What’s Wrong With My Squats?

Hi Casey! count me as another woman who you inspired to start lifting!!!

My question is about squats. I’m doing Stronglifts 5×5 and I am at a point where I am benching 95 lbs (I am proud!!) but squatting only 115 lbs and STRUGGLING through that amount of weight. I am 5’8″ and 185 lbs and I just today I deadlifted my bodyweight for the first time but I am so frustrated by my squatting weakness. I am wondering if I have a weird body type, or weird posture that has resulted in me not wanting to sit back into a squat for fear of tipping over backward.

While typing this I realize that I should post a form check video or suck it up and get a trainer…. But I trust you more than a trainer!!

Should I just calm down and not put so much pressure on myself to improve all my lifts at the same rate? Or, possible I have exhausted my noob gains and this is just “what lifting is like”….??

Long story short, if you have any squatting mantras or words of wisdom I would love to hear them.

Thank you for writing the column, I love it so much!


Your noob gains are not over yet!

I need to say to you all—please stop making “something is wrong with me” the first guess to a problem you’re having. The world is so vast and full of people who have done exactly what you’ve done before, and the odds that you are anything but a normal human having normal human difficulties is so vanishingly small. Not everything that goes wrong in your life is a meaningful statement about you; a lot of times it’s a relatively mundane statement about, like, human existence.

Women are conditioned blame themselves all the time, because everyone blames us—literally us, and not difficult scenarios—at every opportunity. I’m here to say to you—no. The path for anything is not straight and you will not always get it right the first time. Expect difficulties, expect setbacks, expect to have to look at everything with clear eyes and realize it is both possible for things to not be going smoothly *and* for that to not reflect on you as a person.  

Not to scare anyone, but of my favorite health aphorisms goes something like, “Fitness is not never getting injured, it’s learning to deal with and manage your injuries.” Obviously, you’re not injured. But it’s such an important frame of consideration: expecting, essentially, perfection will lead you to failure more rapidly and permanently than the perceived “failure” of doing something fixable wrong. Everything is a spectrum. You’d have a hard time finding an elite athlete in any sport who has never, ever been injured, who does not train around an injury, who carefully plans their training and peaking schedule around pushing themselves to the max their injured parts can handle without making them worse.

Now that we’ve established that you are not the problem—squats are difficult, mechanically. They are a little bit more subtle than benching or deadlifting, and you are more likely to have been restricted in that movement pattern because Western societal decorum doesn’t look kindly on our body’s natural squatting movement; because we sit a lot; and, I suspect, because of pants. You can’t do anything more than quarter-squat in any presentable pant, especially jeans (now that you know what a proper full squat is, try it; it’s impossible). In our squatting difficulties, I blame pants.

As far as noob gains, as long as you are eating and resting enough, you should expect to be able to add weight to the bar consistently every session at LEAST until you get to a bodyweight-equivalent squat, and maybe even 1.5x bodyweight. If it’s not happening, your form might be the problem. Even if you are progressing weight, you should check your form anyway to be sure you’re either squatting deep enough or not doing anything that might set you back long-term.

Per the above “injury” tirade, you’re not going to like this advice, but it’s necessary (and per the rest of your letter, you already know you have to do it). First, you have to deload. Take weight off the bar so you can learn to squat correctly. I know this is not fun and can be discouraging, but look: a 500lb one-eighth-depth squat is worthless, for your purposes. A 200lb quarter squat is worthless. A 95lb full-depth squat—now we are getting somewhere. There is more value to doing something “easier” the hard and correct way than doing something “hard” the easy and incorrect way, if that makes sense.

Second, you do need some help accurately diagnosing your problem. Post a form check, or even send me a form video. You might even be surprised to see that you can tell what the actual problem is if you make a video just to see for yourself from a different perspective. Fear of sitting back could come from a number of different things and have a number of different solutions. Box squats—putting a stool or box behind you to squat onto to practice sitting your weight back a bit more—are one possible fix. Another may be your stance—maybe your feet are too close together or your knees are not tracking out over your toes. Maybe you are not leaning forward enough to keep the bar over mid-foot and are actually sitting *too* far back. A flexibility issue is possible; a specific weakness or muscle activation issue is possible. It’s hard to say without more info.

I know it feels super conspicuous and uncomfortable to be in a gym setting up a camera to film yourself. Believe me, I know. I still feel twinges of “god everyone here must think I’m a horrible narcissist” (like, sure, they are not wrong, probably, but do I have to be so obvious about it). But filming your lifts with, say, an iPhone does not have to have anything to do with self-obsession—it’s a fairly new technical tool that has quite literally democratized lifting in a huge way. Time was you had to either have an actual film camera, or ask an idling bro to watch you squat and hope to God he didn’t give you bad advice. Now anyone with a free smartphone can see their own self and spot obvious flaws, or share the video with people who will (I promise) not judge you personally because they do this very thing themselves, and you can get a wider array of helpful feedback. It is embarrassing, but please work against these feelings if you have them; I swear the payoff is worth it.

Got a question for A Swole Woman? Email swole@thehairpin.com. You can also follow her on Instagram or Facebook.

Image: Hamza Butt