The cause of tipping forward in squats is counterintuitive to most of us, which is why our solutions often fail completely.
It’s natural to think that because we’re leaning over at the hip, we need to strengthen the hips to lift the chest.
The posterior chain does
extend the hip, which moves the trunk from a bent over to standing position… contributing to the confusion.
But in a squat, the cause of tipping is a relative lack of leg strength, not hip strength.
In order to stay upright
, the leg needs to be strong enough to open the knee joint from a very small angle against the full resistance of the weight. In other words, to be able to extend the leg without allowing the rest of the body and weight above it to change positions.
When the legs are weak relative to the hips, the body naturally opens the knees to a larger and less mechanically disadvantaged angle without moving the weight commensurately. This is done by moving the hips up more than the bar—and this is what creates the forward lean.
The body is shifting some of the work from the weaker knee to the stronger hip—we’re moved into a position in which the knees are at a stronger angle and therefore require less
leg strength to continue extending, and the length of the moment arm at the hip is increased, requiring more
hip strength to bring the trunk upright.
When we start emphasizing posterior chain strength to solve the problem, we actually make it worse by increasing the disparity between leg and hip strength.
The solution is to strengthen the legs. Don’t worry about determining which muscles and how to address each one directly—just train the movement with the right posture.
The simplest way to start is by adding slow eccentrics to your squats. You’ll find it much easier to maintain the proper position on the way down than up, and by slowing the motion to 3-6 seconds, you’ll be able to emphasize the effect, especially through the mid to lower range of motion where the problem is greatest.
If you have a good coach or training partner to help, you can also have them spot your squats
to provide just enough assistance to allow you to maintain perfect posture as you stand. This means you can keep your weights up while also using slow eccentrics.
The next tool is parallel squats
or segment squats
. These are more difficult to do well, and to be effective, you have to be in the correct position, so be diligent and don’t waste your own time with lazy reps that just reinforce the problem.
For parallel squats, sit to parallel, ensuring perfect position and balance, ideally pause there for 2-3 seconds
, then stand again.
For segment squats, squat again to parallel and pause for 2-3 seconds, but then sit into the bottom of the squat and recover with the best posture you can.
Especially in back squats, limit the bounce
in the bottom to avoid any tipping from that motion itself unrelated to postural strength. Pause squats
are even better as long as you’re using weights that allow you to stand with the proper position.
You’ll very likely need to reduce your squat weights temporarily to get through an initial phase of rebuilding this postural strength. If you start to panic, just remember that strength is only valuable in the positions and motions we need for our chosen application—in other words, staying heavy with the same problematic posture isn’t going to some day magically make your snatch and clean & jerk shoot up. Better to stake a small step back now then be stuck forever.
You can also continue to squat heavy with suboptimal posture during this period—just keep the volume of those squats very limited. For example, one of three weekly squat sessions, and only the top sets with very low reps. Ensure that your quality reps are dramatically overwhelming the suboptimal ones.
Finally, remember that all of the training you do will contribute to or detract from this goal. If you pull with high hips
, or allow a forward lean
into that position as you pull, you’re driving this car with one foot on the brake.
Use the same basic approach to improving your pulling posture
, and add pulls from a riser
and floating pulls
to further increase the productivity.
A Final Note
The other primary possible cause of a forward lean in the squat is a weak trunk that collapses forward. That is, the upper back rounds forward because it’s not strong enough to maintain position under the load. That moves the load farther forward, progressively increasing the moment at each spinal joint and the hip. The more the trunk collapses, the more difficult it gets to keep the rest of it upright, in the same way that it’s increasingly harder to hold up a stick with a weight on the end the farther you tip it from vertical.
It can get confusing to distinguish these causes because often when the underlying issue is leg strength as discussed above, the back will also round as the trunk leans forward and the position becomes more difficult.
And of course, an athlete can have both problems contributing to the forward lean.
The easy way to figure out the original source is the timing. If the back begins to round forward before the hips move back and up, then a lack of trunk strength or adequate bracing is to blame, at least in part.
If the hips move up and back before the athlete loses the original extension of the back, the primary problem is leg strength.
Two last possibilities to consider: First, if the knees move inward significantly as you stand, it can cause the hips to move back and the chest to drop. Depending on the severity, this can often be solved with all the previous work. You can work on it more directly by including direct adductor strength work (that’s not a typo—adductor).
Failing to control the bounce in the bottom of a squat can also make tipping forward likely, so pay attention to how you’re doing it. While you work on fixing this problem, it’s a good idea to minimize bouncing in your squats—focus on maintaining maximal trunk bracing and tension throughout the legs.