Ultimate Squat Mobility Checklist
Ahhhh yes, squats… perhaps the most hated exercise, but also one of the most productive exercises in the gym. Squats are known to many as the exercise that just causes pain, stiffness, or it just doesn't feel good. But in my eyes, there is no substitute that builds complete lower body strength and total body fitness. It really gives you so much bang for your buck!
But why is that you ask? Squatting is one of the most basic and fundamental movements throughout daily life. A squat assessment can shed light onto a person’s overall health and mobility, and squatting can be modified to fit EVERY single person’s body type and training. Plus...don’t you want to be able to get on and off the toilet when you’re 80 years old?
Some people have pain or limited mobility when they squat, which is something this article will help address. We will cover how to assess your flexibility, mobility, strength, and overall form as well as ways to make positive changes! We will be covering proper form first, followed by a breakdown at each joint including the ankles, knees, hips, and pelvis/back. By the end you will have a good idea of what things you will need to work on when it comes to squatting, and how you can safely and effectively squat without pain and with great form!
The first thing I want to talk about is form. Everything else in the article directly relates to form, and will influence your form. Squat form will look different for every person, and for a variety of reasons. Hip joint anatomy, femur and torso length, muscle length/tension relationships, and overall mobility and motor control will play into your optimal form.
There are a few key points of performance when it comes to squat form. To make it as simple as possible, we want a stance slightly wider than shoulder width, toes pointed slightly out, feet flat, shoulders back and chest up, with a braced core. As you squat, your hips and knees break at the same time as you sit straight down to depth with your weight balanced through the arch of your foot, then stand straight up. Perfect, you got that all correct? ...no? Well maybe this video will help you then.
How deep you go in the squat will vary between everyone. Hip joint anatomy, femur and torso length, muscle length/tension relationships, and overall mobility and motor control will play into your optimal depth, as well as your personal goals and training style. If you're currently dealing with pain or injury, you may need to modify your form. But one thing you shouldn't do is constantly be pushing past pain to the point that you hurt more afterwards. Pain is not a normal thing to feel, so if you're having pain when you squat get it addressed before it turns into anything more serious.
The ankles is where we will start today. If you lack the proper flexibility of the ankle, specifically its ability to "dorsiflex", the rest of your squat will be thrown off because everything else will have to compensate. As you squat, the knee should travel forward over the toe as the ankle dorsiflexes. I also want to take this time to say that IT IS PERFECTLY FINE FOR YOUR KNEES TO GO OVER YOUR TOES! In fact, it is necessary for proper squat form. No... your knees will not explode, and no... it will not increase your risk of arthritis. Here is a good way to assess your flexibility with the ankle wall test, and a couple of my favorite exercises to improve that dorsiflexion!
I wanna start by saying that flexibility in the knees is often not the issue when squatting, it is usually more an issue of the strength and mobility of the knees- or our ability to control the flexibility we already have. With a squat to parallel and below, the knee is usually not reaching its end of FLEXIBILITY, but rather its end of MOBILITY. But then why does it feel stiff or painful you ask? This is most likely due to your bodies inability to handle the load you're asking it to. But by building up the knees, we can make this much less stiff and painful. If you actually have limited flexibility, then the couch stretch is a good one for you.
To build up the knees and improve our ability to control that squat better, the quads are a very important muscle group. These muscles cover the front of the thigh, and will stretch as you squat down, and contract as you stand up, but they're always working. If we can help these muscles get stronger and control our mobility better-our knees will begin to feel better when squatting. Here are some videos of my favorite exercises to build up the quads and improve knee strength!
The hips are another area that will leave our squats feeling stiff and painful. But unlike the knee and ankle, the hips have much more movement, which either be a good thing or a bad thing. It's a good thing if you're flexible and have good control over the muscles, it's bad if you're stiff and forcing your hips into a position they don't want to be in.
Testing mobility is easy, and will focus on the ability of our hip to flex and rotate. Check out these videos to determine if you have enough flexibility in your hips.
The strength of the hips is a completely different animal. Muscles of the hip also attach to the knee and pelvis, so it's impossible to talk about one without including the other. But for the sake of this part of the article we will focus on how these muscles affect the hip. The glutes are our main focus here, but that term "glutes" encompasses many groups of muscle that all work differently. We can isolate different areas to assess how well our bodies can perform certain movements, which can show us if we are lacking any strength. Here are a few of my favorite exercises to work the muscles of the hips that relate to squatting
The last component is the pelvis and back. Now the pelvis itself is very closely related to the hips and spine, so our focus is not going to be testing the strength or flexibility, but rather how well your body can resist unwanted movements. You can think of this as how well does your core control your stability.
As we squat, we want to see the pelvis and lower back stay neutral and braced without any movement. The most common pelvis movement we see as we squat down is known as "butt wink" and it's a term you may have heard before. This is not necessarily a problem with flexibility, but just your body knowing how to stabilize in that area. This is also something almost everyone will experience if they go low enough in a squat. Having this "butt wink" is not bad, and it won't necessarily cause an injury in that moment, but it indicates that your stability is decreased and will be something we consider if you're having pain.
Fixing this "butt wink" can be as simple as using a mirror and watching yourself from the side, or enlisting the help of a friend. I utilize tempo squats to help teach the body to brace and stabilize in different positions, and build up the control you need to avoid it.
Yay you made it through everything! Now if you came here hoping to learn and are leaving more confused that when you started, don't sweat it. This is something I help people with every day. Knowing what to look at, finding the root cause, and developing a personalized solution to get you out of pain so you can get back to the gym without worrying about missing and modifying workouts is what I do for a living. I learned all the hard stuff so I can make it easy for you.
I have helped hundreds of active adults in New Albany Ohio get back to their active lifestyle, without having to worry about pain or injury. If this is something that you have trouble with, I would love to help, but that all starts with a free 15 minute phone call to understand what you're dealing with and determine if we would be a good fit. If you're ready to start living and exercising without pain, click the button below.
November 20, 2023