Squat mobility is absolutely paramount for both performance and injury prevention for anyone in the strength and fitness world:
- The Sport of Fitness
- Olympic Weightlifting
- General Weight Training
As a former CrossFit coach and current physical therapist, one of the largest issues I tackle on a regular basis is mobility for the squat. Having better mobility will set you up for success in the olympic lifts and having poor mobility will make these lifts an absolute train wreck:
Who do you think will have an easier time snatching?
As a physical therapist who goes about correcting this regularly I've noticed a lot of confusion out there in terms of squat mobility and wanted to make a nice comprehensive guide to help folks figure out how to troubleshoot squat mobility limitations.
This article is pretty massive so please feel free to jump around to the sections that are most relevant to you by using the quick navigation below:
Squat Mobility Principles
Before we get started I want to outline a few principles of squat mobility that are vital to understand before we go deep on the subject.
1) Regional Interdependence
Regional interdependence is just a fancy term that means joints and muscle that are distant from the problem area can be the reason for the problem. In the squat we need to have motion coming from a bunch of areas:
If we're missing mobility in the ankle you might find the shoulders flexing excessively in the snatch to make up for the problem downstream. Now you may think you've got a shoulder mobility issue because they feel so tight (because they're being forced to make up for the lack of motion elsewhere) and naturally feel like you need to stretch your shoulders. However, this is a big mistake and the last thing your shoulder needs is more motion, the ankle is the culprit.
This is beyond the scope of this article but having mobility limitations in one area can sometimes lead to pain problems at another joint or muscle somewhere else in the body.
Building on the last concept let's talk about accuracy. We want to be very accurate in our diagnosis of where mobility limitations lie. This way we can be efficient in applying the correct mobilization and not just applying a shotgun approach to mobility for people.
Think about it. If you have someone with an ankle mobility limitation only and give them a laundry list of hip mobility exercises (because you know their squat stinks but never went through the process of assessing first), you're just wasting their time. You should have found the mobility limitation and tackled that.
Besides, who wants to spend the majority of their free time mobilizing? We should be spending our time squatting and getting stronger.
For this reason I'll going fairly in depth into anatomy and different assessments to make sure you figure out exactly where the mobility limitations lie and be as efficient as possible with mobility drills. In this article we'll be going over a few specific areas that can limit the squat:
- The Spine
- The Hips
- The Knees
- The Foot and Ankle
3) Mobility vs. Strength vs. Technique
Secondly, we want to make sure someone is actually dealing with a mobility issue and not a strength or technique issue. Not every reason for poor technique in the gym is mobility restriction. If we're trying to apply mobility exercises to fix someone's technique and they're actually dealing with a strength issue, we're wasting their time. Again, we're looking to be efficient and actually help people so accurately diagnosing their problem is important.
This is not the topic of discussion for this article but it's an incredibly important concept to understand. If you'd like to learn more about this subject click the article below:
We will however be going over several different assessment to help figure out whether or not people have mobility restrictions so keep reading to learn more.
4) Choosing the Right Mobility Drills
Lastly, we want to make sure we're applying the correct types of mobility drills to actually make a change in our mobility. There are so many drills you can find online it will make your head spin. These drills are often super popular on instagram but widely ineffective for actually fixing the problem! Let's not fall into this trap.
I use an evidence based approach to mobility that includes:
- Soft tissue work (foam rolling)
- Static stretching
These interventions are tried and true in terms of changing mobility (with foam rolling actually the least supported of the bunch). We also have some pretty good evidence to show what the best sets / reps / frequencies are for stretching as well. If you want to dive a little deeper on these topics click the links below to learn more:
- How Often Should I Stretch?
- Does Foam Rolling Improve Long Term Flexibility?
- Evidence Based Guide to Eccentrics for Mobility
I'll also show you some of my favorite mobilizations from my experience that I've used over time that have worked well for me and my clients.
4) Assessing and Reassessing
I can't tell you how many times people have told me I tried mobility but it didn't work. When I ask if they actually measured their mobility beforehand and after trying a mobility program the answer is almost always no.
To me that's like saying I tried losing weight and it didn't work but you never even weighed yourself before and after to see if your weight changed.
Mobility is no different. We need to make sure we have some sort of test beforehand and then re-test later to see if a change was made. Also, flexibility exercises often produce both a short term (immediately following the mobility) and a longer term effect (when performed for several week consistently).
I recommend people assess and reassess their mobility after consistently mobilizing for at least 4 weeks to see whether or not they're making a long term change. So now that we have the principles out of the way, let's dive into squat mobility shall we? The first area we'll look into is the thoracic spine.
What Squats With Poor Mobility Look Like
1) Lacking Depth
The first and most glaring issue with poor mobility is simply not being able to get enough range of motion to get into a deep squat. If our goal is to maximize our potential for the clean and snatch, we're simply going to need to get as deep as possible in the squat.
Potential Mobility Reasons for Lacking Depth:
- Ankle Stiffness
- Knee Stiffness
- Hip Stiffness
- Thoracic Spine Stiffness
2) Foot Spin Out
Here's another common problem. This issue generally happens as you descend towards the bottom of the squat. You may notice that your feet spin out to get that extra depth.
Sometimes this one is combined with taking an excessively wide stance as well. Generally speaking, what the body is trying to do is find a position that grants extra mobility usually from the ankle and hip.
At the hip we're going into hip abduction and external rotation which will grant extra motion (flexion) at the hip for most folks and this causes the feet to spin out.
At the ankle we turn out the feet to reduce the motion required at the talocrural joint and the subtalar joint can end up moving more as well, flattening out the foot (pronating) to grant extra depth in the squat which also causes foot spin out.
Lastly, the feet will naturally stay spun out if someone lacks tibial internal rotation, something we'll be going over more in depth later.
Potential Mobility Reasons for Foot Spin Out:
- Ankle Stiffness
- Knee Stiffness
- Hip Stiffness
- Thoracic Spine Stiffness
3) Excessive Forward Torso Lean
Here is another technique fault which gets worse as we descend into the bottom of a squat. With adequate mobility the torso stays upright in the bottom of the squat. This allows us to receive the bar in the clean or snatch in an ideal position.
If we're lacking mobility somewhere the torso just tends to incline more and more as we try our best to get into the bottom of the squat.
Potential Mobility Reasons for Excessive Torso Inclination:
- Ankle Stiffness
- Knee Stiffness
- Hip Stiffness
- Thoracic Spine Stiffness
4) Excessive Spinal Flexion
A lack of motion from the ankle, knee or hip will force the spine to make up for the lack of motion downstream by flexing or rounding. This is more commonly known as "buttwink" in the squat.
While having some butt wink is a natural occurrence, having a lot of it will lead to problems elsewhere, especially if the thoracic spine doesn't have adequate mobility to maintain an upright torso in the bottom of the squat. Injury risk aside, excessive butt wink will certainly make it difficult to perform cleans and snatches.
Potential Mobility Reasons for Poor Form:
- Ankle Stiffness
- Knee Stiffness
- Hip Stiffness
Notice a trend?
Hopefully you noticed that just about every fault listed above can be caused by the exact same mobility issues across the board. This is why assessing is just so important to find the true root cause of the problem. It's not really fair to watch someone squat, notice a fault and then right off the bat say it's an ankle mobility issue.
Now, I can watch someone from the side and get an idea of which joint may not be moving as much as I'd like it to but this takes a very practiced eye. If you notice a lack of ankle dorsiflexion while coaching a squat it is certainly reasonable to cue that athlete to use their ankle mobility. "Bring those knees forward" can sometimes fix the problem on the spot. If cues aren't effective it is most likely a mobility issue.
Lastly we'll want to assess not just to be accurate but also to get a starting point to measure our improvements (or lack of) over time.
Breaking Down the Squat
Now that we've gone through the principles and the faults, let's break down the squat into the individual areas that can limit performance. Let's start from the top and work our way down...
The Thoracic Spine
The thoracic spine is the series of vertebrae in the spine where ribs attach:
Because these vertebrae attach to the ribcage and due to the natural curvature of the spine (kyphosis) this area has a tendency to get stiff into flexion (rounding). This can be tough because having adequate thoracic spine extension is very important for staying upright in the squat:
Check out just how much extension olympian Chad Vaughn gets in his t-spine in the bottom of his squat. This allows him to get into an optimal position to receive the barbell in both the clean and the snatch.
If you've got excessive thoracic spine flexion in the squat it can lead to the elbows dropping during both front squats and cleans as well as making it difficult to stay upright in general while squatting.
For this reason we're going to want to ensure that we have adequate mobility in this area and if not then get to work on mobilizing it.
Check out the video below to see an easy assessment for the thoracic spine (assessment starts at 3:03):
If you have a nice extended spine when relaxed in this position, you don't have a mobility limitation here. What that means is that you shouldn't be spending time mobilizing this area. However, if you've got some flexion still, then you've got some work to do to improve your mobility.
Here are a handful of exercises I like to help mobilize the thoracic spine:
If we watch Chad again from the side it's pretty easy to appreciate the amount of hip mobility we need when he hit the bottom of a squat.
The same thing goes for the bottom position of a snatch or overhead squat. Look at the receiving position of the snatch from olympic weightlifting American national champion Vanessa McCoy. From this angle it's easy to appreciate the amount of hip mobility required for these lifts. The thigh is basically pressed directly up against the stomach for Vanessa.
Now, there are a few structures that can limit hip mobility in the bottom of the squat:
- Adductor Magnus
- Boney Limitations
Let's break it down.
One muscle that is directly responsible for limitations in hip mobility is the adductor magnus. The adductor magnus is a powerful hip extensor and when we're in the very bottom of the squat it is stretched and can limit end range hip flexion.
The other thing to keep in mind is that the adductor magnus is also stretched more with a wider stance or when attempting to push the knees out aggressively in the bottom of the squat. Therefore, if you've got issues keeping those knees out at the bottom of a squat, especially with a wider stance, it could be this sneaky muscle giving you the trouble.
The glutes will also directly limit squat depth. Since the glutes are hip extensors, they will be stretched when the hip goes into flexion like in the bottom of the squat.
What's important to also appreciate about the hip is that it's a deep ball and socket joint. What this means is that the limit of motion in the hip can actually occur because of contact between the ball and socket. This is even more likely if someone has a particularly large ball (femoral head / neck junction) known as a CAM deformity. On the flip side, someone with a particularly deep socket known as a Pincer deformity may also have more limited range because of their boney anatomy.
Now, having differences in bone anatomy is largely normal and not a huge cause for concern but do keep in mind that some limitations can not be improved by stretching given that the limit in mobility may not be coming from muscle but from bones making contact. If you're ever experiencing pain in the front of the hip when stretching or squatting, this may be because of the boney contact within the hip and it's probably wise not to push through this.
Side Note: Some experts recommend screening athletes for hip version and CAM deformities prior to prescribing a specific squat stance to avoid boney contact in the squat. While this makes a lot of sense, unfortunately our clinical tests are not great in determining differences between hips when we attempt to put this idea into practice. Here's a study to help illustrate my point.
Side Note: Keep in mind I did NOT mention the hamstrings limiting squat mobility or causing butt wink in the squat. Since the hamstrings cross over both the hip and the knee, they are slacked at the knee in the bottom of the squat and for that reason they are generally not the cause for mobility issues in the bottom of the squat, or "butt wink."
The assessment for hip mobility is fairly simple. Lying on your back, you simply take someone into hip flexion (in the desired squat stance) and see whether or not the thigh can press up against the stomach. We're basically looking to see if we can reproduce the same ideal angle of hip flexion in this assessment as needed in the squat:
There are a few key points here:
- Make sure you assess the hip in the same position as your desired squat stance
- Passing is easily getting the thigh to press up against the stomach
- If it takes your full bodyweight to press the thigh against the stomach, you didn't pass the test
Keep in mind that most folks will have more mobility with the hip in slight external rotation and horizontal abduction (often a reason for toe out at the bottom of a squat). If you want to use a narrow stance squat with minimal toe out make sure you assess in this position.
Side Note: If you want to have a narrow toe ahead stance and still get the knees out wide you'll need to get mobility downstream at the knee and create a nice arch in the foot. More on how we do this later.
Check out the video below to get a better idea of what I'm talking about and how this applies to the squat:
Lastly, I've created quite a comprehensive video with my colleague Kiefer Lammi on assessing hip mobility for the squat if you want to take a deeper dive into understanding this:
Here are a couples hip mobility exercises I really like for the hip:
The knee is a mix of straightforward and complex to understand. The primary function of the knee is really just to fully bend (flex) in the bottom of the squat. Most folks tend not to have issues here unless they've had a history of past surgery to the knee joint or some sort of injury here (meniscus potentially).
Assessing this is super simple and only involved kneeling and seeing if the hip can rest on your heels:
The second thing to understand is tibial rotation in the squat. Yes, the knee joint (tibiofemoral joint) actually rotates.
Now we're going to be more concerned about tibial rotation in the closed chain as it applies to the squat...
The tibial internal rotation looks a bit more like what we're looking for right? Now, this concept is only important if we're either:
- Excessively stiff in internal rotation to the point where you can't line the toe up over the knee
- Desire a more toe ahead squat but want the knees out wide
Some of my favorite coaches like Chad Vaughn and Mike Cerbus recommend having a slightly toed out to square stance when squatting while keeping the knees out wider to optimize performance for the lifts:
For this reason tibial rotation becomes a bit more relevant. If we watch Chad Vaughn hit the bottom of his clean you can see a combination of movements occurring at the knee. His toes are slightly turned out with his knees pressed out wide. This requires a combination of hip external rotation (and horizontal abduction) and tibial internal rotation:
If we can't achieve enough tibial internal rotation we simply won't be able to get into this position.
Side Note: Perhaps this makes more sense when we see the opposite of this occurring at the knee. This position is what is coined "miserable malignment" in the medical literature because of the stress it places on the patellofemoral joint.
It can also be a reason for excessive foot spin out in the squat as well...
The assessment for tibial internal rotation is actually quite simple as well once you understand the concept:
Just as in the squat we're really just looking to see if we can reproduce the same position of the knee, foot and hip as we'd like to see in the squat.
I'm actually NOT a fan of any sort of aggressive mobilization for the knee, especially for tibial rotation. This is even more true if pain is involved. If you're pain free and have a joint restriction, here's one of my favorite drills to help improve mobility in the knee.
The ankle is an incredibly important piece of the mobility puzzle in the squat. Folks with a lot of ankle mobility also tend to be the ones who look like they have an effortless squat. It's simply because they have the range to make it happen easily. Check out the differences in the overhead squat between these two athletes:
Pretty apparent who's going to have an easier time with the olympic lifts right? There are 2 major structures that limit mobility in the ankle. Like at the hip, one is muscular and the other joint / boney. First let's chat about the muscles.
There are two major muscles in the calf complex. You've got the soleus and the gastrocnemius. If you look at the image below you'll see that the gastrocnemius crosses over the knee joint where the soleus muscle does not:
The reason why this is important is because at the bottom of the squat the ankle is maximally dorsiflexed (bent) as well as the knee (flexed). This maximally stretches the soleus but the gastrocnemius is stretched at the ankle and slacked at the knee. This means that the gastrocnemius muscle will NOT limit mobility at the bottom of the squat but the soleus will. This is important because we'll have to focus on mobilizing the soleus with the knee bent and not with the knee straight.
The other structure that limits mobility at the ankle will be the talocrural joint and all of the ligaments that surround it.
The talocrural joint is made of the tibia, fibula and talus (in red). Together these three structures form a mortise allowing the joint to move (dorsiflexion / plantarflexion). What's important to note is that the talus is shaped like a wedge and it is thicker in the front of the bone than the back.
When the ankle bends (dorsiflexion) the talus gets wedged into the ankle mortise and can stop motion. This is a potential reason why some folks feel a pinch or tightness in the front of the ankle when they mobilize the ankle or the soleus and not a stretch in the calf instead.
Image - Talus photo / Skeleton DF / Bottom squat
This is also the reason why you'll see some banded ankle mobilizations to try and mobilize this joint for better squatting. My friend Ryan Debell over at themovementfix.com does an excellent job explaining this and showing a joint mobilization you can check out HERE.
Side note: My personal thought is that I'm unsure if adding a band does anything to improve mobilization at the ankle. Simply doing stretches, eccentrics and training through a full ankle range of motion may help widen the talocrural mortise just as well as adding a band. Lastly, if this is a boney restriction then any sort of mobility might have little to no effect. (As far as I know you can't really mobilize bones)
So now that we know what structures can limit ankle mobility here's the assessment. I originally learned this from the SFMA (selective functional movement assessment). A "passing" score is generally considered 4" from the wall. However, keep in mind that more ankle mobility can be helpful for very deep squatting as seen in olympic lifting and 4" may not be optimal. This is why I like to use 5" as a passing standard.
Also keep in mind that shorter individuals will naturally need less distance from the wall (<5") to pass where taller individuals will need more distance from the wall to pass (>5").
I love utilizing a combination of stretching and eccentrics to improve mobility at the ankle:
World's Most Majestic Squat,
Dan Pope DPT, OCS, CSCS, CF-L1