Squatting is simple; you’ve been doing it since birth, right?
Sit down, stand up, rack the bar, upload the video to Instagram, receive immediate gratification from each subsequent notification - yep, we’ve all been there, you get the idea.
Well, what do you do if the movement starts feeling awkward?
Like really awkward. Like almost as awkward as that time you farted right in the middle of Thanksgiving dinner with your family.
Don’t lie and try to blame it on the dog, everyone knows it was you…
Sometimes movements feel foreign - maybe you haven’t trained the pattern in a while as you’re recovering from an injury or perhaps you’re avoiding any movements, which start with “sq-“ and end with “-uat” as you’re deathly allergic to hard work.
Whatever the case, occasionally you might need a slight technique tweak to get things back on line - here are a few suggestions.
1. “Soft Squatting”
Many folks find that no matter how much they squat, their quads never get sore. As I’ve mentioned countless times in other articles, you must keep in mind that position affects activation. If you can’t feel a specific muscle contracting during a movement or it fails to ever get sore/fatigued after a training session then maybe it’s time to rethink your approach.
If you’ve ever examined the bodybuilding world, much of the advice on “weak body part training” is centered around improving the mind to muscle connection (MMC) as a means to enhance maximal voluntary contraction (MVC) on each subsequent repetition.
Admittedly, this is a fairly controversial topic by nature, as many perceive MMC to be purely broscience.
Related: 9 Broscience Myths Destroyed With Actual Science
However, make no mistake, research (Halperin & Vigotsky, 2016) has clearly shown that internal focus on specific musculature can enhance activation. But, this may come at the cost of increased performance often resulting from external focus. So, unfortunately you can’t always have your cake and eat it too…
Nonetheless, the choice is still yours regardless of what the research says. Take this tweak for a test drive and see if you like it. If your squat automatically feels better after a few repetitions then stick with it. Don’t fix what isn’t broken.
2. Knee Pain? Use Your Brain…And Your Quads
To continue on with the MMC point from above, here is an additional idea that has been propagated within a few strength and conditioning circles I follow.
Bodybuilders may refer to this idea as “pre-fatiguing” a muscle but rather than using something like a leg extension (the efficacy of which is another article in and of itself), I’ve chosen to include a more joint friendly alternative that allows for similar mechanics - the terminal knee extension (TKE).
Why terminal knee extensions?
Well, consider this for a moment:
- From a kinetic chain standpoint, if one isn’t able to completely extend the knee then the hips will tilt anteriorly and they will compensate via extension of the lumbar spine in order to keep the load centered over their center of mass.
- If someone is lacking full knee extension then they won’t be able to equally disperse compressive forces across the joint’s surface in a close-packed position.
- Similarly, loading the knee without complete extension can change the angle of pull on the patella, thus increasing compressive forces of the patella against the femoral groove and altering the loading strategy of the patellar tendon.
For some, you may require further joint mobilizations via professional assistance in order to restore complete extension. But, for others, you may just need to work through activation and progressive overload at end range in a close-packed position.
Not to mention, from a specificity standpoint, this makes more sense than a leg extension given the closed-chain mechanics.
3. Combine the Best of Both Worlds…
Now that we’ve discussed the life changing benefits of TKEs, it’s time to reveal the coup de grace. In other words, for those of you who took Spanish in high school, it’s time to bring out the big guns. If this article were a WWE match, Randy Orton would be dropping RKOs left and right.
Some may call it a banded sissy squat but if you think about it, this is actually a bilateral TKE combined with a goblet squat via the plate held at your chest. By adding the band to the plate loaded squat variation, you accomplish a number of different things:
- Given the anterior load, there are very little compressive joint forces which makes it much easier on your spine.
- Since the band is pulling you forward along with the plate, it will allow you to remain more upright and load the quads easier.
- The band adds accommodating resistance, meaning that the tension is highest at lockout due to the stretch placed upon the band. Similarly, this variable overload corresponds with a position allowing for excellent quad recruitment (i.e. terminal knee extension).
PRO TIP #1: Wear long pants or knee sleeves to prevent the band from pulling the skin/hair on the back of your knees which tends to be a bit more sensitive than other areas.
PRO TIP #2: If you don’t own a pair of Olympic weight lifting shoes, simply toss a 5lb plate under each heel or utilize a slant board to shift your center of gravity forward and load the quads more effectively.
4. Single Leg Solutions
Now that we’ve covered some bilateral tweaks, I want to delve into the unilateral side of the equation. In one of my previous articles (Train Like an Athlete, Look Like a Bodybuilder), I discussed a fairly straightforward progression you could use for unilateral work that would help to build a stable single leg foundation.
Related: Single Leg Strength - The Leg Day Solution For Lifters
In case you haven’t read the previous piece, I’ll include the progression here as well:
- Step Up
- Split Squat > Front foot elevated
- Reverse Lunge > Front foot elevated
- Single Leg Squat to Bench
- Lateral Lunge
- Bulgarian/Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat (RFESS)
- Single Leg Squat From Bench
- Walking Lunge
- Forward Lunge
- Single Leg Skater Squat
- Pistol Squat
I mainly want to highlight a few tweaks, which can be made to progression #7 - single leg squats from a bench. Altering the type of loading (plate vs. DBs), location of the foot relative to the center of pressure, and surface rigidity will all drastically change proprioception. I explain all of them in detail here:
5. Small Hinges Swing Big Doors
To put things a little less poetically, small tweaks can drastically alter the kinesthetic input received during an exercise. As such, this can change both the subjective and objective quality of the movement. Not only will the trainee notice that the exercise “feels” better but the movement will also look more efficient from a biomechanical standpoint.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again - cueing is highly individual by nature. Butt back, knees out, and chest up don’t work for everyone as I’ve already covered here: Squatting: 3 Things You’ve Been Doing Wrong All Along.
As such, it will likely take some experimentation on your part to figure out what works for your body. Better yet, if you’re working with a skilled coach, they should be able to put together the pieces and get you on the right track.
That being said however, if you are going at it on your own, sometimes you need suggestions on where to look and what to tweak as you’ve run out of solutions on your own - that’s where this article comes into play.
Try out all of the tweaks and see what works, if nothing else it will help to introduce movement variability and provide you with some tools to help others.
If you are going to give tips/cues on squatting then you need to know
what muscles are to be used in the movement,
The Posterior chane moves the bar.... not the quads!
Knee pain is caused by (not) shoving ones knees out during the movement... (and)... knees traveling too
far out over the toes....I could go on, geeeez do your research
If you want simple anecdotal evidence, please go watch any Olympic lifters and notice their knee position both during the squat and in the catch position for the snatch. If you want to dig into Pubmed or Google Scholar and discuss the influence of arthrokinematics on squat biomechanics then we can do that as well. I'm more than happy to "do my research" and discuss the findings in an open forum such as this.
But, please recognize that different styles of squatting require different motor patterns. If you squat with more of a hip dominant style (due to either cueing, insufficient ankle mobility, or bar positioning) then yes, you will likely feel more posterior chain activation. However, that movement doesn't work for all and many will perform better with a high bar setup as I discussed in this piece: https://www.muscleandstrength.com/articles/squatting-youre-doing-it-wrong
The quads will always drive the high bar squat due to their anatomical function...which is? Knee extension and hip flexion (since rectus femoris crosses both the hip and knee). As such, any movement which drives both of those factors (KE and HF) will result in higher quadricep activation - think sprinting. Just because your squat style doesn't recruit quads as efficiently as others doesn't mean you need to force your dogmatic view of "knees out, chest up, butt back" on everyone. Cueing is entirely individual.
Movement variability is so vast and obscure that no one can delineate pain to such a simple phrase as "knee pain is caused by _______". If you look at any of the research on pain science, you will see that pain is not always indicative of biomechanical injury or dysfunction, it can be driven by autonomic or somatosensory input.
Don't place movement in a box, you will quickly find that there are many who defy your set "standards" and you'll be left questioning your own methodology. Think outside the box. While you may not agree with others, use it as an opportunity to challenge your current beliefs and perhaps learn something new.