I can't squat!
January 15, 2012 8:56 AM   Subscribe

I can't squat. That is, I can crouch, but I can't get my heels onto the ground or keep my balance without stabilizing myself with my arms. What are specific exercises I should do to allow me to remedy this problem?

The problem is twofold. First, I can't keep my heels on the floor. They're about 4 inches off the floor when I attempt a full squat, and anything past about a 110 degree angle of my knee seems to pull them off the floor. There just doesn't seem to be a way to get them down. Second, I can't keep my balance without leaning really far forward. I fall on my ass. I suspect that this might be because my heels are up, which leaves me balancing on the balls of my feet, and thus unstable, but it could also be some other issue.

I can't figure out where the problem is (ankles, hips, knees, something else?). I'm generally very flexible (can reach about 8 inches past my toes, no problem with many of the harder binds and twists in yoga) and good at balancing (can stand on one leg with my eyes closed for quite a while), but I think there must be some muscle or joint that is keeping me from getting my heels onto the ground and thus getting stable.

I've read other AskMes about this and done some googling, but I haven't found what I'm looking for. Everyone seems to be focused on proper form for weighted squats, whereas I just want to get down there and sit for a while. Specifically, I'd love some videos, diagrams, or step-by-step instructions for stretches or exercises I should do to improve my range of motion (or whatever it is I need to do in order to fix the problem). How can I figure out what's going on, and how can I fix it? What, specifically, should I do so that in the future, I'll be able to squat?
posted by decathecting to Health & Fitness (42 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
If you just want to sit, you can squat balanced on the balls of your feet. It takes some practice, is all. You end up with your heels supporting or right underneath your sitz bones. Or maybe I am a weirdo for squatting like that, but apparently not entirely alone... See, hunkerin'. I taught myself to do it as a teenager and would just practice it a lot when bored.
posted by Arethusa at 9:05 AM on January 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

Your legs should be open (knees wide apart) for a stable squat.
posted by The Lamplighter at 9:10 AM on January 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was taught - perhaps erroneously - that the ability to squat so your heels touch the ground is genetic. I'll go off now and look to see if this is a real thing. In the meantime, perhaps others will correct or confirm. (anecData point: I can do this, and have been able to since I was a kid; my mom couldn't, and my dad could. I'm not particularly flexible.)
posted by rtha at 9:11 AM on January 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

You may find that peforming box squats (without weight, for your purposes) to successively lower boxes allows you to train yourself to sit back further with heels flat while remaining stable. Also make sure that you're taking a wide enough stance; your knees should not be rotated outward beyond a few degrees (stick to what's comfortable), but your feet should probably be positioned at least as wide as your shoulders.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 9:13 AM on January 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have this exact same problem so look forward to suggestions, too. And you're not alone :)
posted by tacoma1 at 9:13 AM on January 15, 2012

Totally can't, and never have. It's a geometry thing.
posted by scruss at 9:16 AM on January 15, 2012

Arethusa, I specifically want to squat because of the lower back benefits, and also because it's a necessary first step for several yoga poses I want to do.

Those of you who are saying that it's genetic or that "geometry" is standing in my way, can you explain what the difference is between my body and bodies that can do this? Do they have more flexible joints, or different musculature, or what? Even if it's true that some people just can't (and I'm not convinced that's true given that I've spoken with people who have learned to do it), there must be an explanation for what it is about some bodies that makes this possible.
posted by decathecting at 9:20 AM on January 15, 2012

I'm still googling but so far, my fu is weak.

Have you tried this?

Stand in front of a counter or table. Lower yourself into a squat. Hang on to the edge of the table and lean back so that your weight is on your heels rather than the ball/toes. Can you do this? (Because yeah, it's an awesome lower back stretch.) Maybe it's a balance thing?
posted by rtha at 9:23 AM on January 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

There may indeed be genetic variation, but cultural practices also affect your ability to squat - it's an extremely common resting position in many parts of the world, and many Westerners lose the ability (toddlers are expert squatters) because we sit rather than squat - wikipedia says that shortened Achilles tendons are to blame.
posted by heyforfour at 9:28 AM on January 15, 2012

There are a lot of mobility problems that can impair the squat -- especially if you spend a lot of time sitting at a desk. Your problems are most likely due to hip, ham and ankle mobility. The ankle mobility thing is often overlooked, and is usually what causes a lot of people to shift to the balls of their feet instead of heels. You need to work on mobility in these areas.

You probably can squat deep on your heels, but with a bit of weight to help overcome some of the resistance from tight hams or hip flexors. Try doing some goblet squats to see if that helps.

Also try this form check/exercise as I find it to be a pretty surprising way to quickly improve squat form. Let me know if that little tip alone gets you squatting a bit better right away -- it isn't a cure, you still need to work on mobility to improve.

The Mobility W.O.D. (workout of the day) site is a good source for tips.
posted by This_Will_Be_Good at 9:28 AM on January 15, 2012 [4 favorites]

Try googling "Asian Squat".

Here's a tongue-in-cheek how-to video: How to Do the Asian Squat
posted by chazlarson at 9:30 AM on January 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Further yoga-specific reading.
posted by kcm at 9:34 AM on January 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Hmm. This kind of squat is second nature to me, so it's a little difficult to explain.

I can go from a stand to a squat in one fluid motion and no loss of balance. My feet are spread apart, about shoulder-spaced, and don't move. My back stays straight the entire time and my head looks forward. I feel my balance shift back just a teeny bit... but overall, the feeling is of standing, only I've folded up my legs.
posted by Wossname at 9:38 AM on January 15, 2012

The Third-World Squat from T-Nation.

I typed this while in a squat.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:43 AM on January 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'll add that if anything is physical hampering you, it's probably your ankles. I've squatted like this since childhood (and actually sit like this in my office chair most of the time) and notice I have a better degree of motion in my ankles than most people.
posted by Wossname at 9:44 AM on January 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

I highly suspect rtha's right. I like squatting. Some of my friends can't do it. They fall over just like you do. I've assumed it had something to do with body proportions and weight distribution.

Wikipedia claims I'm wrong though:
Most western adults cannot place their heels flat on the ground when squatting because of shortened Achilles tendons largely caused by habitually:

* sitting on chairs or seats
* wearing shoes with heels (especially high heels)
So, according to them, I can squat because I do it a lot.

One of their sources is Marcel Mauss (?!). The other one (in English) claims you can overcome this by doing Achilles tendon stretches.

(Repeating what heyforfour just said.)
posted by nangar at 9:45 AM on January 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

For me, this is a back-of-leg tightness issue (hamstrings, calves, Achilles.) It's possible you're also doing something positioning-wise to make it harder - how far apart are your feet? Where are your toes pointing? (Feet will almost certainly need to be shoulder-width or a bit wider, and toe angle varies somewhat depending on your own personal hips but will probably be pointed out a bit.)

Can you sumo squat? That is, if you spread your legs to half again shoulder width, can you get down there? I don't have super flexible ankles but at that point they're not under a ton of stress - if you can't do that, something else may be going on.
posted by restless_nomad at 9:47 AM on January 15, 2012

Just about anyone can do a full squat of the type you're describing... trust me - I used to be just like you! Couldn't squat all my life.

Then I started doing CrossFit. The coaches there taught me it was a matter of hip, kneee, and ankle flexibility. I'd never stretched those joints PROPERLY my entire life. It took time, but within a couple of months I can squat comfortable seated indefinitely.
posted by matty at 9:48 AM on January 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've never had any luck at all stretching my achilles tendons enough to get into the sort of squat you want, and believe me I have tried. But the one thing that does actually improve flexibility at all for me is some variant of this, from mobiltiy WOD. If your ankle tendons are not as genetically short as mine you might have more luck with this.
posted by ch1x0r at 9:49 AM on January 15, 2012

Work on hamstrings and hip flexors.
posted by Sternmeyer at 10:20 AM on January 15, 2012

Get down into a body squat as low as you can go. Legs a bit wider than shoulder width with your toes pointed outwards.
Push your elbows against your knees. Breath in and fill up your chest, then breath out and allow your stomach to push out (think full chest IN, Buddha belly OUT) Every time you do this you'll get lower and lower. I've done this with people that couldn't even get parallel and they were almost ass to grass after a minute. This is a great stretch and will help you a lot.

Put a yoga block under you heels if you need to. Put your back against a wall if you're afraid of falling back.
posted by zephyr_words at 10:25 AM on January 15, 2012

Another CrossFitter here. I might suggest you take a look at this squat therapy video by Chris Spealler (YouTube) out of Park City. Shows some nice progressions for getting you closer to where you want to be.
posted by dizzycow at 10:41 AM on January 15, 2012

I've always assumed the whole Asian squatting thing (or, rather, the white people can't squat thing) was an urban legend, but you are not the first person I've heard ask. Here's the motion I guide them through. It's very quick and often people see immediate results because the problem is not flexibility but rather an incorrect motion. So stand by your desk and try this right now.

First of all, you don't need all that much flexibility. Certainly if you can reach eight inches (!) past your toes, you are not insufficiently flexible. You need to be able to tuck down into a fetal position, heels to bottom and knees to chest, and you also need to bend your ankles about thirty degrees forward of the vertical. That's all!

Here's a two-step motion for getting into a squat.

0. Set your feet at shoulder's width, feet turned outward (about thirty degrees for me, YMMV) and toes lifted off the ground.

1. The first step is to lower your center of mass straight down while maintaining two invariants: your shins stay within a few degrees of the vertical (no ankle flexion yet) and your thighs point outward at the same angle as your feet. So that means you'll bend at the knees to push your bottom backward, and you'll bend at the waist to bring your chest forward. At the end, your thighs will be horizontal or below horizontal, and your torso will be close to horizontal. Your bottom will probably be a good foot behind your heels, but you will not fall backward. Your weight will be back on your heels, your back will be arched (C pointing backward) and there should be significant tension in your quadriceps.

2. The second step is to tuck your bottom in. Imagine yourself swinging from a bar piercing you from one armpit to the other: your quadriceps relax, your knees bend farther, your shins finally go forward of the vertical, and your torso becomes more vertical. A lot of people end up rounding their backs at this point and sort of hugging their knees and craning their necks forward a bit, but I expect with practice that will become unnecessary.

Did that work? Sometimes it doesn't, but most people can get pretty close to a full squat by this method.
posted by d. z. wang at 10:48 AM on January 15, 2012

I'm among those who can do this effortlessly and without thinking. My hamstrings and achilles tendons are as tight as you would expect for someone who sits at a desk all day. My hips, on the other hand, are incredibly flexible.

Don't think of it as dropping your butt behind your feet, but rather between your feet. In fact, don't think of it as dropping at all, but as opening. Your knees need to be wide apart. It's an entirely different posture than utkatasana (chair). You're not just trying to deepen the chair posture and bring your butt to your heels. I can get a little lower than you trying that, but it's a strain on my knees, my balance is iffy and my heels are no longer on the ground. And it's not a squat.

How is your baddha konasana? Working on this one and supta baddha konasana should help, even with lots of support if required.

I venture that it's hips because I can do baddha konasana like our pal Iyengar, but my hamstrings are tight enough that I can only go down about 45° in a seated forward wide angle bend, and oh, 17% in seated forward bend. But I can put my face on the floor in pigeon pose.
posted by looli at 10:52 AM on January 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was at the gym this morning getting some tips for back stretches to loosen me up and build up my core strength and the trainer suggested something that might be of use. Stand legs apart, feet pointing straight forward, arms crossed flat over chest, with a medicine ball (not a prob to substitute for this I think) between and behind your legs. Aim to keep feet flat and crouch until you are sat on the ball, then push back to to standing by driving through your feet. Keep your back stright, feet pointed forward. The aim of course is not to do the work with the dodgy back. There's a more advanced version with a bar held behind you but probably best to stick with the basic for now.
posted by biffa at 11:09 AM on January 15, 2012

There are two main differences between a crouch and a squat, I think. In a crouch, your heels are close together and your toes point directly ahead of you like you're walking. Your back is also generally bent so that the top of your head is farther forward than the end of your toes. In a squat, your feet are much wider apart (when I squat my heels are directly under the pointy, downward crests of my pelvic bone) and your toes point outwards at something like a 45% angle. Your back is also practically straight and your head should be basically in line with your pelvis.

Here are ways to work on pieces of the squat without having to be able to do the entire thing: squat with your back against the wall to get a feel for it without having to worry about toppling over. Lie on your back and do the Happy Baby stretch. Strengthen your ankles by standing on a stair and hanging your heels off it, and then flexing up and down. Stretch your calves and your achilles tendons like this.
posted by colfax at 11:12 AM on January 15, 2012

I figured out how to squat by using an exercise ball behind my back against a wall, like this.
posted by acridrabbit at 11:33 AM on January 15, 2012

I was in the same position that you are now, and I can tell you that the ability to squat fully is NOT genetic, it's just that in many Asian and other cultures, people squat since they are children and never stop. You can definitely see children of all races squatting easily with their heels on the ground.

Part of the problem is that in the West, we spend a huge amount of time sitting in chairs and this over time makes the hamstrings less flexible. We almost never squat fully after we are small children, so our hamstrings and calves don't ever get stretched out during every day activities. Stretchy hamstrings and calves will allow you to squat fully - it has taken me months, but I went from being in exactly your position - when I tried to squat my heels went up a significant distance - to being able to squat ass to grass, feet flat on the ground.

Some people will give you advice for stretches for your hamstrings and calves, but these will have limited effectiveness if you do it how most people think of stretching - 10-15 seconds for each stretch before a workout. This is how I stretched intensively when I wanted to get to a full squat, and I still do it to maintain the ability and work on other stretchiness:

1) I do a normal running workout, no stretching before or during unless I feel really tight, and by the end my muscles are warmed up fully
2) I do myofascial release with a foam roller and lacrosse balls on my calves and hamstrings to get any knots out. THIS HELPS SO MUCH BUT IT CAN BE VERY PAINFUL AT FIRST. This I think is the most important step if your muscles are tight and matted, like my calves are.
3) I do some common stretches - touching toes from a standing position, touching toes from a seated position (at first I couldn't touch my toes, so I used stretchy bands around my feet to pull myself farther), you can find lots of stuff on the internet
4) When I was actively trying to squat better, I would get down as deep as I could, and stay down for 4-7 minutes, as long as I could stand. At first I would use a chair or something to keep balance as well - holding a small weight like a medicine ball helps with balance too.

YOU CAN DO IT. And you'll feel so proud of yourself when you do!

Here are some links on myofascial release from my personal favorite fitness guru, KStarr of MobilityWOD:
posted by permiechickie at 12:51 PM on January 15, 2012

I forgot to add - on step 3, when I do stretches I hold each one for at least a minute.
posted by permiechickie at 12:52 PM on January 15, 2012

Anecdata, I have the exact same problem and I definitely feel it in my Achilles tendons, so I wasn't surprised to read that shortened Achilles tendons. I am a female in the US. I do sit a lot (for work and at home on the computer) , but don't wear heels frequently and am otherwise fairly flexible. I'm going to be looking up stretches recommended here and give them a go. I'm also interested for the exact same reason as the OP; I'm taking yoga and am hampered in doing some of the asanas by my inability to squat properly (with feet flat on the floor rather than with heels raised).

As another datapoint, I remember once I shockingly was able to squat. I was at the beach and wonder if the added traction, combined with the softness of the sand helped? I was never able to repeat the feat though, although I haven't been back to a sandy beach to try it again under similar circumstances.
posted by kaybdc at 1:23 PM on January 15, 2012

Can anyone suggest specific stretches (preferably with video or photo illustrations) for ankles and hamstrings/achilles tendons? Thanks so much for all the info you've provided so far!
posted by decathecting at 1:57 PM on January 15, 2012

I had this problem in yoga class too. My teacher had no specific exercises, just suggested more practice. I noticed most people in the class also couldn't get their heels all the way down. I do suspect that there is a large genetic component which determines how difficult/how much work it will be to achieve. (And no amount of practice is ever going to allow me to roll my tongue.)
posted by catatethebird at 2:55 PM on January 15, 2012

I concur with the idea that flexibility is a bit of a red herring. I can squat easily, but I can't touch my toes, I sit at a desk all the time, and my hips and hamstrings etc are screamingly tight. That said, and sorry OP as this is not helpful, I am unable to identify that magical quality that makes it happen.
posted by lulu68 at 3:43 PM on January 15, 2012

I was a young roller skater (quads, dude--those in-line fakers weren't even a thing yet) in the 80's. At the rink every time the doors opened, had the guy-style speed skates, and often beat the guys during the races. Had a dance routine, even. Anyway, the one thing I couldn't do was the squat where you got pushed around by another skater. And I tried, oh, how I tried. I was pretty limber and could bend over and place my hands flat on the floor, for example. But I just could NOT do the squat. It was ass over tea kettle every single time, no matter what I did. I finally decided that it just was one of those things that my body cannot do and cannot be made or taught to do. Too bad, 'cause I was a damn superstar otherwise.
posted by thebrokedown at 4:03 PM on January 15, 2012

nthing ankle mobility - many people focus on hips, hamstrings, knees, etc. when the primary impediment to squat depth is their ankles simply refusing to dorsiflex enough to keep their weight centred.

This is why squatting in heeled/soft soled shoes, or on a soft surface (like sand) allows seemingly perfect form, whereas when the heel is kept level with the forefoot you find yourself barely breaking parallel before toppling backwards. No amount of mobility at the hips will overcome the unbalancing effect of stiff ankles.
posted by Kandarp Von Bontee at 4:05 PM on January 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Jeez, that came across far more arrogant than intended. In my own mind, I was a superstar. In reality, not being able to squat without falling over has not hindered me in any way, but being a roller rink diva hasn't exactly afforded me any great opportunities, either, LOL. If you actually achieve being able to do this, I would love for you to follow up and tell us how.
posted by thebrokedown at 4:16 PM on January 15, 2012

@thebrokedown It's easier to squat, and sit back on the heels when speedskating or skiing. In those situations, you have a good bit of blade/wheels/ski behind your heel and that offers support.

In general, it's easier for Westerners to squat on a surface that slopes downward ahead of them.
posted by SillyShepherd at 6:17 PM on January 15, 2012

Wow, I always thought of my squat issue as being in the front of my ankle ie my ankle could not hinge any farther forward. It never occurred to me until just now that it was an Achilles issue. Makes perfect sense and it seems more readily solvable too!
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 7:15 PM on January 15, 2012

I think it's more Achilles tendon. Mrs A. is Chinese heritage and can squat quite happily, having done it since infancy. I've had to learn to do it in yoga and it has only been through practice that I've gotten close. So not genetic, more cultural.
posted by arcticseal at 1:16 AM on January 16, 2012

It's not unusual to see people squat wearing shoes with a light heel, or with a small shim under their heels. In your case (4 inches!?) you could probably just use a larger shim. If you're a DIY-er, you could easily make this out of wood.

I have no doubt that some stretching exercises could help you a little, but to some extent, this is absolutely genetic (I've never been able to spread my legs more than 90-degrees, even with months of religiously using a mechanical leg spreader in my younger years. Yet people can't wait to tell me that yoga/proper stretching will help me do splits just like them. It's fucking genetic.)
posted by coolguymichael at 9:51 AM on January 16, 2012

I am no expert, but personal experience has me agreeing with those saying this is not a permanent genetic thing or immovable cultural thing but most likely a flexibility issue that can be fixed over time with patience, but isn't necessarily easy/quick to fix. I agree about checking out MWOD and also Stumptuous' "lurn to squat good--EZY!" guide. When I got interested in heavy squatting last year, I couldn't do a proper body/air squat at first; my heels couldn't lie flat either. The resources I used (Starting Strength mostly, along with Stumptuous and select CrossFit blogs) all implied that this is a flexibility issue and that confusingly, the more diligently I squatted (or tried to at least--see box squats as mentioned above) the easier it'd get, and that was definitely my experience. It took a few months before it got super easy. I recommend one of the earliest MWODs, where you get as wide as you need to to be able to go down into a squat, and then sit like that...for a looooong time. I think 10 minutes. Yes that sounds extreme, and yes it is intense as fuck, and maybe you shouldn't do it without asking a doctor if you have iffy joint or groin pain issues or whatever, and you definitely should not overdo it (I only did it once a week and in total maybe only 3 or 4 times), but it helped my flexibility as well as some psychological thing with getting low and staying low and being ok, not panicked. Box squats sort of serve the same purpose in a more gradual way (and Krista at Stumptuous has a warm up suggestion using stairs).

One thing to try to get your body focused on keeping heels down once it's possible but still not habit is to think of it as lifting your toes up to set your body weight backwards.
posted by ifjuly at 11:09 AM on January 16, 2012

I think it's pretty easy to tell if it is genetic or not, ankle or not. Can you move your knee significantly forward of your toe at all? If you can't, do you feel it as a tightness in the heel or as a full stopping of the ankle? If you use some leverage, put a lot of weight into it on one leg, can you get your knee forward of your toes? If you feel it as a stopping of the ankle, and no amount of leverage helps significantly, good luck but you're probably not going to ever get that flexibility. Most people, even if inflexible, can show some sign of potential movement forward. If you truly have genetically or physically reduced dorsiflexion (say from spraining your ankles as a child and not healing them properly), you really won't get anything out of any of these stretches. I've been to enough lifting classes and watched enough videos to see that the vast majority of people don't have this problem in a real way. Ankle flexibility doesn't take weeks and weeks to achieve, and most people, even those that sit all the time, have plenty of it.

If you really do have an ankle problem that means you have to get really really wide to squat, take a tip from me and don't do it. Unless you like fucking up your hips.
posted by ch1x0r at 6:05 PM on January 16, 2012

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