I have had lots of thoughts going through my head of late, especially with all the noise out there in the “fitness” world. I recently had a potential member come to our facility to inquire about our training and it inspired me to write about the following.

This woman had been training at another facility that is into the whole HIIT(High Intensity Interval Training) thing. As we were getting into our initial consultation, she said that she hated squats and that she didn’t want to do them. I asked her why and she said she hated squats because she had lots of difficulty doing them. She said her current trainer would have her just do them anyway because she “needed to squat”. After I looked at her technique it was clear to me why she hated squats so much: they looked painful, and were mechanically a mess. As my friend Dan John would say, “Squatting isn’t causing that pain, whatever you’re doing is causing that pain.” Meaning she wasn’t squatting, she was moving up and down with disregard for proper movement. This statement is not a judgement on this woman, she was just doing what her trainer told her. My issue is that I see this kind of thing happen all the time. She kept using the word ‘scale’, as in her trainer would ‘scale’ the squats for her and have her do different variations of the movement so she could complete the workout with a modified squat. Though squatting to a high box caused less pain, squatting was doing nothing to improve her life. It was just a repetitive motion that increased her heart rate. If increased heart rate is the goal that’s fine, but there are a ton of other things she could be doing to have that same effect without pain. Why was nothing being done to fix her squat? I see this more and more with different gyms lately. They program fun and interesting workouts that change every day, but there is no instruction, no push towards moving better and feeling better while moving. The term ‘functional training’ is pushed around a lot, but the actual movements being done are far from functional.

So what did her squat look like? Kind of like the drawing below: her hips were high, her body was dumped forward, and when she tried to sit back or go deeper she literally stumbled backwards. Again, this is not a judgement on her, because she had not received instruction on how to squat properly.

Squatting is not bad for your knees

This amazing drawing is copyrighted. Please do not re-use without paying a royalty…

Upon further analysis, a big reason this position was happening in her body was her extremely tight calves. When I mentioned it to her, the response was, “I don’t think that’s the problem. My calves don’t bother me at all when I squat, just my knees.” At this point I was getting a little frustrated but my calm response was, “Usually the pain is a symptom of something else not moving well and it will cause pain or irritation at a different location.” Many times knee stuff with squatting can be a function of lower leg issues. Sure there are ton of other things to look at but I always start with the most common culprit first. The other clue was she told me she wears high heels every day (I could write a whole blog post on the issues that come from wearing high heels).


After screening her squat, I knew what was going on, but in order to show her, I chose to do a basic screen to highlight one of the most noticeable issues.  Insert the ankle mobility screen. This is a quick and easy screen I used to confirm my initial thoughts. I had her drop to one knee and lunge her leading knee forward. The goal is to keep her foot planted on the ground and see if the knee can move forward past her toes. Usually 3-4″ past the toes is considered sufficient ankle mobility.  An important part of this screen is to make sure the heel does not come off the ground, the foot does not flatten on the ground (AKA losing the arch), or that the hip does not rotate to compensate. There are a few  other things to look for as well, but these are the key components. Below are pictures of this screen in action. The woman had an ankle mobility nearly identical to the screen on the right.

ideal An

Ideal ankle mobility… Yes you knees can pass your toes in a squat.

Less than Ideal ankle mobility. This will make squatting very difficult.

Less than Ideal ankle mobility. This will make squatting very difficult.

How far away from the symptom is the source?

One of the things we do here at Evolution Fitness is try to build a base of healthy movement first rather than build a ton of fitness on a mess of dysfunction.  In the example above, knee issues and poor squat form started in the calf and ankles. Many times though we see a similar scenario with a much different symptom. It isn’t uncommon to see the same locked up calf and ankle causing a symptom such as an aggravated hip or lower back issue. Rarely do I focus on stretching or attacking the symptom, I look instead to determine the cause and work at the source of the problem.

Squatting with correct form takes a good amount of ankle mobility. There is a huge myth that the shins/lower leg should stay straight up and down; that is not accurate or good advice. Unfortunately I hear many experienced trainers and numerous doctors promote this bogus philosophy. The knees can and will move forward and the ankles need to be mobile enough to do so. Without mobile ankles each joint up the chain will have to compensate. If the ankles lack mobility, the knees, which are a very stable joint, will tend to move more than they should which can cause pain and irritation in the knees. The next joint up, the hip many times will become chronically tight or “locked up”. I hear people all the time tell me how they can’t seem to get their hips loose enough no matter how much they stretch them. Vary rarely have they every addressed the calves and ankles. This is why screening movement with tools such as the Functional Movement Screen (FMS) are very important to understand what is going on with each client.
What a squat should look like

What a squat should look like

Scaling vs. Correctives

I am all for scaling training sessions for those that need to have modified training, but in situations like the one I described above, I would prefer that clients actually  work on the issue that is causing the problem rather than squatting to a box like the woman from my consultation. This time would be better used doing self-myofascial release of the lower leg and ankle mobility drills. By focusing on this kind of work we can help improve function. With all of the buzz on functional training nowadays rarely do I see function being addressed by the newest fad-gyms popping up on every corner. If someone can’t squat correctly, having them squat incorrectly for hundreds of reps isn’t functional, it is just over-priced mindless exercise. The answer lies in focusing on correcting the movement so it can be trained optimally.

Looking for a smarter way to train?

If you are looking for a smarter approach to training I recommend learning what movement issues you need to address first before beginning to build a base of strength and conditioning. If you are interested in a movement screen to help you identify possible imbalances, or just want to hear more about what we do, feel free to give us a call and at 520-445-6800 or email us!  If you are looking for mindless and random exercise I am sure you can find that on every corner.