How to master your Squats

 In Exercise and Health


The context:

Starting on a quick reflection, the squatting motion has been present in our lives since the beginning of times. The famous caveman had no chairs to sit on, neither had access to toilet bowls. In fact, if you haven’t yet had the chance, go on a quick trip around the World and you will find squat toilets in use.

For clarification, I am not a preacher of ‘we should move like animals in nature’ or ‘we were better off living in caves’ type of speech. Quite the opposite, look through history and you cannot deny how much we have evolved in the last century. The presence and application of the scientific method in our society has moved us forward fairly quickly in comparison to previous times.

That is also true for health. We can cure diseases we couldn’t in the past and even eradicate some of them through vaccines. Nevertheless, we have become better at getting sick too, particularly in relation to preventable diseases and mostly due to poor diet and lack of exercise. In general, we move less and eat poorly than our ancestors.

Stop and observe a toddler. They can sit in a deep squat and play for a long time. They can bend their spines in all directions but also hold it up right. Their pelvis sinks between hips, knees move past toes due to great ankle mobility. We are all born with such body capability and most of us will lose it over time. It is easy to blame age; lack of flexibility and arthritis but the heart of the matter is we lose it because we don’t use it. Again, looking at other populations, indigenous cultures for instance, elderly individuals fully squat as part of their life routine.

The root issue:

Now let me bring you the problem I see in my physiotherapy practice. I have all these clients who have been suddenly taken by the increased popularity of ‘Functional Training’, CrossFit, Weightlifting etc. Squatting or attempting to squat with barbells + weights when most cannot even perform a good body-weight squat repetition. Let me tell you how this goes down in a consulting room. So, you haven’t squatted properly since you were a toddler and last week/month you have decided to sign up with a gym and start back squatting 30kg+ 2-3x week?…You all get the picture of how this conversation develops. I have mentioned a very similar anecdote before on a previous blog about CrossFit – ‘Is CrossFit Bad for you

Interestingly enough, people still have the perception that our backs are a weak structure, that those bulging discs on the MRI are a big deal and that sore backs need bed rest. How come? If that was a fact we would need a lot more physios on the market. Why? Because to be brutally honest, people often get away with lifting weights (I’m talking about proper weights here) with poor form and poor technique just because our backs are one of the most resilient and strong structures in our bodies. Most of the cases that I see of low back pain due to gym-squats, the complainant has been using poor form for a reasonable amount of time and, as I mentioned before, they went from not even body weight to 30kg plus on a barbell over no time. In general, our bodies are quite adaptable, even to ‘bad loads’.

Take the Journey:

I feel pleased and relieved that you have decided to take the journey to a better squat, which means you have committed to doing some homework. Before I highlight some key points and make some suggestions, let me be crystal clear. Back squats, front squats, overhead squats etc. Each of these will have their own requirements and focus areas. I have said this before, find a good trainer. I graduated from University as a physio in 2003 so I can say I have been in this field for a while now. Not feeling old just matured if you ask me. Please listen, internet tips from a physio or anyone else will only take you so far. Nothing, I will say it again, nothing replaces good quality, real time, coaching.

Let us get into it.

Your foot = The Tripod

Perform a body squat, no barbells or weights, do it in a controlled manner. Even speed on descent and ascent. Ask yourself: what are the main pressure points you can feel on your feet? Do they change as you move up or down? Do you feel pressure more on your heels or toes?

All of these are important questions. Your foot is your tripod. The pressure should be evenly distributed between your heel and either side of your forefoot, which is equivalent to your metatarsal heads or ‘ball of the foot’, throughout the entire movement excursion. At the same time, you will also need to make sure right and left sides are carrying even amounts of pressure.

Once you have mastered it, you will have achieved a stable base of support and taken the first step towards a balanced squat. Be advised, as soon as you add weights into the equation, you will have to reset the process. By adding weights you will be creating instability to your base, especially in overhead squats. So, the heavier your go, the better you have to become at having a stable and strong tripod gripping the floor.

Your Ankle = Mobility

When I think about ankles during a squat I think about mobility and so should you. A stiff ankle will lead to maladaptation up the kinetic chain, which could affect your knees, hips, back and even shoulders. In other words, some other part of your body will have to do extra work or receive extra load in order to maintain balance.

Common examples of maladaptation are posterior pelvic tilt, excessive foot pronation, knee deviations/rotations and so on. Your ankles must be able to project the tibia forward over your feet. A common test used by physiotherapist to assess this movement is the weight bearing lunge test, also known as knee to wall test. There are variables to consider in relation to one’s anatomy when measuring this, which I won’t cover now but basically I look for 12-15cm of clearance between longest toe and the wall during the test.

When I think about ankles during a squat I think about mobility and so should you. #performbetter @pogophysio Click To Tweet

Your Knee = The Traveler

You have read right, I called it the traveler. The main reason why I say this is because the knee just needs to be able to travel in the right pathway over your foot. It will be led not only by your base of support and shins but also have a great deal of influence from the hip.

I don’t often see clients with knee joint movement restriction in isolation in this context. Most commonly I will either identify an issue with the ankle/foot complex or the hips. Your knee only travels in between those and, as long as the others are doing their part, your knee should have a smooth ride.

Nonetheless, it is still a very important link in the kinetic chain. Know where to place it and you won’t have a problem. Persist on pushing through the wrong way and knee problems will start to arise sooner or later. There are some exemptions though. Take a look at some elite level weightlifters for instance. You may observe that during the lower half of their squat as they absorb load and often whilst ascending, some will allow their knees to travel medially. That is the resultant of an adduction torque from the hips which will assist the quadriceps muscle to power up.

Personally, I do not encourage that in the ‘normal’ population. Unless you are at a level where everything is right and you are doing some pretty heavy lifting, I cannot see a reason why that movement pattern would benefit you. Quite the opposite, I encourage knees out, tracking over your foot, good glute activation at the bottom and squeezing on the way up. Bottom line; keep your knees away from each other.

Your Hip = The Big Hinge

That is one of the most important parts. Simply put, you cannot master your squat without mastering hip hinging first. Kettlebell and dumbbell swings can be quite handy for this purpose. There are many other ways too. It does not matter which one do you prefer or which one makes you get it, as long as you do.

How your hips move will also be dependent on what type of squat you are attempting. Again, unload it, master your technique first and then add gradual load. Someone will be thinking now: ‘how about the butt wink?’. My humble and honest opinion is: for your sake, just forget it. Focus on what matters. How is your hamstring flexibility? A shortened hamstring group as well as adductors will pull your pelvis in posterior tilt, which will in turn interfere with your lower back by bringing it into flexion.

Other important consideration lies within your anatomy. Hip sockets will have variations in position. Some face a bit more forwards and downwards whilst others backwards and upwards. Without requesting medical imaging, physiotherapists will use a test called Craig’s Test to identify those. The reason why I brought that up is because depending on your hip joint orientation, and your femur and tibia contours, you will have an ideal alignment where your hips will move into deep flexion easier, providing that the soft tissue around it allows it.

Regardless of all these, let me simplify. Focus on your hip hinge. Apart from your feet, your hip and pelvis will be the second base of support which is placed directly under your upper body.

Simply put, you cannot master your squat without mastering hip hinging first. #performbetter @pogophysio Click To Tweet

Your Back = The Stable Mast

Sadly, a lot of people do not understand their backs and hence why most fear back injuries. In a loaded squat context, we need a stable mast. Pelvis, lower back, mid and upper back all need to work together. That is only possible if:

  • You have a strong, solid and balanced base of support from your lower limbs;
  • Muscles that stabilise your spine are well trained. Yes, these include your smaller core muscles but also your bigger stabilisers such as Glute maximus, Latissimus dorsi and Rectus abdominis.
  • You have good joint flexibility and over some of the big muscles which, if excessively tight, will impede a good spinal position. E.g.: tight lats and posterior shoulders will bring your upper back into flexion during a front squat.

The idea here is to have a neural lower back. The neutral alignment of the lower back is slightly curved backwards, something we call lordosis. Your mid and upper back will have to follow that pattern, so they need extension, given that thoracic spine neutral alignment is slightly bent forward, which we call kyphosis. A very common cue for this is ‘keep your chest up’. Essentially, these two big regions need to work together as a stable slightly backwards bent mast. The mast will be supported by the muscles surrounding it and facilitating energy transfer between your lower limbs and your upper limbs.

That is the key concept, just like the mast on a sailing boat, which transfers energy picked up by the canvas from the wind to the boat itself. Using that analogy, the haul would represent your support base, the mast is your spine, the sail would be equivalent to your arms and the wind represents the load.

Your Shoulder = The Jack of All Trades

Yes, you have guessed right, another crazy analogy. Shoulders are by default ‘jacks of all trades’. They are meant to be mobile yet stable, strong yet precise, a link in the upper body kinetic chain which allows us to perform the most amazing tasks with our hands. Anything from fine coordinated movements like playing an instrument, to coping with over 250kg overhead if you are the current weightlifting World champion practising some clean & jerks in the morning.

The job of the shoulder is basically to place your hands in the best position to support the load. The problem is low bar back squat, high bar back squat; front squat, goblet squat, overhead squat and so forth all require different hand positions in accordance to the obvious variation in load placement. Not only that but your shoulders also need to be stable in those positions and not negatively interfere with the upper back placement. Conclusion: it is hard to be a shoulder!

Jokes aside, please dedicate some time to this region. Again, without good flexibility, one simply cannot hold weights well above their head during an overhead barbell squat. The barbell will be pulled forward which will in turn shift your weight forward and consequently lead to an unbalanced squat regardless of how good your base is. I hope by now you get the picture that a weighted-squat is a complex movement that requires all these different regions to work together.

In summary, things are a little simpler when we are referring to body weight squats involved in the many tasks of our daily routine. The body is this high performance machine and we can do all these things from early ages, until we get in the way.

My final considerations: If you haven’t mastered a body squat yet, may I suggest: please do not put weights on top. Take the journey and ask for help, you do not have to go on this journey alone.

Bruno Rebello (APAM)

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