Me doing a squat

How To Do Squats When You Think You Can’t

Squats are another one of the essential movements I believe everybody should be able to do. Even if you’ve got knee pain, hip pain, or any other leg issue (apart from not having them) I guarantee there’s some kind of squat you can do.

Like we learned recently with pull-ups, just because you can’t do the version you first think of when you think of squats – that doesn’t mean you can’t do ANY version. There are plenty of variations you can try – at least one of which you definitely can do. And once you find that version, you can work on it and improve until eventually you’re doing full squats!

Of course, if you have a genuine anatomical issue like severe arthritis or pins in your bones, it may be the case that you really can’t do full squats. But even then you should still try and find some variation that you can do. At the end of the day, if you don’t use it – you lose it. If you let your leg problems stop you from doing any kind of leg exercise (or even any exercise at all): watch some YouTube clips from the paralympics, stop whining, and start moving. You’re only holding yourself back.

Now! If you’re ready, let’s get to work finding the kind of squats you can do – whatever your starting point.

All I need you to do is go to the kitchen and find your sink. Hopefully you’ve got room to stick your bum out. But if not, go find something else somewhere that’s around hip height you can hold on to.

Step 1 – The Hip Hinge

When you break it down joint by joint, a squat has three elements:

  • The hip hinge
  • The knee bend
  • The ankle flex

So, we’re going to break our progress down, too (because everything is easier when you break it down into smaller steps). Our first step is the hip hinge – this means learning how to bend at your hips and only your hips. Once you can do that, then we’ll start to look at the next bit.

Here’s what I want you to do:

  • Hold on to your sink/bar, with your feet a few steps back so you’re slightly leaning forward.
  • Start to move your bum backwards, keeping your arms, back, and knees as straight as you can.
  • Aim to have your bum move back far enough so that you end up looking straight down at the floor – with a nice straight line right from your wrists to your shoulders to your bum.
  • Once you’re as far as you can go – bring your bum forwards again. Try to use the muscles in the back of your upper legs (your hamstrings) and your bum (your glutes) rather than pulling on the sink/bar. If you have to use the sink/bar the first few times – that’s fine. But it’s really important that you learn to use those leg muscles. So focus your mind’s eye on that area. Soon enough, you’ll feel them. Then, you’ll be able to use them!

You might not reach the straight line we’re aiming for the first time for a few reasons:

  • You might feel tension around your shoulders – in which case this exercise is a great shoulder stretch!
  • You might feel tension down your back – in which case this exercise is a great back stretch!
  • You might feel tension around your hips – in which case this exercise is a great hip stretch!
  • You might feel tension in your hamstrings – in which case this is a great hamstring stretch!

If you’re a super keen observer – you’ll notice a pattern in that last list. Remember earlier when I said if you don’t use it, you lose it? Well, the opposite is also true. If you use it – you improve it.

If you don’t use it – you lose it. If you use it – you improve it.

Whenever you’re doing an exercise and find that you feel tension somewhere – that’s great! That means this exercise is giving you more for your money. Now it’s a strength exercise AND a stretch at the same time. When you reach the point of tension, take a big deep breath into your belly, slowly breathe out and try to relax into it a little more – but don’t force it. Eventually, the muscles that feel tight now, won’t be anymore. And you can fully focus on the strength side. Winner, winner.

Flow through this movement for 10-15 repetitions, take a little rest, then do two more sets of them.

Step 2 – The Staged Squat

Once you’ve got that first exercise nailed (i.e. you can move your hips all the way back, achieve that straight line, and use your hamstrings and glutes to pull you back up) – you’re ready to start working on the next step.

Remember how we broke the squat down into the joints you use? Well, now it’s time to work on the other two parts – the knee bend and the ankle flex.

In the staged squat, we’re building on what we’ve already got. Here’s how:

  • Start with your hip hinge – you know the drill.
  • Once you get to the point where you’re facing the floor, start to bend your knees, sweeping your hips down towards the ground.
  • Making sure your arms and back are still straight, bring your knees as far forwards as you can – ensuring you keep your heels down on the ground.
  •  If all has gone according to plan – you should be at the bottom of a perfect squat!
  • Now, use the muscles in the front of your upper legs (your quadriceps) to push back to the hip hinge position.
  • Finally, use your hamstring and glutes to pull you back up to the start position.

(Sometimes it helps to shuffle your feet around a little bit to help you get a bit deeper. It may be the case that you just didn’t have the best starting position. So play around with your foot position until you find the most comfortable one.)

How did you do? You, like many others I’ve taken through this process, might find yourself reaching a bottom position much deeper than you thought you’d be able to. This is because often, the restrictions we have on our movements are all in our heads. We think we can’t bend our knees any more than THAT, or our hips hurt once we get THAT far.

Most of the time, though, the only reason you can only go that far, is because your brain isn’t sure what’s going to happen if you do – because it’s been so long since you did. Maybe you had an injury way back when and haven’t really tried since. What we’re doing is giving your brain a new route to get to that same destination. And that’s where the magic happens. Now that your brain knows it’s totally fine to be all the way down there, it might just let you do Step 3.

However, as with Step 1, you might not get all the way down to the bottom – and that’s still totally fine! If you feel tension in your legs, around your knees, or in your ankles as you try to get deeper – do you remember what that means?

Yep! It means that this strength exercise is now doubling up as a stretch for your legs/knees/ankles. So keep on with it,  take a deep breath into your belly as you reach that point of tension, and try and ease into it a little bit deeper.

Flow through this movement for 10-15 repetitions, take a little rest, then do two more sets of them.

Once you’re as far as you can possibly get – it’s time for Step 3.

Step 3 – The Guided Squat

Now that you’ve got all three joints working perfectly – it’s time to put them all together!

  • From the same starting position, this time start the movement by bending your knees. Again, keep your arms and back straight.
  • Keep bending your knees and hips until you reach the same bottom position you did in Step 2.
  • From there, use all the muscles you’ve been working on together to push you back up. Your quadriceps to straighten your knees, and your glutes and hamstrings to keep your body upright.

This exercise is called the Guided Squat because keeping your arms straight and holding on to the sink/bar is guiding your movement.

As with the Hip Hinge, aim to not use the bar to help pull yourself up. Instead, just use it to help guide your movement. This are leg strength exercises, not arm strength.

Work up to the point where you’re able to do 15 repetitions (with your own strength), take a little rest, then do two more sets of them.

If you can only do a few – that’s cool. Just keep working on it over the next couple of days or weeks until eventually you’re able to do all 15 reps.

Or, if you can’t quite push yourself back up from the bottom position: scroll down to the Intermediate Exercise: The Slut Drop.

One last thing – when you’re at the bottom of the movement – spend a bit of time down there. Like you did with your glutes and hamstrings in the Hip Hinge, I want you to try to feel the muscles in the front of your shins. Yes, you have muscles there. They’re the muscles you use to pull your toes up towards your knees if you’re sat on the floor, or, the muscles you use to pull your knees forwards towards your toes if you’re in a squat.

These muscles are super important if you’re going to successfully complete Step 4. So spend some time down in the bottom position, see if you can feel those muscles. Then, try to squeeze them. If you can, you should be able to lift your hands from the sink/bar and not fall backwards (because they’re keeping you pulled forwards). Weirdly enough, stroking or tapping the front of your shins helps your brain connect to this muscle too.

Step 4 – The Full Squat

Here we go – the big kahuna. Now that you’ve got the movement down, and the strength built up, let’s hit the one we’ve been working for.

  • Take one step back away from your sink/bar.
  • Start your movement by bending your knees as in the Guided Squat.
  • Do everything else as before – even move your hands up as if you’re still holding the sink/bar as another little brain trick.
  • Then, push back up!

If you managed it, well done! I’m so proud of you for working hard and getting to this point.

If you fell backwards – head back and work on that last thing I mentioned in Step 3 to make the muscles in the front of your shins stronger.

If you weren’t able to keep your chest up straight and did something resembling a slut drop – again go back to the Guided Squat and work on squeezing your hamstrings to keep yourself upright.

Intermediate Exercise: The Slut Drop

As you move from the Staged Squat to the Guided Squat you might find that you struggle to push yourself back up with the full movement. If this is the case and you don’t quite have the strength yet to push back up – it’s time to Slut Drop. What we’re doing is working on what’s called the NEGATIVE (or eccentric if you want to be fancy) part of the movement. The negative part is the part where you work with gravity – in this case lowering yourself down.

  • Start the movement by bending your knees, keeping your arms and back straight.
  • Keep bending your knees and hips until you reach the same bottom position you did in Step 2.
  • This time, instead of pushing straight back up, push your hips back as you would in the Staged Squat.
  • Finally, use your hamstring and glutes to pull you back up to the start position.

By doing this, we’re focusing on your eccentric strength, then using half of a Staged Squat to get you back to the top.

As your eccentric strength increases, your concentric (positive part of the movement – working against gravity) improves too. Every so often, try to push straight back up, and notice that it’s feeling a little easier. Eventually, you’ll be able to do the whole thing! Once you’re there, work through Step 3, and Step 4 – and you’re squatting!

Alternative Endings

Sometimes, it may well be the case that you aren’t able to progress any further due to some legitimate joint or other restriction.

You might not be able to get to full depth on the Staged Squat because of a knee issue. Or you might not be able to get that straight line on the Hip Hinge because of a shoulder problem.

Don’t worry! Do what you can. Remember, if you use it – you improve it. It may well be the case that slowly, over time, you do manage to get a little more range or a little more strength. But even if that’s not the case – that means you’re using your body to the absolute best of its current potential. Which is something to be hugely proud of!

What are you waiting for? Start from Step 1, see if you can achieve that straight line, and if not – start working on it. Let me know if this helps you improve your squat. And to see it in action: check this out. This last video is of my friend Gavin using these steps with one of his clients. Debbie had never done a full squat due to knee pain. She just couldn’t go any lower than you see at the start.

As if by magic, Debbie ended up doing deeper squats than most people I know! And with zero knee pain – all in less than 15 minutes.

Turns out, it might not be the case that you need to work on these steps over a course of weeks. Try and go from one set of each movement to the next after a little rest in between. That’s Squat Magic.

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