Squatting Mobility & Mechanics

Have you been diligent about your SUF Strength training programme, but squatting exercises are still feeling difficult, or a little uncomfortable? Good news- your mobility and mechanics may be the problem, not your strength. The bad news, however, is that like your strength, mobility takes a little effort and consistency in order to improve.

Squatting is a movement pattern that most of us take for granted, or just don’t even think about the mechanics of, especially as we do this motion a hundred times throughout the day. If you stop and think about it, we squat every time we sit, and hopefully when we lift heavy objects like kids, that 50lb bag of dog food, etc. But how many of us actually do it with proper mechanics? My guess is not very many. So my goal today is to provide a little education and make you a little more mindful of how you’re moving and just maybe inspire you to work on your mobility if necessary.

If you were to ask ten toddlers or young children to pick up a toy from the floor, chances are they’d all squat down and pick it up in a nearly identical fashion, which many would call “perfect” technique; feet shoulder width, butt low, chest up, back straight. Now if you were to ask ten adults to do the same, you’d see ten different movements; most will bend, some will squat, and everyone will move differently. Now we all know that you’re supposed to “lift with your legs, not your back,” but most of us will only squat to lift with our legs if we have something very heavy to lift….and even then, some will still bend over. But back to the main point about how we all move differently.

I’m not saying that everyone needs to squat like a baby because that’s simply not practical, realistic or even possible. There are many factors that have an impact on how each person moves and squats: the simple act of growing is a huge one, individual skeletal and other anatomical variations, as well as previous injuries and imbalances that occur throughout our lives. What I am suggesting, is that unless you’re born with some kind of physical anomaly, everyone should have the ability to perform the basic movement pattern with comfort, control and safety; feet flat, back flat, chest up and knees aligned with feet and hips and don’t collapse inward.

Why is this so important? Because restrictions in mobility can decrease your movement quality, increase your injury risk, decrease strength potential and decrease your enjoyment of exercises involving this movement pattern.

Basically, you should be able to perform routine tasks of daily living, pick up and play with your kids/grandkids/dogs, etc. without discomfort or fear of getting hurt.

So how do you squat “properly?”

  1. Heels should remain FLAT on the GROUND! Having the entire foot on the ground is important for creating a stable base.
  • Heels lifting may be a result of limited dorsiflexion (flexing your toes up toward your shins) or poor motor control
    • Limited dorsiflexion could come from a limited range of motion at the achilles, calves, hamstrings, glutes or lower back.
    • Poor motor control may come from lack of strength or not enough practice with the exercise.
  1. Feet should NOT rotate out AS you execute the squat. Some external rotation is ok when setting your foot position, but your feet should not move once beginning the movement.

    • Outward rotation while squatting could be a result of dorsiflexion restriction, arch collapse, tight lateral hamstrings and/or tight IT bands.
  2. The knees should not collapse inward (valgus), which is closely associated with injury potential. Collapse during the squat likely means the same will happen when running and jumping.

    • Valgus collapse may be a result of tight and/or weak hips and glutes or poor motor control.
  3. The hips can, (but do not have to) descend below the knees.

    • This topic has been hotly debated, however research shows it is safe to squat below parallel as long as the other principles are maintained and mobility allows.
  4. The chest faces forward (if there were a mirror in front of you, you’d be able to read the logo/writing on your shirt) but the low back remains in a neutral position with no excessive arching or rounding, which places unnecessary stress on the spine. Additionally, the lower back and pelvis should not roll into flexion and posterior tilt at the bottom of the squat.

    • Inability to maintain a neutral spine may result from tightness throughout the posterior chain (achilles, calves, back, glutes, hamstrings) or it could be a balance issue.

If you struggle with squatting movements, here are some assessments that you can do to help identify mobility faults that limit your function and athletic performance.

Ankle Mobility- Kneel on one leg with the other foot about a palm width from a wall. Keep the heel on the floor and press the knee forward, trying to touch the wall with your knee. If you can do this from 3-5 inches or one palm width, you have good ankle mobility. If you cannot touch the wall in this position, then you can do some exercises to increase ankle mobility.

Banded dorsiflexion- Attach an elastic band to something sturdy at a low height and sit on the floor with one leg stretched out straight. Place the band over the top of your foot and pull your toes toward your shin. You should feel the muscle on the front of the shin working. Hold for 1-2s then slowly release and repeat for 10-15 reps.

Dynamic calf flexion/extension- Get into a down dog position. ‘Pedal’ your feet by bending one knee and straightening the opposite leg, then repeat on the other side. Perform 10-15 reps per side.

Assisted Deep squat- Perform a squat as best you can, while holding onto something sturdy in front of you. Keep both feet flat on the ground and your knees wide as you sink your hips as low as you can, using the support to maintain balance and shift your weight forward and back (while keeping heels down) to increase the stretch on the posterior chain. Hold for at least 60s.

Elevated toe low lunge- Kneel on one leg with the other leg in front you, bent at 90 degrees. Place a thin book or magazine beneath the ball of the front foot, leaving your heel on the floor. Press your hips forward toward the front foot so you feel a stretch in the bottom of the foot, achilles and calf. Hold for 30-60s or perform 10 reps pressing forward for 2-3 seconds, then releasing for 2-3s.

Hip Flexion- Supine knee to chest test holding shins. Lie on your back and pull your knees to your chest with your hands on the shins. If you can’t touch thighs to chest and calves to posterior thighs, check knee flexion.

Knee flexion test- Pull knees to chest holding behind thighs. If this is achieved (with calves touching thighs) then knee flexion is the limiter.

  • Most people don’t have a problem with hip and knee flexion.

If your mobility checks out for all three of the tests above, check your motor control and muscle activation:

Do your knees collapse inward?

Perform the band around knees squat test. Step inside a resistance band and squat. If the knees stay in alignment, then glutes are weak or not activating. *The band will naturally help you activate the glutes as you squat.

  • Correctional exercise: Squat with a band around the knees to cue glute activation and possibly result in further external rotation of the hip, allowing greater hip flexion.

Do you feel like you’re going to fall backwards as you squat?

Try a goblet or assisted Squat: Hold a light weight in front of your chest. If this helps you move better, then you have an anterior/posterior stability or balance issue.

  • Practice squatting more often- practice and repetition are highly effective ways of learning and sometimes you just need to experiment to find your individual comfort and balance points.
    • Perform more basic single leg movements (like standing on one leg while cooking or brushing your teeth) to gradually improve balance.

Spinal position: Cueing for proper position may improve movement, which indicates a motor control issue. Otherwise, it could be a position setup fault (overextended or over-arched low back), limited core strength or flexibility of posterior chain could be the issue.

  • Start or keep going with The Sufferfest Strength Training and Yoga!

Additional ideas to improve squatting technique:

  • Core strengthening exercises such as those in The Sufferfest Strength Training programme
  • Soft tissue release to break up adhesions, scar tissue and other restrictions especially on the back, glutes, hamstrings, calves and feet to improve flexibility and range of motion, i.e. foam rolling, massage & muscle flossing.
  • Assisted Squats with bands around the knees, or overhead squat pulling an elastic band apart

If you pass all of the tests with flying colors and still struggle, you likely just need more practice and to find just the right balance point. Everyone has different body proportions that affect balance differently. Some people need to hinge a little more, some a little less. Some need to move their feet wider, some narrower. Experiment a little, be consistent with your strength training and let us know what works for you!

Watch a video demonstration

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Great post Suzie and one of the primary reasons I will struggle with a lot of athletic stuff until I shuffle off.
———-
Ankle Mobility- Kneel on one leg with the other foot about a palm width from a wall. Keep the heel on the floor and press the knee forward, trying to touch the wall with your knee. If you can do this from 3-5 inches or one palm width, you have good ankle mobility. If you cannot touch the wall in this position, then you can do some exercises to increase ankle mobility.
———-
I can occasionally get to 1cm. Sad face. Always been like this and something that wasn’t known about as an issue when I was a kid so now it’s 52 years old as a thing.
Therefore no squats and all those years being shouted at for not bending my knees skiing … they(or I) didn’t have a clue. It is my ankles. My knees bend fine :slight_smile:
So - what to do… it been tried in the last 10 years. A lot. I can get to 2 cm’s with a lot of effort.
In that scenario, if you cannot squat with flat feet, what is Plan B? (I sometimes use a rolled up towel as a pragmatic option under my heels.

Has anyone ever tried taking a blunt instrument to the front of their foot to see if they can break something and make it move?

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@Sir_Martin,
Wow, it’s too bad that you’re just now learning about your ankle restrictions after all these years. But better late than never, right?!
While I cannot condone the use of trauma to induce movement, I will suggest some soft tissue work. You can self-massage your feet, achilles and calves with various devices that are intended for such use, as well as muscle flossing, which I’ve used for various body parts and have had great results with. For more info on that, check this out:

In the meantime, yes, you can use a small heel lift to help you squat with good technique while you continue to work on the restriction in an effort to create more range of motion in the long term!

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Hahah, funnily enough, I have restricted movement like you. However mine was due to taking a blunt instrument to my foot. The blunt instrument in this case being the ground. I started to forward rotate in the air after mis-timing a jump in a mountain bike race. I tried to bail by stepping off the bike and landed all my weight on one foot which landed on some rocks and rolled underneath me. Result was a shattered navicular bone, and a dislocation. The surgeon said he had only seen one as bad as mine and that was from a parachute landing that went wrong. :slight_smile:
For a while I had basically no dorsiflexion, but it has improved over time. A physio told me to try deliberately (and slowly) losing my balance backwards. This forces dorsiflexion and it seemed to work quite well. That and a lot of stretching.
It’s still pretty restrictive, and every now and then I feel like I need to hit it with a hammer to “knock it back into place”. :rofl:

@Coach.Suzie.S My main problem now with squats is a very noisy and sometimes slightly painful right knee. Quite loud crepitus, and an occasional snap feeling like a rubberband rolling over something then letting go. The pain is not always there, and doesn’t hang around. I am starting to notice issues with stairs - I can run up them, but walking up slowly makes my knee feel a bit sticky (for want of a better word). Single leg squats are much worse of course. I have been told that noise isn’t an issue but pain suggests something worse. I guess I need to go see a physio? Oh, I’m 46 years young. :wink:

Chris

Chris

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How you do this without falling off the wall is remarkable :wink: (video is sideways, lol, but helpful).

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@ChrisMTB,
Sounds like you may have a tracking issue, or something very tight. I think a physio is a good place to start to get a better diagnosis. Not knowing exactly what your issue is makes it impossible to give perfect advice, but definitely keep on top of your quad and IT band stretching and rolling to keep those muscles long and happy. I do know that when they get too tight, it makes for unhappy knees and patella tendon tracking issues. Self-care is so much more important for us masters athletes- we can’t just “ride it hard and put it away wet” and have no ill effects like we could in our 20’s.

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@Glen.Coutts,
Yes, sorry about the video, but happy to hear it is still helpful. This forum does not support video files, so I had to make due as best I could. I figured a sideways video was better than no video :wink:

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Excellent post! Mechanics or alignment is so important to avoid injury. Coming to terms with how one thinks a movement should ‘look’ on their body and how something like a squat should be done specific to an individuals own strength and flexibility is the hardest lesson to learn if you ask me. One aspect of this discussion that strikes me as missing is the focus on thinking that movement in this instance is primarily viewed as something that is muscularly activated. Thinking of a movement as muscularly activated can actually cause unnecessary stress where thinking of falling into the same movement and allowing the body to rebound inline with the drop in weight will adhere to an individual’s movement possibilities. For instances to engage the movement that is ‘a squat’ one is told to focus on the muscles that make it happen within the framework of a mechanical alignment that doesn’t cause injury. And this is true and important! Without our muscles doing what they need to do to perform a squat, it wouldn’t be possible to do it safely, but there are other things at play such as gravity, falling, momentum that can take the edge off muscular activation as the main initiator of a movement and when one thinks of movement as driven primarily by momentum or gravity first and not just muscular activation there is an efficiency dividend that actually makes the movement easier to do on any specific body. To use a cycling metaphor what I’m describing is the difference between what it is like to grind out a cadence of 55 vs spinning the same power at 95 rpm. The pedalling movement is inherently different - gravity and momentum come into play at 95 rpm in a way that isn’t possible at 55 rpm. Anyway this is just food for thought - momentum and gravity rarely come into the conversation and I’d argue that they aren’t a result of doing a movement but actually integral to perform any movement, even squats correctly. Be curious to know what sport science has done to analyse this…

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@DancingCyclist,

Thank you for sharing your thoughts. You are right in that moving with proper mechanics is important and vital to reducing injury risk. The goal of this post was simply to highlight that point and I’d like to politely disagree with you in regard to momentum and gravity being integral to correct squatting technique, and even more so, bouncing out of the bottom of the squat to improve efficiency.

If you’re an experienced lifter and want to lift heavy on squats or Olympic lifts, bouncing up from the bottom of a clean or heavy squat is a valid point, provided you’re under the supervision of a qualified coach who has taught you properly. I cannot, however condone the same technique for our users. For individuals who are not highly mobile or experienced in strength training, I’d argue that the risk of injury is far lower with greater muscle activation than “falling into the movement.” Many cyclists have weak stability muscles and very tight hips, so their risk of injury would be far greater if they were to allow gravity to pull them down into the bottom of a squat as they would not be able to control valgus collapse and be more likely to get hurt.

Performing a squat with complete control and focusing on the muscle activation is actually what we prefer most endurance athletes do, especially when using very light weights, or just their own bodyweight. Many endurance athletes are inexperienced when it comes to strength training and need to focus on the muscle activation and mechanics in order to understand how the movement is done properly and to get the most out of the exercise without the addition of any external load. After all, most cyclist have strong muscles so their own bodyweight isn’t the challenging part of the squat, it’s performing the movement properly that is. For these people, they have to know which muscles should be working and actually FEEL the muscles firing in order to know that they’re doing it right. I’d also like to point out that you can actually make bodyweight training more effective for this population by slowing down the movement speed which increases the difficulty of the exercise by increasing the muscle’s time under tension, without increasing stress on the joints or risk of injury.
I’m not sure what kind of analysis you’re looking for, but I do hope that you understand my reasoning for teaching the squat in this manner.

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@Coach.Suzie.S,

Thank you for replying to my post. I want to apologise if I gave the impression that I was advocating for ‘bouncing’ at the bottom of a movement. I agree wholeheartedly that attention to muscle activation should be the focus especially given the points you make to avoid injury for those new to the mechanics of strength training.

I think your original post got me thinking about a broader converstation related to initiating movement more generally and your reply has reminded me that I should be careful about what movement terminology I use - such as a squat - since it is understood in a very specific way when it comes to strength training. And I in no way wish to challenge that understanding or how it is being taught.

I think it is great to have the opportunity to pose questions to experts like yourself in this forum. As a long time passionate cyclist - whose spent a life time as a contemporary dancer, I’ve done so many variations of movements that are mechanically similar to a strength training squat but they have had a completely different purpose.

Anyway, I’ve always felt that sport science is so far ahead when it comes to understanding training - the 4DP metrics are a great example - but also how the uniqueness of my experience and knowledge analysing unlimited movement possibilities could aid training methods in sport such as strength training and cycling.

Thank you again for your thoughtful post. I truly appreciate it!

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Great article. It’s a great summary of many of my existing biomechanical issues! I suffer from everything you mention. Thank you for all the recommended exercises. You are a :star2:

I like to think I’ll start doing all your corrective recommendations but unfortunately experience tells me I’ll give up soon enough. With decades of muscle memory to reverse in so many areas, I think I could spend 24 hours a day trying to fix them! It rather kills the motivation…

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@GPatz,
You’re welcome, I love hearing that our posts are helpful!

I’m glad you know yourself well enough to know that you can’t work on and fix everything at once…nobody can, really. My advice is to pick the biggest limitation and work on that first. If you have ankle restrictions, I’d start there and work from the ground up. If possible, schedule a mobility session into your day, which will help keep you accountable to actually do it. Mobility, recovery and strength are always the first things to be cut from your to-do list, but if you put them on your schedule like a meeting you have to be at, you’re less likely to skip it. Best way for me is to do it as a warmup before you ride (or whatever other training session you have that day). If you make it a priority and work at it consistently, you should see some progress in 4-6 weeks. Maybe sooner if your restrictions aren’t too bad. If you don’t make progress, then give up, try some different exercises instead or work some exercises for another area in and think of it as a challenge that you need to overcome, rather than a frustration.
Good luck and don’t ever give up!

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@Coach.Suzie.S that’s great advice. I’ll start with the ankle mobility. I just need a kick up the behind every now then to keep motivated!

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