by Robert Maxwell
Q: I read your stuff and know I need to get stronger, so I recently decided to start barbell training for the first time in over 20 years. I used to do some lifting when I played college football, and it seemed pretty easy at the time – especially the bench press, which always came naturally to me. I found squats harder, even then, but now they feel almost impossible. I can't get more than half way down without my heels lifting off the floor, and I feel like I'm falling forward, even without the bar. Adding the bar and some weight makes it even harder. It feels super unbalanced and unnatural, and my heels always lift on every rep. The bar also pinches the base of my neck and feels really uncomfortable. I mentioned it to my doctor and he says I'm probably just not genetically built for squats. What do you think?
A: First off, good for you for starting to lift again after 20 years. If you learn to do the movements correctly and stick with training, you definitely won't regret it. Since you didn't mention any physical abnormalities, I can say with confidence that your doctor is 100 percent wrong. Every normally built human is designed to squat down and come back up. It's universal. If you don't believe me, think about young children playing. You don't have to observe very long to see them drop into a perfect squat to pick something up or look at something interesting. Then they pop back up like it's nothing, and go on playing. You might be thinking that this is easy for kids, but adults don't have the same flexibility. Not so. Adults in third world countries squat all the time, very deeply, with no heel lift. Squatting daily is part of their everyday existence, so they never lose this natural ability. This is so universal that the position has been called "the third world squat". Unless you have some physical deformity that prevents you from squatting, you can and should relearn this movement. Your job is figuring out what's preventing you from comfortably squatting your bodyweight to depth, and fixing it. Then you can move on to the barbell.
Heels rising off the floor and loss of balance are both common problems among folks new to squatting. There are usually a several reasons, but the 2 biggies are almost always immobile ankles and tight hip flexors. You need to start stretching both regularly if you want to become a good squatter. I like to stretch my calves and ankles by putting one foot at a time against the leg of my kitchen table, with my toes pressing against it and elevated 3 or 4 inches, and my heel flat on the floor. I then lean forward with my knee locked, holding onto the table for support. This produces and instant, intense stretch in the calf and ankle, which by the sounds of things is one area you have a serious lack of mobility. Doing this stretch regularly, holding each side for at least 30 seconds will fix it.
Your hips are probably responsible for keeping you from hitting depth, so you need to stretch those, too. Place a rolled up towel or other soft object on the floor, a few inches from a wall. With your back to the wall, put one knee down on the towel, then bend the knee and tuck your shin and foot up again the wall behind you, so your toes point at the ceiling. Your other leg will be bent at 90 degree and held in front of you with your foot on the floor, keeping you from falling over. Picture this stretch as going down on one knee, with a wall right behind the knee you're going down onto. Fair warning – this stretch will be very uncomfortable at first, because your hip flexors are likely extremely tight. You must persevere if you want to fix your squat.
Do these 2 stretches daily, and keep doing bodyweight squats every day. Support yourself against a table or chair at first, so you don't lose your balance. Work towards going deeper. Eventually you should be able to go deep enough that your thighs are parallel with the floor. Once you can comfortably squat to full depth with your bodyweight, give the barbell another try. Trying placing it an inch or so lower on your back to avoid the pinching pain.