The Top 3 Squat Problems & How to Fix Them

There are two things you are almost guaranteed to see in the weight room. You will see athletes hoist colossal weight with amazing technique. You will also see terrible technique that will make you want to pull your hair out. For coaches, it can be quite challenging to find the perfect way to diagnose and address technique errors for the squat.

Today, I want to go over my top 3 squat technique faults and how to fix them. We will cover the following:

  • The “Turtle Shell” Squat
  • The “Good Morning” or “Stripper” Squat
  • The “Knee Cave” Squat

The Turtle Shell Squat

One of the most common problems I see is the dreaded rounded spine. This technique fault often presents on the ascent of the squat. The descent will look great, but on the way up the athlete will hunch over like they’ve got a turtle shell on their back!1

Turtle Shell

Usually the culprit to the “turtle shell” is lack of core stability. During the execution of the squat we require all of the muscles that surround the spine to work together in perfect coordination in order to keep our back from buckling in two. Without this continuous collaboration, the weight of our upper body alone would be enough to collapse our spine!1

Correcting for this fault starts by learning proper breathing mechanics. In order to maintain our back in a good stable position, athletes need to breathe and brace in a very specific way.

Try this simple cue next time you get under the barbell. Take a big breath and feel for the air going into your stomach. In reality, the air is staying in your lungs. However, by breathing “with your belly” you efficiently recruit your diaphragm. This increases your intra-abdominal cavity volume.

Once the breath is taken “into your stomach,” brace your core like someone is going to punch you in the gut. When we combine these two actions (belly breathing and core bracing) we find something special happens. Our intra-abdominal cavity pressure rises like crazy. This is the most efficient way to stabilize the spine when moving big weight and limit the “turtle shell effect”2.

Punch

Here is a good example of “belly breathing” with the squat. This is a video of Eduardo Guadamud squatting 310 kg (682 lbs) x 2 reps. As you can see, his stomach expands as he takes a huge breath. He then braces his core and begins his descent.

To see some of my other favorite ways to improve core stability to enhance your squat technique, check out this blog article.

The Good Morning Squat

The next common squat fault I see is the “good morning” or “stripper squat.” This describes the athlete whose hips rise excessively fast while the chest drops forward during the ascent.

Good Morning.png

There are 2 main theories as to why this problem exists.

  1. Quad Weakness
  2. Coordination Problems due to Fatigue

Many are under the impression that quad weakness is the main culprit behind this technique flaw. However, when you look at the research, there are a number of flaws to this idea. First, the majority of research to support this theory centers on studies performed on subjects lifting boxes or sandbags from the ground (not a barbell on their back).

In 2012 a group of researchers from Cairo University analyzed the technique and muscular activation of a group of participants while lifting a sand bag weighing roughly 30% of their bodyweight. After fatiguing their quad muscles in isolation (using an expensive isokinetic machine) they reanalyzed their movement pattern and found they tended to lift more with their back!5 A number of similar studies have found these same results.6,7

However, what these studies failed to demonstrate is how the body responds to fatigue when lifting a weight on the back. This means their results cannot be generalized to a movement like barbell squatting. The movement of picking up a box from the floor is different than when squatting a barbell on the back.

This is where the second theory comes into play.

During the ascent of a squat we ideally want the chest and hips to rise at the same. This keeps the bar centered over the mid-foot, which means the body is in balance and capable of producing efficient power.

Hips Together

However as athletes fatigue while squatting (near the end of a high rep training session or when attempting a near maximum weight), they often lose their ability to stay balanced and maintain perfect coordination, allowing their chest to fall forward.8-10 Excessive forward trunk lean leads to the hips rising faster than the chest on the ascent of the squat, which lengthens the hamstrings.

During a balanced squat, the body uses muscles in our thigh that cross two joints (hamstrings and rectus femoris) to transfer force between the knees and hips. This allows the knee extensors (quad muscles) to indirectly help extend the hip. It also allows the hip extensors (glutes) to indirectly extend the knee. This is called “Lombard’s Paradox.”11

However, during a squat where the hips rise excessively fast, the hamstrings lengthen and the body loses the ability to transfer force from the quads to aid the glutes in hip extension.

Dr. Gregory Myer and Dr. Brad Schoenfeld have explained this fault as a problem with suboptimal motor recruitment patterns (i.e. the ability for the body to turn on the right muscles at the right time to maintain technique).12

 What this means is the “stripper squat” isn’t caused solely by a lack quad strength but rather due to problems in coordination and motor control that leads to a disruption in “lombards paradox”.

I find that instead quad weakness, the more likely cause of this technique fault is the ability to “turn on” the glutes at the right time due to fatigue.

In a recent study, researchers looked at the muscular recruitment changes the body takes when lifting near maximum and maximal weights. They found that when experienced athletes jump from 90% to 100% of their 1RM, they actually recruit their glutes more in an effort to keep their chest upright on the ascent.13 The researchers commented that this action transfers force from the hips to the knees, allowing the body to complete the squat ascent with the more ideal upright chest position.

So how do we fix this fault? The first step is to use verbal cuing in an attempt to reclaim a balanced ascent. Telling the athlete “drive the chest up” out of the hole is one of the most commonly used.

If the athlete has pushed into such a fatigued state that no amount of verbal cuing will stop their hips from rising too quickly, have them drop the weight and perform their remaining sets at a weight they can show better technique.

The “Knee Collapse” Squat

We’ve all seen it, an athlete squats and their knees almost touch during the ascent phase. If you don’t know what I’m referring to, see the picture below.

Knee Cave

During that ascent phase of the squat, we ideally want to keep the knees in direct alignment with the feet. Any side-to-side deviation from this position decreases the efficiency of the movement. Knees that wobble while lifting big weights also increase an athlete’s injury risk.

The main reason athletes allow their knees to collapse during the ascent of the squat is due to poor coordination. Specifically, athletes are unable to ‘turn on’ their lateral glute muscles (glute medius) at the right time and keep them on in order to maintain knee alignment and limit the knee from collapsing inwards. Often these muscles are not necessarily weak but instead they are not activated correctly. It’s essentially a timing issue.

Glute Medius

As a coach, when you see an athlete with faulty technique, the first thing to do is to use verbal cues to fix the problem. A simple cue is to “drive the knees wide” which should help turn on the lateral glute muscles. This teaches the athlete to engage their hips properly and keep the knees from collapsing inwards as they squat. However, it must be followed with “keep your feet firmly planted”.

Knees Out

Some athletes will push their knees TOO FAR OUT. This will cause the foot to roll on its side and the athlete will be off balance. For this reason, I also like to cue athletes to “jam their big toe into the ground”. This will make sure the lifter stays balanced during the entire squat and prevent the knees from going too far out.

Toe Into Ground

For some athletes, verbal cuing alone will not fix their knee collapse. In this case, I recommend checking out this blog article that explains some of my favorite corrective exercises to improve knee stability.

Final Thoughts

Every athlete will present with different issues when barbell training. Your job as a coach is to properly diagnose what the technique error is and then apply the correct tool to fix it.

Until next time,

Author Photo
Dr. Aaron Horschig, PT, DPT, CSCS

With

Kevin Photo
Dr. Kevin Sonthana PT, DPT, CSCS

References

  1. Crisco JJ, Panjabi MM, Yamamoto I, & Oxland TR. Stability of the human ligamentous lumbar spine. Part II: experiment. Clinc. Biomech. 7:27-32, 1992
  2. Willardson JM. Core stability training: applications to sports conditioning programs. J Strength and Cond Res. 2007, 21(3), 979-98
  3. Bennell K, Talbot R, Wajswelner H, Techovanich W, Kelly D. Intra-rater and inter-rater reliability of a weight-bearing lunge measure of ankle dorsiflexion. Australian Journal of Physiotherapy. 1998; 44(3):175-180.
  4. Reinold M. (2013) Ankle mobility exercises to improve dorsiflexion. Retrieved from MikeReinold.com.
  5. Adel SM, Battecha KH, Abo ElAzm SN. The effect of quadriceps fatigue on back muscles electromyographic activity during lifting in osteoarthritis patients. Bull Fac Ph Th Cairo Univ. 2012;(17)2:55-63
  6. Trafimow JH, Schipplein OD, Navak GJ, et al. The effects of quadriceps fatigue on the technique of lifting. Spine (Phila PA 1976). 1993;18:364-367
  7. Makoto S, Akira H, Massahiko W. Influence of quadriceps femoris fatigue on low back load during lifting of loads at different distances from the toes. J Phys Ther Sci. 2008;20:81-89
  8. Hooper DR, Szivak TK, Comstock BA, et al. Effects of fatigue from resistance training on barbell back squat biomechanics. JSCR. April 2014; 28(4):1127-1134
  9. Sparto PJ, Parnianpour M, Reinsel TE, et al. The effect of fatigue on multijoint kinematics, coordination, and postural stability during a repetitive lifting test. JOSPT. 1997; 25(1):3-12
  10. Yavuz HU, Erdag D. Kinematic and electromyographic activity changes during back squat with submaximal and maximal loading. Applied Bionics and Biomechanics. 2017; Volume 2017:1-8
  11. Cavanagh PR & LaFortune M. Knee flexor moments during propulsion in cycling – a creative solution to lombard’s paradox. J. Biomechanis. 1985; 18(5): 307-316
  12. Myer GD, Kushner AM, Brent JL, et al. The back squat: a proposed assessment of functional deficits and technical factors that limit performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning. 2014;36(6):4-27
  13. Yavuz HU, Erdag D. Kinematic and electromyographic activity changes during back squat with submaximal and maximal loading. Applied Bionics and Biomechanics. 2017; Volume 2017:1-8

 

 

Published by

Dr. Aaron Horschig

Doctor of Physical Therapy, CSCS, USAW coach and athlete.

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