first started lifting, I’d have a bench under me and I couldn’t even squat to the bench! Usually, not being able to get low enough has to do with lack of flexibility – probably in your ankles or hips. PS – if you want to work on ankle flexibility and dorsiflexion, try this exercise. My PT had me do this for my shin splints during half marathon training and it really helped. For me, a tight Achilles and lack of dorsiflexion is/was causing tight calves which leads to shin pain.
Anyway, let’s get into a few things you can do to work on your squats. Let’s start with the warm-up:
Warm up your hips and glutes.
This seems like a no-brainer, but I’ve seen people show up to the gym and just start squatting. Yikes. Take 10 minutes to warm up before you hit the squat rack. First do some cardio to get your heart rate up, then start doing dynamic stretches for your hips, like lunges (where your knee is on the floor and you move forward to stretch the hip, but then come back up, then go back into it, etc. so it’s dynamic, not just you holding a stretch). Do side lunges as well to hit it from a different angle. Do a few static standing lunges to warm up your quads and glutes – nice and slow.
Roll out your calves.
In order to get your calves ready, do the drill above, and foam roll your calves. If you have a partner, take a wooden stick/pole (some gyms have them some don’t, if not just use the foam roller) and ask them to roll it over your lower calf, closer to your Achilles. They’ll be able to apply pressure in different areas you may not be able to if you foam roll yourself. You want to get the blood flowing in these areas and get them loose, especially if dorsiflexion is what is causing you issues with squatting.
Okay let’s move to the actual squatting:
Set a bench or box behind you.
You won’t be doing box squats (which is a specific technique different than regular squats), but you’ll just be squatting down and trying to tap the bench with your butt. If you can’t get down that low, then you know you’ve got some work to do. This also gives you a starting point. Once you ARE able to tap the bench, you know that you’ve been improving and are getting better at squatting.
Put plates under your heels.
I had clients who would start with 25 lb. plates (thicker) and work their way down to just a 5 lb plate (very thin). Putting plates under your heels helps with the dorsiflexion issue, since now your heels are elevated and will give you a bit more range of motion. As I was reading a forum about this, I saw some opinions about this being impractical because “you’re supposed to be squatting with heels planted and driving through the heels.” Yes, that is true, but if you don’t have the range of motion how will you do this? As with anything else, this tip is a way to help you to progress to that level, similar to how using an assisted pull-up machine helps you progress to a pull-up.
Anyway, got side tracked, use a certain plate for 2 weeks, then try to use one that’s thinner, and work your way down. Obviously, you need to be working on mobility during this time as well. Simply using plates won’t improve your dorisflexion. Make sure you’re actively foam rolling your calves and Achilles and doing drills like the one I linked to above. Here are more drills from trainer Tony Gentilcore (scroll down a bit). My PT had recommended doing that drill whenever possible throughout the day, but a minimum of 2-3 times a day.
Do front squats.
Front squats require you to have the barbell on the front/meaty part of your shoulders. If you don’t have access to a barbell, you can do goblet squats instead. You’ll find that with front squats you will probably be able to get a bit deeper than with back squats. This is because of the angle of your hips and back during the squatting.
Throw these into your routine and focus on your depth. As always, make sure you’re keeping your core tight and “chest up, shoulders back.”
Don’t be embarrassed if you’re only squatting the barbell to start. I started there too. It’s better to use light weights as you fix your mobility than try to do 100 lbs. and have awful form that will lead to injury. Use light weight and really focus on the exercise. Feel yourself bracing your core and going through the motions. Go nice and slow to determine how low you can get and get a tiny bit lower each week. Throughout the weeks, you’ll not only gain flexibility but you’ll also be able to start increasing your weight load bit by bit.
Are you able to do squats no problem or did you have to work your way up to them? They’re a great exercise when done properly!
How do you warm up before a lifting session?
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