1. Work on Better Technique
Above all, you need to dial in your technique first. If you’re technique is poor, it makes no sense to start adding more weight and injuring yourself further. There are 3 very simple cues you need to always be thinking when you squat; chest up, hips back, and knees out. Most people squat straight down, instead of pushing their hips back into a hip hinge pattern while driving their knees out, which forces them into a vertical and more quad-dominant squatting pattern. This type of squat requires great mobility at the upper back, hips and ankles and a strong core and upper back. If you don’t have all of these qualities and your movement is limited, you are more likely to fall forward when the weights gets heavier.
Two drills to help you keep your chest up, push your hips back and drive your knees out are wall squats (which will load your posterior chain to a greater extent) – where you face a wall with your feet about 6” away and squat down without hitting the wall, trying to go as deep as possible – or goblet squats – where you hold a dumbbell vertically on one end and squat down keeping your chest out and driving your knees outward – will teach you proper positioning during the conventional squat pattern.
2. Try Different Bar Positions
Try different bar positions on your back. If you have a higher bar position – right at the base of your neck – you will need to have good mobility in your upper back, hips, and ankles to be able to keep your torso vertical during the squat. If you don’t have this mobility and you are weak, you will more than likely tip forward as you descend into the bottom of the squat. It is simple physics. The longer the distance from your hips to the bar (high bar position = increased moment arm), the greater the torque at the hips. If you have a lower bar position (around mid-trap) and slightly wider stance (slightly wider than shoulder width) – you will decrease the distance from the bar to your hips (shorter moment arm) and you will have better leverage. This might allow you to stay more vertical when you squat if you have good core stability and enough hip mobility. Play around with the bar position to find the one that works best for you.
3. Gain More Core Strength
If your core is weak – all of the muscles that surround your torso from the shoulders to the knees – then you will be more likely to fall forward when you squat. You need a strong core to stay tight and keep your torso as straight as possible when you squat. And setting the tension in the torso all starts with breathing. Before you begin the squat, you should take a full deep breath – expanding your abdomen and your chest – and hold it to set intra-abdominal pressure or IAP and to help neutralize your hips. Starting the squat movement with a better position at the hips and with good intra-abdominal pressure, will be essential to moving through a great range of motion with a more vertical torso angle. After you complete one repetition, repeat this deep breath and hold before you hit the next rep. Treat each repetition in the set like its own single set. So, instead of thinking of 10 reps, think 10 singles.
4. Build Upper Back Strength
To get better at squats and to be able to squat more weight, you need a strong upper back. Every strength program should include pull-ups, bent over rows, seated rows, chin-ups, band pull-aparts and face pulls. If your upper back is strong, you will be able to create more core stability and stay more upright while under the bar. Also, being strong enough to drive the elbows downward when squatting, will keep your chest up – especially at the bottom of the squat – and keep you from falling forward.
5. Tighten Up Your Grip
If your grip on the bar is loose, then your arms, shoulders and upper back will be loose. You need to have a death grip on the bar to create tension across your entire upper body. The harder you grip the bar, the more tension you’ll have in your hands, forearms, biceps, shoulders, and upper back. This tension, along with a deep breath to set your intra-abdominal pressure, will create the core stability and tension you need to stay upright and safe when you squat.
6. Build More Hip Strength
If your hips are weak – hamstrings, glutes and spinal erectors – you will have more a tendency to fall forward and have your hips shoot upward when you come out of the hole at the bottom of a squat. Strengthening your hips with Romanian deadlifts, rack pulls, good mornings and kettlebell (or dumbbell) swings will teach you how to strengthen your hips. When we talk about strengthening the hips, we are talking about strengthening hip extension. Powerful hip extension is a fundamental movement pattern that is seen in most compound strength training exercises in the gym. And this hip hinge movement must always be done while keeping your torso in a neutral (or straight) position. That is the key. Can you maintain a straight back when you transition from hip flexion into hip extension?
7. Change the Bar
Utilizing a straight barbell when you squat requires good shoulder, upper back (thoracic), hip, and ankle mobility. Mobility is defined as being able to move unrestricted through your intended range of motion. So this means when we squat, can I maintain a good upright torso position, keep my chest up and elbows down, and do my hips and ankles bend and move freely with GOOD STABILITY and CONTROL, as I perform a squat pattern? Not everyone is able to remain in a good position throughout a squatting pattern with a fixed barbell on their back.
If you can’t, then you should think about regressing to wall squats and goblet squats to dial-in the squat pattern and work on your functional squat mobility. Or, you could try a different bar to see if you can still get stronger at squats while you continue to work on your mobility and squatting better with a straight bar.
Trying different barbells – such as a buffalo bar, safety squat bar, giant cambered bar – can help you get a stronger squat and stay in a better position – as you work on your individual limitations.
8. Change Your Shoes
You’ve all seen lifters who squat with their heels on 10lb plates. This is because it allows them to squat deeper and stay more upright, even though their have tight ankles. Ankle immobility or tightness is a major reason why most people can’t squat lower and through a full range of motion. You can blame heavy workout shoes and sedentary careers.
Squatting with your heels on 10 lb plates is a way to overcome ankle immobility and help you to squat with a more upright torso angle. Warming up barefoot (or in socks), performing various ankle mobility drills, and incorporating goblet squats are all great ways to increase ankle mobility and strengthen in new ranges of motion at the ankle.
Weightlifting shoes – that have a firm sole and elevated heel – can also change your squat immediately. Like the 10 lb plates, weightlifting shoes allow you to squat better and stay more upright, even when ankle mobility isn’t that great.