Why Does My Squat Technique Fall Apart When the Weight Gets Heavy?

By djpope

January 27, 2013

achilles tendonosis, femoral acetabular impingement, genu valgus, hip internal rotation, knee cap tracking, patella tracking problems, patellofemoral pain syndrome, plantar fasciitis, pronation, spinal flexion, squat, Technique
Retrieved from http://theharderiworktheluckieriget.blogspot.com/
Retrieved from http://theharderiworktheluckieriget.blogspot.com/

Hey let’s face it, when the weights get heavy, the form gets sloppy.  We try our best to avoid it, but why does this happen?

I feel that most people know that mobility can limit our technique, especially in the squat but will better mobility help us for those really heavy sets?

Well in a word, no.

If we can get into the proper position we need to for a given exercise without external resistance (ie: with an unloaded bar or with just our bodyweight) then we should be able to get into the correct position when we start adding weight.

However, our form still falls apart with heavier weights, what gives?

When your form starts falling apart with heavy weights it’s because our body is searching for stability.  What the hell does that mean?  Well take a look at my squat here at 380lbs:

Fairly clean right? Now how about 400lbs?

Not so clean right?  What happened?

I hit my limit as far as keeping everything in the proper position and had to rely on different structures in my body to finish the lift.  What do I mean by that?  Well let’s break down each part of where the squat can go wrong under heavy loads.

  1. Our feet flatten out
  2. Our knees come in
  3. Our hips internally rotate
  4. Our upper back rounds (hopefully not your lower back too)

In the case of a heavy squat gone wrong, your body noticed that it wasn’t strong enough to support the weight with the structures that are meant to support the weight, so it called in other players to get the job done:

1. Our feet flatten out

Pronation of the foot, flat feet, fallen arches

Your feet are composed of several joints and bones and are therefore very mobile.  The muscles that support the feet and keep a healthy arch are fairly small.  When the weights get heavy the arch tends to collapse.  These small bones press together as your foot pronates (flattens) and the arch hits the floor.  Now these bones are tightly packed together and are jammed up against the floor.

This is a position of stability but it isn’t healthy for the foot, particularly the plantar fascia or the achilles tendon.  You’ll finish the lift in this position, but your body suffers the consequences.

2. Our knees come in.

I talk about dynamic valgus ad nauseum on this website.  Since your foot arch has collapsed your knees follow suit.  Remember that your knees are slaves to movement at the hips and ankle/foot complex.  Chris Powers has also done a great job enlightening us about the hip’s role in knee pain.  I just came back from a huge physical therapy conference (CSM) and the idea of dynamic valgus causing knee pain is an enormously popular topic right now.

We’ve got a meaty ligament on the side of the knee known as your medial collateral ligament (MCL).  It often gets torn along with the ACL and medial meniscus in athletes (unhappy triad).  When the knee falls into valgus under load the MCL is under stress as well.  (This is the same thing that happens in athletes landing in genu valgus ie: the MCL, ACL and medial meniscus goes.)

So when our knees fall into a valgus position with squatting (knees in) the MCL helps to support our knees and get the weight up.  (It also places us into a position where the adductors help us squat, further pulling us into dynamic valgus)  However, this is accompanied by stressing the MCL which isn’t meant to take stress.  Along with it the meniscus gets some abnormal stress from gapping on the inner part of your knee and compression on the outside of your knee.   Next, our knee cap does not track normally as it is supposed to.  Good recipe for pain and damage, but we get the weight up.

3. Our hips internally rotate

This one is a bit difficult to conceptualize and if you’re having trouble understanding it you can read this article.  Your hip is a ball and socket joint.  The head of the femur (long bone in your thigh) comes to a head and fits into a socket called the acetabulum in your pelvis (bone between your hips and at the base of your spine).

Femoral Acetabular Impingement
Femoral Acetabular Impingement

In deep hip flexion and internal rotation of the hip (which is the same position as the bottom part of a squat when your knees come in) the femoral head can butt up against the acetabulum.  When this happens it causes a boney block and creates stability.  This can help us drive out of the bottom position of the squat.

Unfortunately, the labrum in your hip can become trapped between the femoral head and acetabulum and become “impinged.”  This is the phenomenon known as femoral acetabular impingement (FAI) and can lead to labral tears in the hip.  This is a well known phenomenon in physical therapy and there are even clinical tests for this issue:

4. Our Upper Back Rounds

The upper back also rounds when the weight gets too heavy in the squat.  Like in the aforementioned areas, this is because our musculature support system is not strong enough to keep us in the proper position.   Now we start to rely on other structures to get the weight up.

Our spine consists of vertebrae which stack up like boney hockey pucks all of the way up to our skull.  We have several joints and ligaments within the spine that provide support and block motion when we reach the limit of our flexibility.  When the upper back rounds during the squat we are challenging those structures and stressing them.  Essentially we are moving to the limit of our flexibility in our upper back and relying on the ligaments and joints to keep us in place.

This is akin to bending your elbow backwards until you get to it’s end range of flexibility and then relying on the joint to keep your elbow from hyperextending.

Just like at the foot, knee and hip, these structures are not meant to be loaded in this fashion.  It’ll help you get the weight up, but it also puts excessive stress on structures that aren’t meant to be loaded.

To recap:

  1. Lifting heavy things is cool
  2. When our technique falls apart with heavy squats it’s not a mobility problem
  3. When our technique falls apart we’re relying on structures in our body to finish the lift that aren’t meant to be stressed.
  4. The feet, knees, hips and spine take the bulk of the stress when our form falls apart.  You can begin to fix these deficits by learning about the joint by joint approach popularized by Gray Cook
  5. This phenomenon occurs with all lifts, not just the squat.
  6. If you want to keep your joints healthy you’ll do your absolute best to avoid poor technique at all times.

Now go squat a mountain and no genu valgus please,

Dan Pope

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