- Your squat hurts or it sucks and stretching/mobilizing to infinity isn’t working
- A squat involves joint flexion. If you don’t have it you’ll compensate by going wider, sitting back, or falling over.
- Tightness is governed by the brain. Stretching may not work!
- Asymmetry and our adjustments to it might be locking you up
- Aligning your axial skeleton–ribs, pelvis, spine– may be the answer
I’ve been a powerlifter for a few years now. While I’ve always squatted, it was only within the last 1-2 years that I really felt like I dialed my squat in. The deadlift came more natural. A max effort deadlift never looks pretty and there’s an element of just going gorilla when you get the bar in your hands. I am a raw lifter and the Westside style squat wasn’t helping me; however, I didn’t have the ability to have a more athletic, or vertical, looking squat.
I confess: there was a time when I used band-assisted stretching. It’s fine to use bands when stretching. It’s not fine to have weird set-ups that grind your body into new ranges of motion. I didn’t know better. If you’re tight every practitioner everywhere tells you to stretch. What makes more sense than Americanizing stretching and YOLOing your joints into posish with super bands?
There’s an annoying infatuation with stretching. It seems no matter the ailment stretching is needed.
If your squat looks like a roaring dumpster fire or it hurts to squat, and you’ve tried smashing, rolling, flossing, adjusting, mobilizing, and massaging to no avail, then this article is written for you.
This article presents an alternative. Besides, what else are you to do? Mobilize more? Get another massage?
Few people I know have long-term success with these modalities. You know those tight muscles should, at some point, relent?
I believe it’s an issue if you can only demonstrate a squat or feel loose enough to squat under these conditions:
- You have to stretch the hell out of your body, especially with “devices,” or,
- You need the bar to hold you down
I believe that position precedes performance. I’m going to navigate how to improve your squat through the most common challenges I have experienced with clients.
Sure, bar position, foot position, and weight distribution all matter, but I’m referring to the alignment of the axial skeleton when I reference position. That’s the rib cage, spine, and pelvis and by implication, their relationship to each other. By “organizing” these bones you can squat like a boss.
A hip is free to move like a hip, a shoulder like a shoulder.
Aggressive mobility might not fix your squat. Let’s agree to prep with something other than a warm-up ritual of band assisted head-to-ass shoves.
Everyone deserves to squat.
Flexing On Your Squat
To squat is to flex. Flexion is bending of the hips, knees, and ankles—think fetal position. The squat is a demonstration of this against gravity.
When most attempt this they do one of three things (me included):
- Lift their heels off the ground
- Sit far back
- Lose their balance
What’s interesting is that people have the requisite mobility but fail to demonstrate it when upright. I’ve assessed many hypermobile people who can’t achieve proper range-of-motion in a squat. What gives?
If you can’t adequately flex (read: squat) when upright, you’ll compensate to achieve depth. You’ll begin to set-up your squat with a wider foot stance and flare your toes. Mechanically, your squat begins to resemble a deadlift. You’ll have vertical shins and hinge at the hips rather than the knees and ankles.
A squat shouldn’t look like a deadlift. When my clients squat, I want the knees to travel forward as the ankles, knees, and hips bend. I want the ribcage and pelvis to stay relatively stacked. I coach the squat as an up-and-down hip motion and a deadlift as a forward-and-backward motion of the hips. Remember, quads make the squat GO! and descending lets you tap into these muscles.
So how can you get there?
“Check out the big brain on Brad.”
When you think of biomechanics, remember the “bio” part. We can discuss movement and position all day, but our big brain governs us. Muscles aren’t tight without input from the brain. A tight muscle may not be a muscle issue.
If you remove the brain’s effects, muscle tone reduces, and they become pliable. How else could a stiff gorilla of a football player achieve ranges of motion as effortlessly as this?
The brain is a sort of train station when it comes to your body. Information is coming and going. Its primary function is survival. It doesn’t care about your squat depth. When incoming information signals threat, it adapts by creating stiffness. This reduces variability.
What is variability? Think of variability like flavors in a dish. Too few or too many and it’s ruined. When it comes to movement, low variability means you don’t have a wide range of (movement) options for completing a task (i.e., you sit back when you squat, because you can ONLY squat by sitting back).
On the flip side, too much variability is chaotic and unpredictable. This is rare. If you can’t perform an athletic squat, you don’t have enough variability.
As far as your squat is concerned, a loss of variability leads to MacGuyvering your way to the bottom of a squat.
It’s natural to assume this stiffness or inability is a tight muscle. Whether short or not, you can perceive a muscle as “tight.” Forcing your way through a range of motion makes as much sense as climbing Aggro Crag backward.
Tight muscles may be stretched long like a rubber band–elongated and functioning like biological guy-wires to hold you in place. How your brain responds to this feedback gives insight as to why you’re still immobile.
Like a superhero, tightness has its own origin story. It’s as simple as understanding that your brain creates this stiffness.
And also, as complex.
Enter The Batman
We are asymmetric, and we cannot get rid of that asymmetry. That’s okay.
When you look at a skeleton, you might think the left and right sides are the same. But your asymmetric design is evident when you consider an offset diaphragm, liver, and heart (for starters).
Asymmetry is tolerable but left unchecked it invites compensation.
This may lead to pathology or sap performance potential like a governor on a golf cart saps fun.
One presentation of asymmetry is to have a more extended position on one side of the body versus the other. I refer to (and stole) this as ‘Batman Mode.’ The pelvis tilts forward (anteriorly), and the lower rib cage moves up and outward. A flared rib cage is visible if you lay on your back.
The best way to think of this position is an exaggerated example of someone walking like they’re in a squat rack: chest out, back arched, hips tilted, and feet turned out. Shoulders don’t rotate, hips lock up, and extensor tone is high. Not only are you Batman, but you’re also Lego Batman. You waddle like a Whomp in Super Mario Bros. While we have a left-side bias, this happens to both sides very frequently.
I’m going to look at it from a bilateral lens in this article.
Anterior pelvic tilt does have benefits. It’s strong. It’s stable. It’s just not ideal for deep squats. I want to give you the option to squat deep without a loss of power and strength.
An anteriorly tipped pelvis is in a position of hip flexion. Read that again. When the hips slide forward, you are flexing at the hip. If you need, say, 90 degrees of hip motion to get to the bottom of a squat, and you’ve lost some of that range of motion because your hips rotate forward then you will compensate to achieve depth.
Pelvic tilt also increases extensor tone. Extensor tone is critical because it keeps us upright without falling on our face; however, flexing and extending joints are antagonistic actions. If your axial skeleton changes—rib flare and pelvic tilt—it increases extensor tone and makes it more difficult to squat (flex).
Extensor tone gets locked in too. The global weight shift that comes from a flared rib cage (pushed forward) and pelvic tilt (pushed forward) shift your manss forward. Calves, quads, erector spinae, and other muscles engage to keep you from falling forward.
The flared ribs lead to poor breathing mechanics. Rather than the diaphragm doing its job, other, “secondary” muscles kick in and reinforce a suboptimal position.
Our objective is to inhibit extension-based muscles enough to create better positions, a posterior/backward weight shift, normal respiration mechanics, and ultimately, deep squats. In other words, a little less Lego Batman and a little more Bruce Wayne.
“Well, a guy who dresses up like a bat clearly has issues.”
Next, I want to expose you to the idea of the core ‘canister.’ You will learn to control your position by organizing the midsection, namely the thoracic diaphragm and pelvic floor/diaphragm. Aligning these with each other is the step numero uno to better squats.
When you stack the rib cage and pelvis, you create a stable foundation. Your abs move to a more optimal position. You can create intraabdominal pressure and as Mike Robertson says, “CHARGE the thorax.”
Altered (read: faulty) breathing mechanics move your center of mass, reduce optimal stability, and change muscle function. Every muscle has an ideal length at which it functions.
Anybody who has ever lifted knows there are “sticking points” in every lift. Your muscles are trying to get leverage over your joints as they complete the lift. The sticking points are where muscles have the least mechanical advantage and determine if you’ll finish the lift.
Poor breathing mechanics facilitate poor abdominal leverage. Your abs shut down like cell phone service in a dead zone.
To restore your abs, reposition the ribcage. The first step is to exhale. Fully. An exhalation moves the ribs to down, back, and in over the hips. This puts the diaphragm in the position for proper breathing mechanics in subsequent breaths. Instead of the next inhalation filling only the belly or chest and re-flaring the ribs, breathe in and fill the midsection, back, and chest.
A cue I use is to fully exhale until you feel your abs, pause, and then breathe in again with that abdominal tension. If you’re lying on the ground, you’ll feel this (see 90/90 breathing below).
Most people lose this position the very next breath by belly breathing. This pushes your rib cage back to the Lego Batman position (forward) as the abdominals give way and distend. When this happens, you recreate the binding extensor tone. Learning to exhale and breathe in without flaring the ribs is difficult at first.
With the rib cage moving backward, your body will experience a weight shift. You should sense weight shifting into your heels again and your hamstrings able to activate and rotate your pelvis under your ribs. Now you take the pelvis out of excessive anterior tilt. This restores some hip flexion. Together, your hips are in position to squat and maintain the “canister.” This translates to a deep squat without the usual impediments. The hamstrings and abs stabilize while the quads push.
Turning Batman into Bruce Wayne requires at least 3 things:
- Slight posterior (backward) weight shift by bringing the ribs in, back, and down
- Hips tilting under the rib cage followed by ab/hamstring recruitment
- Breathing that DOESN’T push your body forward again
Let’s put this into action.
Building The Squat From The Ground Up
A successful squat requires more than artificially manufacturing the core canister. Anyone with body awareness can gyrate into position. You must be able to breathe and command these postures.
Here is a sample movement sequence to assist.
90/90 Hip Lift Breathing
This is a slight variation of a Postural Restoration Institute (PRI) technique. Squeeze a bolster between the knees, dig the heels into the bench, and slightly tuck the bottom. This will engage the hamstrings and adductors. Reach your hands as high as you can to retract your thorax. Exhale until your soul leaves your body and pause. Depending on the person and their infrasternal angle, I would adjust the hand position to be an overhead reach.
Next breath in, keep your ab tension when doing so. Air will expand into the all sides of the abdominals (not just the belly), the back, and chest. You should inflate like a balloon on all sides equally.
Right Side-Lying Adductor Pullback
Take the 90/90 position and roll to your right side. Contract your abs on the left side. If you can’t feel your abs, reach your left arm toward the wall or press it into the ground. This creates a bend that recruits the abdominals.
Next, press your left heel push into the wall. As you inhale, pull your top knee back. As you exhale, push down into the ball. Pull as far back on each breath as you can without losing your ab tone.
Think of this as a side-lying squat with active hip internal rotation. You will feel tightness in the left groin and possibly a stretch outside of the hip.
Pullover With Hamstrings
Next, integrate arm movement. This is useful if you plan to overhead squat or do a total body training session. The lats stretch as your arm moves overhead. Stiffness in the lats will extend your lumbar spine, tip the pelvis forward, and push the rib cage forward. Your job is to counteract this pull with hamstrings, abdominals, and a full exhalation.
Reaching Plate Squat
Set up for a squat with a five- to ten-pound plate at arm’s length. It’s designed to teach you how to move in and out of a deep squat while flexed. If done correctly you’ll find abs, hamstrings, adductors and quads like crazy.
The goal of this exercise is to squat with the butt under the head (vertical) versus back. You’ll find heel lift make this much more accessible. It can work around ankle limitations while also allowing you more room to shift back and feel a posterior hip tilt.
First, feel your whole foot with the weight centered over the midfoot. Break at the knees and feel your hamstrings. As you execute, reach your arms and knees forward. This will allow you to retract your rib cage and pull your pelvis under so you are more upright. Descend straight down and push through the quads to finish. Stop just short of lockout to avoid re-extending.
As you start to progress to load, the 2-KB or Double Kettlebell Squat is my favorite. Keep the bells ahead to your body. This means reaching the elbows forward rather than packing the shoulder. This pre-engages your core and facilitates deep squatting.
Descend straight down by initiating with the knees moving forward first.
Poor position leads to poor execution. If muscles are tight in response to poor posture then what happens when we stretch them? Stiffness is reflexive. Your body will find stability one way or another. Locking horns and mashing it into greater excursions is not always advisable. This is just an introductory peek into deeper squatting, but it provides missing links for many people unable to “unlock” their hips, knees, and spines as they descend into a squat.
Lucy Hendricks released an article this week that addresses many of these concepts as well and dives into a bit more about the Infrasternal angle. I recommend giving it a read too—amazing/10