The squat is a basic functional movement which is essential to everyday life. Every time you get out of a chair you are squatting. The squat is a core component for power lifters and Olympic lifters and a mainstay of athletic training. Research suggests squatting is a more optimal position for bowel motions than seated upright. So given how natural and essential the squat is why is there so much confusion around it. This article with illustrate the benefits of a squat, how to correctly execute a squat and what technique is best for you. Evidence will be looked at to see what is myth and what is fact around the squat and to address how low you should actually squat.
The Basic Squat
When attempting to perform a squat you have to keep in mind that everyone different. As a result there is no ‘one size fits all’ squat. The following is a basic blueprint to the squat that you should start with and adapt it from there to suit you.
- Take a shoulder width stance.
- Turn feet out to 30 degrees.
- Keep feet flat throughout the movement with weight through your midfoot. If you shift weight to your toes or heels you will fall forwards or backwards.
- Bend hips and knees at the same time pushing the hips back and down.
- Push knees out so they run in line with the feet. The knees should run in front of the feet however not excessively.
- Maintain a neutral spine throughout the movement from lower back up to the neck.
- Correct depth is generally considered to be when the crease of your hips is below the top level of your knees.
- Keep your chest up and push up through flat feet so that you return to your starting position maintaining good spinal alignment.
Benefits to Squatting
There are many benefits to the squat. It is a compound movement, meaning the movement incorporates a large number of muscle and joints. This makes it a cornerstone of athletic training helping to develop whole body strength, muscular development and coordination. The muscles of the legs help to move the weight. The muscles of around your torso help to support your body. Anabolic hormones are released in response to the stress to the body assisting fat loss and muscle gain. Your metabolism is raised. Multiple research papers have shown a strong correlation between improving squatting strength with vertical leap and sprint performance. It helps to improve mobility and strength throughout the legs and the core, which leads to injury prevention and improved functional performance. Increase bone density is also correlated with weight bearing training such as the squat. So really the squat can be for almost anyone assisting everyone in the community from the elite athlete, to the average Joe to a retiree. So how do you make sure you are squatting properly?
CORRECT SQUAT REQUIREMENTS
It is important to understand that everyone is different and as result everyone will squat with some differences. Squat technique will be dependent on someone’s anatomy, mobility and strength. The basic principle is that the centre of your mass with have to travel in a straight line over your centre of your support. A proper squat requires significant mobility and motor control. Mobility is the available movement at joints. Motor control is the ability to activate muscles to control the movement through this available range. Mobility can be divided into both structural and functional. Structural mobility is when your movement is limited by tightness or a structure. An example of this could be a tight calf muscle or ankle joint restricting ankle movement. A lack of ankle bending will cause the centre of mass to stay back behind the centre of support and so compensation must occur least the squatter fall backwards. In the majority of cases a squatter will require greater hip mobility and a more forward lean as compensation. The maintenance of a strong neutral spine in this position is important. Shifting the weight onto the forefoot by lifting the heels is another compensation that may occur however is less stable and undesirable.
The mobility present at the hips is also another important factor. The choice of foot position, width and depth of the squat will be affected by the anatomy of a person’s hip socket depth, the orientation of the socket, the angle of the femoral neck and the presence of any structural abnormalities. Now due to have desirable hip structural characteristics some will be able to squat well with a relatively narrow stance. Some however with not. Now this doesn’t mean you need a hip scan. However you need to see how the hip functions if there is a problem. To further investigate here are a couple of ways to test for mobility. Firstly a physiotherapist can perform what is known as a hip Scour test. Laying on your back your hip and knee will be flexed. The knee will be pushed up to the chest and maneuvered through ranges to assess for mobility at the hip.
Another test is the Quadrupled Rock Back Test. Starting on hands and knees with your hands below your shoulders and knees under your hips, push your hips back and notice when you lose a neutral spine as the pelvis tilts. Then repeat this but with your knees wide apart. Think of this as a horizontal squat. It’s the same action. What we are trying to assess is when the pelvis tilts due to no more movement available at the hips. Without loading the movement, we can accurately see what level of structural mobility is available at the hip joints without being confused between that and muscular tightness. If your pelvis rocks early a deep squat may not be for you as you have limited hip joint space.
What is the Butt wink and what causes it
During the lowest portion of the squat, or earlier in others you may notice a tilting of the pelvis. This is called “butt wink” and is the posterior tilting of the pelvis. Coupled with this tilting of the pelvis lower back flexion occurs. Whether this is a cause of some lower back injuries is unclear however it is not optimal. Research hasn’t concluded the cause although two main theories exist. Traditionally the butt wink was blamed on the tightness of surrounding musculature attaching the pelvis. Tight hamstrings were often said to be a cause, thought to pull on the pelvis as you lower down and therefore tilt the pelvis. This however doesn’t make much structural sense as whilst there is lengthening of the hamstrings at the hip there is shortening at the knee and so hamstring tension remains similar throughout the range of movement. Tight hip musculature has also been researched as a been a causative factor however no mechanism for them causative “butt wink” during the squat has been proven. The other theory is around hip joint anatomy. Biomechanically as the squatter is descends, and the hip joint space runs out as the thigh bone comes into contact with the hip socket, the pelvis rotates for further movement to occur. Ankle mobility has been show to have a big impact on spinal posture, with reduced dorsiflexion linked with increased lumbar spine flexion. Ankle stiffness leads to a decreased ability to push the knees beyond the toes in the deeper phase of the squat. So in order to keep the feet flat the pelvis will have tilt posteriorly and so cause lumbar flexion.
How low should you go?
So how low do you go? This has to be an individually answer question. For the average healthy individual breaking parallel by getting your hip rease lower than the top of your knees tends to be the most agreed upon answer. The exception to this being Olympic lifters who need to perform deep squats. Another way to answer this question would be to say go a slow as you can whilst maintaining good form. This means avoiding injury by maintaining a neutral spine. Now there is a camp of people out there that say squats must be deep or ‘ass to grass.’ I mean that’s what cavemen used to do right? Have you ever seen a baby squat down to pic something up? It looks effortless. In fact they can hold that position as long as their attention span will let them. But the old vantage of “if you don’t use it you lose it” holds true here. We stop holding those deep squatting positions. Our bodies change as we develop. And all of a sudden we have lost a lot of mobility. Studies on the matter have concluded no difference exists between deep squats and parallel squats when measuring the development of muscle activation, muscular development or athletic performance. So squat as deep as you can with good form.
A concern exists about squats being bad for knees in particular deep squatting. However there is no evidence for this. In fact the contrary exists. The tissue inside our knees is supplied by fluid that is created in response to compressive forces. The knee is a weight bearing joint after all that is designed to allow bending whilst we are putting wiehgt through our legs. Now most injuries occur when soft tissue is loading beyond what it can tolerate. So by squatting loading the connective tissue of your legs it can strengthen in this tissue and actually help prevent injury. Building the muscles around the knee, and rest of the leg, will improve stability which also assists injury prevention. Injuries to the knee occur with squatting from poor execution, mobility or if there is pre-existing pain causing pathology in the knee.
What squat is best for you?
There are many variations of the squat. Depending on your goals, mobility and injury history a variation may be more suited to you. Some variations aside from the back squat are:
- Swiss ball wall squat: great during injury rehabilitation or if new to the squat.
- Front squat: the barbell is held in front of the body allowing for a more upright stance than a traditional back squat. A good option for someone that can’t perform a back squat due to shoulder issues. Greater Ankle mobility is required. To teach the squat pattern performing a goblet squat is a great option that doesn’t require the mobility of a front squat.
- Split squat variations: the split stance allows for an upright position. A greater emphasis is balance on balance, stability and coordination with more weight placed on one leg over the other. A great example is the Bulgarian Split Squat.
- Single leg squat: great for developing control , balance and stability with the focus on maintaining correct alignment throughout the movement. A great part of sport specific training.
- Overhead squat: the weight is held overhead throughout the squat requiring good spinal and shoulder mobility and strength.
Now as you can see there is no one perfect way to squat but there is an ideal way to squat for each individual. To ensure you are performing the squat with good form I’d encourage you to talk to a knowledgeable trainer. If you are having issues get an assessment done with a therapist that is familiar with squatting.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Scott Rolph is a Physiotherapist and has worked in private practice, public and private hospitals focusing on acute injuries, sports, post operative orthopaedic care and rehabilitation. His experience also includes working with elite athletes within the Australian and Victorian swimming teams.
Point 2 Point Physiotherapy
Hartmann, H., Wirth K., & Klusemann, M. (2013). Analysis of the load on the knee joint and vertebral column with changes in squatting depth and weight load. Sports Med, 43(10):993-1008.
Wisløff, U., Castagna, C., Helgerud, J., Jones, R., & Hoff, J. (2004). Strong correlation of maximal squat stre ngth with sprint performance and vertical jump height in elite soccer players. Br J Sports Med, 38:285-288.
Panariello, R., Backus, S., Parker, J. (1994). The effect of the squat exercise on anterior-posterior knee translation in professional football players. American Journal of Sports Medicine, 22(6):768-73.
Wilk, K., Escamilla, R., Fleisig, G., Barrentine, S., Andrews, J., & Boyd, M. (1996) A comparison of tibiofemoral joint forces and electromyographic activity during open and closed kinetic chain exercises. American Journal of Sports Medicine, 24(4):518-27.
Steiner, M., Grana, W., Chilag, K., & Schelberg-Karnes, E. (1986) The effect of exercise on anterior-posterior knee laxity. American Journal of Sports Medicine, 1 4(1):24-9
Escamilla RF. Knee biomechanics of the dynamic squat exercise. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 2001.
Caterisano A, Moss RF, Pellinger TK, Woodruff K, Lewis VC, Booth W, and Khadra T. The effect of back squat depth on the EMG activity of 4 superficial hip and thigh muscles. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 16(3):428 – 432. 2002
Contreras B et al. A Comparison of Gluteus Maximus, Biceps Femoris, and Vastus Lateralis EMG Amplitude in the Parallel, Full, and Front Squat Variations in Resistance Trained Females. Journal of Applied Biomechanics. 2015
Bird, S. P., & Casey, S. Exploring the front squat. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 34(2), 27-33, 2012.
Campos, M. H., Aleman, L. I., Seffrin-Neto, A. A., Vieira, C. A., DE Paula, M. C., & DE Lira, C. A. The geometric curvature of the lumbar spine during restricted and unrestricted squats. The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, 2016.
Schoenfeld, B. (2010). Squatting kinematics and kinetics and their application to exercise performance. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 24(12), 3497- 3506, 2010.
List, R., Gülay, T., Stoop, M., & Lorenzetti, S. Kinematics of the trunk and the lower extremities during restricted and unrestricted squats. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 27(6), 1529-1538, 2013.
FitVoo is here to connect people within the worlds of health, wellness, fitness, exercise, sports coaching, recovery, and mindfulness.