The squat is the ultimate lower body exercise and always has been, if I could only choose 2 exercises to perform for the rest of my life the squat would undoubtedly be one of them.
The Learning Curve And The Ego
Unfortunately this ever-so important exercise is often neglected and performed incorrectly.
A biceps curl is simply a matter of tucking your elbow into your side and lifting the weight upwards until you're able to fully contract your biceps... the squat on the other-hand is a tad more technical.
The squat allows us to bare a weight that's much greater than any curl! And with this increased weight comes an increased risk of injury or failure if you're doing the squat incorrectly...
With regular practise and a bit of mobility picture perfect squat form is 100% achievable by anyone.
However, this is only the case if you check your ego at the door. I spent months upon months re-training my squat form as I too fell victim to the 'ego lifting'.
Racking up as much weight as I could muscle onto the bar and then rounding my back, using a questionable range of motion and almost falling flat on my face in the power rack.
But as far as I was concerned it was a squat. The barbell was unracked, I squatted down and brought it back up with a sheer ton of weight loaded up on the bar. If satisfying your ego is all you're concerned about this is the way to go... if like me however you're in the gym for strength and size gains you'll soon be left disappointed as you realize bad form and ridiculous weight is a recipe for disaster, not progress.
The 5 Most Common Squat Mistakes Made In The Gym
When I first started lifting in my backyard 6 years ago the squat was the very first exercise I practised.
With my olympic barbell, my questionable squat rack and a video camera I read tutorials, watched YouTube videos, recorded form checks and posted them online and continued to grind and grind and grind.
Over time my mobility increased, my leg strength increased.
By the time I joined a gym I was able to squat 175lbs to the ground with strict form. People started asking for questions and advice in the gym as to how some skinny kid was able to squat so much weight, let alone with good form.
Here are the 5 most common squat mistakes I've seen in the gym since and how to overcome them.
Squat Mistake 1 - Heels Coming Off The Ground
Upon bending the knees and squatting down many gym-goers begin to hunch forward on their toes, with their heels coming off the ground.
This is probably the most dangerous out of all of the mistakes I see being made as once heavy weight starts being lifted the chance of losing balance as you're on your toes towards the bottom of your rep is extremely heigh... resulting in you and your overloaded barbell going face first into the squat rack.
The other issue with coming forward on your toes while squatting is you lose all of your power and drive.
When squatting your power comes through your heels! Once good squat form has been mastered you should be able to lean back on your heels with your toes off the ground and squat.
In order to ensure you're staying back on your heels:
Drive your hips back and down (commit to the exercise)
In order to drive through your heels you need to commit to the squat, dropping your hips backwards is key - this will put you in the correct (stable) position to power the weight up through your heels as opposed to leaning hunching forward on your toes.
Practise and 'commiting' to the exercise are the only way to master this portion of the exercise - squatting in a smith rack or utilizing another machine will not help you here - it's best to get straight to the real deal and learn the right way straight away.
Work on your ankle Dorsiflexion
Provided you're commiting to the exercise and dropping your hips back if you're still finding your heels coming off the ground on the bottom portion of your squat your ankle dorsoflexion may need work.
Rather than me explain how to work your ankle mobility I recommend watching this short easy to understand clip and replicating these exercises:
Squat Mistake 2 - Poor Range Of Motion (Above Parallel)
On all exercises the key to getting the best bang for your buck is to focus on performing full range of motion - weight comes second, range of motion comes first.
When it comes to the squat this means you should be starting with your legs extended and finishing when your thighs are at minimum parallel to the ground.
ATG is great but if your mobility won't allow it as of yet parallel is good too.
Poor range of motion is often the result of training with your ego.
You're lifting too heavy
Lower the weight.
The lower you go the harder the squat becomes, getting out of the 'hole', the very bottom portion of your repetition is impossible if you're lifting ridiculous amounts of weight. With heavy weight and poor range of motion you'll only be slightly working the quads... however when you're working with a weight you can squat down to the ground with full range of motion you'll be engaging the quads, calfs, hamstrings and glutes.
Mobility can also be a factor here
Although not as often, poor mobility can be the root cause of limited range of motion even when a manageable weight is being used.
Refer to squat mistake 4 for more on warming up correctly and building up that mobility.
Squat Mistake 3 - Rounding The Lower Back
I learnt the hard way on this one... several years ago I slipped a disc in my lower back after rounding my back on my first set of squats for the workout, after months and months of physiotherapy, a paranoia for squats and deadlifts as well as a big decrease in the weight I lifted I was able to come back and rebuild my lower back, core and leg strength.
Here's what caused me to round my lower back resulting in a slipped disc.
Having spent too long squatting in the smith machine prior to this I found my quad strength in particular to be way ahead of the rest of my physique.
As I began to rep 225lbs on the barbell my legs were able to drive the weight upwards however my core strength was non existant - resulting in me shaking and rounding my lower back on the eccentric portion of each rep.
Looking down, on any exercise is a sure-fire way to round your lower back.
Looking slightly up or directly forwards in front of you as you squat will keep your lower back in the right position.
Regardless of how good your mobility and form is if you're looking directly down it's very hard to keep your lower back in the right position!
Squat Mistake 4 - Not Warming Up Correctly Or At All (Dynamic Stretches & Mobility Work)
Mobility is paramount.
If you're not warming up correctly or performing mobility drills at least every other day you'll find your range of motion to be less than desirable and your movements will not be fluid.
My form and range of motion on the days I spend that little bit of extra time in the morning foam rolling my lower body and performing a few dynamic stretches is much better than the days that I find myself strapped for time and result to performing 2 - 3 light sets of squats at alternating tempos to warm myself up before getting into my work sets.
In order to dial in your squat foam rolling the lower body and emphasizing your hip flexors and ankle mobility is key.
The foam roller is your friend
Fix your hips
Loosen the ankles
Key Points On Learning Picture Perfect Squat Form
- Add weight once you've mastered form, going heavy from day 1 will come back to bite you as you'll have to learn proper form later
- Commit to the exercise, it's all about dropping your hips down and back... it's impossible to squat correctly when you're leaning forwards
- Getting low requires a loose, mobile body - work your hip flexors and your ankles to take your squat all the way to the ground
- A limited range of motion will yield limited results