By: Jenna Rubin CPT, CSCS
Reasons to squat from most important to least important (but they are all important):
Because it makes you happy, gain strength in the muscles of the core, spine, glutes, and legs in order to ultimately kick butt at everything else you do in life, improve bone density to prevent osteoporosis, maintain the ability to sit down and get up from the toilet (actually this might be number one), ability to get in and out of the front seat of your husband's lamborghini (if he doesn’t own a lamborghini I don’t see any point of getting in and out of the car), and last but absolutely least gaining a fantastic booty and radically ripped legs.
A common misconception in strength training is that the larger a muscle is, the more important it is in developing healthy movement patterns. On the contrary, in order for our large muscles to produce force effectively the assistance of several small stabilizing muscles is needed. Strong stabilizing muscles of the spine and pelvis, combined with proper technique, and optimal range of motion will lead to gains in strength, while preventing injury during exercise. I believe that strength training should be part of an overall wellness plan, which aids in injury prevention, health maintenance, weight loss as well as strength gains. Squats have far more functional value than just creating aesthetically pleasing legs. I would like to be squatting well into my 100s - yes I plan to live that long, but I know that I need to take care of my body as a whole in order to wreak the long term benefit of exercise. In addition to personal training I work in a physical therapy clinic as an exercise specialist. Sadly, chronic injuries amongst people who went too hard for too long performing the wrong exercises and not enough of the right ones were a good percentage of our patients. Ironically, we prescribed exercises to these patients which were helpful in alleviating the problems of poor exercise habits in the past. This is why performing the right exercises from the beginning is so important. Any person in the gym can throw you under a squat rack and tell you to max out. The point in seeking the assistance of a fitness professional is to reach your fitness goals in a safe atmosphere. A personal trainer has an eclectic knowledge base in exercise physiology, psychology, anatomy, and biomechanics. We know where you should be mobile, where you should be stable, and where you need to improve to be the strongest person you can be physically. We also know how to motivate you and make exercise more enjoyable!!
Today, I am going to discuss eight simple exercises anyone can add to their fitness routine in order to improve the functionality of their squat. One common mistake I see in many clients is knee valgus - the tendency of the knees to collapse inwards. Knee valgus puts a tremendous strain on the ligaments and attachments of the knee along with the joint itself. In fact knee valgus is the exact movement that will cause your AcL to tear. Even when individuals understand proper technique, sometimes their glutes are simply not strong enough to keep their knees from caving inwards. Strengthening the glute medius ( the muscle responsible for stabilizing the pelvis and abducting the leg) aids clients in gaining control over knee position. These two exercises are highly effective for strengthening the glute medius. There are several supine variations of glute medius exercises but I prefer standing exercises when improving the squat.
1. Physioball Abduction
In addition to knee valgus, many clients have trouble maintaining a neutral spine when performing the squat. Many individuals move into a lordotic position, and fail to engage the muscles of their abdominals. In fact many people are instructed that they should significantly arch their lower back when performing squats. The cause of lordosis (arched back) may simply be not understanding how to tilt the pelvis into a neutral position (pelvic tilt motor control) or could be caused by weakness in the abdominals - specifically the transverse abdominis (spine stabilizer). Trivia: Should you be squatting heavy weight, when your spine is having trouble stabilizing your own body weight?? - I know it’s a tough question you can answer it later. The next two exercises are aimed at strengthening the core, specifically the transverse abdominus as well as learning the proper position of the spine during the squat:
3.) Pelvic Tilt (Perform 3 Sets of 10)
4.) Dead Bugs (Perform 3 sets of 10)
Thirdly, tight ankles are a common issue which can hinder individuals from reaching proper depth in their squat. A common squat mistake indicating poor ankle mobility are the heels lifting off the floor before the thighs are parallel with the floor. Tightness at the ankle can lead to injuries of the knees and hips because these areas will try to make up for the movement a person is not achieving at the ankles. Two great exercises for improving ankle mobility are:
5.) Calf Foam Rolling - foam rolling is a great warm up exercise because it has been shown to increase range of motion without decreasing muscle force
6.) Half kneeling ankle dorsiflexion - knee touching the wall would indicate good mobility
This last set of exercises are aimed at decreasing tightness in the hips. Many individuals sit at desks all day, in front of the tv at home, and get little movement at the hip joint. I am currently writing this article while holding a split, and whenever I try to watch tv I just end up looking at new fitness exercises on my phone. I also move all day everyday because I am 100% aware that when I die I can sit FOREVER. Nevertheless, tight hips may cause someone to not reach optimal range of motion throughout the squat. Tight hips can lead to low back injury because the back will try to perform the movement that should be occurring at the hip. Tight hip flexors can lead to excessive anterior pelvic tilt, which puts the spine into lordosis. Two excellent exercises for improving hip mobility are:
7.) Piriformis ( the muscle your sciatic nerve runs through) foam rolling and static stretch (Hold 3X for 30 sec on each side)
8.)Half kneeling hip flexor stretch - make sure to not arch the low back when performing this exercise. Stretch should be felt in the back hip flexor. Hold 3x for 30 sec on each side.
There you have it, eight exercises to improve the functionality of your squat. If you would like to learn more about injury prevention through exercise I will be hosting several injury prevention seminars at Pacific Beach Training in San Diego, CA this year. At the end of the seminar you will learn about the anatomical structures of the body which are most susceptible to injury, master several exercises used to build up strength and mobility in these areas, as well as understand how to program these exercises into your complete fitness routine.
Bell, D. R., Oates, D. C., Clark, M. A., & Padua, D. A. (2013). Two-and 3-dimensional knee valgus are reduced after an exercise intervention in young adults with demonstrable valgus during squatting. Journal of athletic training, 48(4), 442.
Hayashi, S., Katsuhira, J., Matsudaira, K., & Maruyama, H. (2016). Effect of pelvic forward tilt on low back compressive and shear forces during a manual lifting task. Journal of Physical Therapy Science, 28(3), 802–806. http://doi.org/10.1589/jpts.28.802
Healey, K. C., Hatfield, D. L., Blanpied, P., Dorfman, L. R., & Riebe, D. (2014). The effects of myofascial release with foam rolling on performance. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 28(1), 61-68.
Larson, G. (2014). Examining ways to improve ankle mobility during the overhead squat lift (Doctoral dissertation, University of Delaware).
Layne, J. E., & Nelson, M. E. (1999). The effects of progressive resistance training on bone density: a review. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 31(1), 25-30.