Written by Jeremy McCann of Range Of Motion
Squatting should be simple when you think about it. I mean all you are really doing when you squat is bending at the hips, the knees, and the ankles before you stand up again. Considering that you are likely to do these a hundred times every day, your brain should be well trained when it comes to this movement. So why are there 14,200, 000 hits on Google when you type in “squat mobility?”
I have two answers for this:
- NOBODY WANTS TO GET HURT
- THE SPORT OF POWERLIFTING, THE GOAL IS TO MOVE AS MUCH WEIGHT AS YOU POSSIBLY CAN ONE TIME.
With that being said, there are two important things to remember:
- We create our own mobility problems. Things like old injuries, poor posture and gender can influence how well your muscles move your joints.
- Bones need to be in right places for muscles to be the right length and the brain to move your body the right way. What you need to understand is that are many ways that you can prevent yourself unnecessary trips to the chiro and physio.
Don’t worry I am going to tie this all together. Before we get into WHAT you can you do to move better we need to first understand the parts involved and how the female athlete is special in some ways. There are three big pieces we are going to look at that should be included in your pre-workout drills. The foot/ankle, knee, and head are three common checkpoints when creating a squat mobility plan.
THE FOUNDATION: Foot & Ankle
This is an obvious place to start when looking for areas of your body that are getting stressed out. Think about the job of your foot/ankle for a second. Before anything else, they have to support your entire bodyweight from above. If your body leans too far forward or shifts too much in one direction it is often the feet and ankles that take on a great deal of the stress. When we squat we need our ankles to bend appropriately so that the muscles that make up the lower leg (calf, etc) can lengthen out and slow down
DON’T BELIEVE IT?? Stand up against a wall in good posture with feet together and lean as far forward as you possibly can with falling forward. Notice what parts of your body worked? Most people will feel stress and strain in their feet and lower leg muscles. That stress and strain you feel are those muscles working OVER-TIME to prevent you from falling forward.
FOOT, ANKLE & THE FEMALES POSTURE: The foot and ankle are often a problem for the female powerlifter for a couple of reasons.
- CHOICE OF FOOTWEAR – Women who wear high-heeled shoes, essentially stand on their toes all day long. This shortens up the length of the calf muscle and reduces the mobility of the ankle. Likewise, flip-flops can influence the function of your foot negatively. When you wear flip flops, your style of walking changes because your foot doesn’t roll across the ground with the same pattern of movement as it would with a barefoot or shoe. Alternatively, you lift with hips more (so you don’t fling the sandal as you step!!) and your forefoot loses mobility.
- HAIR AND HEAD POSTURE – The farther forward your head travels in front of your body, the more STRESS the rest of your body, especially the foot ankle. Adding a head full of hair only increases the weight and stress.
WHAT WILL YOUR SQUAT LOOK LIKE?
If your calf muscles are tight you are likely to raise your heels and turn your feet outwards as you lower into the bottom position of a squat. You are likely to have knees that push out in front of your toes. THIS IS NOT GOOD. This type of squat pattern is linked to all sorts of pain from the knees and hip to the low back and neck.
WHAT TO DO?
Let’s start answering this by saying that the worst thing you can do is NOTHING. Your feet and ankles tell the rest of your body what to do. If they can’t MOVE, then your knees, hips, and everything that is connected to your spine (your ENTIRE body) will have the stressful task of trying to make up the difference.
Use the following video for a few ideas on to do this,
YOUR DUMBEST JOINT: The Knee
When talking about you’re the knee, we are really talking about what your hip and ankle make you knee do. We just pick on your knee because we can easily see it move and it often gives female athletes a problem. Your poor knee is simply just stuck between the hip and ankle. If those joints are not co-operating with one another, then the poor knee will suffer. Obviously, we know that knee needs to be able to bend for us to successfully squat. And without a doubt, you have heard a coach yell,” KNEE’S OUT AND HIPS BACK!” when you are getting into your bottom position but do you ever wonder why?
The simple and easy answer is ENERGY. It helps to think of muscle as a rubber band. To shoot a rubber band a further distance we know we need to stretch it out first. Muscles create force the same way. This “elastic band” effect happens when we shove our knees out and hips back get to the bottom of the squat. The muscles of our glutes and thighs get stretched out to build up enough energy to make us stand back up.
POSTURE CHECK: STAND AGAINST A WALL WITH YOUR HEAD, TAIL AND HEELS TOUCHING. IF YOU CAN TAKE YOUR HAND, SLIDE IT BETWEEN THE SPACE BETWEEN YOUR LOW BACK AND THE WALL, THEN YOUR HIPS TILT TOO FAR FORWARD.
THE KNEE & THE FEMALES POSTURE: The knee is often a problem for the female powerlifter for a couple of reasons:
- THE BEAUTY OF BIRTH – The ability to bear children is often the blame for many knee related issues for females. To deliver, a female develops wider hips. When this occurs, it changes the angle of the long bone in the leg. This increases the risk for many knee related injuries as the balance between all the muscles of the leg changes. In addition, the act of carrying a developing fetus for 10 months changes a female’s center of gravity. This leads to the pelvis tilting too far forward. This is referred to as an excessive anterior pelvic tilt. When this occur the muscles that make up the deep abdominals and core get stretched and weakened. At the same time, the hip flexor and low back muscles become overactive and tight.
- QUAD DOMINANCE – Many females have a tendency to be able to use their quad muscles very well. In fact, a very common frustration to hear is that they “take over” when the glutes should be working. The common answer is to find a new glute activation exercise to do. In most cases, this doesn’t solve the problem. Our glutes are the biggest and strongest muscles of our lower body. Too often they are not allowed to do their job because their quadriceps just steal the job they are supposed to do or the hamstrings try to help too much. What we need to understand is that our quads are intended to be our “braking” muscles when do things walking and running. In a perfectly aligned body, it is their job to slow our knee down and help us absorb impact. Essentially it is their job to stop us from falling forward. At the same, your hamstrings are a neighbor to the glutes. If a muscle isn’t working to its fullest capacity the closest neighboring muscles will often try to help. The combination of overactive quads and hamstrings, make’s the glutes harder to use when we need them the most. We refer to this as glute amnesia.
GLUTE ACTIVATION SELF-TEST:.While lying on your back with your legs extended out front of you, try to contract your glutes without squeezing your quads. If you can’t do this, you are quad dominant and need to learn how to use your glutes.
HOW DOES THIS INFLUENCE YOUR SQUAT?
If your pelvis tilts too far forward and you become too quad dominant this makes it hard for you to descend into the bottom position of a squat and use your butt to get out of the hole. What ends up happening is that you will use your quads to extend your hips upward and your lower back to arch your chest up. THIS IS NOT GOOD. Often this type of posture leads to back pains from over-arching in efforts to keep the chest up.
WHAT TO DO?
For most female power athletes, there generally THREE important things to do,
Glute activation self-test. While lying on your back with your legs extended out front of you, try to contract your glutes without squeezing your quads. If you can’t do this, you are quad dominant and need to learn how to use your glutes.
Shut off the quads. Think of foam rolling (lacrosse and tennis ball) and stretching as a way of switching a muscle “off.” Use the following video as an example of how to do this.
Fire up the glutes. If you did the test and your pelvis tilts a bit too far forward, then your glutes are going to be a bit sleepy. Use the following video for examples of how to “wake” them up as part of your pre-squat workout drills.
THE HEAD: Where it goes, your shoulders will follow.
When we talk about NOT GETTING CRUSHED by a barbell on our back we are really talking about the health of our spine. If our spine is out of position, then our body (often times our back) will suffer. What we need to understand is that our spine is a series of 4 alternating curves that are separated by the tailbone at one end and the head the other. We all know that if our hips tilt too far forward that our tailbone will go with it and create a big arch in the lower back. What we need to realize is that if the head is too far forward this can round the upper back and push the shoulders forward. This makes reduces our shoulder mobility, which can have an impact on bar placement and stress for the shoulders, elbows and wrists.
THE HEAD & THE FEMALES POSTURE: The head is often a problem for the female powerlifter for a couple of reasons:
BREASTS – Breasts change the center of gravity for a female. Effectively what happens is that more weight is distributed on the front part of the female body in comparison to the male counterpart. When the head is in a forward position the weight of the breasts creates even further encourage the encourage the upper back to round. When the upper back rounds it forces the vertebrae of the neck to extend forward. This ultimately is not a good thing as it creates mobility issues for both the shoulder and the upper back. When the upper back rounds, it pushes the shoulder blades up and forward. This creates strain for the shoulders and reduces mobility in the upper back. This compromises the position of bar placement on the back.
WEAK CORE – We must understand that mobility is more about joint position before anything else. If bones are out of place, muscles will be the wrong length and not be able to their job. If your head moves too far forward and this rounds your upper back, then your spine must arch excessively at the lower back. When this arch occurs, it stresses the muscles of the lower back to keep the spine upright while stretching out the deeper muscles of the core. A muscle that is chronically stretched out is also a muscle that is chronically inactive, which means it becomes weak.
HOW DOES THIS INFLUENCE YOUR SQUAT?
If your head moves too far forward and your shoulders roll then you likely lack mobility through your upper back. If this the case, your bar will travel a forward when you squat and put extra stress on your shoulders, elbows, and wrists.
WHAT TO DO?
The upper back (thoracic vertebrae) is the link between better head and shoulder position. Improving the mobility of the thoracic spine reduces the chances of pain and injury in the shoulder, elbow and wrist because of squatting. Here are few ideas on how to loosen the upper back and put your shoulders in better position.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Mobility drills can be like magic. These drills can instantly grant you mobility in places you need it most to squat effectively. The truth is that there are several ways that we can perform magic. Here is a simple way that you put your body in good position to perform prior to your next squat session:
Use the drills in this video to:
- BEND better at the ankles.
- OPEN hips.
- RELAX dominant quads.
- PUSH knees out harder.
- SET shoulders better.