On paper, the squat is as basic as it gets: You go down and then stand back up. But this booty-burning exercise is actually pretty complex. Squats require you to recruit more than just your glutes to get low, especially when you add weight. The functional movement pattern demands strong hamstrings, quads and core — not to mention good mobility in the ankles, knees and hips. With all those moving parts, you might be wondering: Does my squat form make the cut? Enter: the American Council on Exercise (ACE) bend and lift screen.
Jacque Crockford, MS, CSCS, ACE-certified personal trainer, says, “The bend and lift screen not only reveals whether you have proper form, [it can help] exercise newbies address postural weaknesses to prevent injuries.” According to Crockford, proper squat mechanics include: trunk and shins parallel to each other and the ground when at the lowest point; heels remaining on the ground with knees tracking in the same direction as the feet; and thighs parallel to the ground.
Chances are, one — or more — of these cues are off. And the test below will reveal the source. Just remember to start with the basic bodyweight squat. “By finding the right squat mechanics prior to loading the body with external weight, it will reduce the risk of injury and prepare the body to engage the correct muscle groups,” Crockford says. “This will allow for improved power and strength development leading to increases in performance.”
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The ACE Bend and Lift Squat Test
Here’s how to do the bend and lift screen at home or the gym with the help of the trainer or a friend:
- Stand with your feet hip-distance apart. Place two broomsticks or dowels on the floor outside of each foot.
- Squat down to grab the broomsticks and lift them off the floor, while maintaining a squat for one to two seconds.
- Have your trainer or friend observe the position of your feet, knees, hips, torso and back and write them down.
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5 Ways to Score Proper Squat Form
Based on your assessments, follow these tips from Crockford to land proper squat form from the ground up.
If your heels lift off the ground…
Squats don’t require any fancy footwork, but your positioning says a lot about how solid your squat is. Your feet should be be a little wider than hip-distance or shoulder-width apart and firmly on the ground. “The bend and lift screen is a great way to see if the heels raise, or knees track improperly prior to loading the body with weights,” Crockford says. As you lower your body to the ground, you want to keep your weight on your mid-foot and heels. This positioning helps you activate other muscle groups instead of putting extra pressure on your feet and ankles when you squat lower.
Ankle mobility, or ankle dorsiflexion (the ability to lean your shins toward your toes without lifting your heels off the ground), is also a factor in your squat. Ideally, you want 40 to 45 degrees of dorsiflexion for a proper squat. As you stand back up, move your shins away from your toes (plantar flexion), and keep your feet firmly on the ground.
If you collapse your ankles and knees inward….
It’s all about that base, and when it comes to proper squat form, that includes the positioning of your knees. Your glutes are the primary mover of a squat, but if you’re squatting lower than your body can handle, it will make you feel weak in the knees (and not in a good way). Proper squat form requires your knees to grow slightly further apart as you lower your body, rather than collapse inward (valgus knee position). As you get low, Crockford says your glutes should be engaged to prevent pronation (aka rolling inward) of the feet. “Placing a band on the thighs above the knees and pushing outward during the squat motion will help engage the external rotators of the lower body,” Crockford says.
If you lead with your knees instead of the hips…
A strong squat starts with a hip hinge, shooting your booty back behind you. If your hips aren’t cooperating, tight hip flexors could be the culprit. “The hip flexors help to pull you down during the lowest portion of the movement. A squat with a limited range of motion might be from weak hip flexors,” Crockford explains. You’ll know how strong your hip flexors are when you can squat lower, and your knees grow farther apart during the eccentric phase of the squat. “Dynamically stretching the hip flexors prior to loaded squats is key to achieving depth and eccentric strength,” Crockford says. As Crockford suggests above, squat with a resistance band around your thighs, just above your knees. “This will help to activate the external rotators of the hip when standing. Deadlifts are also a nice addition to the squat, which helps to increase the strength of the posterior chain,” she says.
If your chest falls forward…
Your body should have a forward lean of about 45 degrees during squat. If you find that you’re leaning any more than that, it’s likely due to weakness in the core and/or lack of upper-body mobility, Crockford says. “To correct this, I recommend doing a front squat, which places additional forward load on the body. You can also do it with a dowel across your shoulders to keep the chest up and back,” she says. “Decreasing the range of motion is always a good place to start.” As you’re driving your hips back, brace your core by contracting your abdominal muscles to keep it engaged. This will help prevent your torso from collapsing and will keep your body upright.
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If you overarch or round your back…
Squats can put pressure on your spine, especially when you add weight, so it’s important to have proper form to protect your low back. Keep your shoulders down and back to help prevent overarching and rounding your posterior. Or, try holding a dowel overhead to help loosen tight back muscles and activate them. “The trunk angle should ideally be parallel to the shin angle at the lowest point of the squat. To maintain this angle, keep your gaze forward (not down or up) and neck neutral,” Crockford says. Once your shin and trunk are parallel, you can increase the depth of your squat.
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