The squat is a great total body exercise to improve the strength and power of all the prime movers in the body.
On top of that, the squat also challenges stability and mobility in a coordinated pattern of events, making it one of the top exercises in any strength and conditioning program.
With that said, multiple actions must occur in the proper order and intensity for the squat to be performed safely and correctly. These actions include appropriate abdominal breathing patterns, upper thoracic mobility, recruitment timing of the core prior to dissention, weight shift, and ankle mobility.
Identifying and correcting some common compensatory actions require skill and experience on the side of the strength coach or clinician, however there are some quick and easy exercises you can perform prior to squatting that will place your body in a more optimal position leading to improved performance and decreased risk of injury.
The author always suggests establishing a baseline or movement profile via a movement screen prior to implementing correctives or reassessing for a positive or negative pattern change versus a “shotgun” approach.
Really every training session should start with some form of tissue mobilization work. Self-Myofascial Release (SMR) using a foam roller is a great way to improve tissue extensibility through increased blood flow, neural input, and muscle activation by way of the sensory organs in our skin. The body truly is a chain, and dysfunction in the ankle can lead to changes at the hip and beyond. I suggest performing a total body foam roll session and not just rolling the ankle and lower leg. Total time = 6-8 minutes.
Knee Drives with Inward Knee Pull
Starting in a half-kneeling position, shift your weight forward as you “drive” your knee toward the toes, making sure to go as far as you can until your heel lifts off the ground (this is your stopping point). Make sure your opposite hip remains directly underneath the shoulder and the hips are moving as one single unit. Don't extend at the low back as this becomes more of a hip flexor stretch with less emphasis placed on the foot/ankle complex.
Prior to performing the knee drives, you want to first “set” the knee (aligning the knee between your 4th and 5th toe). Maintain this “set” position throughout the duration of your knee drives. Perform 3 sets of 15 repetitions.
This exercise is performed exactly the same as the one described above, including all the coaching cues. The only exception is now you’ve removed the resistance band from your knee, essentially eliminating the feedback and evaluating whether or not the pattern has improved. Perform 4 sets of 12 repetitions per side.
Goblet Squat with Heel Lift
Place anywhere from a 1.5” to 2.0” heel lift under each heel. Holding a dumbbell or Kettlebell in front of your chest (a goblet position), perform a standard squat, going down as far as possible until either your heels lift or your knees drive inward. Make sure to push your knees out towards your 3rd and 4th toe the entire time (making sure the inside edge of your feet remain in contact with the ground). Perform 2 sets of 10 repetitions.
Goblet Squat without Heel Lift
Perform this exercise in the same fashion as described above. The only difference is removing or decreasing the height of the heel lift. The goal here is to get your feet flat on the floor during the Goblet squat while watching your knee drift, heel lift, and inside edge lift. Perform 2 sets of 10 repetitions.
Implementing the Exercises
As you can see from the exercises above, less focus was given locally to the ankle. Once you've completed soft-tissue work and improved joint mobility, you can go straight into a progression of loaded movements.
The feedback given from the band allows for more appropriate recruitment patterns starting at the hip. The Goblet position reinforces “core” recruitment prior to movement initiation through positioning of the weight anteriorly and resting on the rib cage while the heel lifts still allow for you to perform the pattern even if mobility has changed from the partial to fully loaded position. Reducing the height of the heel lift down to flat ground is a great way to make the necessary changes and allow for motor learning to occur.
These exercises performed in this order are a great way to improve your squat without sacrificing safety and form.
In instances where your squat pattern does not respond to soft-tissue and mobility exercises, your body may, in fact, be trying to tell you something. From a structural standpoint, some of us are not built to squat and may not be responsive to corrective strategies or movement preparation techniques. This does not mean you shouldn’t attempt to “clean up” or address compensatory actions of the squat pattern, but it may indicate an inability to appropriately handle load within that pattern.
If a strength and conditioning coach or clinician is not available to re-assess movement and make the necessary corrections and/or progressions, try changing to an asymmetrical, split stance position such as split squats or lunges. Split stance positions are a great way to promote reciprocal action of the hip, allowing us to train in positions similar to that of running or deceleration while also providing adequate load and stress to the lower half.
Here are a few common split stance exercises that you can try in addition to forward and reverse lunges:
Elevated Split Squat