Whether you follow #fitfluencers on Instagram or casually flip through fitness magazines at the grocery store checkout line, you’ve probably seen photos of the “perfect” and “safest” way to squat. You know, the one where the model is able to sit deeply, with their feet flat on the floor, back straight, and looking comfortable, ready to move in any direction they want.
That’s what we should all be able to do, right?
Just like when you were a kid!
Well, what if your form and structure doesn’t look like that when you squat? What if you can’t squat down fully with your heels down?
Do you just not squat ever?
Of course not! That sort of thinking is not super useful, especially if you’re intrigued enough to train the squat. If you can’t look exactly like the person on Instagram, but you’d like to be able to improve your squat form, then that’s meaningful for you.
So, allow us to be your cheerleader and say: “Don’t quit before you even start, my friend.”
We’ll guide you on some ways you may go about improving your squat form.
Heels coming up? First: DON’T let it stop you from exploring what you can do…
Having trouble keeping your heels down for other exercises — like the ones we like to program at GMB?
Just because we (or whoever you’re learning from) demonstrates a movement in a particular way doesn’t mean it has to be that way. Yes you’re working towards the positions you see in the demo, but just because you can’t do it the way you see it on screen doesn’t mean you can’t work on the movement right now.
Peep our bodyweight squat tutorial for a more complete guide to basic squat form and mobility.
There’s always ways you can adjust the movements for your needs. For example:
Bear: You can keep the knees bent. No problem at all.Frog: You can keep the heels up, widen your stance, or turn the toes out.Monkey: Similar to the frog you can adjust your leg positioning. And if you have trouble getting your palms to the floor, you can tent your fingers or ball your hands into fists (if you have the wrist strength).
But first, let’s unpack a different way of understanding the “ideal squat” — if there ever was one to begin with.
Is there actually a perfect way to squat?
In theory, there are some cues that are helpful in feeling solid in your squat.
For example, is it ideal to have your feet flat?
Arguably, sure. Keeping your soles in firm contact with the floor creates more stability in the ankles, knees and hips, allowing you to express your leg and hip strength more fully.
Say if you are wanting to squat as much weight as possible or more simply, just want to be safe and steady while you are shifting side to side.
The shifting side to side happens all the time in sports and other activities where you have to change directions laterally and even backwards a bit. Basketball, football, soccer, or even scrambling down hill in a hike. At least one foot flat on the ground is a big help there!
But here’s the thing: in squats for exercise and training, it’s not necessary.
At this point you might be saying, “But isn’t it dangerous to squat low if the heels lift?”
It depends. If you’re loading up a barbell and trying to squat ass-to-grass, you may be too unstable to get that low without tweaking something. But generally speaking, no.
It isn’t dangerous to squat with your heels up.
Your body is meant to move in a variety of ways.
Take the sissy squat variations, for example, which requires you to learn to load with the heels off the floor.
Now we’re not suggesting that you do such an intense squat variation. The point is that doing regular deep squats, even with your heels up, makes sure you aren’t limiting your practice. This allows you to explore your full capabilities in your hip and knee range of motion and teaches you how to move in this position.
Let’s get real: We are not often doing “perfect squats” throughout our daily lives, so there can be payoffs to practicing different ways of squatting.
To that point, you can still benefit from doing squats by limiting your depth to just before the heels want to pop up. This can teach you how to move better in that position — how you need to shift your weight and adjust your upper and lower body. It can also give you a benchmark of where you are at right now in terms of your strength and mobility and how they’ll improve over time. Your hip, knee, ankle and foot flexibility will gradually get better as you continue to practice.
So in short, make time in your routine to practice squatting as deeply as you can even if that means your heels are up, and also squatting as deeply as you can with your feet flat.
Developing your own movement routine shouldn’t be about performing skills and movements in the “optimal way.” It’s about figuring out how best to move with the body and skill you have right now, and as a result, gaining more options of how you uniquely move.
This mentality is a big part of physical autonomy.
Exercises to Help Get You Squat with Your Heels Down
There are a variety of factors in being able to squat deeply with your heels down such as:
Hip, back, knee, and ankle mobility,Overall strengthCoordinationMotor control
Your individual restrictions could be rooted in one area or all of the above — and each to varying degrees.
What can you do about these restrictions?
Keep practicing squat variationsWork on accessory exercises to support your training
Since we already covered the first point above, here are a few good exercises to complement your regimen:
Rock Back Variations
The idea of these is to rock forward and back between the balls of your feet and your heels.
Start with your hands on the ground and your hips up high so that your heels are flat already, then drop down to right where your heels start to rise up.
You can do this with staggered legs like in a squat lunge or in the A-Frame.
Explore for 1-2 minutes.
You can play with shifting your weight side-to-side as well and front-to-back and see how your ankles feel in different positions.
As the name suggests, stand with your back against the wall and sit into as deep of a squat as you can, then stand back up.
If your wall is too sticky or friction-y you can place a medicine or exercise ball behind your back to help you roll down.
The key here is to get your center of gravity behind your heels a bit so you’re able to drop further down than in squatting without support. This change in positioning is enough to give you a different awareness of how you are squat. Explore for 1-2 minutes.
Bent Knee Ankle Stretch
This can be a great stretch for your hips or ankles, depending on which you would like to emphasize.
If you are focusing on the hips: keep the front shin vertical as you shift the pelvis forward and open up the hips.
For the ankle: Keep the front heel on the ground as you shift the knee forward and increase ankle flexion. Whichever one you choose, do 5-10 dynamic contractions before holding the stretch for 20-30 seconds.
Integrating Ankle Mobility Exercises for a Deeper Squat
The cool thing is: these exercises don’t have to take up large chunks of your training session. Only spend a few minutes on them either in your prep or cool down.
In fact, you can do these throughout the day as they make great movement breaks. Don’t be afraid of weirding out your co-workers at the water cooler.
Overall, find a position that’s good for you — meaning, you’re not in pain — feel what’s going on in your body and work at a pace feels doable.
We cover a lot of these tips in our program Elements, which is a step-by-step regimen that can help you build the foundational strength, mobility, and motor control to improve your overall sense of physical autonomy.
So, if you want to improve your squats, we have a feeling you might fall head over heels for this program — or at least more steady on your feet. Because you’ll be that much more resilient.
Systematic, Foundational Training
Our Elements program goes step-by-step to help you to not just improve your squat but also teach you how to move into and out of it to develop your mobility and physical control.
Your Foundation for Physical Autonomy