Breaking Down the Squat

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“Squatting doesn't hurt your knees; whatever you're doing right now hurts your knees."
- Dan John


We hear it all the time – “Keep your toes pointing straight ahead,” “get your hips down lower,” and “keep your knees behind your toes.” Sometimes you need more than just being told what the squat “should” look like.

We need to under understand that not everyone can or should be squatting the same way.  There are multiple factors that need to be looked at.

Position
Squat set up can vary slightly person to person. Generally speaking, whether it’s bodyweight, with a TRX strap, or loaded with a bar/kettlebell/dumbbell, we look for feet to be shoulder width apart, and toes straight ahead or slightly turned out between 0-30 degrees.

As you descend, your hips, knees and ankles should stay in line to minimize stress on joints.

Hip orientation also needs to be considered. Some people’s hip sockets are more forward or to the side (antiversion or retroversion). This is not bad - it is simply normal variance in anatomy. There is also variance in the angle of the neck of the femur relative to the head of the femur, which will affect how much pure hip mobility you have.

Sometimes hip sockets can be more shallow or deep, which will also affect expression of hip mobility. If it feels uncomfortable in the hip joints (pinching, pressure, stuck sensation), we should not be forcing a position (like toes straight). We need to consider hip structure.

Depth
In order to squat to parallel (or deeper!), a lot of things need to happen and work together.

Ankle Mobility – knee to wall of 2-4” – otherwise heels might pop up.

Hip Mobility – flexion to greater than 90 degrees, and internal rotation of 20-35 degrees.

Neutral Spine (Think hip hinge) – we want to maintain this through the up and down phases of the squat, to ensure leg muscles are doing the work, and we aren’t putting unwanted stressors on the back. Therefore, squat depth ends when we can no longer maintain neutral spine.

Hip and Pelvis Separation – We want the hips and pelvis and low back to be able to move independently of each other. If that doesn’t happen, we see what’s called an “early butt-wink” which is when the tailbone tucks under, in a posterior pelvic tilt, which contributes to unwanted stress on the low back structures.

Alignment
Hip Stability – gluteal strength helps control squat stability and balance. If you feel like you’re falling backwards in your squat, it can be because of inefficiency in the glutes to absorb the load.

Tracking – we generally look for knees to track over the toes, without collapsing in, and also without knees coming forward over the tips of the toes. If your knees ache during or after squats, this may be contributing.

“So, how do I know what a proper squat should look like?”

In it’s simplest form, in the position that looks safest in technique and feels the best.

Quick tests you can do with your coach or therapist are a) supported squat and/or hip flexion tests to assess depth, b) frog stretch to assess width, c) knee to wall test for heel elevation, and d) hip airplanes for hip vs pelvis movement, among others.

All of the components mentioned above can be adjusted to keep you lifting, while we add corrective exercises or therapy into your program to help improve your mobility, strength, and control.

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Megan Pomarensky