“At the risk of sounding like a frizzy haired eternal optimist – there’s a reason for everything. Today’s great word of encouragement is not about accepting that there is cosmic order and reason why you’re girlfriend left you though; it’s about figuring out why you can’t get your butt down to do a deep squat while a toddler who drops his pacifier can squat down perfectly to pick it up.”
You Can’t Do Squat, But a Baby Can
At the risk of sounding like a frizzy haired eternal optimist – there’s a reason for everything. Today’s great word of encouragement is not about accepting that there is cosmic order and reason why you’re girlfriend left you though; it’s about figuring out why you can’t get your butt down to do a deep squat while a toddler who drops his pacifier can squat down perfectly to pick it up. You’re girlfriend probably left you because you spent the rent money on a stockpile of new totally awesome supplements, by the way.
The more I study the science of strength and conditioning and fitness the more I learn that everything is interconnected and there’s never a cut and dry reason for just about anything. That being said, there are markers to look for. If you could do a perfect squat when you were a toddler but can’t now, there’s a reason for this restriction.
And it’s just that– a restriction.
To be clear, just because a baby can deep squat doesn’t necessarily mean a 7’0 basketball player with a femur the length of a great oak tree can healthily get into that position. Anatomy and injuries do play a role in some people. Older populations may also not need this range of motion to live a healthy life.
Chances are though if you’re reading this and you want to get the most out of your training the deep squat is for you.
If your anatomy safely allows this position then you need to look for restrictions as to why you can’t squat low right now.
If you work on these common restrictions that I’ll go into detail about, you may find that the restriction is caused by a deeper problem that will need to be addressed but the correcting the following common causes of pain and restrictions in the squat pattern might just make you move and feel better.
And that’s what I do, make people feel better. I’m a nurturer.
In fact that pain that you get with squatting may not be because of an injury but rather tightness at certain joints showing up as pain at other joints.
So here’s just a couple of reasons why you may not be able to get “down in that hole.”
Reason # 1- Tight hip flexors
I asked a class of would be personal trainers (who were undergrad exercise science majors) what action they were doing when they seated and no one could answer me.
The correct answer – ding ding ding – hip flexion.
So then I asked them the same question I’m going to ask you – if you flex your biceps for hours on end everyday what’s going to happen? I bet it’ll get tight and it might just start locking up on you.
Going back to you sitting on your butt – if you sit in hip flexion for hours on end your hip flexors are going to get tight.
Two negative effects result – first adequate range of motion for fundamental motion, like full hip flexion and extension, is restricted. The deep squat pattern, which involves full hip flexion and extension, is obviously affected by this . The other effect is that you experience something called reciprocal inhibition.
Reciprocal inhibition basically means that the opposite muscles of those that are concentrically contracting must remain inhibited (or for lack of a more creative way to explain it, the muscles turn off).
Think about when flex that those gorgeous biceps of yours. Try performing the concentric action of the triceps (extending the elbow) next time you do a biceps curl.
I bet you can’t.
This doesn’t mean that tension isn’t produces in the triceps when you bend your elbow but the triceps cannot shorten at the same time as the biceps
So if your hip flexors are always tight (contracting) and activated the opposite muscles become inhibited. This becomes a problem when you go to squat low and try to transition from hip flexion (the eccentric portion of the movement) to hip extension ( the concentric portion of the squat).
The glutes and hamstrings, among other muscles, extend the hip. So if they are inhibited – not working correctly – you will have a hard time keeping yourself from falling back or transitioning out of the deep squat position.
Very simply put, ankle dorsiflexion is when you actively pull your toes up towards your shin and plantarflexion is when you point your foot down.
So here’s another analogy – if I put my wrist in a cast every day for 20 years it’ll probably get a little stiff.
I might have some problems holding my hands flat for a push-up because of some loss of wrist mobility. The same wrist immobility could cause some tightness in my forearms too.
I’m no zealot on the topic, but shoes can have the same cast-like effect on your ankles and cause calf tightness just like a wrist cast could cause forearm tightness.
Shoes have come a long way though in freeing up the ankles (especially with the new minimalist movement) but problems still exist. I don’t necessarily think telling someone who has been in a thick shoe all his life with a big heel lift to go run barefoot in field somewhere without getting him used to it is the smartest of ideas either, for the record.
Something should be done though if the ankles are the limiting factor in being able to perform a complete deep squat.
The ankle has to dorsiflex to an extent to get the body in a deep squat position and most shoes with a big heel lock your foot into one position that does not allow for free mobility.
The shoe isn’t the only problem though. Because we don’t ever squat below a chair’s height and most people don’t sprint from their car to their houses, we hardly ever dorsiflex the ankle and use the full range of motion at the ankle joint.
Mom was right, if you don’t use it you lose it.
If you can’t dorsiflex the ankle properly you’ll never get into a deep squat with an upright posture without putting something under your heels or going up on your toes.
Your Body’s Smarter Than You
So if all this restriction is happening, why is it that your local personal trainer prescribes his clients quarter squats like no one’s business that the clients can actually perform.
The body protects itself – plain and simple.
I first read about the joint by joint approach to training by reading one of Mike Boyle’s book a while back. This view is that if you lose mobility in a joint that’s meant to have a certain range of motion, your body will compensate by creating mobility in a joint above or below that’s meant to be more stable.
Someone complains about knee and back pain. You take a look at his lifestyle and find out that he sits all day and that his hip flexors are ridiculously tight. According to the joint by joint approach, he lost mobility in his hips so his lumbar spine (low back) and knee have overcompensated by becoming more mobile than stable.
My explanation may be an oversimplification but it’s a good starting point to start figuring things out.
In part 2 I’m going to discuss one more common restriction to deep squatting, how to tell if you have an ankle mobility restriction or a calf flexibility restriction and give you some ideas on how to correct some of these problems and get a youngersquat pattern back.
Have an opinion? Don’t like shoes? Love my creepy personal trainer picture? Leave me something in the comments, I want to hear it.