Do We Need to Squat?
Squatting ass to grass isn’t a movement only Olympic weightlifters are meant to perform. It is something each of us should be able to execute naturally and yet, in today’s society, we rarely provide ourselves with the opportunities to squat outside the gym. Or, at least, we think it is limited to something we only perform in oly-shoes, knee sleeves, and Lululemon gear. In fact, we are one of the only nations in this world that emphasizes convenience and comfort over functionality. In places like Asia, squatting while waiting for the bus is a common occurrence. Interestingly enough, the low back and hip pain epidemic we experience here in the US is nearly non-existent in these countries.
Look at your kids when they play in the back yard or on the living room floor. They squat. When you pick up the laundry basket or attempt to move boxes, you squat. Allowing ourselves to get comfortable with squatting at the grocery store or even at home will allow us to become more comfortable in our bodies. Guess what happens when we squat more throughout the day? Something crazy happens. Our bodies actually adapt and we become better squatters! The more time spent in a specific movement pattern, the more our body recognizes it as useful. However, the opposite also holds true. If we spend most of our day sitting, limiting our hip flexion to 90 degrees, our body will develop a joint, muscle, and nervous system that only recognize that specific range of motion. Studies show that squatting through a full range of motion of the hips, knees, and ankles is essential for proper joint health and can help prevent many common incidents of low back pain.6 Allowing the knee to move freely during a deep squat motion builds tendon, ligament, and muscle tissue strength.2 This is highly beneficial because your knee travels forward over the toes at high forces during athletic movements such as cutting and pivoting. The same can be said for many activities of daily living, including going up and down the stairs or when squatting into a deep knee bend to pick something up from the ground.
Does this mean everyone should be loading hundreds of pounds of weight on their backs and squat for reps? This couldn’t be further from the truth. Loading a poorly developed, dysfunction squat pattern ( i.e. rounded back, knees caving in, and feet excessively turned out) will only engrain the dysfunctional movement pattern quicker and lead to more incident and injury over time. Our nervous system responds quickly to stress and load in order to adapt and survive. We want to make sure we are guiding our bodies into mechanically stable patterns that are beneficial and, above all, useful.
Now, that being said, we all must adhere to the same basic movement principles when performing this movement:
- Prioritize Spinal Stability
- You need a stable core (ie. transverse abdominis, diaphragm, lumbar multifidi, and pelvic floor) to express optimal power production and mobility from your extremities. Full squats build structural balance by training the paraspinal muscles of the lower back in conjunction with the gluteals for greater athleticism and better posture.1,6
- Create Torque
- This principle is commonly heard in the weightlifting community as “screw your feet into the ground” when squatting or “try and break the bar in half” while bench pressing.
- During a squat, this means creating optimal external rotation torque at the hip.
- Creation of torque begins at the feet. This means no collapsed arches! You should feel equal contact between your big toe, heel, and 5th toe to engage your arch. I would also argue that this should be accomplished with less than or equal to 15 degrees of external rotation at the foot and ankle. Anything more than this will effectively limit the hip external rotators, decreasing the ability of these muscles to create torque by impairing their length tension relationship.3,5
- The Yoga community had this figured out thousands of years ago with the pose Tadasana, or mountain pose. This is where, in a tall standing position, you ground down through your feet (creating an arch), lift your knee caps (quad engagement), spin your inner thighs back (torque through the hips), and tuck your tailbone under (pelvic and lumbar spine stability).
- Load Order Sequence
- The human body functions in a systematic way that is predictable through the laws of physics. The joint moved first in the system will be maximally loaded throughout the movement. In the squat, shooting the knees forward first would be an error. This would put maximal stress on the supporting knee structures and leave the hips (power houses of the lower body) left to play catch-up. Ultimately, this results in the femurs running out of room during flexion as you sit down. Your body then needs to figure out what to do next, leading to lumbar flexion and a posterior pelvic tilt (rounded low back or “butt wink”) to complete the movement. Limiting factors here are more than likely hip flexion (knee to chest) and hip internal rotation.
Keeping these in mind, I challenge you to grab a friend to video you performing an air squat. Do you lack any obvious pieces of mobility? Where are your sticking points? What you should not see are your knees caving inward (excessive knee valgus), heels coming up off the ground (lack of ankle dorsiflexion), or your back rounding (poor hip flexion and rotation). If you start to notice these faults occurring, stop the movement prior to the point where things start to break down and work on your problem areas. Train the squat as deep as you can safely with good technique. We know that repetitive motion with poor mobility or motor control will lead to tissue stress and possible incident or injury over time. This is basically a test of the resiliency and robustness of our tissues. How will you move to optimize tissue quality and allow your body to be functional at year 110?
Some professionals encourage a wider, toe out stance when squatting heavy weight. This is acceptable from a performance standpoint. If you can squat with a wider stance and your arches engaged with a flat back, then I believe it is safe to train this pattern. However, athletes still need to work on mobility and motor control impairments to allow for a narrower stance squat. We, as humans, should be able to perform ALL of the squat patterns. Check out this 27 Squat Video with Jami Tikkanen and the rest of the Mobility WOD staff for a great explanation. Recent research shows how anatomically different we all are when it comes to hip morphology (anteversion, retroversion, femoral neck angles, acetabulum depth).4 Essentially, many health and fitness professionals are saying that we are all special and need our own unique squatting technique. I do not agree with this paradigm. The movement principles stay the same. We all have the ability to perform an efficient squat. The only difference is in how we achieve that motor pattern. We should individualize the program attacking our unique mobility restrictions and motor control impairments. Perfecting a squat by strengthening our weaknesses will make one stronger and more capable of living a longer, more pain free life.
Bottom line, work on your limitations often. Consistency is key to improving strength/control, creating plastic deformation in anatomical structures, and making permanent change. Make it a habit and the dividends will pay off in the form of more efficient and safer movement patterns.
Gorsuch, J., et al. The Effect of Squat Depth on Multiarticular Muscle Activation in Collegiate Cross-Country Runners. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2013. 27(9), 2619-25.
Hartmann, H., et al. Analysis of the Load on the Knee Joint and Vertebral Column with Changes in Squatting Depth and weight Load. Sports Medicine. 2013. 43(10), 993-1008.
McCaw, ST and Melrose, DR. Stance width and bar load effects on leg muscle activity during the parallel squat. Med Sci Sports Exerc 31: 428-436, 1999.
Nguyen MS, Kheyfits V, Giordano BD, Dieudonne G, Monu JU. Hip anatomic variants that may mimic pathologic entities on MRI: nonlabral variants. AJR Am J Roentgenol. 2013;201(3):W401-8.
Schoenfeld, B. J. (). Squatting Kinematics and Kinetics and Their Application to Exercise Performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24, 3497-3506.
Vakos, JP, Nitz, AJ, Threlkeld, AJ, Shapiro, R, and Horn, T. Electromyographic activity of selected trunk and hip muscles during a squat lift. Effect of varying the lumbar posture. Spine 19: 687-695, 1994