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I started doing squats a couple of weeks ago, and I'm having trouble maintaining balance near the bottom of my squat (when I'm trying to go below parallel). Let me describe the situation.

Squat stance: I keep my legs shoulder with apart. My heels line up with my shoulders, and I point my feet about 15 degrees outward. I squat down so I am in a "third world squat" stance and my knees are in line with my feet. I stand back up and that is my starting squat stance.

When I squat, I place the bar on my traps, take a deep breath, and bend at the knees. Once I reach a sufficient bend in the knees (meaning not beyond my toes), I try to do the do the rest of the squat by bending at the hips--like I am squatting in to a chair. Anyways, as I get close to parallel, I start experiencing some problems with my balance/form--like I am tipping backwards. The only way I can compensate is to allow my knees to travel beyond my toes. I know that a little about dos/donts of squatting, and I know that it is generally an indication of poor form if I allow my knees to travel beyond my toes, but it's the only way I can get below parallel. After that, I push back out of the hole and the squat is complete.

So my question is pretty clear: why am I falling back when I am squatting? And: is knee travel beyond my toes a necessarily a bad thing?

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Excellent question. A video is probably necessary, but I'd consider looking at hip mobility issues, or play with a wider stance. –  Dave Liepmann Jun 1 '13 at 20:43
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Dave nailed it. I had similar issues when starting squatting, but it came better and better as time passed. In my case, before starting to squat it was very unnatural for my hips and legs to get into that position, since they never went that way in everyday life. I think trying to sit in the third world squat helped me most, but was and still is very difficult! As for the knees - keeping them back reducess the stress put on the joint, or so I read, and in the long run helps avoid problems. Our joints are pretty fragile and can wear off over time –  K.L. Jun 3 '13 at 7:10
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Thanks. I think it is a hip/ankle mobility issue. I came across an article on t-nation: t-nation.com/free_online_article/… and it describes me perfectly: I start falling back when I get close to parallel. I supposed that, in addition to stretching, I just gotta pump out a lot of squats to get my body used to the motion. –  noviceSquatter Jun 3 '13 at 23:47
    
@noviceSquatter it would be great if you could write an answer describing if that article helped you. –  Baarn Jun 27 '13 at 12:13
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Don't get too caught up with the knees-behind-toes "rule". Google for images of heavy squats; you're just not going to find anyone lifting significant weight whose knees don't come at least a little forward. Body mechanics don't back that "rule" up. –  Greg Jul 2 '13 at 21:06

4 Answers 4

[I'm noviceSquatter--I've since created a stackexchange account. Also I'm doing low bar squats!]

Sorry for the delayed response. I posted the question a month ago, got a few comments, and didn't expect anything more. Anyways, to answer informaficker, I found the t-nation article helpful because it accurately described me. Here's the key paragraph:

If you couldn't keep your weight off of your toes and barely got your thighs to parallel before you started tipping over backwards, you have a fairly severe degree of immobility. If you're at this level it'll be challenging, if not impossible, to squat down with your heels on the ground. Your goal here is simply to attain this.

That described me when I started squatting. The way I fixed it is pretty simple:

Lots and lots of ankle and hip mobility exercises. And deep air squats. I spoke to a powerlifter in my gym, and he gave me a long list of warm ups to do (defranco agile 8 is a good set of warm ups), but I googled around and experimented to see what worked for me. I do a good 20 minute warm up and 5 minute bike ride before I step to the squat rack. It's helped a lot. Honestly, I feel it is simply something that'll work itself out over a month or two of consistent stretching.

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What kind of squat do you do (high- or low bar)?

If you are going to do a low bar squat, it's naturally to lean your torso more forward in order to hit the posterior chain more (glutes, hams,...). If it's a high bar squat then your torso is more upright and you "dive" in between your legs with your hips. Regarding your style, your elbows should point down (high bar) or behind you (low bar) in order to keep your lumbar spine in a natural position.

How do you start your squat?

It's important to start with the hip drive first ("Sit DOWN") and not to start with moving your knees. The knees come forward in the second step. Furthermore not unimportant is the fact, that you keep your shoulderblades together or in other words: push your chest up and out.

What about your core?

Whenever you are going to squat, it's viable to activate your core. Make sure you take a medium breath (not a full) and turn your belly button in as far as you can before you go down. This action stabilizes your torso and helps your lower back.


All these questions are relevant to your problem. Other questions you should ask yourself:

Am I warmed up properly? Not only the metabolic component, also regarding the joints and the bands.

Am I controlling the weight or is the weight controlling me?

Is my focus enough to fulfill the repetitions?

Am I doing enough supportive exercises for squats, e.g. hyper-extensions, planks...?

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Without seeing video, it is very likely you are trying to "sit back" too far. Your squat technique shouldn't change drastically from doing the third world squat to doing it with a barbell. Another option is that you are putting the weight too far on your heels.

You do need the proper amount of mobility to squat, but if your set up is wrong, it can doom you before you even descend. To work on and correct your squat form so that you are in good balance I would recommend the following:

  • Goblet paused squats. Use either a dumbbell or a kettlebell as a counterbalance in front of you, squat down and hold for 3-7 seconds before you squat back up.
  • Paused squats with a barbell.

The purpose of these is to give you time to feel and correct your balance while you are in the most mechanically disadvantageous position. Use weights you can keep a straight back with. You want to focus on keeping the balance of the weight on mid foot. With a barbell, that happens when the bar is over your mid foot. You want to practice the descent and ascent so that the bar doesn't travel back or forward from mid foot and your balance is steady.

During a squat, work on the following form:

  • Athletic stance (i.e. feet about the position you would do a vertical jump with)
  • Balance over mid foot
  • Chest up, big breath into your spine. (not physically possible, but it's the right mental image)
  • Descend naturally, pushing the knees out to make room for your body.
  • If pausing, make sure balance remains over midfoot and stay tight
  • Ascend quickly, as if you want the bar to come off your shoulders.
  • Breath out.

Don't get overly caught up on feet X position and Y angle, etc. People with longer femurs will need a wider stance, while people with shorter femurs will need a narrower stance. The feet should not be so far apart that your knees are not over your feet when you start going back up. I've found I have a hard time if the feet are too far apart. Conversely, they can't be so close that you are fighting your thighs to get deep enough. A comfortable jump width is a good starting point.

Focus on being consistent with every rep.

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Seriously I answered this question several days ago got nothing, if he's doing highbar squats, which it sounds like he is, Olympics weightlifting shoes or similar ones are definitely going to help, almost everyone has the opposite problem with squats which means he is actually likely using good form, not everyone has the right body type to do an atg squat with a perfectly straight torso without oly shoes –  aaronman Jul 2 '13 at 19:08
    
I agree that the right shoes make the world of difference. I find my weightlifting shoes indispensable. I've also found that the heavier I go, the more important my setup is before the squat. I don't think ATG is particularly necessary, but you should be able to break parallel even without the shoes. Pause squats are my tool of choice when I'm refining technique or working on power out of the hole. –  Berin Loritsch Jul 2 '13 at 22:19
    
I definitely agree pause squats are helpful, but if he's falling back doing normal squats he's probably gonna fall back doing pause's, I also just posted one more helpful thing I thought of, since I'm used to posting on SO it throws me off when posts and answers don't get attention or votes –  aaronman Jul 2 '13 at 22:58

Well the good news is that you are falling backwards not forwards. Which not only means that you won't be crushed but are likely using better form. Without seeing your form there are a couple things I can recommend.
1. Try doing some front squats and maybe even overhead squats:
- This will definitely help in balance and even out the progress of your muscles, the back squat may have over developed certain muscles
2. Make sure the bar is in the right spot on your back:
- the bar should rest just above the traps on a highbar squat, I strongly prefer highbar to lowbar squats
3.Lastly buying olympic weightlifting shoes:
- Olympic weightlifting shoes lift your heels up which leans you forward and gives you better squat form.

If none of these things help you may be doing to much weight
Thought of one more thing:
If you place some 2.5 plates under your heels during the squats that will also help, though you should try to grow out of doing that

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