- Focus on your knee position
- Don’t overextend the spine
- Focus on your mobility
As a coach, I’ve seen all types of athletes walk through the doors of my gym. From the Olympic level athlete chasing their dreams to the stay-at-home mom of two trying to stay in shape to keep up with her kids. On paper, these two athletes couldn’t be further apart, but in reality, there is at least one thing they have in common: the need to squat!
In fact, there is no movement that will give you a greater bang for your buck than the squat will. Every manner of athlete benefits from squatting no matter their skill level or athletic history. Besides being an incredible strength building movement in and of itself, the ability to squat, and squat well, create the foundation in which the majority of more complex movements are built.
However, before any athlete can confidently and safely begin to reap all the benefits from squatting, a strong foundation must be in place. It’s one of the first things that should be addressed with new members. Treating squat deficiencies is honestly a case-by-case endeavor.
As a coach, you have to be willing to work with your individual members as you search for underlying causes and movement errors. For some it might be a quick fix; others may take some time. Here are five common squat mistakes you might be making:
1. Knees Tracking Forward
Everything starts with the set up and how we initiate the movement. Knees tracking forward and in front of the toes as an athlete begins their descent is probably the most common error I see from new lifters. Within the first six inches of any given squat, the athlete is setting themselves up for success or failure.
By driving the knees forward and keeping them there as they begin their squat, the athlete is putting their knees in a compromised position and at the same time placing unnecessary pressure on their soft tissue. Not good. This can cause short and long term issues and even injury. Aside from looking at it from a health and safety standpoint, also consider the athlete is just giving away power in this position. You can never be as powerful if you fail to recruit your big movers: the hips and hamstrings.
Instead of driving the knees forward, the athlete needs to think about sending their hips and butt back in order to activate the right muscles. At the same time, the athlete should adapt a more vertical shin position. Yes, there still may be some slight forward inclination of the shins and knees, but all within reason.
A quick fix is setting up a target or having a coach place their hands a few inches in front of your knee. As you begin your descent, the goal is to avoid having your knees meet the target. For the most part, I think this error falls under the category of a motor control issue. The athlete just needs understand where their knee should be as they build muscle memory through repetition.
2. Overextension Of The Spine
While having the knees track forward for newer lifters is common, overextending in the spine is an issue I see amongst new and experienced lifters alike. Overextending in the spine is simply over-exaggerating the curvature in your lower back by sticking your butt out and forcing your pelvis to tilt forward.
From an athlete’s perspective, this mistake is often times so common that not only do most people have no idea they’re doing it, but sometimes think they are suppose to do it! As a coach, unless you’re right on top of your athlete, it becomes increasingly difficult to detect an overextension error as they perform the movement.
For an athlete, this error might be one of the most frustrating issues to try and stomp out because there really is no easy fix. For some more experienced lifters, it’s almost equivalent to relearning how to squat. The first step is understanding the proper way to brace yourself and get organized before starting the movement.
Taking a deep breath into your belly, squeezing your butt, then your abs will align your pelvis and torso into the ideal position. The difficulty lies in maintaining this tension throughout the movement. This is where it is important to have a good coach or friend that will hold you accountable and tell you when you lose position. Filming yourself or watching yourself in the mirror are probably your next best options. From there it’s just repetition, repetition, repetition until you are confident you can maintain a good position throughout the movement.
3. Knees Collapsing In
Welcome to squat mechanics 101. This should hopefully go without saying, but at no point should an athlete’s knees be caving inwards. Similar to the knees tracking forward and over the toes, the knees collapsing in puts unnecessary stress on your knee’s soft tissues. Every good coach should be able to spot this error from across the room.
In fact, most athletes themselves can identify when they fall into this less than ideal position. But the issue isn’t in identifying the error; it’s how to correct it. Even those athletes capable of feeling their knees collapsing inwards have a tough time understanding how to get them in a better position and how to maintain that position throughout the movement. It almost feels like their knees have a mind of their own.
Create torque – no not twerk. Probably one of the most overused words in coaching without athletes understanding what it actually means. It’s essential in creating a better, more organized position to squat from. That’s what it comes down to: stability.
I like the cue ‘screw your feet into the floor.’ What I’m trying to convey to my athlete is to think about driving your feet into the floor and pressing into the sides of their shoes. What this does is creates a more stable hip position and at the same time situates the knees in a better position — a win-win.
For a lot of athletes, just understanding which muscles to activate while squatting is enough to set them down a better path. Sometimes, when verbal cues just aren’t producing the results I had hoped, lending a helping hand becomes necessary. By pressing in — yes, in — on the outside of an athlete’s knees as they are squatting, it allows the athlete to feel and engage the proper muscles necessary to force my hands out and put their knees in a better position.
I found this to be much more effective teaching method than simply placing my hands on the inside of the athlete’s knees and telling them not to touch my hands. The reason being is most people can passively keep their knees out, especially on something like an air squat, without really activating the right muscles or any muscles at all. But once they are under load, the knees start caving in because they lack the understanding of which muscles need to be firing in order to keep those knees in a better position.
Another option is to simply grab a band, double it up, and place it around your knees. It creates the same tension. As the band tries to pull your knees inward, it is up to you to force them back out against the band and into a better position.
“For a lot of athletes, just understanding which muscles to activate while squatting is enough to set them down a better path. “
4. Not Maintaining An Upright Torso
At the end of the day, I’m not overly concerned with this when teaching a new athlete to do an air squat — especially if that athlete has more serious issues that need to be tackled first. However, it is important to understand the value in performing an air squat with upright torso as it transfers over to most other squatting and other complex movements. This is the cherry on top. If everything else looks good, then it is important delve into this issue and develop good habits from an early stage.
Surprisingly, this can be a very tricky issue to resolve with certain athletes depending on their level of mobility – a topic in and of itself. The textbook correction for this error is a healthy dose of wall facing squats. Start by facing a wall and getting as tight to it as possible, arms overhead and without touching the wall, descend into the bottom of your squat.
To me, having an athlete, especially if it’s a new member, be segregated from the group isn’t ideal. Instead, if room allows, set up a bar in the rack about chest height and have the athlete squat with their hands hovering above the bar. At the very least the athlete gets to face the class rather than the wall and it usually produces similar results.
5. Lack Of Mobility
A lack of mobility is probably the most important factor to considering before trying to tackle any other issue. Everything can be undone by a lack of mobility. All the coaching cues and drills in the world can’t help someone who is physically unable to get in the position you are trying to get them into. It is the common thread between all faults.
It is impossible for an athlete with tight hips, knees or ankles to find those ideal positions without compensating in another area. As a coach, this is one of the hardest points to get across and one of the most frustrating parts of the job. I see athletes everyday arrive early or stay late in pursuit of some tangible goal like a 400lb back squat, but rarely do I see people with that level of commitment to perfecting the basics and gaining extra range of motion.
I can’t stress enough how important this is. It is your job to take the initiative and time to lay the groundwork so that you can squat in a safe and stable position. Find a gym and coach that prioritizes mobility. Check the countless resources online. These are all tools that can be used to your advantage so that you can check that 400lb back squat off your to-do list.
Finally, as a coach or an athlete it’s important to understand you can’t fix everything in one day. Not everyone is going to have a perfect squat initially — and that’s ok. That doesn’t mean you can’t move on to more complex movements like the front, back or overhead squat. The goal is to spend time on air squats, get as good as possible, and move on. After gaining some proficiency at these other squat iterations, it’s time to circle back to air squats, start over with what you already know and work on making them even better.
It’s a never-ending cycle as you strive for that elusive perfect movement. Like I said before, the squat really is the foundation of CrossFit® on which so many other more complex movements are built. By dedicating some time, fixing your errors, and chasing that perfect movement, it will not only make you better at squatting, but better at CrossFit® overall.