Let me preface this blog by saying there is no absolute right way to squat.
There is, however, a way to squat that is optimal for you and your body. But what does that mean?
An optimal squat is one that has a range of motion that allows you to maintain tension to at least parallel (90 degrees at the hip and knee plane; think about sitting on a small chair) and, ideally, below parallel without sacrificing neutral spine, regardless of load. Furthermore, this position may vary with or without load but will have common universal points of performance that are utilized in CrossFit gyms worldwide:
- Feet set in a shoulder width stance
- Hips go back and down
- Hips descend lower than the knees
- Lumbar curve maintained throughout entire movement
- Heels stay down
- Knees stay in line with toes
- Movement fully executed with complete hip and knee extension
Now let’s return to our definition of an optimal squat. The optimal squat considers the generalizations above, but is far more individualized than most understand. As such, there are two things that need to be addressed out of the gate before we can take a deeper dive:
- Individual anatomy of the hip and feet, and
- Flexibility of the ankle and hip.
II. Hip Anatomy
Our hip bones have three main parts: the ilium, ischium, and pubis. This is where the femur connects with the hip socket to create a joint. But, not all hip joints are created equal.There are many variations that exist, however these are the main ones we must consider:
- Femoral neck angle
- Length of femoral neck
- Version/torsion of the femur
- Combination of femoral variations
- Hip socket orientation
- Depth of hip socket
These differences in our actual bone structure may be why you experience a pinch in the front of your hip, pain in the glute/down the leg, or are prone to “buttwinking.” If you need a visual of the buttwink, think about how a pooping dog looks.
“Buttwinking” could also be the result of your hip joint’s structure; this is the result of your pelvis following the femur, also known as a muted pelvis. However more often than not, this cause of “buttwinking” could be avoided if your lumbar spine maintains proper tension throughout your movement. Unfortunately, most “buttwinks” we see are the result of overload (ie. trying to lift too much before your body–aka form–allows).
Our bodies can move in a variety of ways, primarily due to the unique makeup of each of our hip joints. This is why some people squat with a wide stance, narrow stance, feet at different angles, and to different depths. Regardless of the bones our parents gave us, the biggest disrupter to proper movement (form) is ego. There, I said it. Ego. In a perfect world, athletes would check their egos at the door and strengthen the movement patterns that enable them to handle loads. Because realistically, movement is rarely the culprit in the face of injury, it’s load.
II. Foot & Ankle Anatomy
Our foot has 26 bones, 33 joints, and more than 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments, all working together to provide support, balance, and mobility. This intricate foundation makes up the arch of our foot. It’s also what can lead to flat feet and poor dorsiflexion. Our feet are our foundation, which is why all of our movements must be supported with “tripod foot”:
- Ball of the foot (aka base of the first toe)
- Outer foot (aka base of the fifth toe)
But simply maintaining “tripod foot” is not enough. We must support our foundation by creating torque in our hips which will engage (turn on) our hip muscles and set our knees in-line to track over our foot. This is why we activate our hips with banded walks, clam shells and the Donny Thompson banded warm-up before we engage in the squat. This is also why we squeeze our glutes and push our knees out over our toes during the squat.
Now that we have an understanding of our anatomy and how to support it, let’s talk about the actual movement itself.
We now know that our hip, ankle, and foot anatomy uniquely influences our range of motion (mobility). We also know that we must create torque in order to get the most out of this foundation – so we’re going to build from there by addressing:
- Foot position (aka angle of foot)
- Torso position (aka center of balance)
- The actual hinge
The foot angle will start with the feet straight ahead and typically we will suggest not turning the feet out more than 5-7 degrees. However, if you start to descend down and hit a wall or have pain you might have uncommon hip anatomy. That means that your feet may have to turn out more to limit any pinch at the hips or to help prevent the torso from going too far forward (generally speaking this will not go any further than 20-30 degrees; this is also typically a suggested foot angle in olympic lifting, however, that’s a different and sport specific discussion). This sometimes might happen on its own, however that is usually associated with mobility problems, which means we need to stretch our hips more. The torso is naturally going to be slightly forward and this now brings up our center of balance.
The center of balance stays over the mid foot. The torso will be angled, but it doesn’t matter if we are air squatting, back squatting, front squatting, overhead squatting or doing something more dynamic like an olympic lift — we need our weight to stay centered and that’s why establishing a good base with our feet is paramount.
When we descend down a natural hinge at the hip will happen as the knees track the toes, our torso stays upright and our hips descend down into the “hole”. This will all be achieved by starting with proper footing, supporting the arch, maintaining torque through the hips, and a nice neutral spine as the torso stays upright.
But, what if you can get to the bottom of your squat and you cannot keep your back flat? Well, this is usually a problem in bracing and creating tension in the midline. A cue that can help, or that you may see when someone is doing an air squat, is to extend the arms out. When we do this our trunk will naturally straighten. However, we still need to brace and keep our midline stable. This does not mean “suck in”. It means you need to squeeze like you’re getting ready for impact or about to receive a blow to the stomach. For some, it’s better to think about doing a crunch without the spine flexing forward. Whichever it is for you, we are looking to stay neutral to slightly arched (slight spinal extension at the lower back and supporting the natural forward curve of the upper).
Now that we have our base, center of gravity, and tension covered, let’s finally get into our range of motion! Deep range of motion is not meant for everyone and that’s okay. In fact, by trying to go too deep in a squat we can open ourselves up to injury due to our inability to maintain tension through the range of motion. Now, I am not suggesting a ¼ squat. But, I am saying that going just parallel is completely acceptable, and possibly ideal for some, because we want to maintain tension while moving with control through the biggest range of motion that our body will allow (without load or with it). If we have less range of motion with load, that is a sign we are not ready for that load.
At the end of the day we want to hit a depth that’s right for you in a stance that’s right for you using weight that is right for you to see the gains that you are seeking! Right now, master the body weight squat as deep as you can then work on loading yourself and over time you will improve your squat, and depth. But, some of us just don’t have the anatomy to get to the floor. Dr. Stuart McGill once said people who can squat all the way to the ground “chose their parents wisely.” So, work with what you have and have fun!