You've been squatting for months, maybe even years — you should be a pro by now, right? Or, you know, it should at least feel comfortable to do squats at this point — and yet, the exercise remains your arch nemesis. It always seems like, no matter how many times you squat, you're still doing something wrong, or experiencing some sort of annoying, inexplicable back or knee pain. Seriously, why are squats so hard? And how can you befriend this butt workout once and for all?
ACE-certified personal trainer, Lisa Niren, who's also a head instructor and VP of programming and content at Studio, a boutique fitness app that offers audio-based workout classes, describes squatting as an important functional movement for the body, "and it is HARD," she tells Elite Daily over email. "As a fitness professional, years of teaching indoor cycling and rowing have made my hips so tight I spend more time preparing to squat — stretching and warming up — than actually working out and squatting," Niren explains.
Honestly, that may or may not be the most relatable statement I've ever heard. At least it's kind of comforting to know that experienced trainers like Niren struggle with squats, too — nothin' worse than riding the struggle bus alone, right?
But seriously, why is squatting so freaking hard? Well, obviously there are a lot of potential reasons, and they can vary from person to person, but according to Niren, it's partially because the exercise requires a certain amount of flexibility and mobility that many people tend to overlook. Having said that, this doesn't mean you have to be a super flexible person in order to do squats properly. Rather, Niren tells Elite Daily it's all about making sure you warm up before a squat workout — whatever you do, she says, never go in cold.
"My favorite way to warm up for a squat is what's called the cantilever squat, or holding onto something for balance and squatting as low as I can and sitting there," the trainer explains. Similarly, Niren tells me she also likes to do a couch stretch before a squat workout, which is sort of like doing a lunge, except your back leg is perched on the couch with your shin flush against the upper cushion and your toes pointed, while your front leg balances on the ground. According to Niren, this stretch is great for opening up the hip flexors, specifically.
If warm-ups aren't really your issue, Eliza Nelson, a certified personal trainer and orthopedic exercise specialist, says squats might also be difficult for a reason that, unfortunately, is somewhat out of your control: "Women tend to have a larger Q-angle — simply put, their hips sit wider than their knees in a standing position, so the knee is more susceptible to being unstable," Nelson tells Elite Daily over email. "One way to spot this instability is the knees caving inward during the squat."
To combat this caving of the knee, Nelson recommends isolating and strengthening your glutes, and activating them prior to squatting. "This can be done by side-stepping with a band above the knees (two to three sets of 10 to 15 steps [in] each direction) or banded side-lying clams," she explains.
Next, it's time to shift your focus to your breath: "Squatting is also hard because it requires you to breathe, relax, and sink lower into the movement with each breath," Niren tells me. "The key for me is to not overthink and really just breathe, move, and make sure I [stay] relaxed. The second I overthink it or stop breathing, I am unable to continue to progress."
When it comes to any type of workout, squats or otherwise, proper breathing is often a crucial detail, and it's something that definitely takes time and practice to master. The thing with squats, though, Niren points out, is that, even if you are breathing correctly, there's still a chance that the movement will feel pretty difficult. "By nature, the movement involves multiple muscles, which makes it so great, [but] often difficult to do without feeling pain in all the wrong places," the trainer explains. "Oftentimes, if you feel pain, it might be due to a lack of control."
This is why, when you're working one-on-one with a trainer, they'll usually assess your squats while you're doing them to see where you might be going wrong, Niren says. "I typically look at hand placement and grip on the barbell, which might not seem obvious to everyone. When you squat, you want to grip the bar as hard as possible and pull your elbows under the bar. More tension equates to a better feeling, movement, and less instability as you drop into the squat," she explains.
On the other hand, if you struggle with lower back pain, specifically, during your squats, Nelson says it's probably best to modify the movement. "[In this case] I don’t suggest loading the spine with a heavy barbell," she tells Elite Daily. "There is no need to force any movement, and it is important to be patient and progress slowly as strength is built and mobility is improved. If you just push through the pain, you may end up in a worse place than you started and your frustration will just increase."
Nelson suggests trying kettlebell squats instead, as she says this is a great way to build strength in your legs without weighing down and straining your spine so much. "Hold a moderate-weight kettlebell in both hands between your legs and sink your hips down and back, making sure that your weight is focused in your heels," she explains. "Go as low as you feel comfortable, and squeeze the glutes and drive through your heels as you come up."
The bottom line is, everyone is different, and your struggle with squats might look very different from mine, or anyone else's, for that matter. No matter where you're at, take it slow and remember that progress, no matter how small, is important.
"Listen to your body and don’t be afraid to ask for help from a professional. Oftentimes a gym will offer a free assessment or training session and these can be invaluable if done by a certified professional," Nelson says. "[This will] get you going and give you a foundation for proper form — it can really have a profound effect on moving you forward toward your goals."