The squat is a staple exercise in the fitness world, and can be used in a variety of environments to achieve a wide range of fitness goals. Given it’s prevalence in the fitness world it is surprising how many people still have such issues with THEIR squat. I emphasize THEIR because squats (and movements in general) are like snowflakes; no two are the same. Should everyone squat to parallel depth? Below? It depends on several factors that vary in every person. If everyone had the same torso, femur and tibia length; the same ankle and hip mobility, levels of stability, zero pre-existing injuries, the same goals, etc., etc., then yes, everyone would squat to the same depth. Until that happens, you may want to squat in a way that fits your body type and motivation. The points outlined below are designed to help you make squatting a healthy and productive habit.
1. Keep the bar (or center of gravity) centered over your midfoot-Lets get the critical one out of the way. At any point during a squat, you should be able to draw a straight line from the bar down to the middle of your foot. This is important because it helps you find the squat depth that is tailored to your body. Remember that everyone’s bodies are built MUCH differently. The biomechanics might be a bitch, but it’s not a liar so we should probably follow the rules; keeping the weight centered is rule #1.
This might seem obvious, yet many people fail to follow this rule when performing their squats, (and deadlifts), letting the bar shift forward in order to get depth. When squatting, if the bar travels forward or backwards relative to your center of mass (think midfoot here) the muscles being utilized can change dramatically. Does your squat feel like someone is trying to split you in half at your lumbar spine? Maybe your kneecaps feel more like bottle caps that are about to pop off? If so, squats are not to blame, it’s probably your s**t technique, most of which can be helped by keeping the bar centered over your base of support.
This change in muscle contribution can be felt by experimenting with where you place the bar on your shoulders. A front squat places more emphasis on the knee extensors (quads) versus the high bar back squat, which places more emphasis on the hip extensors (Glutes/Hammies). The low bar back squat places even more emphasis on the hip extensors.
Mobility/stability at your hip and ankle joints plays a large role in how you squat and to what depth. To help you determine a good squat depth, try this little experiment. Set up for a front or back squat and press the bar into the front cage of the rack. With feet centered underneath the bar, descend into a squat until the bar wants to lose contact with the cage. This is a good indicator of what your actual squat depth is. This is not a fix-all for your squat but it can be a good place to learn or remind yourself what a squat should feel like.
2. Practice Goblet Squats-Learning to move properly is important; in general I believe that learning to move requires a combination of conscious and unconscious learning. Tip #1 draws a lot of attention to where you are in space (conscious learning). Goblet squats on the other hand, are a self-limiting exercise, meaning that in order to do them you have to perform them correctly and within your limits (unconscious learning).
To better understand what a self-limiting exercise is think about the difference between grilling a steak and making a bowl of cereal. Cooking a steak can be accomplished 100 different ways, whereas pouring a bowl of cereal pretty much happens one way. Either the cereal and milk make it into the bowl or they don’t. In this way, doing a goblet squat is like making a bowl of cereal. Other examples of self-limiting exercises include the bottoms up kettlebell press, heavy dumbbell carries, and jumping rope.
3. Create Torque
Stability at the ankle, knee and hip joints is a crucial for a healthy squat. Whether you are an athlete, a powerlifter or just lifting to be healthy in your daily adventures, it is important that your joints function like joints, not leaky pipes, transferring force efficiently during movement. Kelly Starrett (shown in pictures) frequently refers to collapsing joints like fallen arches and caved in knees (left photo), as joints that are “dumping torque”. Basically the force produced by muscles must be transferred efficiently to the next joint in order for that force to be realized into a real-life movement like running or jumping or in this case, squatting. When knees or arches collapse, force from the leg muscles escape and do not aid in the lifting of the bar. By shoving your knees out (far right photo) during your squat, torque is created at the hip, knee and foot. This tension allows force to be transferred more efficiently.
Squatting to the appropriate depth, practicing that technique relentlessly and encouraging joint stability through torque are three simple yet effective ways to improve your squat. Make your squat fit your body and not the other way around.
Alex Harms – Alex is the Head Performance Coach at the PITT Training Facility located in Bozeman, MT.