Mike Causer is a former international Olympic weightlifter and the founder of the London Olympic Weightlifting Academy. He is based in London.
When you squat deeper you’ll get stronger through a bigger range of motion and you’ll properly recruit key muscle groups, such as the glutes. If you’re struggling to go deep, it’s likely that you’re focusing on correcting the wrong element of the move. In my experience as a weightlifting coach, people focus too much on having a straight back rather than actually getting into a squat. They’ve forgotten what a squat is. Essentially it’s about being able to sit your ass down and it doesn’t really have anything to do with the spine. The spine position is just a safety factor and an indicator that you’ll be able to handle larger loads, frequency or volume, rather than it being the main skill of the squat.
The other common mistake is having your feet too square and your knees too square and that’s going to push 90% of people’s butts too far back and they’re going to struggle to get any real depth if they are under load and trying to maintain a straight spine. But once you fix the hips and get the depth then it’ll be easier to teach the spine to be straight while you’re in the squat. If, on the other hand, you first focus just on having a straight spine then teaching someone to squat with depth becomes very difficult.
The only real reason why someone wouldn’t be able to squat is if they have a structural defect. Other than that, it’s usually just how they’ve been conditioned. It might take a while to recondition them but there’s nothing I’ve seen that would prevent someone from performing a deep squat. I’ve got no doubt that, provided they didn’t have a significant structural defect, that I could get anyone into a deep squat if I worked with them.
I’ve got four drills that will help to you achieve full depth, and they are outlined below, but before you start using them it helps to know why you’re struggling. To do that properly it really helps to have another set of eyes in the form of a coach. If you don’t have access to that then the next best thing would be to analyse videos of yourself lifting. Once you’ve filmed yourself there are a few key elements that you should be looking out for:
1. Foot angle and knee tracking
Look at where your toes are in relation to the heels and how your knees are sliding, particularly into the squat. Turning your feet out by an extra few degrees can really increase your ankle mobility and give you access to increased range of motion. By pushing your knees out as you lower you’ll allow yourself to properly access the muscles around the hip and that will also help you to keep your spine straighter.
2. Hesitant eccentric phase
Most people actually fail a squat during the down phase of the lift because they don’t allow themselves to relax into the squat. What I see people doing is almost trying to stand up before they’ve sat down. That also usually throws your weight onto your toes and makes balance difficult. They’re trying to resist the squat phase because they know there’s a probability of them not being able to stand up. So you need to create the kind of environment (both from a safely and mindset point of view) where failure is not a big problem. As soon as you try to lock up your positions on the down phase then you’re going to be in trouble.
3. Raising your heels
If your heels are coming up then that’s usually because the knees are tracking too narrow or your feet are too square. Or you’re just getting a bit panicky about feeling the weight on your back and you don’t trust that your legs are strong enough to push yourself out of the squat. So you lock up at the hips by getting the hip flexors over-active, you shift your weight forwards and you lose your ability to stabilise your trunk.
4. Shifting your weight forwards
If your weight is shifting forwards that’s often because your knees aren’t drifting forwards enough. It’s commonly taught that the knees should be behind the toes but really they should push as far forwards as you can while maintaining the heels down position. That will help your spine stay nice and upright in the bottom position of the move. If the knees get pushed back too much the hip flexors become over-active and your back will round.
Squat depth fixes
People tend to struggle with squats when they’re too tense moving into the squat and they’re not focusing on the actual skill and movement of being able to get into the deep positions. They also often panic when they feel muscles getting loaded. The idea of going into a squat is that you want your muscles loaded and you want to feel them stretched and I think most people’s reaction to a muscle stretching is to panic and to try to shorten it prematurely. These drills help you overcome that and I’ve used them to get dozens of people to go from being unable to squat to being able to squat deep. You can do them at the start of any session after your mobility drills.