The barbell back squat is one of the most popular and effective strength exercises in existence. When properly performed, it strengthens the posterior chain, quads, and core, helps correct muscular imbalances, and brings about positive changes in body composition. Unfortunately, a large majority of gym goers don’t perform the squat with good technique. They fail to properly engage their glutes, don’t distribute the load correctly, don’t go deep enough, round their back, or make other similar mistakes. Hence, they don’t get to harvest all of the positive health effects that the squat can produce.
The problem with quad-dominant squatting
Over the years, I’ve helped countless people learn the squat. This process has shown me that there is a lot of overlap with regards to the types of mistakes and technical errors that people make when performing this exercise. Moreover, it has become clear to me that a common set of problems underlie most bad squats. The problems that make person A squat with bad form are often quite similar to the types of problems that cause person B to squat with bad form.
Typically, these problems include poor hip mobility, tight hip flexors and/or hamstrings, and poor glute/posterior chain strength. On top of that there’s the complication that a lot of people have never learned how to perform the squat with good form, and have, over many years, become “trapped” in their bad movement pattern. These issues set the stage for squatting characterized by quad-dominance, excessive knee flexion, glute inactivity, and spinal flexion. In other words, a bad squat.
I recently started coaching a new client who contacted me because he wanted me to help him combat Lower Crossed Syndrome (LCS), an extremely common disorder in today’s society. When I instructed him to do the squat, I observed that he performs the exercise with the type of technique described above. This didn’t come as a surprise to me, as virtually all of the clients I’ve coached over the years who suffer from LCS performed the squat that way when they first started working with me. They failed to fully engage their glutes, put too much stress on their quads, and fell onto their toes. Since these problems are so common, I thought I’d share my experience with dealing with them here on the blog.
Over the years, I’ve developed a conceptual model and a kit of tools/strategies that I take out every time I work with a client who exhibits bad squat form. I’ve built these resources based on the knowledge I’ve acquired during my years of coaching. In today’s article, I’m obviously not going to be able to give a full accounting of all the different strategies that I employ in my fight against bad squatting. Rather, I thought I’d briefly share what I consider to be the keys to fixing a bad, quad-dominant squat.
Addressing the problem
First off, it’s important to acknowledge that you usually can’t bring a quad-dominant squatter into a good movement pattern simply by instructing him how to squat with good technique. Simply cuing him will undoubtedly improve his squat, but it may not be sufficient to completely remedy the situation. If the squatter has very weak glutes, tight hip flexors, and/or suffers from LCS, he’ll probably have to address those issues before he’s able to attain got squat form.
So, this leads us to the obvious question: How can he go about doing that? Over the years, I’ve tried a variety of different strategies for fixing the above issues. Over time, I’ve landed on a plan that works well in most cases. Usually, I’ll use a plan that is roughly similar to the one I outline in my article on LCS. I’ll teach the client the pelvic tilt/glute squeeze movement, and I’ll then have him do the lying pelvic tilt and standing glute squeeze repeatedly until he really gets how to move his pelvis. I then have him move on to exercises that strengthen the muscles that produce posterior pelvic tilt, such as the pull-through, shown below, and the plank with glute squeeze.
The great thing about the pull-through is that the cable is attached behind the trainee, pulling his hips back. This helps force the trainee to sit back, as opposed to down. It’s certainly possible to perform the pull-through as a poorly performed, quad-dominant squat, but the fact that the trainee is pulled back by the cable helps reduce the odds of that happening.
After I’m confident that the trainee masters the hip hinge movement and knows how to engage his glutes/posterior chain, I’ll have him gradually progress on exercises such as the cable pull-through, plank with glute squeeze, box squat, and/or other similar exercises that put a lot of stress on the posterior chain.
After some time of doing those exercises, I typically have the trainee move onto the squat. At first, I have him do air squats (no added weight) and also sometimes the wall squat (facing against the wall). The latter exercise is great because it forces you to sit back and push your knees out. The wall inhibits excessive forward movement of the knees.
Another great exercise that I’ve had a lot of success with over the years is the one shown in the picture above. I picked that exercise up from the book Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe, which I read when I first started working as a personal trainer/coach many years ago. The good thing about that exercise is that it teaches the trainee how to attain a good bottom position in the squat.
Typically, I’ll have the trainee hold the displayed position for about 20 seconds or more. I instruct him to keep the weight on his heels/the back of his feet, keep his chest high, and get his knees out to the side by pushing his hands together so that the lower arms form a fairly straight line between his knees. I then proceed to tell him that he should aim for that position when he performs a regular squat.
7 tips for the quad-dominant squatter
After the above prepping phase is over, I typically have the trainee move onto the squat. First, I’ll have him do the air squat, and then the barbell squat, first with no added weight and then with some extra resistance. I will typically tell the trainee to do the following:
- Push against the outside of your heels/feet like you’re trying to spread the floor apart (This brings the knees out and helps ensure proper load distribution)
- Push your knees out to the side (This helps you activate your posterior chain and allows you to go deep without rounding your spine)
- Keep your chest high! (This keeps you from rounding your back)
- Sit back, not down! (This helps you activate your posterior chain and gets you into a good movement pattern)
- Avoid letting your knees drift forward. As a general rule (exceptions do exist), the knees should not travel past the toes. (This helps ensure that you don’t enter into a quad-dominant movement pattern)
- Keep your head/neck in alignment with the rest of your upper body. (This ensures that you maintain a good upper spine position throughout the lift)
- Pinch your shoulder blades together! (This gets your chest up and helps you maintain your torso in a tight, rigid position)
It’s not just those people who are suffering from LCS or are trying to fix a quad-dominant squat that can benefit from adhering to the advice I outline in this article; virtually everyone can. As mentioned in the beginning, very few people perform the squat with good form. Pretty much everybody has something they need to work on.
With that said, it’s important to point out that the tips in this article are general in nature, they are not tailored to the individual. Different people have different goals and problems, and consequently also different needs. This is where coaching enters into the equation. The exact type of plan that I use when I work with a client varies depending on a range of things, such as the pace at which he/she progresses, his/her training background, and his/her posture.