Squats are often called the king of exercises, and that’s a title they deserve! When it comes to building lower body strength and size, squats are hard to beat. In fact, entire workouts have been built around squats, including the famous 20-rep squat program and the Smolov squat program.
Most athletes squat, and they’re one of the best exercises for increasing athletic performance. Squats can help you run faster, kick harder, and jump higher. As well as being an awesome training exercise, squats are also the first event in powerlifting competitions and feature in strongman events too.
Another reason that squats are such an important exercise is that they’re very functional. It’s hard to get through a day without doing a whole lot of squats. From getting out of bed in the morning to sitting down at your desk to getting in and out of your car. Most people squat dozens of times each day. Doing squats in the gym will make all these daily squats much easier.
There are lots of different squatting exercises to choose from, including front squats, back squats, overhead squats, Zercher squats, goblet squats, box squats, and Smith machine squats. Done correctly, each one will help you reach your chosen fitness goal. However, done incorrectly, all squat variations can lead to severe back or knee injuries and will make your workouts less productive too.
Whether you are a powerlifter, a bodybuilder, or just a recreational lifter who wants to squat better and more safely, use the information in this article to fix the eight most common squat mistakes.
Most Common Squat Mistakes and How to Fix Them
A poorly performed squat will make your workouts less productive, cause injury, and reduce the amount of weight you can lift. Analyze your squat for faults and then use these fixes to get back on track. Most of the following tips can be applied to all types of squats.
1. Back squats hurt your neck
Back squats are probably the most widely used version of this lower body compound exercise. They allow you to lift more weight than other types of squat movements. For most lifters, they are also the most comfortable squat variation.
That said, a lot of lifters find that back squats hurt their neck. This problem is invariably caused by resting and holding the bar too high. There is no natural padding on your neck, so it goes without saying that resting a heavy barbell on your neck is going to hurt! Some lifters use a squat pad to alleviate this problem, but that only addresses the symptom and not the cause of this vault.
The bar should not rest on your neck but on your upper back instead. Specifically, it should be on or below your upper traps. This will provide you with some natural cushioning, making back squats a whole lot more comfortable.
To maximize this effect, you MUST pull your shoulders down and back to tense your traps. This will ensure your muscles support the bar, keeping it off your vertebrae. As an added benefit, a lower bar position also shortens the distance between the bar and your hips, which will take stress off your lower back.
A low bar position does require decent shoulder mobility. If you have tight shoulders, you may need to move your hands a little wider apart to place the bar below your neck. If squats still hurt, you may benefit from increasing the size of your upper traps.
This doesn’t mean you CAN’T use a squat bar pad for increased comfort, but you should definitely make sure that the bar is NOT resting on your neck.
2. Your knees cave in
Knee joint stability is crucial for safe, efficient squatting. If your knees cave in, you are not only wasting energy, you are putting more strain on your knees. Your knees should bend and flex during squats (obviously!), but there should be NO lateral movement.
There are a couple of reasons that your knees may cave in when you squat:
- Weak hip abductors
- Unsupportive shoes
- Weak foot arches
The abductors are the muscles on the outside of your hips and thighs, including gluteus minimus and medius, and tensor fascia latae. Strengthen these muscles with some unilateral or single-leg exercises, such as lunges, or include exercises like booty band squats and banded side steps in your accessory workouts.
Your knees are also more likely to cave in if you wear unsupportive shoes. Make sure your workout shoes provide you with plenty of arch support. Avoid squatting heavy weights in cushioned running shoes. Even if they do have decent arch support, they will still collapse under hefty weights. Weightlifting shoes are arguably the best shoes for most types of squats, but hard-soled athletic shoes with a good arch will also suffice.
Finally, if your knees continue to roll inward, the arches of your feet may be the issue. After all, if you pronate when you walk or run, you may do it when you lift too. Take a look at the soles of your shoes. If they are more worn along the inside of your shoe, you are probably an over-pronator.
One possible fix for this is strengthening your arches. Sit on a chair and place your bare feet on a towel. Scrunch the towel up by griping it with your toes. This might not be the most exciting exercise, but it could have a significant impact on your squat.
3. You round your lower back
There are very few exercises where rounding your lower back is a good idea. Rounding your lumbar spine puts a lot of stress on your intervertebral ligaments and disks, which can cause serious and even permanent injury.
There are several factors that can result in rounding your lower back during squats, including:
- Tight hamstrings and hip flexors
- Weak core
- Squatting too deep
Tight hamstrings and hip flexors can pull the bottom of your pelvis forward, causing your lower back to round. Stretching and foam rolling are the best solutions for overtight hamstrings and hip flexors.
To stretch your hamstrings, sit on the floor with your legs extended in front of you. Leaning from your hips, hinge forward and reach toward your toes. Do NOT round your lower back! Hold for 30-60 seconds without bouncing or bending so far that your muscles shake or burn.
One of the best stretches for the hip flexors is the couch stretch.
You’ll also find it much harder to keep your lower back slightly arched if your core is weak. The core is the collective term for your midsection muscles and includes the rectus abdominus, obliques, transverse abdominus, pelvic floor, diaphragm, and erector spinae.
These muscles work together to stabilize your lumbar spine to prevent it from moving while you squat. Wearing a weightlifting belt can help, but you still need stronger core muscles to stop your lower back from rounding. Increase core strength with exercises like rollouts, glute-ham raises, and back extensions.
Regarding squat depth, descending too far could lead to rounding your lower back. A lot of so-called training experts say that you should squat “ass to grass,” and anything less is cheating or pointless. The reality is that many factors affect how deep you can safely squat, and descending too far could lead to injury.
Learn how to determine your optimal squat depth and the steps that may help you safely squat deeper in this in-depth guide.
4. Your hips rise faster than your shoulders
When you squat, your hips and shoulders should move at the same speed. If your hips rise faster than your shoulders, you risk putting more stress than necessary on your lower back.
Also, if your hips come up and the weight lags behind, you turn what should be a quad-dominant exercise into more of a hip movement, essentially doing something akin to a good morning. The most likely cause of this fault is weak hamstrings, glutes, and erector spinae.
The best way to fix this problem is to beef up your posterior chain with exercises like Romanian deadlifts, rack pulls, glute-ham raises, leg curls, and the already mentioned good mornings.
5. Your heels lift during squats
Heel lifting is a common squatting error. If your heels lift, your weight will shift forward onto the balls of your feet. This weight shift has a number of effects, including:
- Loss of balance and power
- More stress on your knee joints
- The weight moves forward away from your base of support
- Increased stress on your lower back
- Hips are more likely to rise faster than your shoulders
- Increased tendency to round your lower back
The most likely cause of this problem is tight calf muscles. Thankfully, this is easy to fix. In the short term, try squatting with your heels on small blocks or plates. However, be aware that this only fixes the symptom of tight calves and not the issue itself.
Improve calf flexibility by standing on the edge of a step and allowing your heels to drop below the level of your toes. Do this with straight and bent knees to stretch the gastrocnemius and the smaller soleus calf muscle. Do this daily, holding for 30-60 seconds each time. Also, stretch your calves before squatting to make keeping your heels down a little easier.
6. Sitting too far back
A good squat starts with a hip break, meaning that the hips bend before the knees. Unfortunately, many squatters exaggerate this technique and end up pushing their hips too far back, bending their knees much later than they should.
While the hips SHOULD break first, the knees should bend almost immediately afterward. There is no need to push your butt so far back that your upper body ends up practically parallel to the floor.
Doing so turns what should be a knee-dominant exercise into a hip-dominant one. Sitting back too far takes stress off your quads and means you end up doing a weird deadlift/squat hybrid.
The difference between your hips and knees bending should be almost imperceptible; you should be able to feel it, but it shouldn’t be obvious to anyone watching.
If you do box squats, and the box is too far behind you, you may find yourself “looking” for the box by pushing your butt farther backward than you should. Make sure the box is only just behind you, so you don’t have to sit too far back to reach it.
7. You get stuck at the bottom of your rep
There is nothing worse than getting stuck at the bottom of a squat. Powerlifters call this getting stapled. Needless to say, getting stuck “in the hole” could cause serious injury, which is why you should always do heavy squats in a power rack with the safety bars set to catch you if this happens to you.
Trying to lift more weight than you should can cause this problem, but there are other potential reasons too, including:
- Weak glutes and hamstrings
- Losing tightness
- Not lifting explosively
While squats are usually viewed as a quad-dominant exercise, it’s actually your glutes and hamstrings that do most of the work when you are at the bottom of each rep. The deeper you squat, the more work your glutes and hamstrings have to do.
It’s no surprise then that weak glutes and hamstrings could leave you stuck at the bottom of a heavy squat. So, if you want to avoid this fault, make sure you include glute and hamstring exercises in your squat accessory workouts.
Losing tightness at the bottom of your squat wastes valuable energy. You have to maintain intra-abdominal pressure from the start of the rep to the end; you cannot afford to lose it mid-rep.
If you lose tension in the middle of a rep, you may find your hips rising while the bar stays still. Needless to say, once this happens, the chances of successfully completing your rep are much lower. Make sure you brace before you start your descent, and then keep your core locked down until you stand back up again.
Finally, turning your eccentric descent into a concentric ascent takes a lot of strength and power. This is not something you can do slowly. The longer it takes you, the more energy you’ll waste, and the more likely you are to get stuck at the bottom of your rep.
Try to turn your descent into an ascent almost instantly. This doesn’t mean you should bounce out the bottom, but you shouldn’t sit down there for too long, either. Try to stand up explosively.
Exercises like box jumps can help increase your speed and power out of the hole. Other exercises that can help you avoid getting stuck mid-rep include box squats, paused squats, and dead-stop squats from pins, also known as Anderson squats.
8. You can’t lockout at the top
Just because you managed to drive out of the bottom of your squat does not mean you’ll be able to complete your rep. A lot of squats grind to a halt as they get close to the top.
The most common causes of this problem are:
- Lack of speed
- Weak quads
Most exercises have sticking points, where leverage is at its least advantageous. For squats, this is usually as the thighs are just above parallel to the floor. One way to avoid stalling here is to use speed and momentum to blast through the sticking point.
Speed squats will help improve your lifting speed. Simply load up the bar with about 50% of your one-repetition maximum, and practice lifting the weight as fast as you can. Do sets of 2-4 reps focusing on generating maximal bar speed.
It could also be weak quads that are holding you back. In addition to working on your quads with leg presses and leg extensions, doing squats with bands or chains will also help. This increases the resistance at the top of each rep, allowing you to preferentially target your sticking point.
While squats undoubtedly deserve the title of King of Exercises, that’s only really true if you do them correctly. Improperly performed squats are much less effective and also more likely to cause injuries. The heavier you squat, the more likely it is that poor squatting technique will hurt you.
While it may take some time and analysis to determine the cause of your squatting faults, the solutions are usually easy to implement. In most cases, all you’ll need to do is add a few specialized exercises to your accessory training program and squat with a little more positional awareness.
Fixing your squat may mean taking a few steps back and working out with lighter weights for a few weeks. However, your efforts WILL be rewarded, and you’ll soon blast past your old personal records.
Say NO to ugly, ineffective squats. Fix your squat to unlock your real strength and muscle size potential.