by Dean Somerset T-Nation
I have a lot of jacked-up clients. I don’t mean jacked up as in “220 pounds with 5% body fat,” I mean “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” kind of jacked.
I get referrals from doctors, physical therapists (in Canada we call them physiotherapists), and chiropractors to help their patients get through different injuries, aches, pains, and medical conditions.
For the most part, they fall into two different categories: a part of their body is painful because it’s doing too much and another area isn’t doing enough, or they have tissue damage and need to heal and restore function.
Most people coming to me are in the former category, with the occasional post-surgical or accident client coming through, too.
Now before you roll your weary eyes thinking this is going to be an injury/rehab post, it’s not. My point is that although a lot of the people I work with are way worse off than you, for the most part I have them training with many of the same principles as elite athletes.
Hold Your Horses
Everyone is jumping on the band wagon of corrective exercises like they’re the Holy Grail of a strong, supple, pain-free body.
It’s a load of hooey, and here’s why: everyone has messed up breathing, jacked-up thoracic mobility, and hips like rusty hinges.
Those are the facts. However, lifters (and some unscrupulous therapists) think that they must conquer their issues with specific exercises or risk failing miserably the next time they try to budge the bar from the squat rack supports.
Look, if your breathing isn’t bang-on perfect, you’ll be all right. If your thoracic mobility is less than gymnast, you won’t implode. If your hips are a little creaky, you’ll still be able to pull big weights without your low back relegating you to the bottom bunk in prison.
We’ve developed a generation of exercisers afraid of their own shadow and of creating “muscle imbalances,” and who have forgotten to simply lift stuff.
Most corrective strategies are designed to be used a couple of times to fix an issue and then move on. However, most people and trainers tend to hang onto them tighter than Ray J clutching at his last few minutes of fame. The good news is that we can fix most of these muscle imbalances with the very exercises we know and love, and then throw in some other fun things to keep everything happy.
Your Squat Sucks
There’s never been any published research saying that squats are detrimental to your health when done properly. The research that points to how squats wreck your knees or back or whatever have a common fundamental flaw: very few controls for proper execution of the squat based on the individual doing them.
When done properly, and within the normal tolerances of the individual, there’s no sound biomechanical logic behind saying that they’d be at all detrimental to anyone.
From working with a few thousand clients – from very beginner exercisers in their teens to folks in their 50’s and 60’s to elite caliber athletes (including an Olympic gold medalist and future Olympic hopeful) – and alongside many high-caliber strength coaches from around the world, I can honestly say I’ve only seen a couple people who could squat to the floor without any issues whatsoever on the first try.
I have clients with knee replacements, ACL reconstructions, pelvic floor dysfunctions, disc herniations, hip labral tears, arthritis, and who knows what else performing squats pain free, and actually getting better all the time. They’re a staple exercise in a lot of programs, but that doesn’t mean we load the bar up for max on day one. I start by teaching them how to squat and overcome compensations, weaknesses, and fears of further injury.
Considering the size of that sample and the law of averages around how many moving parts are involved in a squat, I can safely say that no matter who you are, there’s something you’re doing with your squat that’s a compensation for a weakness or previous injury, or a faulty motor pattern that’s limiting your involvement of all necessary muscles and joints.
I’m in the same boat. I video some of my workouts to do my own technical corrections and I’m always seeing stuff that drives me bonkers – limited ankle mobility, lateral hip movement at the bottom, thoracolumbar hinging, and cervical extension instead of a packed position.
These are the result of a history of injuries such as a ripped-up ankle, dislocated SI joint, chronic low back pain, and neck issues from old football injuries. I could pack it all in and say I’m too much of a Band-Aid to keep lifting, or I could work on perfecting my technique to help correct those issues.
Correct Exercise is Corrective
All exercises are in their very essence corrective. They’re all designed to move or strengthen specific areas or interconnected segments, which means that doing them properly will bestow the best benefits to the entire system being worked, and doing them improperly will result in pain, dysfunction, and women not wanting to talk to you or show you their dirty bits.
Corrective and accessory exercises are to a workout program what supplements are to a nutrition program – useful but not the entire program in itself. If you were to do all your grocery shopping at ***, you’d wind up on your deathbed in a few days.
But building your workout program where the big lifts make up the bulk of what you’re doing and the accessory stuff is just that, accessory stuff, makes for the best results possible.
Doing your squats properly is the best corrective strategy for any problem caused by not doing your squats properly. If your ankle is restricted, you can do thousands of ankle mobility drills until you’re blue in the face, but that doesn’t mean your ankle mobility during your squat will have improved if you squat with a vertical shin and rounded back while rolling up on your toes.
What ankle mobility drills will do is warm-up the ankles so that they’re more receptive to the squat pattern and allow for a targeted improvement in mobility, so that when you squat you have more, well, mobility! The downside to this is that most people will address the ankle and then squat like an epileptic at a glow stick party.
How to Fix Your Sucky Squat
First, if you have pain that lasts for more than a day or two and limits your ability to move, get it checked out. If you have an actual injury you have a different set of rules to follow than the average person who just moves poorly.
On top of that I don’t want to read the angry emails you’ll send me when you try to squat right out of a crazy injury and wonder why things didn’t go your way.
Second, take some weight off the bar for a few sets, Champ. Technique work is best done with less loading and working on pushing into specific limitations to gain some level of neural up-regulation or strength/mobility improvement in the area. If your hips are tight, throwing extra weight on the bar will make the muscles resist going into a perceived dangerous range of motion and end up doing nothing but holding you back. Drop some weight and try to explore some new ranges of motion.
The basics that everyone should hit when it comes to positioning in the back squat include the following:
Hips at or below the level of the knees.
Knees in a vertical line with the ankles when looking from the front, not bowed in, and with the knee in a vertical position over the middle of the foot or above the ankle when looking from the side.
Chest up and spine in a straight line; not vertical with respect to the ground, but straight.
Neck packed and shoulders tight to the ribs, not looking to the sky or with your shoulders in your ears. If you want to know why, look at some of Charlie Weingroff’s work.
If you can get into this position, we can fine tune it from there. If you have issues getting into this position, we need to look at what may be holding you back. Some times it’s a muscle weakness, an inflexibility, or a poor motor pattern when it comes to squatting.
Think of it this way – if I’ve never done a back flip, I’m not going to look like a graceful ninja the first time I do one. I’ll probably resemble Chris Farley in the dojo more than I’ll look like Bruce Lee.
I may have the necessary leg power, core control, and hip flexibility to pull it off, but since it’s a novel movement I’m probably going to do a lip stand a few times before I get my feet underneath my body. Your squat pattern is no different, and may take specific practice and focus on certain areas to make it better.
If you can’t get to depth, alter your squat stance until you find one that let’s you drop in as easily as possible. From there, focus on keeping your knees in line with your feet and pull your hips down into the movement. Try to avoid simply lowering down and actively make muscles pull you into that position.
On the flip side, maybe you have a lot of mobility but can’t control the movement. This is more common in females, but also in males who’ve played sports that demand extra mobility as a kid, or who have a lot of congenital joint laxity.
For these people, they need to focus on trying to control the movement more, which means slowing down and thinking about positioning and trying not to bounce through the movement. This video explains it in action:
Let’s say your upper back is like a rusty hinge and can’t get into position to hold the bar properly. This can lead to some neck, shoulder, and upper back pain when trying to squat. Again, the best corrective strategy is to fix the squat itself to improve the mobility and strength being affected.
Focus on getting the chest up and out without letting the bottom ribs flare out ahead of the chest. When this happens, the only extension is coming from the junction point where the thoracic spine meets the lumbar spine, and is a less than optimal compensation pattern around an inflexibility. Try to really bear down on the abs to keep them tense and then press your chest up and out between your shoulders.
Confused? This video shows someone who has both restrictions through the lower body as well as the upper body:
The goal is not to make the movement perfect on the first go around, but to show improvement from the beginning of the set. Steps in the right direction add up to positive change over time.
When to Take it Down a Notch
Some people just aren’t ready to do a full squat with the bar on their back. They may be so stiff and tight or limited in their ability to control their movement that they can’t get into position or hit the right depth without it all falling apart. That’s when you step back and start working on components of the movement.
Box squats work well to teach depth while providing some semblance of security about getting too deep or falling over. Front squats take less shoulder mobility and upper thoracic mobility to get into than a back squat, and a goblet squat is easier to hold than a front squat.
Slowing the movement down can also dramatically change it. If you’re having issues with control, super slow eccentrics (5-10 seconds per rep) help to groove the pattern.
If you have issues with depth, spend some time parked at the bottom and push your hips into the restriction for an awesome stretch. If you have trouble keeping your knee vertical instead of collapsing towards your midline, slow the pace on your drive up, again using a 5-10 second phase per rep on the concentric movement.
If you’re over 30, you should spend some extra time warming up the main joints specifically, such as the ankles, hips, and thoracic spine. This is when active mobility has the best effect, and if you have chronic issues in those areas, spend some extra time hitting them up. If you’re under 30, keep your warm-ups more fluid and all encompassing, and if you have a history of a specific injury, spend some extra time there.
Here’s a great, no B.S. warm-up that does the job:
In many cases there are issues with the mobility of the foot and ankle themselves, so some dedicated work on getting a strong formed arch and some soft tissue work may be in order:
If it’s just not clicking at all in spite of keeping the training wheels on, you may need to work on isolation work here and there to get some muscles fired up before squatting.
The big disclaimer is that a corrective exercise should provide a noticeable improvement immediately. It may not completely fix the issue, but it should be immediately obvious that what wasn’t working right before is markedly different.
If not, it’s either the wrong corrective strategy or it’s not the issue that needs correcting.
That’s when having someone qualified to check out what’s happening becomes worth its weight in gold, and where you can make serious progress in figuring out the mess and getting back to squatting like a boss in short time versus trying to figure it all out on your own.
Get Lifting For Real
I’m all for using the right corrective exercise when it’s warranted, but it shouldn’t make up entire phases of your training or be something you have to do all the time. If you have to always hit up a corrective exercise, there’s something that’s causing you to need that corrective fix that’s flying under the radar.
Figuring out the root of the problem helps address the issue much better than any other path, and typically it comes down to faulty execution of a movement. Fix the movement and you fix the dysfunction.