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  • Writer's pictureJosh

How to Self-Diagnose and Solve Poor Squat Depth Issues

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Mobility Issues as the Primary Cause

Mobility issues are common in modern society due to the large amount of time spent sitting every day. Squatting is a natural method of resting for the human body and so makes a great diagnostic tool for mobility issues. Every human without injury or birth defect should be capable of deep squatting and resting in the position for at least a few minutes.


Below are the most common mobility issues related to deep squatting and the methods to address them.


#1. Ankle Mobility

The ankle mobility needed to get into the deep squat position will vary slightly depending on body type, but in general most people will need at least 35 degrees of dorsi-flexion in order to accomplish a deep squat.


deep squatting dorsiflexion requirements

Many people only have enough ankle mobility for walking, which is around 15 degrees dorsi-flexion, not nearly enough for squat depth.


walking dorsiflexion requirements

How to test your dorsi-flexion at home

The weight bearing lunge test is an excellent way to see if you have the required ankle mobility for the deep squat, and it's easy to perform anywhere.

  • Kneel down onto one knee (might need padding if on a hard floor).

  • Place the opposite foot about a hands-width (5 inches) away from the wall.

  • Keeping the foot flat, try to touch your knee to the wall.


dorsiflexion test

If the knee doesn't touch the wall, this means your ankle range of motion isn't where it needs to be. The solution is to begin stretching the soleus muscle of the lower leg, increasing ankle mobility steadily until you get the required range of motion.

  • Put both hands on a wall and stand in a staggered stance, both feet facing forward with the front foot between 6" and 18" from the wall.

  • Begin to drop the weight of the body slowly down into the back leg, allowing the ankle to slowly bend until you reach a point of feeling the stretch.

  • Slowly go back up, relieving the weight from the back leg before repeating the process again.

  • Do this 8 times and with each rep try to go a little further, though don't push yourself into a painful range of motion.

  • At the end of the 8 reps go down into the stretch one more time and this time hold it for 30 seconds while deep breathing.


soleus stretch

Repeat this stretch 4-5 times a week until the necessary mobility is gained. You can also make the stretch more efficient by putting the ball of the foot on top of a weight plate or a slant board if you have one.


#2. Hip Mobility

Hip mobility can come in many forms, as there are many muscles, tendons and ligaments surrounding the hips which can effect their mobility. The primary inhibitor of hip mobility in the squat however, is the hamstrings (though it could be the quads if you have anterior pelvic tilt).


Tight hamstrings will stop the pelvis from maintaining a neutral tilt at the bottom of the squat, causing the famous "butt wink" effect.


the butt wink during squating

How to test your hip squat mobility at home

There are many methods of assessing hamstring flexibility, but to keep things as simple as possible, I suggest simply attempting a deep squat and watching for the butt wink to happen. If it doesn't happen, your mobility is acceptable, but if it does you will need to work on your hamstring flexibility.

  • You can do this squat with a mirror at your side, a partner watching you, or with a video camera recording you from the side.

  • Simply squat down with some weight in your hands or on your back (not much because you are simply testing your mobility and heavy weight would be a distraction and potentially dangerous). A kettlebell or dumbbell goblet squat is an excellent choice for this.

  • Observe your low back and pelvis, if your pelvis begins to tuck under and your low back rounds out before your desired squat depth, it's likely your hamstrings are too tight.

A great mobility drill to lengthen the hamstrings is the squat to hamstring stretch. I would recommend foam rolling your hamstrings and quads before starting this drill.

  • Squat down as far as you are able, then bend over and grab your toes.

  • Keep your arms straight and inside your knees. Keep back straight and chest up.

  • While maintaining a hold on your toes, begin to straighten your legs and stand up out of your stretch.

  • At the top of the movement your legs will be straight and you will be reaching down touching the toes, giving the hamstrings a momentary stretch.

  • Then repeat the movement by bending back down into the squat.

  • Repeat this 8 times.


squat to hamstring stretch

If you can't do this at all or can't do it without really rounding your back, it's best to alter the stretch by using bands, yoga blocks or something else to raise your hands off the ground. This stretch works best when the spine is kept straight.


#3. Thoracic Extension


Thoracic spine extension

The thoracic spine is another victim of sitting for too long, especially in a slouched posture. When the thoracic spine can't extend fully the torso dumps forward in the squat. This usually means the low back has to compensate by arching, often causing low back pain and anteriorly rotating the pelvis and decreasing hamstring flexibility.


An easy way to check your thoracic mobility is to check your ability to align the spine against a wall.

  • Stand with you feet 6 inches away from a wall and your pelvis, spine and head touching the wall.

  • Make sure your lower back is flat against the wall, your thoracic spine is flat against the wall and the back of your head is touching the wall while your face is still pointed forward.

  • If your low back has to come off the wall or your head has to look up to get your thoracic spine flat on the wall, it's a failed test.


thoracic extension assessment

The cat/cow mobility drill from yoga is a great way to mobilize and gain more control in your thoracic spine and it's very easy to perform.

  • Get on your hands and knees with arms straight and directly under shoulders and thighs directly under hips and straight up and down.

  • Now your going to slowly hollow your back as much as you can comfortably, being sure to get all vertebrae involved.

  • Then reverse it and slowly arch the spine as much as you are comfortably able to.

  • Repeating this 10 times before every workout or as part of a 4-5 times a week mobility routine.


cat cow pose

The cat/cow will slowly give you control over your thoracic extension again and as a bonus, it's a great way to help correct posture and stand taller.


Strength Issues as the Primary Cause

When I say strength, I don't mean the absolute strength needed to lower and raise oneself into a squat, but instead the strength needed to keep correct squat form, which then allows one the ability to lower fully into the squat.


A good analogy would be someone with a strong chest trying to bench press without strong enough shoulder stability to keep the bar from falling forward. It wouldn't matter how much force the lifter could generate with their chest, the bench press as a lift couldn't be completed without the bar being dropped onto the lifter.


In the same way, there are many, sometimes small, strength issues within the body that will keep an otherwise strong person from being able to squat deeply.


#1. Weak Core

By core strength I mean the muscles of the torso that help keep the spine in a neutral posture. It's fairly common to see weakness in some of these muscles, especially the transverse abdominis, obliques and spinal erectors. When these muscles are weak, the brain can tell that your spine and spinal cord are not in a stable and safe situation.


The brain will then lock down other muscles, not allowing a full range of motion. And no amount of stretching or mobility will make the brain change it's mind. If the body can't stabilize, the brain won't mobilize.


To test your core strength, it's important to test your core's ability to integrate and stabilize in multiple angles. Luckily, in this case the tests are the same as the exercises I would initially recommend to stabilize the core and spine.


Hollow Body Hold

This exercise is heavily utilized in the sport of gymnastics due to the strong need in this sport to integrate the strength of the lower and upper portions of the body and the need to endure strong forces against the spine.

  • Lay on the ground on your back.

  • Bend your knees and hold your leg up in the air while also pointing your arms up towards the ceiling.

  • Now tuck your pelvis up and lift your upper back off the ground. You will be crunching your abdomen as if you were trying to bring the front of your pelvis and the front of the ribs towards each other.

  • Your lower back should be on the ground. If you have space between your low back and the floor, you're not fully engaging your core and it's likely that your core strength is inhibiting your squat depth.


Hollow Body Hold

Once you have the proper position try to hold it for 30 seconds. If you succeed, try again while slowing extending your legs and reach your arms behind your head. This will make the hold more difficult and continue building the core.


Arch Hold (Superman Hold)

This is the opposite position of the hollow body hold. It strengthens the spinal erector muscles of the back while integrating the strength of the glutes, back and shoulder blades.

  • Lay on the ground on your stomach.

  • Stretch the arms out in front of the head and pull the legs together.

  • Lift the arms and shoulder off the ground while also lifting the legs off the ground.

  • Be sure to flex the glutes, keep the legs together, and pull the shoulder blades down the back.


arch hold

Hold this for 30 seconds, if your feet or hands fall to the ground, it's likely the core is a primary issue keeping you from squatting deep.


Side Plank

The side plank strengthens the obliques and integrates the strength of the obliques with the glute medius muscles of the hips and supporting muscles of the arms and shoulder blades.

  • Lay on the ground on your side.

  • Prop yourself up on your elbow and forearm and position your feet side by side on the ground.

  • Now lift the body up and hold the spine, hips and legs straight. Be sure to keep the supporting upper arm directly under the shoulder.


side plank

Hold this for 30 seconds without letting the waist sag towards the ground. If it does you have a deficiency somewhere in the lateral chain of strength running through your core.


If you failed in any of these three exercises, try performing them 3 days a week until you can hold them with perfect form for at least 30 seconds.


#2. Weak Hip Flexors

The hip flexors, in particular the psoas muscles, help keep the spine pulled towards the thighs in the deep squat position. If they are too weak to do so the hips won't be able to fully flex and the spine will begin to round.


An easy way to test for this is a standing hip flexor hold.

  • Stand tall on one leg and bend the other knee.

  • With your hands, pull your knee up to your ribs.

  • Let go of the knee and try not to let it drop with just muscular effort.


hip flexor test

If the knee drops then your hip flexors are too weak to hold the thigh and the spine together. You will need to strengthen your hip flexors in order to deepen your squat.


Banded March (if you have exercise bands)

  • Stand straight and well grounded.

  • Loop exercise band around both feet.

  • Pull the knee up towards the ribs using muscular effort.

  • Try to complete 10 reps, pausing at the top for 2 seconds each time.

  • Complete 2-3 sets and repeat on the other leg.


banded march exercise

Another option if you don't have bands is to use ankle weights.


Weighted Standing March

  • Stand tall with an ankle weight wrapped around one ankle.

  • Tuck the knee up to the ribs and hold for 2 seconds before lowering back down.

  • Try to complete 10 reps for 2-3 sets.

  • Repeat on the other leg.


Do these exercises 2-3 times a week but be sure to add in some psoas stretches or releases. If the psoas gets too sore and tight from these new exercises you may experience low back pain. However, it usually goes away by releasing the psoas.


#3. Weak Tibialis

The tibialis anterior is a muscle on the shin which helps pull the ankle into dorsi flexion. It's commonly weak today and can be a large contributing factor to the lack of ankle mobility.


In fact, if you failed the ankle mobility test from earlier in this post, I would begin working the tibialis as well performing ankle stretches. The combination of the two will only speed the results up and ensure success.


Tibialis Raises

This exercise has been recently popularized by knees over toes guy and for good reason. It is a simple exercise that's easy to add to a warmup session for your main workout and will give you great results. Not only will this help increase ankle mobility but it will also help protect the ankles from future injury.


  • Stand with your back against the wall and your feet about 6 inches from the wall.

  • Resting your heels on the ground, lift the top of the foot up towards the shins and back down.

  • Repeat this 20 times for 3 sets.


tibialis raises

Perform this exercise 2-3 times per week and it works great when coupled with ankle stretches. I've often performed a set of tib raises, then a set of ankle stretches and repeated that 3 times with great effect on ankle mobility.



Skeletal Type as the Primary Cause

Every human skeleton is unique, with many variations being seen in the length, width and shape of every bone in the human body. In fact, there are even a good percentage of people with bones and muscles not seen in normal anatomy, such as the sternalis muscle seen in only 7% of the population, or the 0.5% of the population with an extra cervical rib.


The most common anatomical variations which effect the squat are listed below. The variations will often affect the depth one is able squat, but these affects can often be mitigated by changes in the squatting technique.


#1. Pelvis/Femur Orientation

The pelvis contains the hip socket, known as the acetabulum, a bowl shaped cavity which the head of the thigh bone fits into to form the hip joint. The depth and the angle of this bowl is different from person to person.


In some people the bowl faces more forward while in others it faces more to the side. The head of the femur can also be angled, either facing more forward or to the side. The end result of any of these situations is a deviation from what's considered an average pelvis and femur orientation, either more to the front or more to the side (anteverted or retroverted).


If the hip is more oriented to the front (anteverted) the person will be able to squat deep with the knees facing forward and the feet closer to shoulder width apart. However, this same person will have difficulty in a wide stance with the knees pointed more laterally.


Someone who's hips are oriented more laterally (retroverted) will find the opposite is true. It will be nearly impossible for them to squat deeply with a shoulder width stance or knees and feet pointed forward. This person will do much better with a wide squat stance and feet turned more out.


anteverted and retroverted hips
Overhead view of pelvis


To test your own unique hip anatomy, you will check your internal and external hip rotation form a seated and a prone position.

  • Sit down on a surface that's tall enough to let your leg dangle over the edge without touching the ground.

  • Rotate your femur internally and take note of roughly how far it goes.

  • Now rotate your femur externally and take note of how far it goes.

  • Next your going to lay down on your stomach and bend the knee of one leg so that the lower leg is vertical and pointed up towards the ceiling.

  • Now internally rotate your femur and take note of how far you can go.

  • Then internally rotate your femur and take note of how far it goes.


hip rotation tests

Normal hip orientation- If your femur was able to internally and externally rotate to roughly the same degree then you likely have a normal hip orientation and the traditional squat form with legs and feet slightly turned out is likely best for you. Also if you got mixed results, with more internal rotation in one position but more external in another, then you likely have normal hip orientation.


Forward facing hip orientation (anteversion)- If you found you were able to internally rotate more than externally rotate in both positions then you likely have anteverted hips and will squat better and deeper with knees and feet facing forward with a close to shoulder width stance.


Lateral facing hip orientation (retroversion)- If you were able to externally rotate more than you were able the internally rotate in both positions then you likely have laterally facing hip orientation and would have a stronger and deeper squat with a wide stance with knees and feet facing out more.


squat stances

#2. Leg Length ratio

Some people have longer legs than they do torsos, causing a biomechanical shift in the squat positions they can enter. When the thigh in particular is longer, it causes the center of gravity to be shifted further away from the base of support which is the feet.

To compensate for this the torso must lean further forward.


This causes extra strain on the low back and the knees and makes things like front squatting or high bar squatting very difficult. Comparatively, someone with short legs and a long torso would find it easy to keep the torso upright and keep the center of gravity aligned above the base of support in the feet, making deep squatting fairly easy and natural.



how femur length affects squats

While there are ways to measure and test for this, they tend to be somewhat complicated and prone to error. This is one metric where it's honestly easier to simply look in a mirror. It's usually pretty easy to see when someone has long or short legs just from the visual.


Then test this out by getting into a standard squat and going down to parallel. Is it easy to stay upright, or do you feel like you're going to fall over if you don't lean forward? If you feel you will fall backwards without leaning forward, it's likely you have long femurs for your height.


How to adjust

The good news is that while people with long femurs have a disadvantage when it comes to deep squatting, there are ways to adjust the form and train the body to make up for this.


The first thing you can do is widen the stance. This will adjust the center of gravity to be in a better position and decrease the amount of lean you will need. Second is to train your body's weak links, which in this case would be the extra need for ankle mobility and low back strength.


The dorsi flexion talked about in the beginning of this article is even more important for someone with long legs. The extra mobility will allow you to sit more deeply into the squat without feeling as if you are falling backwards.


The low back will be experiencing more strain than someone with short legs, so it's best to make it a point to keep the low back strong. Simply be careful not to overtrain it though, especially if low back training is new to you. To start strengthening the low back you can begin adding in romanian deadlifts, good mornings or hyperextensions. All of these work great at shoring up any weakness in the region.


Also check out this video if you're interested in more information about the deep resting squat.



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