Go from a painful squat to a pain-free, strong squat immediately using 3 simple, but effective strategies. Let me help you discover the root cause of your issue while finding a position that works with your body so that you can squat right now without pain.
As mentioned in 'Think Movements, Not Muscles', the squat is a foundational movement pattern that is really essential to feeling and functioning optimally. Believe it or not, all of us were born with a perfect squat, but through growth and obtaining some evolutionary destructive habits—like sitting all day and failing to provide much needed WD40 through movement—the squat has become something that doesn't look so pretty and causes discomfort for many.
So, why does squatting cause so much pain for people? And, how can we fix our squat so we can live without pain, move fluidly, and perform during our workouts?
The key is to discover a way of squatting that reduces pain or discomfort. From there, it's easier to work backward and pinpoint the root of the problem. We can then place ourselves in the right position to gradually master the movement with repetition while working on some of the underlying issues separately.
I look at it as an A,B,C type concept with my clients—they've got to be able to do the reading, writing, and arithmetic part before we can move into some of these other areas of more complex movement.
Take yourself through these 3 strategies that will help you find a right position to complete a squat that looks good and feels good. You may need to use all 3 strategies together to be put in the best position (and that’s ok). Let’s take them one at a time for now.
1. Goblet Position
If you've ever watched somebody squat, you've probably seen this pitched forward action (on the left) a few too many times. You don't need to be an experienced coach to see the position on the left is not an ideal squat position compared to the picture on the right.
Dan John, one of the pioneering coaches in the strength and conditioning world, has popularized the goblet squat in recent years as a means to clean up technique while working on creating core tension throughout the movement.
Holding a dumbbell (or kettlebell) in front of your torso creates counterbalance to allow you to squat with an upright posture. Additionally, the goblet position forces you to brace significantly throughout your core. A very important concept with any of the fundamental movement is the ability to create full body tension.
I actually prefer a dumbbell because it provides an excellent external cue. I can tell my clients that to have a point of contact on the sternum and stomach throughout the movement. If you're using a kettlebell, having the belly of the kettlebell in contact with the sternum throughout the movement.
From both my coaching experience and personal use, the goblet position almost immediately cleans up the squat movement like magic. I coach a lot of high-school volleyball athletes who are long limbed and tend to crumble in the torso. By placing those athletes in the goblet position they got better right away without any other modification or special cue.
2. Block the Heels
For most people, squatting difficulty is going to be a core issue, ankle mobility issue, or a combination of the two. Blocking the heels up a couple of inches instantly improves core and ankle mobility constraints resulting in less pain throughout the movement. The elevation puts you in a better, safer position to engage the muscles that are supposed to be working in the squat.
If this strategy helped you out, you most likely have mobility constraints in your ankles. By incorporating foam rolling— bottom on your feet, shins, and calves—and ankle mobility drills daily, you will help to break up and realign the tissue surrounding the ankle leading to more range of motion in that joint.
3. Band the Knees
If you're still experiencing pain or lack of fluidity in the squat after trying the first two strategies, try placing a band around the knees. Your glutes help to abduct (push your knees apart) and externally rotate (rotate legs outward, away from the rest of the body). By placing a band around your knees you will be forced to engage the glute muscles in the way they’re intended to be used. Pushing your knees outward also provides space for your torso to drop down into an ideal position without your hip joint getting in the way.
For some, it's a simple case of learning to use their glutes. Throughout the entire squatting movement, make sure there is constant tension into the band—try to literally break the band apart. If this seems to be the issue for you, try incorporating some band activation exercises for your glutes before squatting combined with groin and hip mobility drills.
Using one or a combination of these 3 strategies, I've had a lot of success getting a pain-free, near perfect looking squat on day one with most people. Just like any other movement within our training, we want repetition — quality repetition in our movement done consistently and done repetitively.