Most of us start squatting high. We wander into a weight room, load up the bar and start cranking out half reps with plenty of high-fives and admiration from our ignorant training partners. Then, at some point we got some proper coaching, got called out by a veteran lifter or read a good article about the importance of full squat depth. However, as you tried to get deep, you ended up with an annoying tail tuck at the bottom of your squat. It’s time to get that fixed. Here’s how.
Make a distinction between movement and exercise
The squat is both a basic human movement and a great gym exercise. When doing squats as a fundamental human movement, a tail tuck is perfectly normal and natural. My 19 month old son (who is a phenomenal squatter) has tail tuck as he sits in his full squat. However, when you load a heavy barbell on your back, you don’t want tail tuck.
Tail tuck causes your lower back to go into flexion. As Dr. Stuart McGill has taught us, flexing the lumbar spine under load is an excellent way to herniate a disc. The other problem with this is that you get an energy leak. To maximize your squatting performance, you want your lower body to be able to generate a lot of force through a rigid trunk and into the bar. When you tail tuck, some of that force is lost into a soft spine.
Ensure that it really is tail tuck
If you think you might be tail tucking, the first thing you want to do is ensure that it actually is tail tuck. If you are wearing a long, baggy shirt, it will get pulled on as you get into the bottom of your squat and this can create the illusion of tail tuck. In this case it is best to go geek and tuck your shirt so you can see if it is actually tail tuck.
Another common problem is being in hyperextension in your set-up. Many people (especially ladies) have some anterior pelvic tilt. Then, they get under the bar and a well-meaning coach or training partner yells “arch!” and they go into even more spinal hyperextension. Then, as they approach the bottom of the squat, their pelvis is forced back to neutral. This gives the illusion of tail tuck, but with closer examination, it is not true tail tuck, but rather going from an anterior tilt, back to a neutral pelvic position. In this case, practice finding a neutral pelvic position at the top before you un-rack the bar and then locking your pelvis into place with your trunk muscles. Then, maintain this position as you squat.
Allow some forward movement at the knee
Long ago we recognized that allowing the heels to come up and the knees to shoot forward when squatting is a bad idea. However, as is often the case in the fitness industry, many people over-reacted to this and coached the squat with a completely vertical tibia (i.e. no forward movement of the knee). While this can sometimes be done if you squat high, have an optimal squatting structure and/or use a multi-ply squat suit, most folks will do better with some forward movement of the knee. Just be sure this movement happens before the bottom of the squat and that your knees still like you.
Spread the knees
As you squat down, you have to get range of motion from somewhere. Option A is to shoot the knees forward. While this works okay for some, you can only go so far before your knees start complaining. Option B is flex the hips which is good until you reach full hip flexion and start to tail tuck – which we are also trying to avoid. Option C is to move the knees out. This prevents your thighs from smashing into your pelvis and as Coach Dan John points out, it allows you to squat between your legs instead of on top of them. This is especially helpful if you have long femurs.
Stay tight at the bottom
Some people relax to get depth. They simply release their spinal erectors, hip flexors, abs and hamstrings and freefall into the bottom of the squat and then bounce off their knee ligaments to start the upward motion. This can not only wreck your knees, but also create a nasty tail tuck. Instead, stay tight for the entire rep. A helpful technique from the RKC is to actually try to pull yourself into the bottom of the squat by trying to contract your hip flexors. This helps lock your pelvis into neutral.
Forget Squatting ATG
In an attempt to get away from the high squats, some people go too far on the other end and try to go too deep in the squat. I know it sounds cool to brag about squatting ATG (ass to grass), but few people can do this safely and without tail tuck. Yes, there are those who have been blessed with an amazing squatting structure that allows them to hit ultra-low depths without problems, but many lifters should settle for a bit below parallel.
Fix what you can
There are 3 things you can fix to improve your ability to squat well without tail tuck: 1) mobility, 2) stability and 3) technique.
With mobility work, you want to be evidence-based or you can wind up doing a 45 minute foam and stretch session before you get under the bar. For example, if you are locked up in the hips, try giving your piriformis a little TLC on a lacrosse ball, then go over to the squat bar and try squatting. If that extra minute or two of prep work made a noticeable difference, then use it. If not, explore other areas with rolling and mobility drills and again re-test to see if it makes a difference in your squatting ability.
It is also important to note that instability can create what appears to be a mobility restriction. If the body feels unstable going into a certain range of motion, it will not go there. Getting tight in your set-up and staying tight can help your body stay confident going into those deeper ranges of motion. An anterior loaded squat can also help with creating stiffness (more on this to follow).
One of my favorite corrective strategies is EQI’s (eccentric quazi-isometrics). In the case of the squat, doing a goblet squat EQI’s can be helpful for addressing both mobility and stability issues. To do this, get a light-to-moderate dumbbell or kettlebell and go down into the bottom of a goblet squat. Also, feel free to use a slight heel lift. Go only as low as you can while maintaining a neutral spine position. Hold this position for time (around 10-20 seconds if using it before squatting, you can go longer to torture yourself as a finisher). Keep your chest out and breathe with your diaphragm. This will build strength and stability in this bottom range. Also, as you fatigue, you naturally start creeping into a deeper squat position.
The third thing you can fix is your technique. The squat is more technical than most exercises. Think of it not just as an exercise, but a skill. As with any skill, the more quality reps you get in, the faster you master the skill. While you can only go heavy as often as your joints and recovery ability will allow, more practice with submaximal weights can help you groove proper technique. In addition to your heavy squat days, try including some lighter squat days and possibly some speed work in your weekly plan or as part of your warm-up.
Work with your structural limitations
Once you have honestly addressed the mobility, stability and technical issues (which will take you a huge way), you still have another aspect of your squatting ability that you can’t change – your structure. Structural proportions play a role in determining your ability to squat well. They key with this (as with anytime genetics comes up) is to take a healthy, balanced view. Both the stance of “everyone should leave a butt print on the floor” or the opposite “I just leg press because of my family lineage” are foolish extremes. An ideal squat structure is a long torso with a short femur. In addition, differences in the femoral head, the angle of the neck of the femur, pelvic width and the positioning and depth of the acetabulum (hip socket) all affect your ability to squat.
One option for less than ideal structures is a slight heel lift. When the bar is placed on your back, you have to lean forward at bit to maintain balance and this takes up a bit of hip range of motion. For many people, a small heel lift creates just enough help to hit depth without tail tucking. A pair of Weightlifting shoes can do wonders for tail tuck. You can also use some small plates. With our athletes, use a thin rubber mat under their heels as needed.
Another option is to look for alternative squat variations. Many people with less than ideal squatting structures can still front squat well. Or consider the Zercher squat which is one of the most structurally-forgiving squat variations.
How about you? If you had success with other methods? I invite you to leave your comments and questions below or on my Facebook Page.