Three Stretches for Improving Squat Depth And Squat Longevity

February 5th 2020

One of the common issues people have with the squat is not being able to reach proper depth.

As we all know, your hip must be at least parallel to the top of the knee in order for the rep to count.

The reason why we squat to at least parallel, and preferably to slightly below parallel is because doing so maximizes the amount of muscles being recruited, and also helps in preventing muscular imbalances.

If you squat above parallel, known as a “half-squat” or “quarter-squat”, the only muscle that is being recruited is the quadriceps.

Alternatively, if you squat to at least parallel, your glutes, hamstrings, calves and entire posterior chain are recruited in order to get your body out of the lowest position.

You are able to work a lot more muscles with this one simple adjustment.

If you are looking to get stronger, increase the size of your legs, or improve your athletic performance, it is essential that you are squatting to at least parallel.

If you are having trouble reaching appropriate depth, there may be an issue with your technique, balance, or an underlying problem such as muscular tightness from being sedentary.

Today we’ll look at the common physical limitations that could be preventing you from performing a full deep squat, and also my recommendations on the best stretches you could do to regain that mobility, and so that you could perform a squat with proper depth. 

Should You Stretch Before Squats?

If your muscles are tight, it is a great idea to mobilize and warm up your body prior to any squat. Though some lifters can get away with just doing squats in order to warm up, many lifters sometimes need a bit more exercise to stretch their tight calves, hips, and back due to their sedentary lifestyle. 

What Causes Tight Muscles?

There could many things that could cause muscular tightness, but the most common cause is due to sedentary behavior.

Humans were designed to bend down, move around, climb, etc. for hours in order to hunt and find food.

Nowadays, we sit for prolonged periods of time.

When we sit for most of the day, quite often in poor posture with slumping, certain muscles in our body get tight and certain muscles get stretched.

And then, when we try to perform an exercise that requires mobility at all the joints, such as a squat, our tight muscles prevent us from being able to reach the proper position.

This is why stretching and mobility exercises are so important, especially for those who are new to strength training, or for those who have had a lifestyle that has them sitting all day.

If you have trouble reaching depth in the squat, the first thing you may want to look at is if you are being limited by tight muscles.

If that’s the case, you want to stretch the muscles. 

Here are some of the common muscles that may be preventing you from reaching adequate depth, as well as the stretches you can do to loosen them.

Tight Calves

One of the issues most people have when going down deep into the squat is tight ankles which may be caused by tight calves.

During the squat, you must have sufficient range of motion at the ankle to allow your knees to push out and travel forwards.

This allows you to stay in a more upright posture during the squat.

If you have tight ankles and lack the range of motion needed, you might find your body either pushes your hips back excessively as you lower yourself down, or your heels start rising off the floor.

These issues will severely limit the amount of weight you can squat, even if you are strong enough.

To test whether or not your problem is due to tight calves, try to perform a bodyweight squat with your heels on the floor.

If you have issues doing just this or are starting to lose balance in the bottom position, you may have tight calf muscles.

The calves muscles that we want to stretch are the gastrocnemius and the soleus.

The gastrocnemius lengthens across the ankle and the knee so it is best stretched with the knee extended.

Meanwhile, the soleus only crosses at the ankle so it could be stretched with either the knee flexed or bent, but you will feel it more with the knee bent.

My favorite way to stretch tight calves is by finding a step and leaning the foot that you want to stretch against it.

This stretch primarily targets the gastrocnemius, so you should keep your leg extended throughout the stretch, and you should a pull on the back of your calf.

If this seems to easy for you, you could also lean slightly forward in order to get an even deeper stretch.

You want to hold this stretch for 30 seconds and repeat it 8 times per day.

Here is a video on other ways you could stretch tight calves.

Stretching Tight Hip Flexors

Another muscle group that is commonly tight due to prolonged sitting are the hip flexors.

The hip flexors include the iliacus, psoas major, and psoas minor however they are commonly referred to as the iliopsoas because all these muscles combine into one.

The action of the hip flexors is bring your leg up, and it also works to tilt your pelvis forward (or anteriorly).

When you sit for prolonged periods of time, these muscles will get tight.

As a result, even when standing, your pelvis will be in an anteriorly tiled position for most of the day.

This affects the integrity of your lower back because an anteriorly tilted pelvis increases the lumbar curvature so that it is more extended.

This puts more pressure on the lumbar spine and could result in back pain.

Most people have tight hip flexors, and one of my favorite ways to stretch the hip flexors is by going into a deep lunge position.

The knee touching the ground is the hip flexor to be stretched, and you should feel the stretch in the front of your hips.

Perform lunges with emphasis on stretching your hind leg for 30 seconds, 8 times, once per day.

Stretching the Back Muscles

The last muscle that is could be tight due to prolonged sitting is your back muscles or spinal erectors.

Your spinal muscles work to extend your spine, bend your trunk to the side, and rotate the spine.

You might have tight back muscles if you find yourself leaning over one side of the chair, or are sitting with your trunk in a rotated position.

During the squat, your spinal muscles work to keep your spine in neutral so that your trunk doesn’t fall forward.

If one side is tighter than the other, it will cause you to lean to one side during the squat.

This lean will cause you to lose balance and may prevent you from achieving adequate depth.

So to test if it is your back muscles that are tight, perform a bodyweight squat and watch yourself in the mirror and see if your body drifts to one side while you are going down or up.

One stretch that can do this is the happy baby pose.

The happy baby pose may look silly, but it is a yoga pose designed to stretch out your lower back, and hamstrings at the same time.

Simply lie down onto your back, and bring your knees to your chest while keeping your head and spine flat on the floor.

Reach up and grab the bottom of both your feet and hold this position.

You should feel a stretch in your lower back and hamstrings.

As with all the other stretches, hold this position for 30 seconds, and repeat it 5 once per day.

Importance of staying active and moving throughout the day

These stretches are helpful for getting rid of your tight muscle but they don’t treat the underlying cause of the issue.

The underlying cause of these tight muscles is prolonged sitting and sedentary behavior.

Therefore, rather than sitting to do work, take breaks every hour, or better yet try a standing desk.

Stay more active throughout the day, park further away so that you have to take more steps to get to the office, or opt to take the stairs rather than the elevator.

A little goes a long way, and by staying more active, you are preventing these muscles from tightening up and keeping your body loose and mobile.

Slowly improving mobility overtime versus quick fixes

Don’t expect after performing these stretches that you will be able to perform a perfect squat with adequate depth immediately.

Just think of all the time and years you’ve spent sitting for prolonged periods of time.

It may take weeks, sometimes months, until you are able to perform a squat with adequate depth.

With that said, it doesn’t mean that you can’t perform the squat at all.

You could also do variations such as a box squat which involves squatting to a stool which helps with balance and allows you to progressively go lower and lower.

You could also do the goblet squat which involves holding a dumbbell to your chest while squatting down.

These variations will help improve your mobility and develop strength in your legs so that while you are working on being able to achieve adequate depth, you could still be doing something that would benefit your health in the long run.

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