The full-depth squat is an excellent exercise, but not everyone can and should be going ATG. If you haven’t already read The Deep Squat Manifesto, I would highly recommend reading that article first as it will provide the background for this article. If you’re blessed with exceptional mobility and squatting ATG comes with ease than this article isn’t for you…for the rest of us continue on.
What makes a deep squat?
Before we dive into potential ways to improve squat depth it’s important to review the characteristics of a full-depth squat: high bar position and a vertical torso. Simple right?
The bar positioning is relatively straightforward but achieving a torso angle that is as close to vertical as possible is a bit more complex. From the bottom up the knees should have a significant amount of forward travel (ankle dorsiflexion). Yes, it is OK for the knees to track past the toes so long as the weight remains centered over the mid foot.1 In fact, it’s not just OK…for most people it’s a necessity in order to maintain a vertical torso. The hips should be opened up (externally rotated) — if you imagine the legs as a clam shell the clam shell would be more opened than closed.
What does a ballerina doing a plié and a weightlifter squatting have in common? They’re both externally rotating their hips.
When assessing how well the hips are “opened” look at the knees relative to the toes, the knees should be tracking over the middle/outer toes rather than the inner toes. It is important to note that in the past several years cues such as “knees out” have sometimes been taken too far. It is not advisable for the knees to be tracking past the outside of the toes.
When you boil down the nuances of the high bar ATG squat, greater depth is achieved with a more vertical torso. A more vertical torso angle is achieved with the butt between the heels. Therefore, if the goal is maximize depth, the cue to sit back in the squat will be inappropriate for most people, instead you will want to sit into the squat.
Before proceeding into the methods used to accomplish greater depth and minimize butt wink it is important to have realistic expectations about what you can accomplish. There are two primary causes for difficulty squatting deep and/or butt winking: anatomic and non-anatomic. Due to genetic variations in the structure of the hip socket and femoral head there are certain aspects of one’s mobility that are non-negotiable.* If your goal is to squat deeper and reduce butt wink, the focus will be on the “non-anatomic” — mobility limitations in the connective tissues and squat mechanics.
*If you’re interested in learning more about the variations in hip shape, Dean Somerset has a good article on the topic.
Prior to making any adjustments to your squat you need to make an honest assessment of your starting point. This can be easily accomplished with video. You will record yourself doing a kneeling rockback (video below). In which you start on all fours with a neutral spine and slowly bring your hips back towards your feet, essentially mimicking a squatting motion in the horizontal plane. If you develop any butt wink performing these you want to take note of that point as you initially won’t want to squat any lower than that. In general if you have a lot of butt wink during the kneeling rockback that indicates you are more anatomically disadvantaged, but don’t give up as there is still hope that technique alterations and tissue mobilization can yield some improvements in your squat.
Next you want to record yourself squatting from the side with the camera positioned at hip level. Ideally this would be done either shirtless or with tight fitting clothing (this isn’t so you can look jacked in your Instagram video — it’s because this finding can be subtle). If you “butt wink”, the initial focus will be working on proprioception in order to feel the tipping point from a neutral to a flexed lumbar spine to ensure you are able to safely squat within your current mobility limitations. This part requires some training but shouldn’t be too difficult. The first thing you can do are squats to a box where the height of the box is set at the “tipping point”. For the “squats to a box” the box is just a tool to help you feel where your squat depth should be so your behind should just barely graze the box — you’re not doing a box squat where you physically sit back into the box then rock forward to ascend. For this movement it will be imperative to place the box basically between your heels…remember, we’re not sitting back in the squat, we’re sitting into it!
In addition to the squats to a box you can incorporate tempo squats focusing on the eccentric (descent). For example doing a controlled descent over 3-4 seconds will aid in your body awareness — while first doing these if you can’t feel when you start to butt wink you can have a friend verbally cue you as you start to butt wink. In addition to tempo squats, another squat variation that may be useful is the pause squat where the pause occurs at the tipping point. In this case it would also require verbal cueing from a training partner. To implement these squat variations stick with sets of 3-6 reps for a total of 10-25 reps.
That first bit was meant to teach you not to squat too deep in order to prevent you from butt winking and help stave off injury. Since there are clearly benefits to squatting to full-depth, the goal will be to safely squat lower…but how?
When it comes to ankle dorsiflexion, for years weightlifters have been lifting in a healed shoe to artificially gain ankle mobility. Interestingly, Sato et. al. did not find an immediate improvement in squat depth when using weightlifting shoes, although they did note a more vertical torso angle which is one of the key components to a deeper squat2. Nonetheless, it’s universally accepted that weightlifting shoes are beneficial to improving squat depth in the long run despite the short-term study findings to the contrary. Aside from weightlifting shoes, all the other changes pertain to squat form.
One of the most common causes of butt wink is initiating the squat by sticking the butt in the air causing a lordotic low back. What is really going on here is a forward tilt of the pelvis (anterior pelvic tilt) — the “Donald Duck squat”. Anecdotally this problem appears to be more prevalent amongst female lifters likely due to greater baseline mobility as well as lots of practice taking selfies of ones rear-end (if you have no idea what I’m talking about, there are several videos and blog posts about how to make ones butt appear bigger and it looks just like the Donald Duck below.) When squatting in this manner the relationship of the femoral head changes within the hip socket and as one descends in the squat the femur essentially runs out of space at a point much sooner than normal causing the pelvis to tuck under…the dreaded butt wink.
When initiating the squat there shouldn’t be any substantial rotation of the pelvis. You can imagine the pelvis as bowl containing water — if you tilt the bowl the water will spill and the goal when squatting is to minimize any “spills”. If the pelvic rotation isn’t clear it may be easier to think about what’s happening with the back — in the Donal Duck scenario there is substantial lordosis of the lumbar spine. The goal when squatting is to maintain a neutral spine throughout the movement.
Additionally, re-evaluating your squat stance is a good idea. The mobility demands at the ankle and hips are greater in a more narrow stance squat (feet within hip-width). If you squat narrow, consider widening up a bit, but not too much as the mobility demands at the hip start to increase when the stance is widened significantly3. A good rule of thumb is somewhere between hip width and 1.5x hip width. Another quick fix is adjusting the foot angle. It will likely be easier to achieve a lower depth comfortably with the toes turned out slightly (for most folks that will be 10-30 degrees, but some may feel comfortable rotating the feet out as much as 45 degrees). Rotating your feet out is just a cue to start with a greater degree of hip external rotation which can improve the articulation of the hip joint in the deep squat.
When making changes to your squat stance make small changes and give yourself weeks to months to adapt and feel comfortable squatting with a revised stance. Since you had to video yourself in the first place to discover there was an issue, it will be important to continually record your lifts to evaluate the efficacy of the changes you make.
In addition to those quick fixes you will likely want to incorporate dedicated mobility work to improve your squat. If you’re like most adults that sit at a desk all day you probably need a fair amount of work. An important an often understated aspect of mobility training is that is has to be specific to the individual — focus on what needs work! Seems like common sense, yet too often I see folks spending 45 minutes+ each day on mobility exercises. If you can dedicate 10-15 minutes per day (everyday) you will be well ahead of the curve.
Most mobility exercises can be done with no special equipment, although having access to resistance bands is a major plus. I will provide some examples of my personal favorite mobility exercises for reference. The movements you ultimately decide do will be personal to you so it will likely require some searching on the interwebs and readings. Becoming a Supple Leopard is a best-selling book that’s got a long list of mobility exercises with great photo examples and how-to’s.
Grab onto a pole such as a squat rack or tree (a door jam will work fine too) with your feet at your squat width and use the pole to help “pull” your hips between your heels and maintain an upright torso.
Hang out in the bottom position for about 2 minutes (work up to this if this position is very uncomfortable). Repeat this 1-2x. Pictured above the athlete is in very deep hip flexion but due to anthropometrics and great hip mobility he doesn’t require much ankle dorsiflexion — for most of you your knees will have to come forward quite a bit more to maintain an upright torso. Make sure your heels are staying on the floor. With this movement you can bias the hips or ankles by allowing your weight to settle backwards or pushing it forwards, respectively.
Deep Wall Squat
Not sure there’s an official name for this one, but I’m coining it the deep wall squat. Similar to the pole squat in mimicking the squat motion but this one is a bit easier to force yourself into a slightly uncomfortable position since you will basically be jamming yourself against the wall. Each deep wall squat should last at least 2 minutes.
As you get more comfortable try to:
- Get your butt closer to the floor
- Bring your heels closer to the wall
Barbell Ankle Stretch
This one was popularized by olympic weightlifters…the same folks who have some of the most incredible deep squats out there. Basically you put a loaded barbell on your knees at the bottom of a deep squat which will work primarily ankle dorsiflexion. It’s very important that you push your knees much more forward than in a normal deep squat, in fact your heels should likely be just off the ground prior to resting the barbell on your knees. For most people you’ll start with a load around 95lbs/45kg and go up from there.
As the weight gets heavier you may find it necessary to put towels or something over the top of the knee for discomfort (this lifter is resting the bar over the top of his knee sleeves). You’ll notice the athlete pictured above is maintain an erect torso, you don’t want to get lazy just because the weights not on your back! Again, two minutes minimum in this position.
(Banded) Hip Flexor Stretch
Get into a kneeling position with one knee down and the other one up. If your using a band you will wrap it around the top of the thigh of the leg with the knee down. From here you will contract the glutes of the leg with the knee down to bring the hips forward. It’s very important to maintain a neutral low back as a common mistake is extending the low back.
This movement will incorporate a contract-relax principle where you will contract the glute for 5-10 seconds and then relax it for about 5 seconds. Repeat the contract-relax for 2 minutes on each side at a minimum. To make this stretch more challenging these implement these changes in the following order:
- Raise the arm overhead (on the same side of the leg with the knee down).
- Move your leg back, causing creating more resistance from the band
- Use a thicker resistance band.
- Elevate the rear foot on something like a small medicine ball or yoga block. For a very advanced stretch you can wrap a towel or rope around that ankle and try to pull the foot towards your butt.
Elevated Pigeon Stretch
This one is basically a modification of the pigeon pose commonly performed in yoga seen below.
With the elevated pigeon stretch the leg you have perpendicular to your body will be elevated. The elevation can be minimal from aerobics steps to a bench and for a greater stretch a box.
For this movement it’s important that the hips are squared, meaning your iliac crests (the hip bones you can feel in the front) are facing forward. If you’re like me and have very tight external rotators you will likely find it useful to use your hand to push down your knee. For this movement you will adjust your torso to lean more forward and towards both corners to get a deeper stretch. You’ll want to hold each position: left corner, forward, and right corner for at least 30 seconds and longer for any side that’s particularly tight. To get a deeper stretch try to push yourself a bit further as you slowly exhale. Throughout the entire complex you will want to maintain a light glute contraction on the straight leg.
(Banded) Ankle Stretch
In a kneeling position your going to lean forward putting nearly all of your weight over the front of the toes on the front foot such that the heel remains in contact with the floor. If using a band you want it wrapped around the front of that ankle pulling it backwards.
For this movement similar to the elevated pigeon stretch you’re going to apply pressure and lean into the two corners and forward for at least 30 seconds in each direction and a total of at least two minutes on each ankle.
Now for some real talk: not everyone will be able to squat ATG. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but weightlifting shoes, squat modifications, and mobility work will help to a point — the biggest limiting factor are the anthropometric differences amongst individuals. Specifically, the way your femur articulates with the hip joint is unique to each individual and some folks will never be able to go ATG as a result of their anthropometry. Every few weeks it would be reasonable to review your squat depth (on video) and see if you’re making any improvements. Hang in there, be patient, and with time most folks — even the most genetically challenged can make some improvements.
The full-depth squat is a truly great exercise. Work on what you can, and in the meantime: squat within your limits, not as low as possible.
References [ + ]
|1.||↵||Lorenzetti S, Gülay T, Stoop M, et al. Comparison of the angles and corresponding moments in the knee and hip during restricted and unrestricted squats. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association. 2012;26(10):2829-36.|
|2.||↵||Sato K, Fortenbaugh D, Hydock DS. Kinematic changes using weightlifting shoes on barbell back squat. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2012;26(1):28-33.|
|3.||↵||McKean MR, Dunn PK, Burkett BJ. The lumbar and sacrum movement pattern during the back squat exercise. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association. 2010;24(10):2731-41.|