Fixing Your Squat

by Coach Travis Mash, USAW Senior International Coach

I want to discuss a couple of more items about the squat.  Yes, we have focused on the squat for the past few weeks especially with the new EBook “Squat Science” dropping a couple of weeks ago.  I have learned so much about the movement in the last several months.  It’s hard to imagine the amount of information that I have learned about a movement that I once held the World Record in.  Most people would believe that someone was an expert in a movement if they held the world record.  They would absolutely be wrong.  Some people are born good at certain movements and sports, and that certainly doesn’t make them experts.

You become an expert by spending your life learning all that there is to learn about a topic.  In this article, I want to wrap up or look into the squat by addressing a common mistake:

The Dreaded Buttwink

Let’s look at the buttwink first.  The first thing to do is find out if the problem is:

1.  Are you starting with the lumber spine hyperextended?

2.  Is the problem just motor control?

3.  Is it mobility?

4.  Or is it a combination?

A lot of fitness enthusiasts have been told their whole lives to keep a tight back.  Some coaches will cue their lifters to arch their backs.  Personally I never use the word arch your back.  I prefer the words ‘pack your lats’, which means to simply take the shoulders down towards your hips.  This will keep the back tight in a more neutral position. 

Here are a few cues that promote core stiffness without over-arching:

1.  Eyes forwards-  looking up tends to cause excessive over-arching, so maintaining a neutral focal point is first.

2.  Shoulders back and down- this movement will engage the rhomboids holding the scapula in place, but emphasized the engagement of the lats with taking the shoulders down towards the hips.

3.  Bend the bar-  with your elbows directly underneath the barbell, I want you to pull down on the barbell.  This will ensure that your lats are engaged in a way that will keep the spine neutral.

There is one more thing that I would do to make sure that you aren’t starting in a hyperextended position, and that’s use a mirror.  I know that using a mirror is taboo in a lot of gyms, but that’s silly.  A lot of Asian weightlifters are known to use mirrors for the instant visual feedback.  Some people simply can’t feel what you’re trying to tell them, but they can see it.  A mirror can sometimes be the only thing that you need to fix the problem.

Once you’ve figured out if you’re starting hyperextended or not, the next thing to do is figure out if you’re struggling with motor control or from a mobility issue.  Most of the time it’s motor control, but not always.  However as you will find out, the best way to fix mobility issues is with frequency and motor control exercises.

First, let’s figure out what the problem really is.  My friend, Dr. Zach Long made this cool video that shows you an exercise that you can use to determine if you have a motor control issue or a mobility issue.  Check it out:

If you can perform this movement without a buttwink, then you have a motor control problem.  If you have the mobility to perform this quadruped rock, you are essentially performing a squat without any load.  I love the fact that Zach is adding a pvc pipe because it begins the teaching process allowing the athlete to start gaining control of the pelvis.  I use a pvc pipe in this manner a lot to teach my athletes where their glutes are in relation to their shoulders and back. 

So what do you do if it’s a motor control thing?  I like to start at the very beginning, an air squat.  This is where I start everyone.  If you or your athlete can’t perform an air squat, there is no point in loading.  When you load dysfunction, you are simply adding more dysfunction. 

I would start with a simple air squat in the mirror.  Sometimes an athlete can fix things by simply getting a visual.  If they can’t, then use a bench or ball going as low as you can without the buttwink.  I would then squat 3-5 times per week in this manner slowly working to a lower position.

Step 2 is loading holding a plate or dumbbell at arms length straight out in front of the body.  One thing that you will find is that it is easier to brace while anteriorly loaded.  When Dr. McGill visited my gym a few months ago, he showed me this movement.  I was squatting on a Westside Barbell Athletic Training Platform explaining to him that the machine alleviates my hip pain.  When he had me hold a plate in front of my body, I instantly found that I had much better motor control over my pelvis.  I have all the mobility issues with a hip that needs to be replaced, but when holding that plate, I was able to squat with a perfectly neutral spine.

The same progressions are true for this movement.  If you can’t squat with a full range of motion without using a buttwink, then set up a box or ball to a height that you can maintain a good posture.  I suggest a frequency of 3-5 times per week while slowly lowering the height over time.  When you can squat to a full range of motion without a buttwink, you can progress to the next step.

Step 3 is the Kettlebell Goblet Squat.  Once again, you can use a box or ball to progress your depth.  Once you’re able to squat with a full range of motion, the next step is to increase the load until you physically can’t hold the kettlebell.  At that point, it should be safe to move onto front squat, which is also easier to brace since it is still anteriorly loaded.  Then you can move into a high bar back squat, and then a low bar back squat (if you low bar back squat). 

Here’s a great way to use the Goblet Squat:

Here are a couple of more tips to master the squat and to get rid of the butt wink. 

1.  Perform the McGill 3 (Bird Dogs, Side Planks, and Curl-Ups)- it’s amazing the amount of postural control that you will notice after performing this three movements.  You will notice that bracing becomes easier than ever.

2.  Frequency is the answer to just about anything movement related.  You will notice that a slight increase in frequency will lead to better motor control and mobility.  It’s simple if you think about it.  Your body becomes more efficient with movements that you practice more often. 

3.  Westside Barbell Athletic Training Platform-  I realize that a lot of you don’t have one, but if you do, it’s the best warm up in the world.  The belt holds your pelvis at neutral while forcing your glutes to activate.  This prepares your body for perfect motor control and bracing.  If you don’t have one and are looking for a new piece of equipment, I would suggest an ATP over anything.

However, what if it is mobility?

The first thing to do is decide what part or parts of the body are immobile.  You will need to check out the following joints:

  • Hips (Internal Rotation, External Rotation, and flexion)
  • Ankles
  • Hamstrings

Dr. Zach Long has written a great article with some ways to assess your mobility, and some ideas to fix it.  Check it out here:

Here are my ideas to rid you of the dreaded buttwink:

  • Warm up with a 10 minute walk
  • McGill Big 3
  • Start with glute marches on the ATP 3 x 30 seconds
  • Then Squats on the ATP 3 x 10 with a light load on the machine and a plate held straight out in front
  • I take 2-3 mobility exercises specific to me that I superset with the ATP work.  For me that is half kneeling psoas stretches and quadruped rocks with banded traction
  • All of this is followed by a proper barbell only warm up

In most cases, the buttwink is a hyperextended lumbar spine finding neutral, or a lack of motor control.  The key is learning proper technique from the very beginning, and then practicing those mechanics often.  The warm up above will encourage proper movement and stability.  It will also lower the risk of injury, and it will keep all the muscles firing that stabilize the pelvis and spine promoting optimal core stability. I hope this article sheds a little light on the buttwink.  The goal is that you walk away understanding:

  • What a buttwink is
  • How to assess to find out if the issue is mobility or motor control
  • And how to correct

Squatting is an exercise that allows a lot of us to lift the most weight possible.  It’s fun, and it gets the results that we all want.  Squats will help you run faster and jump higher.  Not to mention squats make you jacked.  I want you to be able to do it for a long time without injury.  It’s not always about squatting heavy.  The person that can squat the longest without injury is the person that normally ends up winning the squat race.

If you are in the Lewisville, NC area, come check us out for a Free Two Weeks by emailing us at leanfitnesssystems@gmail.com and mention this article.