Pain or discomfort when squatting can tell you about more than just your form. In fact, it can expose weakness and tightness throughout the entire body.
The squat is famous for a reason – building lower body strength, getting your heart rate up, and improving mobility. There’s scarcely a move more versatile, so it’s been a go-to now that we’re training from home. Perhaps you’re lucky enough to have weights for goblet squats, you’ve been doing jump squats during lower body HIIT sessions. Maybe you want to work on your yogi squat pose during gentle mobility practices.
But the exercise itself can be pretty exposing. No, we’re not just talking about leggings that don’t pass the squat test, but rather, the discomfort that we feel squatting can tell us a lot about weaknesses and tightness in our body.
Perhaps you’re getting a twinge in your knee or you just can’t get your hips low enough while doing the move, for example. The answer isn’t to just try harder – instead, find the cause of the problem and fix it.
We spoke with expert sports coach and yoga teacher, Sarah Ramsden, to find out how.
Why can’t I get lower in my squat?
You may have seen yogis crowing with their bum nearly touching the ground, or people on Instagram getting their hamstrings to touch their calves when they squat – so why can you only make it to 90° (if that)?
“When we squat, the ankle flexes and one of the deep calf muscles, the soleus, has to lengthen. Typically, this is a very short muscle, and it’s shortened further by wearing heels – even if they’re not high. When we then go to squat, this muscle can’t lengthen enough to let the knees move forward and the hips come down,” Sarah explains.
If you want to check whether it really is your tight soleus blocking the movement, you can test your calf flexibility. Stand facing a wall or door, ideally without a skirting board, with your toes 10cm away from the wall. Bend your knees to see if you can get them to touch the wall. Struggling? “‘Normal’ range is being able to get your knees 10cm over your toes – that is what human bodies are designed for. But most people can’t do it,” Sarah says.
If that’s you, stretch your soleus and see what difference it makes to your squat. In order to do that, your typical calf stretch just won’t do – you need to be stretching it with a bent knee.
Wall stretch with double knee bend
- Stand facing a wall and place your hands against it at shoulder height. Your feet should be a few steps away from the wall, so that you’re leaning forwards.
- When you step your right foot forward, there should be a smaller gap between your right heel and your left toes than before.
- This time, bend both knees.
- See if you can get your right knee to touch the wall, or bring it as close as possible. The left knee should go as deep as you can to feel a stretch in both calves.
- Keep your upper body straight and upright.
Hold for 15 seconds and repeat on the other side
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What does back pain when squatting mean?
This is one of the most common complaints, but also one of the hardest to diagnose. You see, back pain can be from a number of things including tightness and weakness.
“It’s related to the first problem; if people can’t get low enough in a squat, then they will typically stick their bum out and arch through the back. That puts strain through the lumbar [lower] spine,” says Sarah.
But it might also have to do with your core. “A lot of people’s basic movement patterns are done with a large arch in the spine, due to the fact that we sit at desks and have tight hips which pulls the pelvis down at the front. That creates a lot of space between the ribs and the hips and overstretches the abdominal muscles – meaning that they can’t contract. But your ab muscles fundamentally connect to your spine,” says Sarah.
“The most important thing you can do is learn to control your abdominals in order to keep a neutral spine and pelvis, reducing the arch and the compression in your back,” she adds. “Your stomach needs to be drawn in and your butt tucked under.”
This doesn’t have to be complicated. Simply try looking at your body in the mirror as you try to make that position. You can also practice hollow body holds as these will help you pull your stomach in, bring your ribs down and move your pelvis back.
Why do my knees fall inwards in a squat?
This problem, known as ‘knee valgus’, can lead to injury if left unrectified. Again, there’s a few reasons you might experience this common issue, but “the simplest is that your feet are too wide apart so your feet aren’t placed under your hips. Quite often, it’s just something that you’ve got into the habit of doing,” says Sarah.
But other reasons could include “a combination of short adductors, so tightness on the inside of the leg, coupled with weakness on the outside of the hip, in the gluteus minimus”, according to Sarah.
These muscles are responsible for keeping the hip and pelvis stable and aligning the knee with the hip and foot. Strengthening these glute muscles are important – Sarah suggests exercises using a resistance band to target the small but important muscles, particularly before squatting.
- Standing up with your feet shoulder-width apart and a resistance band placed just above your knees. Slightly hinge at your hips, keeping your back straight, and bend the knees a little.
- Take a wide step with your right foot to the right-hand side.
- Step your left leg in so your feet are at hip width apart again. Step out to the right and repeat.
Repeat 10 times each side
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Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).