Progressing the Squat
Getting into a deep squat is something that we should all be able to do.
Functionally, the squat challenges many aspects of human movement. Watching someone’s squat can tell me a lot about how they move through their environment which can provide clues as to why they might be complaining of certain aches, pains or functional limitations.
- Stability, balance, control
- Mobility through the ankle knee and hip
- Strength in the legs and hips
Does everyone need to squat the same?
Short answer is – no.
And there are a few reasons for this. Mostly, it has to do with anthropometry (a fabulous word referring to the scientific study of the measurements and proportions of the human body), the shape of the pelvis and mobility at the ankle and hip .
First let’s consider anthropometry.
If your femur is long relative to your torso, it will create different angles during the squat. For a given torso and tibia length, an athlete will have to tip over a lot more if they have long femurs. In the picture below, the vertical red line represents the centre of gravity of a barbell passing through the mid-foot.
A long femur means the leaver on the back is much greater. Consider the horizontal distance of the hip from the vertical line of weight. This can significantly impact the ability to squat. The more upright squat would experience far less sheer on the spine. However, deadlifting and snatching are often done through this posture, so it is certainly possible.
How could we reduce the impact of a long femur?
By taking the legs to a wider stance, this functionally shortens the femur. No, the femur doesn’t magically get shorter. The distance from the line of the center of mass to the hips and low back gets shorter. The picture below represents a lateral and aerial view of what happens when the legs are wider. With a wider stance, d1<d2, so the lever on the low back is reduced, reducing sheer forces.
So, what you’re born with can dictate how you squat when it comes to relative leg and trunk length. And taking a wider stance looks like a good thing for your back, regardless of your femur length. For many people, the wide stance is a good option. But not everyone can do this, and not everyone wants to either, depending on what they’re hoping to get out their squat practice.
So why can’t everyone take a wide squat stance?
This comes down to the differences in the bony pelvis. A simple explanation is that for some people, the hip sockets face forward, and others they point more out to the sides. The former being able to squat more easily with the legs in front, and the later being better suited to a wider stance squat.
How do I know which stance is best for me?
The short answer is this.
From a standing position jump as high as you can. Land and jump again.
When you land for the second time you will be close to your ideal squat stance width. This is your naturally powerful position.
A more detailed answer is probably best left for another article, but basically involves testing the hip socket to find that sweet spot that allows maximal hip flexion without causing butt-wink.
How do I know if I don’t have the ideal stance?
One of the biggest tell tail signs is either not being able to squat to depth, or experiencing butt-wink. Butt-wink is where the hip runs out of range causing the whole pelvis to tilt. Now, this is not the only possible cause of butt wink, so it’s best to check everything.
What’s left to check in the squat?
The two big sticking points for the squat are Hip Mobility and Ankle Mobility.
The quickest way to check your hip mobility is to go on all fours and rock your hips back towards your heels. If you are able to comfortably get your sitting bones close to your heels without rounding the back, you’re good. If this movement feels restricted and tight, you might have some work to do. Try the movement with the knees at different widths too. The apparent restriction may be due to the shape of your pelvis. (see above) If hip mobility is a problem, good news is, it’s usually a straight forward process to improve this.
Checking ankle mobility is just as easy.
Knee to wall test: Good reliability (Konor, 2012 IJSPT) Stand close to a wall with the foot flat on the ground. Push the knee over the toes. Move the foot as far back as possible while still being able to hit the wall with the knee. There should be 4-5″ or ~10-12cm between the big toe and the wall for acceptable ankle mobility. (obviously foot to tibia ratios can influence this too.) This is good to test progress against your own bench mark rather than comparing against other athletes.
Inclinometer: Good reliability: Use the clinometer App. Android Apple. Place the phone against the tibia and have the athlete drive the knee forward over the toes. Finding consensus on what a normal range is isn’t all that easy. For me, a 5″ knee to wall = 40˚. With most sources I found, the angles are closer to 35˚. Everyone is a bit different. In the end, find your own baseline and go from there. If you’re well under this range, it’s time to figure out why, and do something about it. Spoiler Alert – it’s not always as simple as stretching out or rolling out your calf muscles, figuring out why they’re tight in the first place is where you’ll get long lasting results.
But I was told, ‘don’t let your knees go past your toes’?
Research from the University of Memphis showed that knee stress increased by 28% when the knees were allowed to move past the toes during the squat. However, hip stress increased nearly 1,000% when forward movement of the knee was restricted. Finding what works for you is important.
What is my advice?
As always, it depends. It depends on a lot of things.
Are you recovering from injury? At the low low back, hip, knee or ankle?
What are your training goals? Why are you even squatting?
What is your anthropometry?
Do you even need to (barbell) squat in the first place? Are there other more productive things you could be training with?
All these and more will strongly impact the advice I give. My general advice is to find what feels good to you, where you can easily maintain postural integrity through the whole movement. Start there. Build confidence, then move out to try different squatting set ups. So long as you maintain good tension through the torso, a near neutral spine and keep the center of mass near the mid foot, you’ll progress safely. Get assessed regularly and take videos of yourself for self appraisal.
How can you modify the squat?
There are a lot of reasons you’d want to modify the squat. It may be due to injury, it may be because you’re new to squatting and need an easier version while you develop confidence and skill, it may that you’ve been squatting with suboptimal technique and you need to break some old habits. Here are a few ways you can modify the squat and how they help.
For many people, being bale to maintain a neutral spine or simply keeping tension through the trunk during the squat is a real challenge, even with just body weight. By introducing some support, you can practice patterning the squat.
The focus during this should be maintaining a neutral spine with good tension through the trunk. Once this has been mastered, working on ankle mobility and hip mobility will be helpful. Do this by focusing on driving the knee forward during the decent. Once in “the hole” focus on creating space between the legs to push the hips through between the ankles. Start building strength in the quads by keeping the hips low during the drive phase, rather than letting them shoot up first.
The next step is the Goblet Squat. Use a kettlebell or dumbbell as a counter weight balance. Having the weight in front of you will help keep the center of mass forward. This will make it easier to stay upright and allow you to focus on keeping the spine neutral and tension through the trunk. You can spend some time at the bottom of the squat, opening the hips up by rocking side-to-side and back-and-forth. The weight here does not need to be heavy.
Try this with different foot positions and see where you get the best result.
Front rack kettlebell squat
The next step is the front rack kb squat. Now the challenge is increasing. Again, having the weight in front allows for a more upright posture and certainly demands higher trunk activation. It’s much harder to “cheat” this squat than a barbell back squat.
For many people, this is a good place to stop. You can build a good deal of strength with this squat and, as you’ll see when you try it, it really demands a good level of trunk strength and control. The amount of sheer force on the low back is relatively low. It is self limiting, in that you can only go as low as you can go. Once mobility issues start tipping you over, it becomes impossible to hold the bells, so you naturally stop the decent until, over time, your range of movement improves.
For many others, the barbell is the natural progression. The barbell offers the possibility much greater loads, and with greater loads, comes greater strength. But everything comes with a trade off. It’s up to each athlete to decide what they’re willing to give up to make gains somewhere else.
Front rack barbell squat with heel raise.
Having the bar infront allows for a more upright posture during the squat, reducing sheer on the low back. There are a few ways to hold the bar in this position. The conventional grip does require good shoulder mobility and control. However you can also try zombie squats, or the genie squat with arms folded in front.
The heel raise can be used on any squat. It effectively gives you a longer tibia or adds a few degrees of apparent dorsiflexion. Again, this allows for a more upright posture, reducing sheer on the low back.
High bar back squat
The high bar back squat is what you most commonly see performed in an average gym. The weight now sits across the upper back behind the head meaning that in order to keep the weight over the mid-foot, the athlete has to tip forward right from the set up. Sheer force on the back starts to increase here and the demand for good control of trunk tension increases. Limitations in ankle and hip mobility will be more noticeable now and may begin to limit the range of movement where you can maintain postural integrity.
Low bar back squat
The low bar back squat is more common for powerlifters. The barbell sits lower on the back demanding good shoulder mobility and strength. This can actually aid the lifter build tension through the trunk and lats, but for the novice, this setup generally provides a big challenge in being able to maintain good tension through the trunk. Having the bar further down the back effectively puts it closer to the hips. This means the lifter has to tip forward even further and often squats end up looking similar to deadlifts with their alignment.
Trap Bar or farmers lift.
If putting a barbell on your back our across your collar bones doesn’t work for you, or if you’re just looking for some variety, you can try the trap bar or kettlebell farmers lift. Strictly speaking, as these are coming off the floor and going up, they are deadlifts. They can be used like squats though by changing the knee position to favor the quads more than the hamstrings. Have a try. See how they feel different depending on the knee position over the toes.
General thoughts on the squat
There are many strong arguments about why squatting deep under load is not a good idea. It does put the spine under a great deal of compression and sheer. As it does at the hip and knee. Deep squatting is said to break functional myofascial lines that form part of our highly refined human gait mechanics and has the potential to exacerbate deficiencies in transverse plane movement control. Furthermore, there are good reasons to suggest that squatting to 45˚-60˚ is sufficient for most athletic development. My advice is always to consider your training goals. Understand that for certain body types, squatting under a barbell will likely lead to tissue overload and breakdown over time. Appreciate the impact it might have on your overall movement. If the benefits are high and the sacrafices and risks are acceptable, go for it!
Matthew Wall – Chiropractor
Matthew is a chiropractor, strength and conditioning coach, certified Level I + II Strongfirst kettlebell instructor, and Strongfirst barbell instructor. He presents professional development courses for trainers and clinicians and regularly presents at major chiropractic symposiums.