Squats: what I was doing wrong

by Kim on January 23, 2014

So this came in the mail…

IMG_4060
Except…oh look, they spelled my name wrong. (It’s Krueger.) Womp womp.

It’s funny because I thought I was marrying into an easy-to-spell last name. (My maiden name is Sendelbach–you can imagine the joy of carrying that around!)

The other thing I find funny is that this certificate was printed on much nicer, heavier paper than my actual college graduation certificate. And it’s bigger! Ha!

Anyway, today I wanted to stop by to talk to you about something I’ve been working on lately. It’s called…the @#$%& squat. (Har har)

squat

Squatting seems like such a basic human movement, and yet it took me forever to feel truly confident that I was doing it right.

Back when I had a gym membership, I used to be a loyal BodyPumper, and I remember that my lower back would always KILL during the leg track. Always, always, always.

One day, I asked the instructor about it, and she had two ideas:

–My core was weak.

–I was using too much weight on the bar.

Weeell, I don’t know. For one thing, I’m always a little suspicious about blaming the core–since it’s a critical player in almost every single bodily movement, it’s an easy scapegoat. (Although don’t get me wrong: sometimes, it’s the right one.)

As for the weight on the bar: I wasn’t using that much at all! I mean, there were smaller girls Packing. It. On. all around me. (And that can’t be right…right?!?)

I just felt like that wasn’t the whole story. Something about the movement, for me, just felt wrong. I knew I was messing it up somehow. When we’d finish up the leg track, everyone around me would start shaking their legs out, looking totally spent–but my legs felt fine. All I could think about was my back.

It’s a shame that, throughout my entire BodyPump stint, I never did figure out the squat thing. I just dreaded the leg track, suffered through it, and went home with a sore back and underworked legs.

Now, I know that I was actually doing more harm than good. I was reiterating movement patterns that were already out of whack, essentially making the problem even worse every time. I might have had a weak core, but I think it’s more likely that I had tight hip flexors and hamstrings, and weak glutes. (Sorry if that’s too nerdy–it’s the NASM talking.)

Recently, I found this awesome video, which breaks down two of the most common errors in squat form and how to correct them:

Here’s a summary, if you don’t have time for the full video:

Error 1: Letting the tailbone/pelvis tuck under at the bottom of the squat.

Symptom: Lower back pain.

Reason: Your body has to straighten you out on the way back up, which puts a lot of stress on the lower back.

Fix: Keep your butt out, even farther than you think! Also: do exercises that open the hips and foam roll tight hamstrings.

Error 2: Going straight down instead of back.

Symptom: Knee pain.

Reason: When you squat straight down (more or less), the whole movement is concentrated on the knees instead of the glutes and major leg muscles.

Personally, I think part of the problem comes from instructors pushing the whole “keep your knees behind your toes” thing a little too much. When your brain is going “knees! knees! knees!” as you’re trying to keep that in check, the result is a very knee-focused movement (aka “knee squatting”). I get it, of course: the reason instructors say “keep your knees behind your toes” is because when they say “put your butt back,” we put our butts back 2 millimeters when we need to be putting them back 6 inches.

Fix: Think “butt! butt! butt!” and shift your weight farther back into your heels. Focus on getting your butt as far back as humanly possible, and don’t worry so much about where your knees are. Argument 1 is that they be in the right place naturally if your butt is far enough back. Argument 2 is that some experts are now saying that having your knees slightly in front of your toes isn’t even that big of a deal.

The problem, of course, is that it’s hard to know what you’re doing wrong without seeing yourself squat. I used to be one of the people who fought for mirror spots in class for that exact reason. (Not that it helped me that much, obviously. If only I’d know about the butt tuck thing!)

There are a few great ways to practice bodyweight squats, that will basically force you into perfect form:

Toes to the wall. Face a wall, with your toes just a few inches away from it, and try to squat down without your knees or nose touching the wall. Let me warn you: it’s tough. Especially since you can’t put your arms out in front of you for counterbalance (unless your wall was more like a rail or something). Your very first instinct is to bash your head into the wall…yeah, it’s weird.

Stability ball behind the back. A much more doable approach, if you have a stability ball. Use it to calm your “I’m going to fall backwards and DIE” instinct by placing it behind your back, against a wall, as you squat.

Chair hovers. Stand right in front of a chair–or, even better, a low stool–and squat until you’re hovering right over it. See how low you can go, and then let yourself actually sit at the end so you can get the feel for that very lowest point (without the falling backwards and dying thing getting in the way).

(I’ve also heard that these work wonders, if you’re really dedicated.)

Other squat tips:

–Most people can and should descend until their thighs are parallel to the ground. (That’s soooo far down!)

–You should always be more upright than bent over.

–Stand with your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart, and point your toes slightly outward.

–Your knees should be pointing in the same direction as your toes. (If the knees move inward, it means your inner thigh muscles are tight. If they move outward, it means your IT band is tight. The answer there, of course, is foam rolling!)

–Your head should be pulled back, chest raised in military attention mode.

–Your back should be mostly flat, core tight.

–Inhale on the squat, exhale as you lift.

I wouldn’t say I’m a Squat Master just yet. But I’ve come a long ways–at the very, very least, I now know better than to keep powering through a movement that feels wrong. (Although, in my defense, what was I going to do? Stand there like a moron? haha.)

And hey, before I go: don’t forget to enter my two giveaways going on now! I’m giving away 2 entries to The Color Run and a bag of Peanut Butter Popcorn Nuggets!

How do you feel about your squatability?

Have you had specific problems with squats that you’ve overcome?

xoxo

Kim

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Dana September 17, 2015 at 1:36 pm

For a while I started squatting in my tennis shoes, which made me really wobbly. After I got a pair of shoes for squatting I was good to go from there!

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Hassan November 2, 2014 at 5:14 am

I’ll try the chair hover, hope that will help then will share my experience:)

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Hassan November 2, 2014 at 5:12 am

My major problem trying to squat correctly – almost falling back, losing ballance.

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Cassie January 29, 2014 at 10:24 am

The Supple Leopard is an AMAZING book-I have it, and treat it as my mobility bible. However, you don’t have to buy it to get some of the benefits, just check out http://www.mobilityWOD.com . I’m pretty sure there’s a few demso on how to do a perfect squat.

My biggest issue is bracing- after doing so much work pregnant, I’ve hard to relearn how to brace (i.e tightening my butt and pulling my rib cage DOWN) before all my heavier lifts, but there’s DEFINITELY difference when i do this. I’m a below parallel gal-if I can hit my stretch reflect (butt almost to calves) then I’m golden!

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Alex @ Alex Runs For Food January 25, 2014 at 6:22 pm

Omg this is amazing!!!! I’ve always thought I was doing squats right but I have both lower back pain and knee pain. I don’t think I’m doing them correctly :) I’ll be practicing!!
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Michelle @ 3cheaprunners January 24, 2014 at 10:47 am

I think my squats are ok?!?!…but after that video…I am going to have to take a better look in the mirror the next time I do this move at BodyPump

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Giselle@myhealthyhappyhome January 23, 2014 at 10:40 pm

I used to make the same mistakes and had the same issues! Guess what, my bodypump instructor said the same things! Hmmm…think their trained well? My husband purchased a great book called The Supple Leopard which has really helped us both with correct form in many exercises. That and in Crossfit they majorly stress the imprtance of butt down, back straight and head up. Great tips!
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Kim January 24, 2014 at 8:33 am

Hahaha Supple Leopard?? That’s what they decided to call it? I want to read it just because of the title!

Yeah, I’m frustrated that my BP instructor just went for the most simplistic answer. I even made her watch me do some squats and she said they looked fine. Clearly not! :)

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Katie January 23, 2014 at 9:11 pm

The other problem, is the reverse of #1, popping your booty so your back is arched. Your tailbone should be neutral. For me, my booty pops all on its own, so I need to tuck my tailbone. Whereas a cowboy usually has his tailbone tucked too much (like your example 1) and so they need to work on pushing it out.

I wish I could get as low in my squat as the photo, my form is not perfect!
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Kim January 24, 2014 at 8:28 am

Oooh, good point! That could have been my problem too. All I knew is that it hurt! :)

I know, I wish I could go lower too!

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