You or someone that you know who has incurred a back injury due to performing squats at the gym and there are many medical professionals out there who are completely against this type of movement in weight training due to stresses on the back and knees.
I’m here to say that squatting is completely necessary and is something that you were born to do.
The problem arises from people who have sedentary jobs or sit throughout most of the day and attempt to perform squats with heavy weight and become injured. In order to get the most out of squatting you first must find the limitations in your body mechanics that do not allow you to squat properly.
The most critical movement in a squat is maintaining a neutral spine as you lower down.
Once the lower back rounds into flexion (moving forward) then the form breaks and there is a dangerous load on the lower back muscles (vs. a safe load on the glutes that you are trying to train with this exercise). In an ideal squat, you are shifting your weight back like you’re sitting in a chair. A beginner’s mistake is to lean too far forward, which forces your knees to track in front of your feet on descent and places increased stress on the lower back in order to come back to neutral.
So you’ve checked your form, and you initiate the weight shift backwards and you lower down to close to 90 degrees but then you feel like you cannot get any lower. Your training partner or trainer tries to encourage you to get lower but you feel stuck and it’s due to poor mobility in the hips or lower legs.
One thing that often limits athletes in a squat is limited dorsiflexion. This is the ability of your foot to get closer to your shin (tibia) and is also known as ankle mobility. One way to check this is:
1. Squat normally, check the angle between your hips, knees, and ankles.
2. Slide 1″ blocks or small weight plates under your heels. Squat again and re-check the angle.
Did it get easier? Could you sit further back? Did you have a lower squat and a decreased angle? If you answered “yes”, you have poor dorsiflexion. It’s a questionable strategy to squat with the blocks or plates under your heels, but it may train you into a better motor pattern until you resolve your dorsiflexion problem.
To correct limited dorsiflexion:
1. Foam roll your calves or stretch your calves to help with tightness and will increase mobility of the lower leg.
2. Sit on the ground with both legs in front of you and wrap a resistance band around the bottom of the balls of your feet and pull with with the other end. This will not only stretch the calves but will help with dorsiflexion mobility.
Perform these two actions twice a day for two weeks, and then re-check your squat.
Squats without weight should be performed first with proper form and as the movement becomes more comfortable then weight can be added in the form of dumbbells or a barbell. If you start to have back pain during the movement you should stop the exercise and see your chiropractor to assure that the spine is in proper alignment.