Squatting Woes: Fixing the Lateral Weight Shift

The more you know, the more you really don't know.

That's one of the many things I've learned from being a continuing education junkie. What used to look like a straightforward fix is no longer that way, as I've refined both my eye and education.  

One stark example is the lateral weight shift on a squat.  This compensation often takes the form of someone's knee caving in, a lateral bend to one side, or someone shifting their entire pelvis over one foot.  If you're me, you have all three.

This pattern doesn't have anything to do with one leg being stronger than the other.  And you can't just coach someone out of this compensation by using a band between their knees, or using a (bigger) band to pull their hips to one side.  It may make the person more aware of the issue, but it doesn't completely FIX it.

That's because the problem is neurological, not physical. So much like the movie "Inception," you need to go deeper.

Evidence of my own weight shift can be see below, when I front squatted 300:

Even though the camera isn't directly behind me, you can see my weight shift as soon as I come out of the hole.  My hips move in an "excuse me" fashion to the right (very noticeable), and I start to have a right side bend that drops my right shoulder (less noticeable).  It wasn't until I took a step back and saw these compensations that I realized why my left arm was always sore the day after squatting - as my right side gave way, my left bicep was doing everything it could to hold on!

Less common, but just as bad, is the left weight shift in a squat. This is a different compensation but the same underlying pattern.  Instead of hanging out on their right side, their brain is using their left side to make up the difference for their pelvis being off-center.  Like so:

 Yikes.

Yikes.

This issue needs to be addressed because while you may be able squat with a weight shift now, there will eventually be consequences.  Further, you're never going to be as strong moving diagonally as you will be moving vertically.

So how do you fix it?  

Step 1: Cool Your Jets

The hardest concept to understand is that a weight shift is a neurological compensation.  Like I said above, it usually has nothing to do with a muscle being weak or tight but everything to do with your brain.  So in order to retrain your brain, you need to down regulate.

While I'm a big fan of PRI (Postural Restoration Institute), there are several approaches that will help you relax. Specifically, the more you address your breathing patterns by trying to get a long drawn out exhale, the better.  Exhaling turns on our parasympathetic "rest and digest" system, so our sympathetic "fight or flight" system can calm down.  The more sympathetic we are, the harder it's going to be learn new patterns.  Just imagine trying to read Shakespeare on a crowded rush hour train, when you're running late!

Once you calm down your system, you'll be better able to learn new patterns and use lower threshold strategies.  Plus, the less sympathetic we are, the less prone we are to compensate.  

Step 2: Squat Lighter, More Often, and Use Video

After calming down our system, we're going to want to work on our squatting.  And the most efficient way to get better at squatting?  You guessed it, actually squatting.

But this approach also demands a different mindset surrounding squats.  Instead of using squats to build a stronger body, think of squatting to build a better squat.  Heavy squats are only going to push someone further into their pattern, and you want to get better at squatting - not just survive it.  Plus, as the squats are much lighter, it'll allow you to groove your pattern every day.

Lastly, using video on your phone or tablet is one of the best ways to get better at squatting. Using it to critique yourself with something simple like plate squats is a great way to see your progress from the ground up.

Step 3: Find Your Left Side

No doubt, this last step is the hardest.  That's because our pelvis is not completely symmetrical - it's oriented to the right.

Without jumping all the way down the rabbit hole, I'll simply say that our pelvis is off center due to our neurological patterns and asymmetrical bodies.  So if you're having issues with a lateral weight shift - regardless of the direction - you need to start some asymmetrical work.  

Exercises where we can find our left heel, our left big toe, and our left abs are going to work best.  That could mean split squats or half kneeling kettlebell halos.  It could also mean some right sidelying left adductor pullbacks.  

But always remember: when you fix the brain, you'll often fix the body.