By Dean Somerset
The term hacking [hak-ing] was originally used in mid-century architecture to talk about replacing one row of stones supporting a structure with two rows. In today’s vernacular, it’s literal definition has a couple different meanings; either to cut mercilessly or to remove dead overgrowth, or to gain access to computer servers from remote locations and without permission.
You could essentially say it’s a way of finding short cuts in systems, or gaining access to areas that are typically off limits. While the concept of hacking is typically reserved for computer geeks, exercise is typically all about hacking. We’re always trying to find ways to put more weight on the bar, become more efficient with our muscle gaining programs, and develop the best nutritional strategy to lose body fat while retaining our hard-earned muscle. We cut away what doesn’t work and find physiological short cuts to get to our goals faster.
This ruthless means of finding faster routes against authoritative stances has lead to various breakthroughs from fighters looking to cut weight for weight classes, which lead to different protocols for rapid weight loss while maintaining lean muscle mass, and also new methods of improving athletic performance in multiple sports while reducing the incidence of casual injuries.
It also allows us to discard old notions as they become obsolete and become proven inaccurate. Take “functional” training for example. Years ago someone’s idea of functional was standing on a bosu while pulling on an elastic, curling a dumbbell and reciting the pledge of allegiance. The belief was this created more efficient and “functional” muscles than a bodybuilder, even though the body builder could crush the functional guy in any physical task, including many balance challenges.
I’m going to share some of the hacks for how you too can work on getting a massively deep squat with minimal to no effort, and how you can overcome simple issues with structure and form to get immediate improvements. Sounds too good to be true, right? Well, then give them a try and see what happens. You have nothing to lose, except a shallow shaky squat.
Some Basics To get Straight Before We Start
There’s a few untenable truths about squats that everyone should know before we get started talking about hacks so that we can answer some questions before they get asked. It’s no way exhaustive, but it should catch the majority of problems people may have with the approach.
Squatting is less about mobility and more about control.
It’s less about flexion/extension and more about rotation at the hip
- Stretching anything other than the squat movement won’t help your squat
There’s an interesting thing that happens when you ask people why they can’t get down into a squat. Typically, the response is that they’re tight, and therefore they need more stretching. Yet after months of stretching intensively, they may still not be able to get down into the squat. Did they actually need that stretching?
When people with a restricted squat decide to try to dip it low, they may wind up with tight feeling muscles as they work to go through the movement. The true test to see if they are actually tight and in need of stretching comes from looking at how their joints move when they have no load on them. Laying on their back, if they can pull a knee to their chest without having the other leg come off the floor (or table in this example), they don’t have a limitation to range of motion necessary to complete the movement. This means they don’t need additional stretching. Period.
From a pure saggital plane action, they have nothing holding them back from completing the movement if they can get this down. Another way to show it is if they have the chance to go through their squat while hanging on to a structure for support, and can slap their booty off their heels without a problem. Did the flexibility at their hips and knees suddenly change? Nope, but their level of control over the movement increased.
Watch an Olympic weight lifter catch the bar in the clean, and you’ll typically see a very deep squat where they bounce their hamstrings off their calves. You’ll also notice a lot of lateral movement of the knee. Typically when the catch is made and the lifter bounces back up into the stand. The rotation at the hips is a major factor that can either make or break the squat. If the lifter isn’t stable through rotation, they wind up limiting their depth. The limitation to rotation can come from the hip joint itself or a compensation from an unstable core.
Hack #1: Pre-stabilize before loading
As shown in the video above, hip mobility was dramatically increased when the core muscles were challenged, which means you can take advantage of a similar action. If you’re one of the multitude of cubicle farmers out there who punch the corporate clock for a living, you’ve been sitting all day and then set out to get in a lift after work. Or you probably lift before work, but in either case your core isn’t doing what it should and could use a little fire to get working properly.
Bust out a very quick primer series to help you get set and solid. Hit up some front planks and side planks, focusing on getting total body contractions through your shoulders, abs and glutes to build a stable strong foundation during the movement.
Start from the knees and then move to the toes when you’re able to completely own the kneeling position and maintain a perfectly linear posture. Squeeze for 10 seconds, touch down and breathe, and repeat for 3 “reps” per side per movement. This 2 minute primer will pay massive dividends for getting you ready to hit some squatting magic.
Hack #2: squat stance
Squat stance can affect the depth of the squat as much as the sense of control and mobility through the system. There’s typically three different angles that the pelvis can make at the point of attachment to the thigh bone, and the thigh bone has three common angles at the neck as it inserts into the pelvis, which means there’s 27 different possible hip joint angle combinations, and makes squat stance more of an individual thing that is all about how easily you can squat low without any restriction.
Most people will find an easier squat stance with their feet slightly wider than shoulder width, toes turned slightly out, and keeping their knees vertical over their toes. That being said, I’ve had some clients who can squat to the floor with their feet touching, so playing around with stance is going to be an important hack to find your ideal setup. It’s easy to do. Just squat, move your feet to a different position, and find the one that feels the most effortless to hit a good depth. Your goal will be to find this stance every time you squat.
One simple way to find your ideal squat stance is to find out how to stand up from a chair without rolling forward, lifting your heels, letting your knees come inside your feet, and without using your hands. It sounds simple, but give it a try. Remember, you can’t lean forward or use your hands, and your feet have to be flat on the ground. If you can’t get out of your chair without a bar on your back, the odds of you using that same squat stance to get into the hole with a substantial weight on your shoulders is minimal, so play around with it to figure out where you should stand.
Hack #3: Start it from the Bottom
Most people start a squat from the top down, whereas if the goal is to get some depth on your squat, that’s where you should start. If you can dip it low and then bring it up slow, you’ll have a better chance of gaining control over the movement than trying to start from the top and sinking into an unstable scenario.
Here’s how to do it. Use a supportive structure, like a railing, TRX, or random supermodel standing around. Drop into a squat holding onto the support to make sure you can get to depth without any control issues, then find your balance so you can let go of the support. Once you’re at the bottom of the squat completely unsupported, try to stand up, making sure not to lean forward or arch or anything that would be less than desirable if you had 500 pounds on your back.
For added benefit, sit to the bottom and then rock side to side, trying to keep the spine tall and the feet flat on the ground. This helps to create some additional movement in a different plane of action that can help unlock some of the lost movement in the ankles and hips.
Hack #4: Press down into the squat
Most people treat the squat like they’re being lowered into a vat of Acme-grade acid like the Looney Tune cartoons of Arnold’s youth. This would be similar to simply lowering the bar to the chest in a bench press. The muscle co-stabilization effect is lost and the total power that can be produced by the joints involved is reduced, which means the end result is a less than optimal squat. Additionally, the body won’t let you move into a range of motion it doesn’t feel it has control over, which is where the restriction to squat depth comes from.
One way to get through this is to think of pulling into your squat. Pretend you have a Wil E. Coyote surplus spring between your butt and the floor and try to press that sucker flat. Take a big breath in, squeeze it and tense your core, and press down into the hole between your feet, making sure you aren’t rounding your back on the way down. Make each rep a taxing workout on its’ own, and try to get one inch deeper on each successive rep.
Hack #5: Take your hips outside
As mentioned earlier, the hips tend to need some work in multiple planes of action to see optimal mobility and strength. Putting them through a mobility series like this one below can help to keep them greased up and ready to drop it like it’s hot at the drop of a hat. That and even as a workout this would tax a lot of really fit folks out there.
The best way to get good at squatting is to spend extra time squatting. This doesn’t just mean doing more reps, but spending more time on each rep. Thinking about where your weight placement is in respect to your feet; whether you’re in neutral, extended or flexed low back positions; where your knees are in relation to your feet and hips; and how low you’re getting into each rep can all add up to a quality training session. By focusing on the details like this and using some of the quick hacks shown here today, you can see an increase in your squat depth, which should help to jump-start your progress to lifting more, getting thicker wheels of steel, and making you feel like a complete bad ass.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dean is a personal trainer, author, and international public speaker whose main area of expertise is injury and medical dysfunction management through optimally designed exercise programs. While this is cool, Dean's main calling is making people stronger, fitter, faster, more Kanye-er than they thought possible, even if they’re recovering from major or minor injuries, or while dealing with medical disorders. Dean has taught seminars across North America on topics ranging from Post Rehab for the Personal Trainer to Psychology and Motivation for Optimal Training.