Squat Warmups; Protecting The Hips, Knees, and Low Back

As a powerlifter it's extremely important for me to warm up before performing any big lift. But, it's not just important for me and the other powerlifters out there, it's important for everyone. Warming up is a vital piece of any good weight lifting program if you want to avoid injury. It's important to turn on the muscles you want to use and to "grease the groove," if you will, of whatever movements you want to perform in your exercise.

In a weighted squat your knees, hips, and low back are working hard to complete the movement, and this is especially true if you're consistently squatting underneath near maximal weight... which is what powerlifters do! So, a proper squat warm up will do all of the following:

1. "Turn on" the muscles around the knees, hips, and low back. This means exercising the calves, hamstrings, quads, and glutes.
2. "Grease the groove" of the squatting movement in a low intensity environment, which just means performing a few assisted or low intensity squat variations.
3. Static stretch any tight muscles that may inhibit the ability to squat properly. This will be done on a more personal basis depending on where you're tight.

So, the warm up I'm going to show you will do all of those things and will consist of the following:

1. Static hip flexor stretch
2. Step ups
3. Bridges
4. "VMO" squats
5. Stability ball squats

With the exception of any static stretching you do, you want to complete at least 10 reps of every exercise. Ideally, it will be closer to 12-20 reps of each. You'll want to pick 2-4 different exercises to perform, and you'll perform each of them 1-3 times. Here is a suggested set/rep scheme if you're unsure of where to start: 3 exercises, 15 reps each, 1 time through. And, lastly, you want to perform any static stretching before the dynamic exercises.

Hip Flexor Stretch

The specific hip flexor stretch in the picture above is a rear-foot-elevated, band-resisted, front lunge hip flexor stretch. Wow, what a mouth full... Don't worry, I'll explain how to get into this position and get the most out of the stretch, and I'll also explain how to perform with stretch without a band and/or without something to elevate the back foot.

First you will secure a resistance band to something sturdy and grounded. Put your stretching leg through the loop of the band and place your foot behind you on whatever you're using to elevate it. Settle into a front lunge position, as pictured, and please make sure your knee is padded. From here, you will tuck your pelvis under (posterior pelvic tilt), squeeze the glute of the stretching leg, and kick against whatever you're using to elevate your foot. These steps will be referred to as a "contraction." You want to hold each contraction for 8-12 seconds, and you want to perform at least 3 of them on each side.

To perform this stretch without a band and/or elevation, you will just settle into a front lunge position with your knee padded. If you have a band but no elevation, you will tuck the pelvis under and squeeze the glute of the stretching leg. If you have elevation but no band, you will tuck the pelvis under, lean forward as far as you can maintaining that pelvic tilt, squeeze the glute of the stretching leg, and kick against whatever you're using to elevate. And lastly, if you have neither a band or elevation, you will tuck the pelvis under, lean forward as much as you can maintaining that pelvic tilt, and squeeze the glute of the stretching leg. For all variations, hold each contraction for 8-12 seconds and perform at least 3 times on each side.

Step Ups

Step ups are a great way to warm up the hip flexors and the glutes.

There are many ways to perform step ups, and the variation in the video above is just one suggestion. I will describe this variation in detail, but the same basic principles will apply to all step ups.

Place one foot on top of your box or platform. This top foot will stay in that same spot for the duration of the exercise. Place your hands on your hips and pull your shoulders down and back to open up your chest. Lean forward slightly to shift your weight to the top foot, and step up using only that leg. You want your bottom leg to be "dead weight," essentially. At the top of the movement, make sure the knee of the stepping leg is fully extended, squeeze the glutes, pull the hips all the way through to the front, and find your balance. (You can see my ankle wavering a bit in the video, and this is because I'm doing step ups on a soft plyo box that challenges the balance a bit.) On the way down, you want to exercise as much control over the movement as you can and descend slowly aiming to set your bottom foot down as softly as possible. And repeat!

The goal of this exercise is to get the top leg doing all the work, or at least as much as possible, without employing any other part(s) of your body. What this means is that you want to avoid all of the following: pushing off with the bottom leg, swinging the arms, shrugging the shoulder, and using the torso to help you up. You want to choose a weight that allows for you to effectively control for all of these compensations.
 

Bridges

Bridges are a great way to warm up the posterior chain, and more specifically, the hamstrings, glutes, and calves.

Again, there are many ways to do a bridge. You can do them with two legs, one leg, on a stability ball or BOSU, in a TRX, marching, weighted, etc. etc. I will describe the specific bride in the video -- a single-leg, elevated bridge -- but the basic principles will apply to all.

Lay on your back with your arms out to the side and palms oriented upwards. Place one foot on a sturdy and grounded surface, and extend the other leg up into the air. Press your hips upwards as high as you can and squeeze the glutes at the top of the movement. On the way down, lower your hips in a slow and controlled fashion, setting them down as softly as possible.

The main idea of the bridge is to get the hips as high as you can, to squeeze the glutes at the top, and to avoid pushing your hands into the ground to help you up. No matter what type of bridge you're doing, make sure your hips are up and your glutes are squeezed!
 

"VMO" Squats

VMO squats are an invaluable way to strength the quad muscle. They're a great addition to a squat warm up, and they're also a powerful "kneehab" exercise.

VMO stands for vastus medialis oblique. The VMO is a part of your quadricep complex, and it sits right above your knee. It's sometimes referred to as the "teardrop." The function of this exercise is to strengthen the VMO, and that's what makes it (1) a great squat warm up, and (2) a powerful exercise when recovering from a knee injury or other knee pain.

Secure a resistance band around something sturdy and grounded. In the video, I'm using a Cook band, but any kind of band will work. Place one leg in the loop of the band and step back until you feel a satisfactory amount of resistance from the band, but not so much that you're unable to stand up straight. From here, sit back into a very slight squat. It will be well above parallel; maybe 1/4 of the normal squat range of motion. From the squat, stand up, pull the hips through to the front, squeeze the glutes, and contract the VMO by squeezing/flexing the quads of both legs. After a few reps of this exercise, you should start to feel a burn in the VMO, and if you don't, you likely need more resistance.

This exercise (and step ups!) is one that I always employ if my knees are feeling particularly bratty. A few sets of these and/or step ups done consistently for a week or so will clear up any minor knee aches and pains.
 

Stability Ball Squats

Stability ball squats, and specifically this deep squat, are a great way to warm up (and to train) proper squatting mechanics.

Not surprisingly, again, there is more than one way to perform a stability ball squat. In the video, I'm doing one against the wall and squatting as far down as I possibly can. This is called a stability ball deep squat. (If you find that you have trouble hitting depth on squats, try these out.)

You want to place the ball between you and the wall right at your butt. (It will be sitting a little lower on your body than it does in other variations.) Place your feet at about hip distance apart with toes forward. Your arms will be at a dead hang at your sides with palms facing forward. From here, sit back on your heels as you squat as far down as you can. The end-goal is to squat down until your fingertips make contact with the ground, but if you can't quite get that far down, that's okay. Spend some time working towards it. Make sure that your weight is on your heels in the squat, that your whole foot is on the ground, and that your knees are tracking in line with your feet. After reaching your deepest possible squat, keep your weight on your heels and an upright torso as you stand back up. At the top, squeeze the glutes and pull the hips all the way through to the front.