Why do I fall backwards when I am squatting?

March 14th 2019

This is a common issue for some lifters. They tend to fall backwards when squatting near parallel.

Inadequate ankle mobility and lack of functional ques are two big reasons why people are unable to squat properly. A less common reason may be that you have a long femur or thigh bone, which forces the lifter’s body to be in a compromised position already. The good news is that the human body is ready to adapt and you can squat properly after educating yourself about better squat mechanics.

Start off with improving your ankle dorsiflexion.

At one point in my life, I decided it would be beneficial to work on my dorsiflexion. While I never had issues with mobility, learning new techniques and exercises are never going to be detrimental.

Here are three ways you can start improving your ankle dorsiflexion:

  • Massaging your calves and feet
  • Stretching your calves
  • Functional drills to practice dorsiflexion

Let us go into each of the three and break them down for you.

Massaging your calves and feet

This can be done with a myofascial release. You can use your hands or certain objects like a foam roller or TheraCane. By the way, if you do not know what the TheraCane is, I would highly suggest you review the link I provided above, where I go over all the functions and techniques of using a TheraCane.

You could also visit a physical therapist or massage therapist if you are willing to spend the money.

Sometimes, your body will restrict your range of motion due to stress or trauma. As a result, you may be unaware that some of these stressors may be causing you to have limited mobility. So, one way of alleviating these issues is with self-care.

Stretching your calves

You probably learned many of these stretches in school. For the calf muscle, you want to stretch, place the other leg in front in a lunge position. Using a sturdy surface in front of you, lean onto the wall and feel the stretch on that targeted back leg. This is one of the most traditional calves stretches taught in schools now.

In another stretch, you can get really close to a wall. Place your feet against the wall in an elevated position and lean forward. This will help stretch your ankle and calves along with your Achilles tendon.

Functional drills to practice dorsiflexion

Doing lunges is a great way to practice dorsiflexion. You can target any leg and specifically focus to work on improving your range of motion. This will allow you to perform functional movements while trying to improve your dorsiflexion. Here is one variation. You can lunge forward and the front leg will be the leg you will be targetting.

An easier variation is using no bands of resistance. You will focus on trying to keep your entire feet on the ground while trying to bring your front knee closer to the ground. A more difficult variation is if you tie a resistance band around your ankle, which is trying to pull your leg backward. This will work on your strength along with improving your dorsiflexion.

Another drill you can do to practice dorsiflexion is by doing goblet squats against the wall. The emphasis will be trying to keep your entire feet planted on the ground. The goblet squat will prompt you to get into your most powerful squat position. In this drill, we eliminate that by forcing you to keep a vertical torso against a wall. In addition to that cue, you will try to do a deep squat to try to train your dorsiflexion.

How should you squat?

This is probably a million dollar question. While there is no one size fits all formula, there are technique cues that can be followed so that you can replicate an effective and efficient squat.

Break at the hips, knees or both for a squat?

This is one question I have seen come up throughout my years of training. Do you break at the knees? Do you break at the hips? Do you break at the knees and hips at the same time?

I decided to look up what other lifters are doing and survey the current state of squatting. It appears that many high bar squatters will tell you to break at your knees first. This would make logical sense since you want to remain as upright as possible. Breaking at the hips early will throw your balance off and create a weaker starting position for your high bar squat.

Then, there is low bar squatting. Many lifters will advise you to break at your hips first since you want to load up all the tension on your back and hips and explode from the hole. Breaking at your knees first will throw off this delicate balance.

Then, you have some hybrid forms, which is not technically high bar squatting but not low enough to be a low bar squat. For these lifters, the advice is to break at both the hips and the knees. This provides the best overall sense of balance, power and structure for the squat.

Back to the initial question, how should you initiate your squat? Unfortunately, it really depends on you. Nevertheless, there are some general guidelines that everyone can adhere to when it comes to squatting:

  • Around a shoulder width stance
  • Toes pointed slightly outward
  • Vertical or near-vertical torso
  • Comfortable but tight grip on the bar

Aside from the general cues, what you do next will set your squat in motion.

For me, I found that I tried all three cues and realized that they all work in helping me develop a stronger body. Of course, there will be a style that feels the best and produces the most PRs for me (that would be simultaneously breaking the hips and knees).

But, you need to find what really works for you. If you have no idea what I am talking about or are new to lifting, it is usually advised to learn how to initiate the squat by breaking at the knees and hips together. This way, you will not overly rely on certain muscle groups or movements to bail you out of certain weaknesses. You start off with a neutral initiation and your progress will be dictated by your learnings.

Is it okay to lean forward on squats?

Yes and no.

It really depends on your biomechanics and how serious you want to become a functional person and athlete. For lifters who want to get stronger, a slight lean is acceptable if you want to do a low bar or hybrid squat. For high bar squatters, a forward lean usually suggests that the lifter is new to lifting, errors in technique/form or that there are some muscular imbalances that need to be addressed.

Of course, there will be exceptions to the rules but they should be generally ignored since, for a great majority of people, these circumstances will not apply to you.

Another question that might come up, how much can I lean?

If you lean over too much, you will fold over like a pancake. If you are too upright in certain squat styles, you may not feel powerful enough to finish a lift. This is why many lifters are recommended to practice both high bar and low bar squats, to train all movements so that you are not lagging behind on functional and training experiences.

Overall, this is a flexible topic. For me, I have a slight lean during my hybrid- high bar squatting style. In the past, I would squat low bar and would have a more excessive lean, which is considered normal for that squatting style. So, it really depends on how you are squatting, your current limitations, and current goals you want to achieve.

What if I literally cannot improve my mobility?

Should you still squat? Do you injure yourself every time you squat? It is a tough question to answer, but here is my take on the issue.

You should still squat. It is one of the most functional movements that are available to do. Your body was conditioned to squat. You just need to find a variation that works well for you.

Here is one source I found extremely helpful for lifters of any level. Beginners may find it more useful but the knowledge gained is never wasted.

In summary, you are gradually working towards improving your mobility. Immobility and squat issues are temporary. It is what you do that makes or breaks your progress. If you are not actively working towards proper recovery, your results will show your dedication. If you are doing everything right, time will reveal how much you improved over time.

I am genetically unable to squat

In rare cases, this may be true. I have linked a source that reveals many positions that shows why someone would hate or love squats.

If you have a short trunk or squat low bar, long femur, and short tibia, your hips can physically not be able to go below your knees. As a result, this lifter may absolutely hate squatting and would dread it. I would not blame that person.

It is would extremely difficult since your body proportions are limiting certain strategies of the movement. This would put you at a disadvantage… if you think that way. But you can still “squat”. You just need to find a more suitable position.

For example, using a wider stance, Olympic weightlifting shoes, improving your dorsiflexion mobility, etc. are several ways you can create a more upright squatting position for yourself.

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