The Squat.

Some would consider it the king of all exercises. I like the deadlift better. That’s another story.

The squat is a great lower body strength and mass builder. Killer thighs and hella-awesome asses are built by squats.

There’s something primal about lifting heavy weights. Like conquering a beast in the wild. Except you’re in the gym under fluorescent lights with Slipknot cranking in your ears.

So just like the wild, but indoors, with music and artificial lighting.

Squats build strong quads, hamstrings, and glutes all in one exercise. Load up the bar, step under it, and drop your ass to the ground..or so we would like to think.

Believe it or not, not everyone is a great squatter. Who am I kidding-you and I both know most people have an ugly squat.

Most of us sit too much during the day, leaning over desks and phones, moving as little as possible. This lifestyle leads to tight hips, weak asses, and tight upper backs.

The squat requires the opposite of all those things: mobile hips, strong glutes and thighs, and a strong low back and mobile upper back. If you lack those things you’ll have an ugly squat.

So let’s say you want to squat, but your mobility sucks.

First, work on your mobility.

Foam roll quads, hips, IT bands, and glutes. Use a lacrosse ball and loosen up the bottoms of your feet and calves.

Quick reminder: mobility is a journey, not a destination; so you should be constantly working on it. Obviously things will be tighter this week, but the more you do it the easier it will be to move in and out of different positions, and the less time you’ll need to work on it. Still, work on it

Next, try this simple squat hack that will improve your form, help you get lower to the ground, and give you better results:

“BLOCKING THE HEELS”

Squat without "blocks"

Squat without “blocks”

Squat, "blocking" the heels

Squat, “blocking” the heels w/2.5 lb plates

At first glance you might not see a difference. Look again.

Notice my back in the “unblocked” photo: leaning a little forward (maybe 60 degrees), with the barbell shifted over my knees. With a lot of weight, this could be disastrous. Squatting is great for you, when done correctly. If you have too much forward lean a couple things can happen:

1.) In front squat position, you’ll dump the bar: the weight shifts too far forward and you can’t control it from rolling off your shoulders

1.5) In the back squat position, you’ll either fail to drive back out of the hole, or fall forward with the weight crushing your body into the gound. I’ve heard that’s not a good look. If the cute girl you were trying to impress is deadlifting the bar off your crumpled body, I doubt she’s gonna find you manly enough to date.

2.) You can strain your back trying to stay upright with the bar. The sheer forces on your spine are greater when the bar gets too far away from your support system and center of gravity; in this case, my hips and low back.

As an aside, the ability to dump the bar is why the front squat is superior to the back squat. If you find yourself in trouble moving the weight, you can just drop the bar in front of you as opposed to being crushed by the weight on your back.

In the second photo, when I “blocked” my heels with a couple 2.5 lb plates, you can see that my back stays more upright (maybe 75-80 degrees). I’m supporting the weight with a more erect spine, and in this instance, you an see that my squat depth improves. My hips actually sit lower in the “blocked” picture. You’ll also notice that the bar stays closer to my hips, or my center of mass.

This little hack takes about 2 seconds to set up, and immediately you’ll see better results: it’s safer, you’ll get better range of motion out of your squat, you’ll protect your spine, and you’ll recruit more muscle mass than before.

But why?

It has to do with mobility. Mobility is characterized by a joint’s ability to move in a full range of motion.

In a squat, you need ample ankle and hip mobility in order to keep the bar over your center of mass and stay upright in your torso. People lose their mobility due to our every day lives: sitting all day, slouching over phones and computers, rounding our shoulders, etc.

If you lack mobility in your ankles, hips, or both, then you’ll have difficulty getting to depth in your squat. Likely, it will feel unnatural or even bothersome, and you may not be able to put up the squat numbers that are brag-worthy to your friends.

Think of it this way:

Your legs are a kinetic chain-if your ankles won’t move, then you’ll compensate up the leg towards the knee. If your hips don’t move well, you’ll compensate elsewhere (usually forward lean in your squat) to try and “fake” a good squat. Your body is a good compensator.

However, things can go seriously wrong if you don’t address mobility issues, and over time you’ll encounter knee and/or back aches and injuries.

The “blocks” in this case remove one of the major causes of bad squats: bad ankle mobility. By lofting my heels up a bit, my ankles don’t have to flex as much as I drop down into my squat. Less “jamming up” in my ankles, and I’m able to get my hips lower and keep my back more upright and stable.

Work to improve your mobility. Here’s a hip mobility complex you can use to improve the way your hips move. You can also do some rocking ankle mobility to help improve ankle mobility. After awhile, when things loosen up, your squat will clean up.

In the meantime, try blocking the heels the next time you’re squatting and see how it feels. I betcha things feel a lot better. Report back to me and let me know how it goes!

Exercise images by Everkinetic.

Andy Van Grinsven

About Andy Van Grinsven

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