On a list of the most functional exercises (i.e., those that help you develop strength for everyday tasks) squats would be number one. Not only do they prepare you for daily life (think: bending down to pick something up), they also use — and build — most of your lower-body muscles and help reduce your risk of injury.
Though our bodies are designed to crouch (just look at babies and toddlers), our squat form tends to deteriorate as we get older thanks to being less active and sitting in chairs all day. If you can't squat for squat, chances are you're dealing with some muscular weaknesses and imbalances you've developed over the years. But there's still hope for hunkering down on your haunches.
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Here, Emily McLaughlin, in-house certified fitness trainer and nutrition expert at 8fit, will help you pinpoint why you're struggling with squats, plus offer tips on how to break parallel like a boss.
If You Can’t: Sit Low
You Might: Have Tight Hips
To perform the perfect squat, you must sit deeply, executing a full range of motion to get your thighs parallel to the ground. But if you can only manage shallow squats, lack of flexibility and mobility in your hips may be to blame. "Tight hips can hinder the depth of your squats and also lead to poor form," McLaughlin says.
While there are a ton of possible reasons for tight hips, the most common culprit is sitting too much, which constrains your hip flexors into an abnormally compressed position. Over time, these muscles become shorter and stiffer, causing pain and limiting your hips' full movement potential.
Figure Four Stretch
- Lie on your back and cross your right foot over your left thigh, bending your left knee.
- Pull the back of your left leg gently toward your chest.
- When you feel a comfortable stretch, hold for 30 to 60 seconds.
- Switch sides and repeat.
If you're not able to pull your leg toward your chest, that's OK. You can still get the benefits of this hip stretch by simply crossing your foot over the opposite thigh. As you improve your flexibility and mobility, you might be able to pull up your leg.
Side Lying Quad Stretch
- Lie on your right side and pull your knees in front of you, bending to 90 degrees.
- With your left hand, pull your left heel up toward your left glute muscle. Make sure to straighten your left hip as you pull the foot back. This way, you'll feel a stretch in the front of your left hip.
- As you pull, engage your glutes to intensify the stretch in your quad muscle.
- Hold for 30 to 60 seconds, then switch sides.
If You: Have Knee Pain
You Might: Have Weak Glutes and Abductors
Though knee pain can have a few different causes, a common culprit of discomfort while squatting is a muscular imbalance. "If your knees cave inwards when you squat, it's likely a symptom of a sedentary lifestyle," McLaughlin says.
In this scenario, your outer thighs (abductors) are likely weaker than your inner thighs (adductors), which pull the knees inward when you squat. This creates bad squat form, places stress on the knees and can lead to pain and discomfort in the area.
So focus on strengthening your glutes and outer thighs, says McLaughlin. "When these muscles are strong, they will help stabilize the whole body and protect the knees." Try adding exercises like banded clamshells — which activate your abductor muscles, including your gluteus medius — to your routine.
- Loop a resistance band just above your knees. Lie on your side so that your hips are comfortably stacked one on top of the other and bend your knees at a 45-degree angle.
- Keep your feet together as you raise your top knee as high as you can. Don't let your lower leg leave the floor. As you lift your top knee, make sure to keep your hips square, so only lift the knee as high as you can while keeping your hips stacked.
- Pause and squeeze your butt at the top of the movement, then slowly lower.
- Switch to the other leg after reaching fatigue on your first side.
You can also modify squats to accommodate knee issues, says McLaughlin. Try using the support of a chair (squat down until your butt touches the chair, then use your hands to push yourself back up) or squat with your back to a wall. Wall-assisted squats (or wall sits) are great for firing up your leg and booty muscles.
But always heed your body's signs. If you feel pain, don't push through it. "Only squat as low as it feels good," says McLaughlin. "As long as your leg and core muscles are engaged, your body will reap the benefits."
If You: Lose Your Balance
You Might: Need to Slow Down and Check Your Form
Tend to lose your balance during a squat? Pump the brakes and examine your form. "Form is always more important than speed," McLaughlin says. "Most people's first mistake is not taking the time to set up."
Before you begin, make sure your feet are hip-width distance apart, or slightly wider, and your toes and knees point forward. This stance is key for providing a steady base for your squats. Then, as you bend your knees, keep your weight in your heels, not your toes. This will help ground you and keep you steady during the movement.
"If you have access to TRX equipment, you could hold the straps in front of you as you squat down and back, using them as support so that you can really feel the hips go back with your weight in the heels."
But your bottom half is only part of the equation. Poor posture in your upper body can also throw off your form and balance, McLaughlin says. "Don't let your body lean forward. Keep the chest lifted, shoulders back and down, and spine straight."
Again, wall-supported squats — which require you to lean your back straight against a wall — may be a useful modification to help you train your torso to remain upright during the squat movement.