When it comes to squatting, there are two things you are almost guaranteed to see in the weight room: athletes hoisting colossal weight with amazing technique, and terrible technique that will make you want to pull your hair out.
For coaches, it can be quite challenging to find the perfect way to diagnose and address technique errors for the squat.
Today, I'm going to introduce you to the top three squat faults and how to fix them.
1. The Turtle Shell Squat
One of the most common problems I see is the dreaded rounded spine. This technique fault often presents on the ascent of the squat. The descent will look great, but on the way up the athlete will hunch over like they’ve got a turtle shell on their back!
Usually the culprit to the “turtle shell” is lack of core stability. For the squat, we require all of the muscles that surround the spine to work together in perfect coordination in order to keep our back from buckling in two. Without this continuous collaboration, the weight of our upper body alone would be enough to collapse our spine! (1)
In order to maintain our back in a good stable position, athletes need to learn how to properly breathe and brace. Try this simple cue. Take a big breath and feel for the air going into your stomach. In reality, the air is staying in your lungs.
However, by breathing “with your belly” you efficiently recruit your diaphragm. This increases your intra-abdominal cavity volume. Once the breath is taken “into your stomach,” then brace your core like someone is going to punch you in the gut. When we combine these two actions (belly breathing and core bracing) we find something special happens. Our intra-abdominal cavity pressure rises like crazy.
This is the most efficient way to stabilize the spine when moving big weight and limit the “turtle shell effect” (2).
Here is a good example of “belly breathing” with the squat. This is a video of Eduardo Guadamud squatting 310 kg (682 lbs) x 2 reps. As you can see, his stomach expands as he takes a huge breath. He then braces his core and begins his descent.
2. The Good Morning Squat
The next common squat fault I see is the “good morning squat.” This describes the athlete whose torso ends up falling forward during the descent.
If you view the squat from the side, we want to ideally see the bar track over the middle of the athlete’s foot. This means their body is in balance and capable of producing efficient force and power. Power is instantly lost when the bar travels too far forward as the chest drops. Harmful forces are also placed on the small structures of the low back, which can increase the athlete’s risk of injury.
I find this problem is often a result of limited ankle mobility. When the ankles are stiff, the knee is unable to travel forward sufficiently during the descent of the squat. In order to continue the descent further, the chest ends up falling forward as compensation.
A simple way to screen for ankle stiffness is with the 5-inch wall test (3,4). Have the athlete kneel next to a wall. Place their forward foot 5 inches from the edge of that wall. Without the heel popping off the ground, see how far the knee can be pushed forward over the toes.
If an athlete has sufficient ankle mobility, they will be able to easily touch their knee to the wall at a distance of 5 inches without their heel coming off the ground. If an athlete fails the 5-inch test, they will benefit from corrective exercises to improve ankle mobility. With improved ankle mobility, the athlete will then be able to descend deeper into their squat with a more upright chest position.
3. The “Knee Collapse” Squat
We’ve all seen it, an athlete squats and their knees almost touch during the ascent phase. If you don’t know what I’m referring to, see the picture below.
During that ascent phase of the squat, we ideally want to keep the knees in direct alignment with the feet. Any side-to- side deviation from this position decreases the efficiency of the movement. Knees that wobble while lifting big weights also increase an athlete’s injury risk.
One of the common cues that I use to limit knee cave is “drive the knees out.” This teaches the athlete to engage their hips properly and keep the knees from collapsing inwards as they squat. However, it must be followed with “keep your feet firmly planted.”
Some athletes will push their knees TOO FAR OUT. This will cause the foot to roll on its side and the athlete will be off balance. I like to cue athletes to “gam their big toe into the ground”. This will make sure the lifter stays balanced during the entire squat and prevent the knees from going too far out.
Every athlete will present with different issues. Your job as a coach is to properly diagnose what the technique error is, and then apply the correct tool to fix it. I hope today’s article will equip you with more “tools” and allow you to better serve your athletes.
Until next time,
Dr. Aaron Horschig, PT, DPT, CSCS, USAW
Founder of Squat University and author of The Squat Bible
With Dr. Kevin Sonthana, PT, DPT, CSCS
1) Crisco JJ, Panjabi MM, Yamamoto I, & Oxland TR. Stability of the human ligamentous lumbar spine. Part II: experiment. Clinc. Biomech. 7:27-32, 1992
2) Willardson JM. Core stability training: applications to sports conditioning programs. J Strength and Cond Res. 2007, 21(3), 979-98
3) Bennell K, Talbot R, Wajswelner H, Techovanich W, Kelly D. Intra-rater and inter-rater reliability of a weight-bearing lunge measure of ankle dorsiflexion. Australian Journal of Physiotherapy. 1998; 44(3):175-180.
4) Reinold M. (2013) Ankle mobility exercises to improve dorsiflexion. Retrieved from MikeReinold.com.