While the squat is a functional movement that many consider the “King” of all exercises, it can be very difficult exercise to complete with proper form.
So why is proper squat form difficult for so many people?
The simple answer is that many men and women have muscle imbalances, movement inefficiencies, or flexibility issues that inhibit proper squat depth to maximize strength and minimize injury.
This article will teach you (1) 5 of the most common issues that inhibit squat depth, (2) an exercise test to determine if you need work in a given area, and (3) possible solutions to rectify these issues. In sum, you will learn how to increase squat depth.
Note: “Possible” solutions are listed because some postural, or flexibility issues may not be correctable due to congenital issues, or trauma.
Squat Depth Problem #1: Core Muscles Aren’t “Firing” Properly
If the muscles in your abdomen aren’t stimulated, or “firing” correctly, then you don’t have a strong support system to get enough depth.
Even if you do a lot of crunches, that doesn’t mean the deep core musculature is firing correctly. It simply means that your outer abdominal muscles may be well developed. The outer abs muscles are made of different muscle fibers that fatigue fast under a load, which means they are useful for explosive movements, like throwing, or jumping.
If you’re going to hold a weight on your back for 45 seconds or longer (typical time for a set of squats), the deeper core musculature must be firing correctly to keep you upright and sturdy.
The Test: Hold a plank for as long as you can with good form. Note where you first feel pressure. If it’s in your lower back as opposed to your abs, then more than likely, your deep core musculature isn’t firing correctly.
Possible Solution: Pall-off press & Single Leg Lowering. Both of these exercises “wake up” your deep core musculature.
Squat Depth Problem #2: Tight Calves
While the other 4 issues in this article relate to incorrect movement patterns, or large tight muscles, oftentimes it’s the small muscles in your calf that will inhibit you from dropping to a proper depth and will make you unstable.
The Test: Put an empty bar on your back and see how far you can squat. Then place 25-pound plates under your feet. If you can go down further this second time around then your calves are limiting your depth.
Possible Solution: Foam rolling for calves and calf stretching
Squat Depth Problem #3) Tight Hip Flexors
Due to either lots of sitting or not moving for excessively long periods of time, our hip flexors can become tight. Hip flexors are the muscles right above the front of your thighs and on the side of your groin that when tight will inhibit other muscles from firing correctly and from achieving proper squat depth.
The Test: Stand in front of a squat rack or pole. Grab the pole at about waist height and perform a squat, going as low as you can go. This should help stabilize your core musculature. If you’ve already tested for the calves and “passed” then you should be able to drop to below parallel while holding onto the squat rack. If you can’t or if you can’t move out of the bottom position then your issue is probably tight or inactive hip flexors.
Possible Solution: Hip flexor stretches like crescent lunge
Squat Depth Problem #4) Upper Back Tightness
You upper back (thoracic spine) can lose its flexibility due to improper posture, lots of sitting, or a focus on chest exercises, which forces chest muscles to tighten and upper back muscles to weaken.
Most guys I’ve worked with have this as a limiting factor when first starting to work out.
The Test: Perform a squat with no weight and your hands in front of your chest. See how low you go and when/if your back rounds at the bottom. Now perform the same movement, except this time bring your hands overhead, interlock your thumbs and mark how low you can go and when/if your back rounds. If your back rounds at a higher position or you can’t go as low without feeling like you’re going to lose your balance, then your thoracic spine extensibility is most likely the cause.
Possible Solution: Marc has a great article on How to Correct Rounded Shoulders. Follow everything in that article and you will be well on your way to fixing hump back posture.
Squat Depth Problem #5) Glute Medius & Minimus Not “Firing”
Your “butt” muscles are your glute medius and minimus, which help maintain balance when standing on one foot. They are the muscles that fire as we walk so we don’t cave in and fall over.
There are two main causes of improper firing of the glute medius/minimus; one is that your adductors are tight (your inner thighs) and the other is that those muscles are weak
The Test: Perform 10 bodyweight squats. Look at where your knees are going. Are they slightly caving in when you squat down or are they following the midline of your toes? If they’re caving in (no matter what the rep number) then stop the test and work on the solution.
Possible Solution: Foam roll your inner thigh, side-lying “clam” exercise, X-band side walking.
Keep in mind that rectifying any of these issues may take some time (1-3 months), so please be patient. The good news is that you will be able to truly master the squat and receive the greatest benefits from this exceptional exercise.
For more on squat depth, check out: How Deep Should You Squat?