Squats are a common exercise to strengthen the legs, but there are some common mistakes to watch out for when doing squats for injury prevention as a field, court, or snow athlete.
We use squats to improve movement patterns and build functional strength for athletes to become stronger, safer, and more dynamic in their sport. Please note that squatting with heavy weights for weight-lifting competitions or crossfit is a different sport, and technique preferences are not the same.
For most athletes in dynamic sports, who want to be quick and strong in an “athletic-stance,” squats should focus on functional strength with safe joint alignment.
Squat technique is complex because it requires controlled movement from the hips, knees, ankles, and trunk at the same time.
If you’ve ever felt like squats are awkward, uncomfortable, or too easy, or if you coach athletes through squats and sometimes have trouble correcting their form, check out these common mistakes and ways to fix them.
1. Weight on Toes or Heels
Balancing your weight between your forefoot and heel can be difficult.
Leaning too far forward, with weight mostly on your toes, causes your knees to drift too far forward beyond your toes, and adds extra stress on your knees. If you are trying to keep your trunk too vertical (straight up), you may end up with your knees moving too far forward because you aren’t allowing your hips to move back. You might even notice your heels lifting up slightly.
Some causes for this mistake may include tight calf muscles, ankle stiffness, or weak gluteals.
In contrast, placing all of your weight on your heels, can leave you in a vulnerable and low-performance position, especially in sports. You have decreased control and balance when your weight is on your heels, plus, you’ll be slower to react and move for the next play. You could be especially susceptible to injury if you are landing from a jump with your weight on your heels.
Try to find a tripod position within your feet, where weight is equally distributed between your 1) big toe, 2) pinky toe, and 3) heel. Bend from your knees and hips, and allow your trunk to lean forward slightly, while still keeping your chest up in a “ready-position”. Use a mirror and get a side-view to make sure you aren’t shifting too far forward or backward.
2. Inward or Outward Moving Knees
Maintaining good foot-knee alignment throughout your squat can be a challenge.
Many people have a tendency to let their knees collapse inward as they lower into the squat. Rather than the knees remaining centered over the feet, maintaining the same distance apart throughout the movement, they allow the knees to move closer together, toward midline of the body. This “valgus” movement is problematic because it places more stress on the medial ligaments of the knee and is highly-correlated with injuries, especially ACL injuries. A typical pattern would be over-pronating the feet, inward movement of the knees, internal rotation of the legs, and anterior tilt of the pelvis. Someone who squats with this form probably lands and pivots with this pattern as well, which is very dangerous for them.
Some causes of this pattern are weakness through the gluteals, hips, and core, lack of awareness of foot and knee position, and possibly weakness of the muscles that cross the foot and ankle.
3. Strong-Side Bias
I see this one all the time. Athletes are good at compensating for a weakness and making it seem as though nothing is wrong. This ability to adapt helps to make them great athletes, but it can also lead to the “strong getting stronger and the weak getting weaker.”
A subtle weight-shift to bias the right or left leg (potentially to compensate for an old injury) is an incredibly common pattern that many people don’t realize they are doing. I’ve seen youth to professional athletes dominate with their strong side without even knowing it. Then, when I cue them to bring their body to midline, more equally over both legs, it “feels weird.” They have developed a compensation to bias their right or left side, while decreasing the demand on the other side. As a result, one side stays “protected” and doesn’t get the benefit of strengthening that it needs. This compensation makes an athlete more susceptible to injury.
Face forward in a mirror. Draw a line from the middle of your chest to the floor. If the line is closer to one foot or the other, rather than being in the middle, you might be compensating with a weight-shift toward one side or the other.
As mentioned above, a common cause is weakness or history of injury on one leg.
Squats are a great functional exercise that help athletes strengthen their leg muscles for better performance on the field, court, or snow. We incorporate squats in our daily physical therapy treatments, as well as in the ACL STRONG online injury prevention training program.
Go through this quick checklist to help minimize some common squat mistakes that might make someone more susceptible to injury, rather than preventing injuries.
Do you feel like your weight is mostly through your toes? or heels? Or equal?
Do you knees move inward as you squat? Or do they stay directly above your feet?
Do you have a tendency to bias one leg by shifting your weight toward the right or left? Or do you have equal weight through the right and left legs?