The mighty squat is revered and feared in equal measure by bodybuilders, athletes, and weekend warriors alike.
Whether we’re talking goblet squats or overhead, bodyweight or barbell, squats are widely regarded as one of the biggest "bang for your buck" exercises for building the trifecta of functional strength, lean muscle mass, and athletic prowess.
It’s hard to deny the potent power of the squat, but it's also important to address one of the most common obstacles:
Squat mobility doesn’t come naturally for many a gym-goer, meaning the struggle is real in maintaining proper form, achieving depth, and getting the most out of this formidable compound movement.
In this article, we’ll share tips for improving your positioning through targeted squat mobility exercises. We’ll tackle common obstacles that can hinder your progress - stiff ankles and hip mobility; we're coming for you!
We’ll also help you open up through the mid-back for a solid upright posture and share some squat depth drills and a squat mobility warm-up you can use to dominate your next session.
Whether you're a gym veteran or just starting your fitness journey, this article is your roadmap to enhanced squatting prowess.
Fine-Tune Your Squat: Quick Tips for Perfecting Your Form
While squat mobility restrictions are common, slight technique adjustments can also go a long way. The ideal squat form varies based on individual body shapes and limb lengths, but there are a couple of principles to keep in mind:
1. Brace yourself: Before descending into the depths of squat hell, you must prepare. Squeeze your glutes, tighten your midsection as if you’re about to take a punch, and take a deep breath into the belly while maintaining core tension. This intra-abdominal pressure reduces energy leaks throughout the movement and may reduce unwanted compression through the lower back[*]. This can make it easier for the hips to open up, which may magically allow you to adopt a deeper squat without much extra work.
2. Create torque: The squat isn’t simply an up-and-down movement. For maximum gains, imagine gripping the ground and screwing your feet into the floor - as if you're standing on two plates and trying to spin them outward. Shoutout to Dr. Kelly Starrett for this cue. Think about pulling yourself down through the squat and driving yourself out of the bottom. Apply equal pressure through the balls of your feet and the outer edges while keeping your heels grounded.
5 Signs Your Squat Mobility Could Do With Some Work
How do you know whether or not you could benefit from exercises to improve squat mobility? Here are a few telltale signs:
1. Heels lift off the ground: This can be remedied by trying to drive through the heels at the bottom of the squat but is often an indicator that ankle and hip mobility could benefit from some care.
2. Struggle to go below parallel: Ass-to-grass may be the gold standard, but we don’t want to rush getting into a deep squat if it means compromising form. Opening up through the hips and ankles will almost definitely help.
3. Knees cave inwards: This can signify missing hip external rotation. We’ve got you covered in the hip mobility section below.
4. Torso leans forward: Often signaling that the hips lack range of motion and may also improve with thoracic mobility drills.
5. The “butt wink”: Characterised by tucking the tailbone and rounding the lower back at the bottom of the squat. A small amount is natural, but we want to avoid excessive rounding (particularly under load). Again, we’ll open those hips, ankles and thoracic.
The Benefits Of Improving Your Mobility For Squats
Before diving into the mobility exercises, let's take a moment to understand the importance of mobility for squats:
1. Increased Range of Motion
Improved mobility means developing strength through a greater range of motion, enabling you to enjoy a deeper squat depth and recruit your musculature more effectively. This can result in greater hypertrophy of the glutes and adductors when compared to partial ROM squats[*].
2. Enhanced Stability
Addressing mobility limitations in the ankles, hips, and thoracic promotes stability through the knees and lower back. This helps to build a solid foundation for lifting heavier weights and prevents compensatory movements that can hinder progress and potentially contribute towards imbalances and injuries[*].
3. Increased Movement Options
As your squat mobility improves, it unlocks the possibility of safely performing more complex variations, such as the overhead squat, jump squat or pistol. You’ll also likely find that this newfound mobility will transfer over to sports and everyday physical activities like hiking, running, and keeping up with younger family members (furry ones included).
Level Up Your Squat: 12 of The Best Squat Mobility Exercises
Let’s dive into our collection of the best squat mobility exercises, divided into four key areas: ankle mobility, hip mobility, thoracic mobility, and combined drills for squat depth.
The exact rep and set scheme will vary depending on your needs, experience levels, and injury history. If in doubt, begin with one set of each and gradually build up to three over time. You can perform the drills a few times a week on your rest days, post-workout, or with your squat warm-up routine.
As with any exercise modality, when we’re looking at how to increase squat mobility, it's important to start slowly, listen to your body, and consult a qualified professional if you have any concerns or existing injuries.
How to Improve Ankle Mobility For Squats: 3 Ankle Mobility Exercises
Limited ankle mobility, notably through dorsiflexion, is perhaps the most common restriction when it comes to hitting that deep squat position. Here’s how to improve ankle mobility for squats in three simple steps:
1. Calf Stretch (Contract-Relax)
In a staggered stance, place the ball of your front foot on an elevated surface such as a block, weight plate, wall or slant board. Keeping your torso upright, lean your weight forward to increase the stretch on the calf. Hold the end range for 30-60 seconds before contracting the calf and driving through the ball of the foot into the surface beneath for 3-5 seconds. Ease off for 5-10 seconds, allowing yourself to sink deeper into the stretch if comfortable. Perform 3-5 contractions, and repeat on the opposite side.
2. Deficit Calf Raises
Stand on a slanted wedge or raised surface with the balls of your feet on the edge and your heels hanging off (i.e off a step). Slowly lower your heels down and then rise up onto your toes, pausing at the top and focusing on moving with control. To increase the intensity, you can perform these weighted or use the one-leg variation. Anywhere between 10-25 repetitions can be beneficial here.
3. Half Squat (Contract-Relax)
Enter a half squat position with one leg kneeling out to your side and the other standing with a deep knee bend. Lean your weight over the standing foot to get a stretch on the calf area (particularly the soleus in this bent leg position). Ensure your ankle doesn’t collapse inwards, holding the stretch for 30-60 seconds. Follow this by aiming to pull your foot up towards your shin, holding that contraction for 3-5 seconds. There will likely be no actual movement - you just want to feel the front of your shin, the tibialis anterior, working. Ease off for 5-10 seconds, deepening the stretch if comfortable. Perform 3-5 contract-relax cycles, then repeat on the opposite side.
How to Improve Hip Mobility For Squats: 3 Key Hip Mobility Exercises
As you might expect, hip mobility is crucial for achieving squat depth and preventing excessive forward lean. Try the following exercises to open up and improve hip mobility for squats:
1. Down-Dog to Lunge
A great way to lengthen through the hamstrings and the hip flexors, allowing you to remain more upright through the squat. Begin in a down-dog position with your hands shoulder-width apart, arms straight, hips high, and with a generous bend in the knee if required. Step one leg up between your hands for a low lunge. The back knee can be elevated or remain on the floor. Spend a few breaths in this lunge position, keeping the rear side glute squeezed and chest lifted. Return to down dog, pedal the feet out for a few breaths, and repeat on the opposite side. Alternate for a total of 10 repetitions.
2. 90-90 External Rotation (Contract-Relax)
Start by sitting on the ground in the hip box position with one knee bent at a 90-degree angle in front of you and the other knee bent at a 90-degree angle to the side. You can sit up on a block to make it easier to get into position. Keeping your torso long, lean out over your front knee, feeling a stretch on the outside of your hip. Following a 30-60-second stretch, push your lead leg into the ground for 3-5 seconds, creating tension and engaging the hip muscles. Ease off for 5-10 seconds, relaxing and progressively deepening the stretch by leaning further forward. Perform 3-5 contract-relax cycles, then switch your hips to repeat on the opposite side.
3. 90-90 Internal Rotation (Contract-Relax)
In the same 90-90 hip box position, this time, we’re going to work with the back leg, improving internal rotation at the hip. With the core engaged, roll your pelvis back and lean sideways over the back hip, keeping your torso long. Following a 30-60-second stretch, attempt to lift your rear foot off the floor (there may be no actual movement) without moving your torso, holding that tension for 5-10 seconds. Ease off for 5-10 seconds, progressively deepening the stretch by gently leaning further to your side. Perform 3-5 contract-relax cycles, then switch your hips to repeat on the opposite side. If your hips start to cramp up, ease off the pressure or come out of the stretch completely to shake your legs out.
3 Exercises To Improve Thoracic Mobility For Squats:
Thoracic mobility can play an important role in maintaining an upright posture during squats - particularly the front squat and overhead variations. Being able to extend through the mid-back slightly allows for better weight distribution and prevents excessive rounding of the upper and lower back. Here are some handy T-spine mobility exercises for you to try:
1. T-Spine Extension with Foam Roller
Lie on your back with a foam roller placed horizontally along your upper back. Support your head with your hands and slowly roll up and down, targeting the area between your shoulder blades. Spend extra time on any tight or tender spots. You can also reach your hands above your head and gently lean back over the roller, allowing your chest to open. Hold the end range position for 10-20 seconds, breathing slowly, and repeat on segments above or below if required.
2. Cat-Cow Stretch
Begin on all fours with your hands stacked under your shoulders and your knees under your hips. Inhale as you drop your belly toward the ground, arching your back and lifting your head (cow position). Exhale to round your back toward the ceiling, tucking your chin to your chest (cat position). Repeat for 8-10 repetitions, focusing on the fluid movement between the two positions.
3. Quadruped Thoracic Rotation
Start on all fours with your hands directly under your shoulders and your knees under your hips. Place one hand behind your head, and rotate your elbow toward the ceiling. Pause at the end range and take a full breath in, expanding your rib cage and deepening the stretch. Release on the exhale, and then reach underneath your opposite arm, dropping the side of your head towards the floor and threading the needle. Repeat for 8-10 repetitions on each side.
3 of The Best Mobility Exercises For Squat Depth
Here are some bonus exercises for improving squat depth that incorporate a combination of thoracic, hip and ankle mobility for squats:
1. Deep Goblet Squat Hold
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding a light dumbbell or kettlebell in front of your chest. Lower into a deep squat position, using your elbows to gently pry your hips open. Hold the position for 30-60 seconds, focusing on keeping your chest up and your heels on the ground. You can elevate your heels onto weight plates or blocks if required to make the position more comfortable, gradually lowering the height over time as your squat mobility improves.
2. Front Foot Elevated Split Squats
A great exercise for ironing out any hip imbalances that may be impacting your squat form. Begin by placing your front foot on a slightly elevated surface, such as a step or low bench, while the back foot rests on the ground behind you. Lower your body down and forward into a lunge position, with the front knee tracking over the toes and the back knee hovering just above the ground, then push through the front foot to return to the starting position. Perform unweighted with dumbbells or a barbell. 8-12 repetitions per side.
3. Cossack Squats
An excellent way to lengthen and strengthen tight adductors, giving you more access to a deeper range of motion in your barbell squats. Stand with your feet wider than shoulder-width apart and toes pointing slightly outward. Shift your weight to one side as you lower your body into a deep lateral squat, keeping your other leg straight and extended to the side. Return to the starting position and repeat on the opposite side, alternating for 5-10 reps. You can hold a kettlebell in the goblet squat position to add load or hold onto a squat rack, TRX, or gymnastic rings for assistance.
Prime Your Squat: The Key Role of Squat Mobility Warm-Up
Warming up properly before squatting is vital for minimizing your injury risk and priming the body to perform optimally. A thorough warm-up increases blood flow, enhances joint lubrication, and prepares the body and mind for the hefty demands of the squat.
After performing front and side leg swings, sled pulls, and walking on the treadmill, my favorite leg day squat mobility warm-up includes a few rounds of the following:
1. Banded Bodyweight Squats
Slow bodyweight squats with a resistance band around the shins are an excellent drill for turning on the hip abductors and helping you feel more connected throughout your squat. Focus on descending slowly, pausing at the bottom, screwing those feet into the floor, and keeping the knees out as you ascend. 5-8 slow reps are plenty.
2. Banded Glute Bridges
With a resistance band looped around your thighs, lie on your back with your feet flat on the ground and knees bent. Raise your hips off the ground, squeezing your glutes at the top and keeping tension on the band throughout. Aim for 10-12 repetitions.
3. Copenhagen Plank Marches
This side plank variation is a great way to knit the core and the hips together and to strengthen those adductors. Begin by side-planking on your forearm with your body in a straight line. Lift your top leg and place it on a bench or elevated surface. Hold this position while engaging your core and maintaining proper alignment, ensuring your body remains parallel to the ground. You can keep the lower leg on the floor and march your knees up towards your chest for 8-10 reps, or raise the lower leg off the floor and hold for time.
Note: Feel free to include any of the squat mobility exercises we’ve previously mentioned in your squat mobility warm-up.
Ready, Set, Squat!
Incorporating squat mobility exercises into your programming can lead to significant improvements in squat form, depth, and overall strength.
By addressing thoracic, ankle and hip mobility limitations, you'll feel more comfortable throughout the movement, reduce the risk of injuries, and unlock your full squatting potential.
Luke Jones - Movement Coach and Content Creator at HERO Movement. Through articles, videos & online training, he explores and shares ideas in all things performance, well-being & adventure.