What's restricting your squat depth?
Updated: Jun 25
In Motion with Morrison Blog
Written by Aubrey Morrison
MS Sports Medicine, CSCS, Licensed Massage Therapist #16763
The squat is one of the most fundamental movements in any exercise program, from beginner to professional powerlifter. Once mastered, it can be incorporated into more complex movements or it can be made more challenging by adding weight. As desirable as it is to excel in the squat exercise for athletic performance purposes or simply for recreational lifting, there are some common mobility issues that often lead to compensatory movement patterns and, if not addressed and heavier resistance is added, can lead to pain or injury. Part of our Mobility Maker session is to pinpoint where your issues are and treat them specifically, always customized to each individual. For the purpose of this article, I will be addressing squat depth as the component that is often limited by several tight soft tissue structures. The depth of a squat should at least be to parallel (thighs parallel to the floor), although many athletes and lifters make it a goal to get as low as humanly possible for maximal muscle recruitment and possibly bigger strength gains – you may have heard of “ATG” squats, which means “A** To Grass” and is fairly self-explanatory… There is nothing wrong with trying to deepen your squat, but problems arise when certain mobility limitations keep you from squatting properly at any depth. Depth shouldn’t be forced if the proper form cannot be maintained.
Common compensatory patterns while trying to reach maximal depth include a rounded low back at the bottom (commonly referred to as a “butt wink”), knees caving in, losing stability at the bottom and maybe even falling backward, or an excessive forward lean. If you have noticed any of these compensations and aren’t sure how to correct the problem, there are ways to narrow down what the issue could be and there are ways to fix it! The Mobility Maker here at Coastal Massage would absolutely help target and help correct it. Side note, this is concerning mobility problems; some of the same patterns can occur from strength imbalances and muscle weaknesses, but that calls for specific exercises as a fix and could be another whole article! Often mobility issues and strength/weakness imbalances can go hand in hand, but again, we are only discussing mobility.
Ankle tightness can be a huge limiting factor in proper squat form. Lack of mobility in the lower leg and ankle can change the geometry of the whole body during a lift like the squat; everything else may be perfect, but if ankles are too tight then a deep squat simply won’t happen! If you struggle to reach depth and compensate by rounding your back and leaning forward (or if you try to keep your back straight, you feel like you’re falling on your rear!), this is a big indicator that your ankles are tight! Restricted ankles don’t allow your knee to travel over the toes as they need to in order to execute a squat because it won’t let the angle between the shin and top of the foot decrease. Structures to be addressed when this is the case is the calves (gastrocnemius and soleus), Achilles tendon, anterior tibialis (shins), and the lateral ankle. When treating this during a bodywork session, we will use several techniques to release the muscles of the lower leg, and likely use a scraping instrument for the tendons and ligaments involved to trigger changes at a cellular level and to help the skin and fascia “unstick” and glide for better movement.
Hip mobility is very important for executing a proper squat, and because so many muscles attach into the pelvis, treatment to the hips should be very thorough. Typically it is the hip flexors that cause issues with the squat, and most people don’t know their hips flexors are tight because you can’t exactly feel them the way you would feel your back being tight. Having tight hip flexors (rectus femoris, sartorius, and psoas being the major ones) will start you off in an unideal position of an anteriorly tilted pelvis before you even start the lift. The most common indicators of hip flexor tightness during a squat is a rounding out of the low back at the bottom of the squat, or what many people call a “butt wink.” Sometimes the knees can even cave in, although this is usually from adductor tightness or weakness of the glute medius and external hip rotators. Other than hip flexors potentially causing immobility in the pelvis during a squat, tightness in the glutes and back can throw the movement off and create instability in the entire core, where stability is needed most in heavy lifts! During a bodywork session, we would address all the muscles that attach into the pelvis, especially those quads and anterior hip muscles and tendons. We would use a lot of deep tissue and cupping and scraping and stretching! It can get a bit intense, but the more these areas are mobilized on your own the less intense it is to work them out in a massage. And it makes a BIG difference! I don’t think it is completely necessary to squat all the way to the ground, and some people’s anatomy simply won’t let them even if joints are fully functional. However, at least getting to parallel will give you the strength gains you are looking for, as long as the form is good and mobility limitations aren’t causing pain or potential injury. You will only get the gains if the right muscles are firing! And that will optimally happen when ankles and hips allow it. Many people don’t know where the problem is; all they know is that the lift or the movement isn’t what it should be. In our Mobility Maker, we can pinpoint where you are limited, and give you a customized treatment to get your squats (or any lifts!) in line! Read more about the Mobility Maker session in the previous blog post!