Struggling to Squat Deep? Start Using These 4 Technique Checkpoints

Struggling to Squat Deep? Start Using These 4 Technique Checkpoints

Tya Waterman |

Everyone knows how good squats are for you.  They work your entire body, in particular all of your leg muscles, and also hit your back and glutes substantially as well.  The concept is simple: a heavy weight is supported by you, and your task is to let gravity lower the weight in a controlled manner, then to combat gravity to raise the weight back up.  So why do so many people avoid performing squats, choosing instead to opt out for moves like the leg press, leg extension and hamstring curl?  In a word, squats are hard.  They’re also painful when you’re first starting out, unless you quickly learn to adjust the position of the bar, your back, your feet and your grip.  Many people can press several hundred pounds of weight in the leg press sled but, are unable to squat even nominal amounts of resistance.  If you’re one of those people who either hate squats or simply struggle with them, the following information is for you.  Pay attention very carefully to someone who knows of which he speaks.

Dr. Marc Morris, CSCS, is a strength coach and health expert based in Saskatoon.  Marc’s experience in fitness is multi-dimensional: he is an elite level powerlifter, international team coach, and a national level Physique competitor.  In powerlifting competition, Marc’s official personal best squat is 474 pounds at a body weight of just 176.  You read that correctly – although a very slender young man, Marc has squatted nearly 500 pounds or triple his own bodyweight.

Here are four fundamental technique checkpoints to which you must adhere if you want to realize your full squatting potential. In Marc's own words:

  • Change your movement pattern

The most commonplace problem with most novice trainees is that they don’t sit into the squat.  This is very important to maximize your lift because it is not something you can compensate for later in the movement.  When you break at your knees first (bend the knees), you are only bending one joint that can move only so far forward and doesn’t allow you to sit back.  Thus, you are not able to recruit any of the muscle groups on your backside or achieve proper depth.  Try to envision this right now and you may just have an “ah ha!” moment.  Use the cue “sit back” to either break at the hips first, or at least break at the knees and hips simultaneously – this will maximize the depth you can achieve in the squat.  Only through engaging as many muscle fibres as possible through a proper range of motion will you strengthen them and add overall poundage to your squat.

  • Flexibility

This one seems obvious but if you’re not flexible enough to get into the required position, it’s not going to magically happen once you put weight on your back.  You may have noticed that sometimes guys with very slight builds can hoist insane weights in the squat and deadlift.  Not only have they trained in a way to increase the power of their fast-twitch muscle fibres, but they will tend to be extremely flexible as well.  Here’s what you can do to improve your own flexibility: use a combination of both static stretching to prepare yourself to get into a deep squat position, and pair this with mobility drills to help you maintain it.  Hip flexors and hamstrings are some of the more common muscle groups that need to be stretched, while the ankles and hips are the joints that need to be mobilized.

  1. Get uncomfortable

Yes, you read that right.  The full squat may feel very uncomfortable until you’ve mastered the technique through extensive practice.  But in order to create a more fluid and natural squat, you may need to log some more time in the bottom (a.k.a. “the hole”) especially.  This sounds onerous, but it’s really not as difficult as you may think.  Use a variety of pause squats, box squats and goblet squat holds to improve tightness and confidence in the bottom of the squat.  These variations on the squat are widely used by elite powerlifters and definitely assist with the lift.  Don’t hesitate to use them just because they aren’t “the real thing”.

  1. It’s all mental

Squatting deep is hard, but you know what’s harder?  Spending months and years wasting time not developing overall strength and a great set of legs.  Imagine if you decide to teach yourself the guitar, but never realized your full potential because you were on the wrong track to begin with.  So put your ego aside and perform the movement with appropriate weight through the full range of motion. This will probably take you a long time, but it will recruit more muscle fibres and give you a greater return on your time and effort in the long run.

One final note giving special regard to flexibility.  After you’ve grinded out an intense squat workout, you may think you’re being smart by jumping in the hot tub or whirlpool at your gym immediately.  The problem here is that you’re not lessening the inflammation, you may actually be exacerbating it.  For the first 24 hours following such a workout, ice or cold are your best friends.  If you can handle an ice bath, go for it.  After about 36 to 48 hours, you may feel free to use the hot water to improve blood flow, oxygen and nutrient delivery, and put yourself in a position for better healing.  It’s also a good idea to perform stretches for long holds as soon as you get out of the hot tub while your body is still warm and pliable.

Once you become accustomed to training with significant squat weights, you can capitalize on other elements of recovery to keep your flexibility sharp.  Take your BCAAs after your workout, drink a lot of water (at least four litres a day), consume whey protein regularly, and although it’s not easy in today’s fast-paced world, sleep at least eight (ideally nine or 10) hours each night.  Anybody can be good, and if you’re satisfied with that, then fair enough.  But if you want to be a great squatter – and there’s no reason you can’t be – you must adhere to a high level of commitment to both proper technique and disciplined lifestyle.