The air squat is a building block for all other athletic movements, and time spent mastering this fundamental skill is rewarded. Squat Therapy can help you improve: It’s an extremely powerful tool to identify errors and refine the mechanics of the squat.

Psychological Challenges

It’s important that athletes realize they might have to take one step back to move 10 steps forward. Don’t let ego get in the way.

“Stick to the basics and when you feel you’ve mastered them it’s time to start all over again, begin anew—again with the basics—this time paying closer attention,” CrossFit Founder Greg Glassman said.

Points of Performance

As in all aspects of CrossFit, we can scale Squat Therapy depending on the physical capacity of the athlete. It is not a crime to scale. That said, it requires effort to improve, change patterns and maintain the movement’s points of performance during squat therapy.

The points of performance are as follows:

  • The hips initiate the squat by moving back and down.
  • The spine remains neutral with the lumbar curve maintained.
  • The knees track in line with the toes.
  • The hips descend until their crease is below the top of the knees at the bottom.
  • The heels stay down throughout the movement.

Tips for Coaches

Have the athlete face the wall, leaving enough distance that he or she can squat to full depth. A barbell in a rack can also be used (see headline photo above).

In extreme cases, use a medicine ball or plates as a target or to provide support in case the athlete loses control at the bottom of the squat. Ideally, the target should challenge the athlete to squat to a depth where the hip crease is below the top of the knee. Initially, we’re pushing for full range of motion, and the upright torso position might not be achieved at first. In some cases, modifications might be needed for orthopedic conditions (for example, worn-out cartilage in the hip joint) or weakness.

The athlete should extend both arms above the head (with elbows locked and hands raised). Doing so helps switch on the spinal erectors, which are crucial in maintaining an upright torso with a neutral spine. Throughout the movement, the athlete should work to avoid touching the wall with the hands.

The athlete should be instructed to brace the core by pulling the belly button to the spine. He or she should then send the hips back and down while pushing the ground apart with the feet. The knees track over the toes, and the heels stay rooted to the ground the whole time.

Slow movement is better to start: The athlete should take two or three seconds to descend and ascend, which will allow him or her to focus on and maintain the points of performance. Rushing might be a sign the athlete is masking certain faults. Slower speeds also allow athletes to develop kinesthetic awareness throughout the range of motion.

Any difficulty or deviation from the points of performance indicates the athlete needs to practice control in the portion of the squat where the errors appeared.

This set-up and procedure prepare the athlete for success by ensuring maximum contribution from the posterior musculature (glutes and hamstrings, aka “the squat muscles”). The controlled pace will allow the athlete to demonstrate proper execution while staying balanced, and it will allow coaches to pause the movement if needed to make corrections.

Four points are critical for the coach. Attention to these aspects will fix most faults in the air squat, especially the “immature squat” and the “butt wink” (aka, posterior pelvic tilt).

  1. The hips must move back and down. This allows for greater contribution from the posterior chain. Many athletes initiate the squat by sending the knees forward, which creates a chain of errors.
  2. The hands must stay raised and the elbows must be locked. As noted above, this will ensure the spine stays neutral and the torso remains as vertical as possible. You might need to make adjustments to the athlete’s distance from the wall to create the best squat.
  3. The athlete must push the ground apart with the feet. Doing so will create external rotation of the femur, which allows the hip joint to open up so the hip crease can drop below the knees to achieve proper depth. External rotation of the femur also allows the knees to track in line with the toes, which creates safety because the knees are a hinge joint. Finally, this external rotation switches on the gluteus medius, an external rotator of the hip joint, which is another powerful but often-underused squat muscle.
  4. The athlete must maintain control throughout the range of motion. Coaches should guard against the “plop,” which occurs when an athlete loses muscle tension and drops to the target. The plop might be accompanied by a loss of neutral spine, but multiple errors are common. Essentially, the athlete does not have the awareness and strength to maintain proper mechanics in that range of motion. Slow, controlled movement develops this capacity.

Tips for Athletes

Do an honest self-assessment: If your air squat is a 5 or less on a scale of 10, use Squat Therapy as a warm-up to develop both kinesthetic awareness and strength when holding positions.

If flexibility is your kryptonite, stretching has benefits—but the movement itself is a phenomenal stretching exercise.

To start, try 3 sets of 10 reps as a warm-up protocol before training. Once your air squat has progressed to an 8 or above, use Squat Therapy once a week as a tuneup.

The goal is performing an air squat with the toes touching the wall while showing control and demonstrating all points of performance, though anthropometrics will prevent some athletes from reaching this goal. Nevertheless, squatting closer and closer to the wall will bring increased success in the front squat and overhead squat, as well as in squatting movements such as thrusters and wall-ball shots.