This Is Why You Can't Squat Heavy

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On its face, the squat looks like it would be the easiest thing in the world: Grab some weight, squat down, stand up, make gains. But the squat is a complex movement that takes a lot of practice to do right, especially if you want to squat heavy. And chances are, if your squat hasn't gotten better no matter how hard you try, something is probably out of whack with your form. Let’s break down what you should be looking for throughout your body when performing a perfect squat.

Pelvis

A great squat starts with the hips. The position and mobility of your pelvis will set you up to succeed. When performing a squat, the main thing you want to look for is a neutral pelvis. What this means is that the front and back of your pelvis are in a straight line. To check this, stand in front of the mirror and check your ilium alignment. Your pelvis is made of the ilium and sacrum. The ilium, if you can visualize the pelvis, is the “Mickey Mouse ears” of the structure. Put one finger on the bony prominence at the front of your hip — the anterior superior iliac spine, or ASIS — and the other on your back, finding the fleshy center of your glutes. Then trace upward until you run into another bony landmark, the posterior superior iliac spine, or PSIS. Now repeat on the other side.

This neutral positioning sets the rest of your body up to have proper form when squatting. If you are not in neutral, tight hip flexors may be the culprit. Often I’ve seen tight hip flexors move your pelvis into an anterior tilt. This is a problem because it limits your abdominals and glutes from engaging during the squat. Since your glutes are the primary mover in a squat, meaning the main muscle performing the movement, you need to ensure that your glutes are engaging properly. Without your glutes engaging, you are move likely to overuse the smaller secondary muscles in your low back and your risk of injury increases.

If after examining your pelvis you find it is off balance, try a hip flexor release:

  • Lie on your stomach and place a lacrosse ball just below your hipbone.
  • Lean a tolerable amount of weight onto the lacrosse balls.
  • Bend the knee on the side of the release back to a 90-degree angle. Swing your leg side to side in a tolerable range of motion.
  • Repeat this in 30 second to two minute’s intervals.

Spine

You want to ensure your torso is in an upright position and your spine is straight. When performing a squat, examine your posture in a mirror and be mindful If you start to bend forward too much in your mid or low back. Performing a squat in this position doesn’t allow bigger muscles like your lats and lower traps to assist in the movement. Instead, it passes the work to paraspinals. If your paraspinals become overworked, it often results in your abdominals shutting down and setting off a whole chain of musculoskeletal imbalances that can lead to injury.

When you go to squat, pretend like you are going to sit in a chair. This helps you maintain the ideal upright posture. If you still can’t seem to get there, try holding a weight with both hands positioned at your chest first. Make sure you actively squeeze your shoulder blades down and back to help engage your lower traps and lats.

Knees

When squatting, pay close attention to the position of your knees. The knees should be in a straight line with your second toe and should not collapse in. If your knee is too far forward or collapsed in, you're setting yourself up to pain in the future. You’ll know your knees are in the correct position if you feel your inner quad engaging during the squat.

Feet

Keep your feet straight and make sure you are placing the majority of your weight through your heels and your forefoot, including your big toe, to ensure you allow your medial arch to help support you. Foot mobility is important when squatting. If you lack mobility in your foot, your arch will collapse or you will place too much weight in the outside of your foot. When this happens, you're telling the outside of your leg to work and you won't be able to engage your glutes, which again is the main muscle that should be working.