The Squat

The squat is one of the most fundamental of all human movements. If you have ever observed a toddler running around then pausing to pick something up, you may have also noticed that they do it with a squat, rather than keeping their legs straight and only bending at their hip.

Squatting is an ability that we humans are born with. It is used in everyday life during our early years especially, but then somewhere down the line we decided to work closer to the ground by locking our knees, rounding in the spine and bending at the hips. The most likely reason is that as we grow taller, getting closer to the ground (by way of squat) requires a higher level of energy expenditure and being the efficient albeit lazy beings that we are, we tend to choose the easier option. The problem is that the mechanics of this position places a heavy load on a flexed spine that the human body was not designed to endure. This is one reason that so many individuals suffer from lower back pain. Some sources have suggested that the costs of lower back pain could be upwards of $200 billion per year, taking into account all the missed workdays and the subsequent loss in job productivity.

In addition to the spinal issues that arise from not squatting, we also lose a great deal of mobility in our hips and ironically, we begin to lose the ability to squat. Combined with the hours upon hours of sitting we do every day and resultant tight hip flexors, squatting can often be a painful experience for many adults, if they can do it at all. Squatting is an important compound movement that involves multiple joints and helps to strengthen a variety of different muscles. Because many of us have lost the ability to squat due to inactivity and loss in mobility by the aforementioned problems, the purpose of this blog is to reiterate the importance of this movement for those individuals and also for those who may require minor tweaks to their squat pattern.

How to squat:

*As a disclaimer, individual anatomy and biomechanics may cause some people to deviate from these general cues in order to achieve their own perfect squat, so these cues should only be used as a guideline. In order to achieve your perfect squat, you should consult a strength and conditioning professional to assess your movement and provide you with your own specific, individualized cues.

Foot position: Start with your feet at shoulder width apart or slight wider. Feet should be flat on the ground, toes pointed straight forward or slightly outwards. Common errors:

-Toes are pointed outwards too much
-Feet are too wide apart or too narrow
-Standing on the outside edges of feet and big toes are no longer in contact with the ground

Body position: Working from the ground up, your knees should be directly above your heels, straight but not locked out. Next, your hips are in line with your knees and feet, and your shoulders as well.

Common errors:
-Lats (latissimus dorsi) are not engaged, causing rounding in the upper back and rolling forward of the shoulders, positioning them to be anterior of the plane created by our heels, knees and hips (Figure 1)

Figure 1

-Glutes and/or midline is not engaged, causing pelvis to be tilted anteriorly, and once again bringing the shoulders anterior to that plane, possibly bringing the hips posterior to that plane (Figure 2) *this error can cause hyperactivity of the spinal erectors if the position is maintained throughout several loaded repetitions, and could cause some lower back pain during and upon completion of a set

Figure 2a Glutes and midline not engaged

Figure 2b. Glutes and midline engaged

Descent: The descent of the squat should be initiated by pushing the hips back, to slightly shift your weight to your heels, followed by synchronized bending at the hips and knees

Common errors:
-Descent initiated by be
nding at the knees, shifting the weight distribution forward and bringing the heels off the ground (Figure 3)

Figure 3

-Internal rotation at the hips, valgus collapses of the knees, collapse of the arches of the feet, all contributing to poor spinal position (Figure 4)

Figure 4

Depth: A good rule of thumb is to try to achieve a depth in which the tops of the thighs become parallel with the ground. However, this is highly generalized and there are several factors that contribute to the determination of how deep an individual should squat, including, but not limited to, spinal, hip and ankle mobility.

Figure 5a Appropriate depth

Figure 5b Greater depth than allowed by our mobility

Common errors

-Internal rotation at the hips leading to a more limited range of motion or squat depth
-Squatting too deep with tightness in the hamstrings, leading to sacral tucking and flexion in the lumbar spine
-Excessive bending at the hip in order to achieve greater depth (Figure 6)

Figure 6

Ascent: When performing a squat, the ideal movement pattern of the ascent would be to remain on the same track that was followed while performing the descent, with all anatomical landmarks of the body. The knees, hips, chest and shoulders would all retrace their path back to the upright position. At the very top of the ascent, the glutes should be engaged to achieve a neutral spinal position.

Common errors

-Weight shifted to the balls of the feel, causing the heels to lift off the ground
-Knees extend before the hips, forcing the torso into a horizontal position and excessively loading the lower back

These guidelines should provide clarity for those who have never been provided with appropriate cues on how to perform a squat. There may exist barriers among individuals that may pertain to their specific anatomy and mobility. A strength and conditioning professional can help to address these issues in mobility and body mechanics to help you to achieve your ideal squat pattern.