Top 5 Reasons You Can’t Squat as Deeply as You Want to

Updated: Apr 28

I get this question all the time; how do I squat deeper? Why can’t I squat deeply, with or without pain, or at all?

Let’s break down the major joints involved in squatting: ankles, knees, and hips.

1) The ankles need to be mobile, so the tibia can glide forward, and by extension, the hips can also come lower and closer to the ankles.

Want to know if your ankles are mobile? You can check out the bent knee test, in a half lunge position. Clinically, it’s considered a “fail” if you cannot touch your knee to the wall with your toes 5” from the wall.

If that seems like a lot, I’d say because it is. Clinically, most people I see have anywhere from 2-3 inches. These humans often come to me with low back pain, because they’re trying to get more motion from their back, since they can’t get it from their ankles.

Does that mean if you have limited ankle mobility, you’re doomed to a bad squat, low back, ect? Absolutely not.

How to Improve Your Ankle Mobility

  • Hang out in a deep squat for 5 minutes a week.

  • Utilize banded dorsiflexion to make sure the bony alignment of your ankle isn’t impeding your progress

  • Perform eccentric heel raises to work on lengthening your calf

  • Perform static calf stretches to reduce tension through the achilles and calf

  • Perform cupping for fascial release of the tibialis anterior, the muscle at the front of the calf. This can get surprisingly tight and is one of the lurking limitations of mobility in many athletes.

2) The knees need to be able to tolerate deep flexion (bending).

How flexible are your quads? Can they fully stretch to allow that deep knee bend? You can try a prone quad stretch, and see how easy it is for you to bring your heel in contact with your glutes. Make sure your back doesn’t arch to compensate; your pelvis shouldn’t move as you bring that heel towards your buttocks.

The hips need adequate motion to be able to properly lower into that deep angle and be strong there. They need adequate flexion (being able to bend and bring the femur up), but they also need adequate rotation, specifically internal rotation! But you might be thinking; “Wait, my knees end up outside my body, isn’t that external rotation?”

Aha! You might think so, but– here’s the secret; your femurs actually spiral; they don’t go straight up and down. The femur spirals from the hip to the knee, so with the knee bent, the hip actually translates into internal rotation with the toes forward. If you have limited internal rotation, you might find it’s easier for you to squat with your toes pointed outwards.

3) So, how do we improve internal rotation?

We want to make sure that our deep rotators haven’t locked down our hips, so try a lacrosse ball to your glutes first.

To work more actively into your internal rotation, consider using a 90/90 to work on loading into your internal and external rotation. If that feels too easy, consider trying to raise your internally rotated heel off the floor when you’re in position. It’s more challenging than it seems!

But, what if you’ve tried these things, and your internal rotation simply doesn’t change?

How to Understand The Natural Anatomy of Your Hips: Why Your Range May Not Improve

The simple fact of the matter is, everyone’s anatomy is different. Some people have more spiral in their femurs than others, so it actually makes sense for their toes to be more rotated outwards, or inward, depending on the nature of the spiral. This is why there is no golden rule for squat positioning, because of anatomical variation.

If you want to figure out out much rotation and spiral there is in your hip, you can use Craig’s Test, to identify how much “femoral retroversion,” (the fancy way of saying the spiral in your femur), and how much toe in/toe out is appropriate for you! If you have more retroversion, that is, more spiral, you naturally toe out more, so your midrange isn’t with your toe pointing straight forward, but more outward. That’s where your strength will be. Similarly, if you are lacking retroversion, you might be a little pigeon toed, and try to squat with your toes straight forward won’t feel great at all.

So, there’s one key piece for a lot of people; the amount of spiral in their femur. You can try it for yourself; toes out, toes forward, toes in; where do you feel the most comfortable? That’s a good clue to what your squat should look like.

4) Hip Socket Depth

Similarly, there’s anatomical variation in the femur, but also the acetabulum, which is the socket that the femur sits in.

Big whoop, right?

Actually, yes, very big whoop.

Stu McGill has pioneered biomechanics of the spine olympic lifting, and found that there’s also variation in hip socket depth. Think of it this way; the deeper the socket, the less motion your hip is going to have, versus the shallower it is, the more motion your bony anatomy will have. It’s the idea of trying to move a golf ball on a tee, versus moving it in a close fitting tube. There’s more motion available on the tee.

That’s actually why Eastern Europe has crushed Olympic weight lifting, because they have shallower hip sockets, allowing more motion in the hip and femur, allowing that really deep squat with strength, and most importantly, allowing strength there. Versus if you’re from more northern Europe, like Scotland or Finland, you’re going to have deeper hip sockets and more limited motion. For Olympic lifting, it means they don’t have to pull the barbell as far off the ground (because they can sink lower), and therefore less upward force is required.

What does that mean for your squat depth? It means that you might not be able to naturally squat as low as someone from Bulgaria or Poland, and that’s okay! It means that your range of strength is a bit shallower, because that’s what your bony alignment will allow.

Aside from an MRI, how can you know if you’ve got a deep or a shallow socket?

Try performing a deep squat, with assistance using a pole or a bar. How low can you go without your pelvis curling and tucking under in the classic “butt wink?”

Because you’ve got the bar from support, we’re reducing the impact of muscle imbalance.

Because this is such a rich topic, we’ll continue on in another blog post about all the possible variations in our pelvis that can impact our squat depth.

5) You’re Only Doing Back Squats

Oooh, now this is a spicy one! But one of my favorites. Let’s think about physics for a moment. With a back squat, you’re shifting your center of mass backwards, so your trunk has to lean forward more to counter weight. This takes up some much needed hip flexion.

However, if you load the bar forwards, your chest has to be more upright to keep the center of mass between your feet. This is going to reduce the force through your hips and low back some, because you’re more upright, and your quads are going to have to do more work. This reduces the amount of hip flexion taken up by your trunk lean, and therefore allows you to drop lower.

So, if you’ve been hammering out back squats, consider training your front squat or your goblet squat even more.

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