How to Correct the 3 Most Common Squat Mistakes

If squats are part of your regular strength training routine, welcome to the club! Squats are a popular exercise for many reasons: They target multiple muscle groups at one time, there are a variety of variations to work those muscles in slightly different ways, and, whether you're a powerlifter or just want to get in and out of a chair with ease, they will strengthen your lower body effectively.

Although it looks like a simple movement, there is a fair amount of technique involved with performing the squat correctly. Proper form is crucial to reduce your risk of injury, so it's always a good idea to watch yourself in a mirror to check your form or consult a fitness professional to be sure that your squatting technique is accurate.

If your squat doesn't look exactly as it should, you could be experiencing one of the common issues many people face when performing a traditional squat. Consulting a fitness professional is always your best bet, since sometimes there are bigger mechanical or muscular imbalances that need to be addressed before form correction is possible. However, as a first step, there are exercises you can do to start correcting those issues on your own. 

Issue #1: My knees buckle in.

Referred to as "valgus collapse" or "knee valgus", this occurs when the femur rotates internally during the squat, causing the knees to rotate inward. This can be caused by a wide variety of issues, but the most common causes are related to mobility, strength imbalances or coordination.

The potential problem? Lack of ankle and hip mobility. It's easy to assume the issue is with the joint doing in the majority of the work, which, in this case, would be the knee. However, it's actually issues with the joints above or below the knee that will cause problems that present themselves at the knee. For example, when the ankle and/or lower leg are tight, this can cause the hip to rotate internally. Similarly, when the hip adductors or inner thigh muscles are tight, this can also pull the hip into internal rotation, which then causes the knee to turn in.

The fix: If tightness is the reason for your knee valgus, stretches for the lower leg (gastrocnemius and soleus), ankle mobility drills and hip flexor stretches will help prevent the hip from rotating internally during a squat. Add three to four of these exercises to your routine three times a week. When done consistently, you should notice flexibility improvements.  
The potential problem? Abductor/adductor strength imbalance. Abductors are the muscles that help pull the leg away from the midline of the body, while the adductors pull the leg toward the midline. When the abductors are weak, the inward pull is greater than the outward pull. This imbalance can cause the knees to turn in during the squat. The weakness is not limited to the hips, but also comes from the gluteus minimus, or outer part of the glute muscle, which aids in hip abduction.   

The fix: Exercises to strengthen the abductors will help prevent knee valgus if a strength imbalance is causing the issue. A mini band is a popular piece of equipment to help correct this problem because it forces the knees outward during the exercises. Try adding the mini band to bodyweight squats, hip abductions and glute bridges to strengthen those weak muscles and correct the imbalance. Add a few of these exercises to your regular strength routine to help target the problem effectively.

The potential problem? Lack of coordination. Knee valgus isn't always due to issues with mobility or strength; exercise deviations could be due to improper form that has never been corrected. A personal trainer will be able to quickly determine if coordination is the issue. If your form can easily be corrected by simple cues to perform the exercise properly, improper form is likely to blame.

The fix: If you're using weights to increase the intensity of the squat, try decreasing the amount. The heavier the weight, the more control and coordination is needed to perform the exercise properly and with control. Often the knees will turn in to compensate for the fact that the weight is too heavy. When in doubt, check your form in the mirror or ask a trainer to evaluate your squat.

Issue #2: My heels come off the floor.

The problem? Tight calves. Your calves become accustomed to being in a shortened position if you sit at a desk all day or frequently wear heels. Tight calves limit ankle mobility, so when you squat and the calf is stretched, the heels will naturally come off of the floor to compensate. To test if your calves are tight, sit in a chair with one leg out in front, flex the foot by pulling the toes back toward the body. If you feel significant tightness in the back of your lower leg, it could be the reason your heels are coming off the floor during the squat. 

The fix: Stretching the calves regularly as part of your exercise routine will help increase their flexibility and improve ankle mobility. Try the seated calf stretch with band (or a towel), leaning single-leg calf stretch or single-leg calf stretch with wall. 

Issue #3: My chest drops.

The problem? Weak hip flexors and back extensors. When the chest drops during a squat, the back rounds and increased pressure is placed on the spine. Typically, this is caused by weak hip flexors and back extensors. By strengthening these muscles, the chest is able to stay in a more upright position during the squat.

The fix: Back strengthening movements including supermans, back extensions and extensions on Roman Chair all target those muscles you need to keep your back straight during a squat. Aim to add two or three of these exercises to your regular strength training routine.

In some cases the chest drop can also be caused by tight hip flexors or calves. The hip flexor and calf stretches previously discussed will also be effective in addressing this problem.

Proper technique is paramount when it comes to any strength training exercise. Use a mirror to check form yourself, ask a workout buddy to verify what you're seeing or, even better, enlist the help of a fitness professional to identify breaks in form. After identifying what's going wrong, you can develop a plan for how to fix the issue. By being consistent with corrective exercises—strengthening the muscles that are weak and stretching the muscles that are tight—you will reduce your risk of injury and maximize your progress.