Is Your Squat So Good That It’s Bad?

Don’t ‘Over-Kardashian’ Your Squat

The squat is hot right now. In the age of Instagram, activewear and selfie sticks squatting is not only a valuable exercise but it’s a move that is shared, liked and posted for everyone to see. Squatting is a great exercise to have in your gym repertoire to strengthen your legs, hips and trunk; and when done well, it can improve your function and actually protect you against injury. When done badly the opposite is true and well-intentioned advice can lead to painful overload of hips and back, which could see you amassing more medical expenses than “likes”.

I met a client, Chris, two weeks ago and I discovered he was ‘Kardashian-ing’ his squats. Chris arrived at the clinic complaining of back pain which he’d associated with squatting. A regular ‘gym junkie’ Chris had been training at the gym 5-6 days per week and was well versed in the theory that underpins good squat technique. When Chris first noticed his back ached after squatting he dialled in his technique even more; taking a bigger inhale and holding his breath at the top of the movement, arching his back, sticking his butt out, keeping his weight in his heels and not letting his knees travel over his toes, sound familiar?

Same Squat Rules for Everyone?

Although the rules Chris diligently followed were intended to improve squat technique, in this case they were actually making things worse. Chris was lifting his chest up and sticking his butt way out (hence the Kardashian reference). This meant Chris was excessively arching his lumbar spine and his back muscles were working like crazy. This combination was compressing the joints in his back which had become painful and inflamed. Not only was Chris’ back hurting in his quest for “ass to grass” (urban dictionary -getting ‘heaps low’ in your squat) but his hips hurt. They felt really jammed and pinched at the bottom of the movement and if anything, he was losing depth in his squatting. 

On advice from a gym buddy with the same problem he began foam rolling his hips to within an inch of their lives to create the space he needed to get low, but sadly he was getting nowhere. In fact, Chris’ hips weren’t tight at all, we checked them, and he had normal range of motion in both hips. 

The hip pain was also a result of the Kardashian-style squats Chris had been performing. When Chris was pushing his butt way back he was also moving his pelvis into anterior tilt (tipped forward). Meaning he was using all the space in his hips to get the butt out rather than to go down into the movement. 

Tailored Tweaks

The first thing I asked Chris to do was back off a little on the breath hold at the start of the movement and focus on expanding his lower ribs by using his diaphragm instead. 

Then I helped Chris to control that excessive arch in his back by getting him to visualise an elastic band running from the bottom of his sternum to the top of his pubic bone. If he stuck his butt out the band would stretch; if he slouched the band would shorten and create slack. The key was to keep the elastic band taut but not to allow the elastic band to stretch as he squatted down. 

Finally, I encouraged Chris to let his knees go past his toes (crazy I know). Once he was able to use the full range of his hips thanks to his increased knee bend he finally achieved ‘ass to grass’ with no back pain! 

Suffice to say, Chris was stoked. Two weeks later Chris is still squatting pain-free and able to lift 20kg more than previously.

There’s no such thing as the perfect way to teach a squat. What’s important is that the changes I guided Chris to make were tailored specifically to his concerns and his body. Your problem may be ankle stiffness and the next person’s issue could be weakness in their glutes or tightness in their back. If you’re not sure what’s up with your squat come and see us for some help and we’ll even hold the phone for you once it’s fixed.