Jeremy Ethier, kinesiologist, fitness trainer, and founder of Built with Science, knows that guys want to build up strong legs using squats. But he also knows that the seemingly simple movement can be challenging for some lifters for a variety of reasons—which could lead to trouble.
"Of the common squat injuries, the lower back comes up as the most frequent site of injury," says Ethier. "This means that you need to pay careful consideration to your squat form, as there’s a few common squat exercise form mistakes that people make with it that can contribute to lower back pain and injury over time."
Ethier points out are three common mistakes he sees in squats, and steps to take which he says can help to improve your squat, avoid injury, and build up a stronger, healthier lower body.
Mistake 1: Butt Wink
"Butt wink is a term used to describe when someone gets close to the bottom of their squat and their pelvis starts to posteriorly tilt and their tailbone tucks under them, creating a little bit of rounding or flexion in the lumbar spine," says Ethier.
This phenomenon has been studied and associated with spinal disc injuries.
"Research seems to indicate that this subtle rounding of the lumbar spine is associated with spinal disc injuries and can become problematic over time," Ethier continues. "Most individuals experience this butt wink due to ankle mobility issues. When you have adequate ankle mobility, your knee is able to travel forward more as you descend, and you can reach proper depth with your lower back and pelvis having to compensate."
To build up ankle mobility, Ethier recommends the incorporation of daily stretches and drills before you squat. These include a weighted ankle stretch, a wall stretch, and deep squat holds. You can also implement a 'quick fixe' to help by using a slightly wider stance, as this will enable you to squat deeper with less ankle action, and using lifting shoes with a platform heel.
Mistake 2: Hips Rising Too Fast ("Good Morning Squat")
"This happens when the hips shoot up and rise at a much faster rate than the chest does, and is problematic because it increases the lumbar forces and shear stress experienced at the spine," says Ethier.
To combat this, you need to focus on keeping your chest upright during the ascent of the movement, and make sure your hips aren't shooting up behind you as you start to fatigue during later sets.
"If you struggle with this, then this likely has to do with both your motor coordination and potentially a weakness in your quadriceps," says Ethier. If your quads are weak, your glutes and lower back will be forced to shoulder the load.
To fix it, Ethier suggests that you lighten the weight on your squat and start incorporating paused squats, which will help to get your quads to remain involved. To do this, pause briefly at the bottom of your squat, come halfway up, pause again, and then come back to the top.
The goal is to make sure your chest and hips are rising at the same rate.
Mistake 3: Breathing
"Breathing in on the way down and breathing out on the way up is fine to do for most exercises that are less strenuous, but doing so when it comes to your more fatiguing sets of barbell squats is going to result in a ton of instability during the lift," says Ethier.
Instead, you need to use a breathing technique that increases your intra-abdominal pressure, thinking about going under water every time you squat.
"Take a big breath into your abdomen and then brace your core as if someone were about to punch your stomach. Then, keep bracing and hold this breath as you 'go underwater' (descend) and ascend during your rep, and then exhale and reset at the top position as you come out of the water," says Ethier.
The Better Squats Action Plan
Ethier encourages you to film yourself squatting to try to catch any of the above mistakes, Then, depending on how your form looks, take action. If you experience excessive butt wink at the bottom of your squat, test if it’s due to ankle mobility limitations. If it is, perform daily ankle mobility exercises and avoid deep heavy squats (go to parallel, or as close as you can get, instead) until your mobility improves. Make sure to avoid the “good morning” squat by using paused squats, and think about “driving the chest up” out of the bottom position of the movement (a.k.a. the hole). And during your heavier sets of barbell squats, you can protect your lower back and add more stability by raising your intra-abdominal pressure with the “underwater” breathing analogy presented earlier.
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