A forward-leaning squat might help you lift more weight, but it also sets you up for small quads and other issues. Here are six solutions.
Excessive forward lean is a common squat error. It represents either a technique fault or a mismatch between a lifter’s body proportions and the chosen squat variation.
Leaning forward during the back squat may help some lifters to move more weight, but too much forward lean deemphasizes the quads and might compromise the low back and hips of at-risk lifters. (5,7) Sure, if your goal is to squat with max load, a bit more forward inclination might be a great option. But if you want big quads and robust knees, straightening up your squat is worth the learning curve.
Also, consider this: During a failed squat, which direction do barbell and body invariably fall? Forward. Too much forward lean sets the stage for needlessly failed reps.
Some lifters blame their anatomy for their forward-leaning squat. Yes, individual anthropometrics undoubtedly influence movement patterns, but there’s always something that lifters with “long femurs” can do to improve their squat.
If you’re trying to straighten up your forward lean – or if you simply want to optimize your squat form – here are six solutions:
“I’m not supposed to let my knees go past my toes when I squat!” If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that, I’d take you all out to dinner. (Entrees only. No appetizers and no desserts. We’re not dating.)
A generation of trainers and physical therapists instructed lifters to avoid knees-over-toes during the squat. Lifters were taught to sit their hips back into the squat – way back. Although this technique might decrease compressive loading at part of the knee joint and might even allow some lifters to handle more weight if performed within a powerlifting-style squat), sitting back into the squat increases hip flexion and increases the forward pitch of the torso.
Sitting back is a surefire way to off-load the quads. Not good if you’re trying to put some meat on your drumsticks. In fact, sitting back into the squat is a compensation commonly seen on the previously injured limb of athletes who’ve had ACL reconstructions. (7) These athletes struggle to rebuild their quads, setting them up for higher re-injury risk.
The fix is based on simple biomechanics. By driving the knees forward, the backward movement of the hips is minimized. Less hip flexion and less trunk lean occur, resulting in a more upright squat.
If you learned to avoid the knees-over-toes movement, revamping your squat might be challenging. An effective way to break old movement habits and learn new ones is through the use of external focus of attention.
The name of this drill (“knee-break squat”) is a bit tongue-in-cheek. It’s not going to destroy your knees.
Set up cones or vertical foam rollers in front of your feet. Our goal is to push through the cones. Load this exercise sub-maximally (40-60% 1RM). Perform 2-4 sets of 10-12 reps near the beginning of your workout.
One biomechanics study showed that experienced lifters were able to perform powerlifting-style squats (sitting back, knees behind toes) while maintaining relatively upright torso angles. (8)
This counterintuitive finding is even more interesting when considering that these lifters maintained an average knee moment similar to the traditional (knees-over-toes) squat form. The knee “moment” is the demand on the quads. Simply put, these lifters trained their quads similarly with a powerlifting style squat and a traditional squat. These findings stand in opposition to previous research showing reduced knee moments with a powerlifting-style squat. (5)
How did those experienced lifters accomplish this feat? The study authors attributed the ability to stay upright (while heavily loading the quads) to a wider stance width and hip movement in all three planes of motion. (8)
To achieve this squat style, you may need to modify your stance. However, like your elementary school teacher said, you’re one of a kind. No two bodies are identical, so no squat stance is universally superior.
To determine your unique squat stance width and foot orientation, some coaches advocate a “scour test,” but it provides very little value for identifying squat stance. I don’t recommend it. Instead, try the deep squat shuffle.
A good squat stance assessment must be specific to the squat. Get on your feet, get a loaded barbell on your back (20-30%), and go through this procedure:
- Start with your heels narrower than shoulder-width, toes straight ahead.
- Squat to depth. It’s helpful to hover just above a box or medicine ball to indicate depth, but maintain your brace and don’t sit.
- Assess these two things:
- Tolerance. While the bottom of the squat needn’t be comfy, per se, it should not be painful.
- Stability. Do you feel strong, or do you feel like you’ll tip forward?
- Shuffle your feet into external rotation by pivoting the front of your feet outward 15-30 degrees.
- Re-assess tolerance and stability.
- Shuffle again, this time into a wider stance by pivoting the heels outward. Feet should now point straight ahead.
- Repeat this process – shuffle forefeet, assess, shuffle heels, assess – three or four times.
- The best stance for your unique anatomy is the combination of out-toe angle and stance width you perceive to be most tolerable and stable.
If no combinations are acceptable, you might lack hip mobility. Once again, the best solutions are specific to the squat. Try this exercise popularized by Dan John:
Grab a kettlebell by the horns or hold a dumbbell vertically. With a shoulder-width stance, squat down. Yes, down, not back. Focus on getting between your knees. Use your elbows to pry your knees further outward in the bottom position while maintaining flat feet on the floor. Mobilize for 20-30 seconds. Repeat 3-4 times daily.
If you maintain an upright torso during work-up sets but tend to tip forward when the weight gets heavy or during the last few reps of a hard set, this solution is for you: change the resistance profile using bands.
There are two primary strength-related reasons a lifter leans forward at the bottom of the squat. First, a lifter with weak hip and back extensor strength might lean forward in an attempt to give the impression they’ve achieved depth. (2) Nope, these lifters haven’t earned their depth.
The second reason, more common among intermediate-to-advanced lifters, is weak quads relative to glutes. These lifters hit depth cleanly and successfully initiate the concentric phase, only to tip forward shortly thereafter.
Here’s why: The squat’s sticking point or weakest point occurs just above parallel. Although most lifters pitch forward a bit as they approach and move through the sticking point, lifters with weak quads do so excessively. (6) Forward lean shifts the weight closer to the knee joint. This means weak quads are spared, and more load is borne by the lifter’s hip extensors (glutes, etc.).
The long-term solution for this issue is to get stronger. While other exercises can certainly help, the most specific exercise to improve squat strength is – drum roll please – the squat.
Make gains in the squat with cleaner technique using bands. Bands create variable resistance through the range of motion. This variable resistance should help you to avoid forward lean in the bottom position. Banded techniques work well with back squats, front squats, and the Safety-Squat Bar.
Banded squats are set up with bands running from low pegs up to the barbell. Tension in the bands increases the resistance in the top position. Since increased load is experienced during banded squats, the barbell weight should be reduced by the band’s average resistance throughout the range of motion.
If you don’t have band pegs on your squat rack, try this setup I got from Jason Brown. I’m using two pairs of heavy dumbbells to anchor the bands in the video.
Reverse-band squats are set up with bands running from high pegs (or another suitable anchor) down to the bar. Tension in the bands reduces the resistance in the bottom position of the squat, thereby maintaining more of the load on the quads.
Since reverse-band squats take load away at the bottom, load this variation heavier. You should be able to increase the weight on the bar by the average resistance off-loaded by the bands.
To squat with a more upright torso, leave the back squat on the back burner for a while. Unless you’re a competitive powerlifter, you’re not obligated to back squat. Compared to the back squat, any squat variation that places the load further forward will promote a more upright trunk position.
Here’s why: To maintain balance, some forward lean of the trunk is necessary to counteract the backward movement of the hip girdle. Forward (anterior) placement of the load helps to counteract the mass of the hip girdle, which, in turn, requires less forward lean. Anteriorly-loaded squats are especially helpful for lifters with long femurs.
Front squats and Safety-Bar squats should come to mind first. These variations can be loaded nearly as heavy as traditional back squats. To spice things up, also consider the versatile goblet squat and the badass Zercher squat, taught here by Christian Thibaudeau:
Pick your favorite and build your next training block around it.
Heels-elevated squats allow us to squat with more upright torsos. It’s true that squatting with a wedge under the heel requires less ankle dorsiflexion and may be a great option for those with stiff ankles; however, lifters with full ROM can also benefit from the setup.
Charlton and colleagues showed that a small 2.5 cm (about an inch) wedge under the heels of high-bar back squatters significantly reduced trunk forward flexion and forward tilt of the pelvis. (3) Heels-elevated squats pitch the shins forward, which allows the trunk to stay more upright. This results in a more quadriceps-biased squat. (1) Regularly squatting with heel elevations 1-inch (and greater) may promote accelerated quadriceps development.
High-bar back squats, front squats, goblet squats, and safety-squats work well for this. While you’re getting used to it, drop your typical training load by 20-30% and gradually build back up. Purpose-built wedges are available to elevate your heels. Try these (on Amazon).
Or, if you wear stiff-soled shoes, simply squat with your heels on weight plates. A heel elevation of 1 to 3 inches should be enough to promote an upright trunk without completely bastardizing the squat.
Still feeling like you might faceplant? Assuming you’re strong enough to handle the weight on the bar and you have adequate ankle mobility, poor control is the most likely culprit. (2)
Reactive Neuromuscular Training (RNT) exercises introduce a light targeted load in the direction of the dysfunction to address motor control deficits. (4) A lifter who leans forward in the squat should perform RNT with a light load pulling the trunk further forward. This may seem counterintuitive, but it works.
Set up the RNT exercise by anchoring light bands below the J-hooks on the squat rack. Loop one around each end of the barbell. Due to the added resistance, start by dropping the weight of your squat by 50-60%. Gradually, you may progress closer to your working weight with the RNT technique. For best results, do 2-4 sets of 10-12 reps near the beginning of your workout.
- Barrack AJ et al. The relative orientation of the trunk and tibia can be used to estimate the demands on the hip and knee extensors during the barbell back squat. Int J Sports Sci Coach. 16(4), 2021.
- Bishop C & Turner A. Integrated approach to correcting the high-bar back squat from “excessive forward leaning”. Strength Cond J. 39(6), 2017.
- Charlton JM et al. The effects of a heel wedge on hip, pelvis and trunk biomechanics during squatting in resistance trained individuals. J Strength Cond Res. 2017 Jun;31(6):1678-1687.
- Cook G. Movement: Functional Movement Systems: Screening, Assessment, and Corrective Strategies On Target Publications. J Can Chiropr Assoc. 2012 Dec;56(4):316…
- Fry AC et al. **Effect of knee position on hip and knee torques during the barbell squat.**J Strength Cond Res. 2003 Nov;17(4):629-33.
- Larsen S et al. New insights about the sticking region in back squats: an analysis of kinematics, kinetics, and myoelectric activity. Front Sports Act Living. 2021;3:691459.
- Salem GJ et al. Bilateral kinematic and kinetic analysis of the squat exercise after anterior cruciate ligament reconstruction. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2003 Aug;84(8):1211-6.
- Swinton PA et al. A biomechanical comparison of the traditional squat, powerlifting squat, and box squat. J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Jul;26(7):1805-16.
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