The Secret to Mastering Squat Form & Keeping Your Back Straight

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As hard as you try, you always seem to end up with an unnatural curvature of the spine whenever you squat.

Then again, perhaps you have an excessive forward lean.

And of course, you know just how bad this is for your spinal health.

In this article I’ll explain why you can’t keep your back straight when you squat and how you can fix this.

There are various reasons why you can’t keep your back straight when you squat. This typically comes down to flexibility issues. This could be due to poor flexibility in your shoulders or ankles, as well as potentially tight hip flexors. With that being said, the aim is to maintain a neutral spine during squats, as opposed to a straight back. A neutral spine will ensure that your upper back has a slight curvature, while your lower back exhibits slight extension.

Maintain a “Neutral Spine” When You Squat

A Man Preparing to Barbell Back Squat

Firstly, it’s important to realise that you should maintain a neutral spine when you squat.

This isn’t actually the same as keeping your back straight.

What I mean by this is that a neutral spine will see you exhibit natural curvature and extension of the upper back and lower back respectively.

So, when squatting with proper form, it may look as though your back is completely straight, but it isn’t.

Obviously, you don’t want to excessively round your upper back or extend your lower back.

However, these slight discrepancies are naturally how your spine sits within the body.

If you can maintain a neutral spine when you squat, you should experience a number of benefits.

These include better breathing and bracing, reduced risk of injury, and this is also the most efficient and comfortable way to squat.

So, rather than trying to squat a completely straight back, you should allow your spine to naturally fall into its neutral position.

You Have Poor Shoulder Flexibility

Now, even though the upper back should be slightly curved, this can be made much worse if you have poor shoulder flexibility.

I would actually go as far to say that many people have poor shoulder flexibility.

Plus, this can typically be made worse based on your lifestyle and overall activity levels.

Basically, poor shoulder flexibility is often caused by poor posture.

We spend many hours a day sitting, whether at a desk or behind the wheel of a car.

We probably spend even more hours slouched forward at the shoulders, with a crick in the neck, while looking down at our phones.

And this is generally what leads to poor posture.

Matters are then made worse when you try to squat, but you can’t get your hands in the correct position due to your limited shoulder flexibility.

If this is the case then you’ll usually find that your upper back starts to round excessively.

The first fix is to actually move your hands further apart on the bar.

This should immediately release any tightness you feel in your shoulders and upper back, thus allowing you to maintain a more natural position.

You will also need to work on your shoulder flexibility.

Personally, I would recommend regular face pulls and band pull aparts.

In fact, you can perform these exercises before you squat, although there’s nothing wrong with starting your warm-up each training session with these exercises.

You’ll probably notice that both your flexibility and posture improve quite quickly.

You Have Tight Hip Flexors

The hip flexors may be a tiny group of muscles, but they can cause a lot of issues.

And this is true when it comes to squatting, exercise in general, or simply in your everyday life.

That being said, if you’re struggling to maintain a neutral spine when you squat, this could be down to tight hip flexors.

In fact, I’ll go as far as to say that this is the main problem for most people when they squat.

Obviously you’ll need to work on your hip and hip flexor flexibility, although there is something you can do in the meantime.

This will involve a slightly wider stance, so you’ll want to place your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.

You should also have your feet turned out to approximately 30 degrees, while ensuring that knees track your toes during the squat movement.

Now, initially this may feel fairly wide and probably quite uncomfortable.

However, this will improve as your hip flexor flexibility improves.

Plus, this also allows your hips to sink between your legs, as opposed to behind them.

You should also ensure that your core is braced tight to help you maintain a neutral spine.

You Have Poor Ankle Mobility

Your ankle mobility is certainly something that can affect your squatting technique.

And unfortunately, once more, poor ankle mobility is yet another issue that many people seem to suffer from.

In fact, a lack of ankle flexibility and mobility could be severely hampering you, and your ability to squat more weight.

You’ll typically find that when you have poor ankle mobility that you have difficulty in maintaining an upright torso.

So, your back will tend to automatically round, curve, or contort in a way that is quite dangerous for squats.

Plus, it’s likely that you have problems keeping your feet flat on the floor when you squat.

Once again, you’ll need to work on your ankle flexibility.

One of the best ways to do this is to regularly perform the Third World Squat, with support (holding onto something), and eventually without any support.

And in truth, not many of us specifically train our ankles, which is why this squatting problem is so widespread.

However, in the meantime you can put a couple of small weight plates on the floor and place your heels on top of these.

This automatically means that your ankles aren’t required to be as flexible, so you should be able to squat with a neutral spine.

You Have Long Legs

The final thing to consider is your body, and especially your legs.

Basically, lifters with short femurs (thigh-bone) typically squat much better than their longer-legged counterparts.

In fact, many people may not have the right body type to be squatting efficiently.

This is also why there is no ONE squat technique that suits everyone.

So, as an example, while some people may be proficient at ass-to-grass squats, others will never be able to go past parallel.

However, when it comes to squatting with long legs, you’re going to face certain issues, and keeping your back straight (neutral spine) is going to prove very difficult.

In fact, most long-legged squatters have extreme difficulty in not excessively leaning forward.

So, in effect, their body almost takes on a hip-hinge, deadlift-type stance as they lower themselves into the squat.

And this usually means that you’ll feel squats more in certain muscle groups, such as your hamstrings.

Unfortunately, if you have a short torso to add to your long legs, then you’ll always have some type of forward lean when you squat.

This is simply how your body has been built to squat.

You can of course make your forward lean less obvious by working on some of the cues I’ve already mentioned.

So, increasing flexibility in your shoulders, ankles, and hip flexors should help you to straighten up slightly.

I would also suggest that if you have excessive forward lean during squats that your posterior chain muscles are fairly weak.

So, this could be a case of working on your upper and lower back, glutes and hamstring strength first, and then fixing your squat afterwards.

Final Thoughts

So, as you can see, the main reason you can’t keep your back straight when you squat is due to flexibility issues.

This could be poor flexibility in the shoulders, ankles, hips, as well as having tight hip flexors.

That being said, you never want a completely straight back when you squat, and you should maintain a neutral spine.

In other words, your back naturally has curvatures, which should be maintained while squatting.

The final thing to consider is that it is generally much harder for someone to squat when they have long legs.

In fact, this usually leads to squatting with a forward lean, fairly reminiscent of a deadlift/hip-hinge stance.

However, by working on these various flexibility issues you can soon squat with a perfectly neutral spine.

Next, make sure you check out my article about how to use the squat rack – do you face in or face out?

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