Why should we squat?
The gentleman in the picture was my former powerlifting coach in high school, Gary Frank. He was one of the strongest men in the world at the time and also the first man to break the 2500 pound total in a powerlifting meet. One of the most important things I learned from training with him was how much your mentality plays a factor in anything that you do. Having the willpower to train hard and become your best coupled with proper technique will take you to places that you thought were never possible in your fitness journey. The squat is one of the most beneficial and foundational movement patterns in exercise. When performed under axial load it essentially trains all of the muscles across your body. Your quads, glutes, hamstrings, core, back, and shoulders will all become more developed. Following a simple step by step process will ensure that you are doing the movement correctly and getting the best results.
Proper squat mechanics:
To get into position, stand with your feet shoulder width apart, toes
pointing straight forward.
• Maintaining this neutral foot position allows you to generate optimal external rotation force through the ground. Stabilizing the ankles, knees, hips, and lumbar. That translates into maximum force output through the trunk and the ability to maintain proper shoulder stabilization under load.
Set your pelvis into a neutral position by squeezing your glutes. Breathe in through your stomach, exhale, and brace your abdominal muscles. From this point, continue taking shallow breathes in through the nose and out through the mouth. You will feel these more in the chest. Make sure that your ears are balanced over the shoulders, shoulders over the ribcage, and ribcage over the pelvis.
• the internal pressure created from bracing your core locks your lumbar into a neutral position, helping to ensure that you don’t extend at the lumbar (arch at the lower back) while progressing through the movement. This “spinal fault” can create a host of problems pertaining to injury as well as range of motion and technique.
Keeping your feet pointing straight forward, screw them into the floor
externally (think clockwise with the right foot, counter clockwise with the left). As discussed before, this stabilizes the ankles, knees, and hips for maximum power and efficiency. Effectively “coiling the spring”. We are now locked and loaded, ready to squat.
• Side note on foot position: We are all different shapes and sizes (femur length, hip socket alignment, etc.) which will affect your foot positioning to give your hips enough clearance and range of motion to be able to squat to depth. Try not to turn your feet out more than 10-12 degrees. Turning out past this point starts to effect the amount of external rotational force you are able to transfer through the ground. You will be more imbalanced in the sagittal plane (forwards and backwards). This also causes you to lose the arch in your foot. When your foot goes flat it affects the alignment of your ankle joint. This misalignment creates undue stresses on the achilles, calfs, and knees, putting you at further risk for injury.
To begin the movement, take in a breath and hold. Hinge at the hips slightly in order to load your hamstrings and glutes. Drive your hamstrings back and sit while keeping your spine neutral and keeping your torso as vertical as possible. On the lowering phase (eccentric motion) focus on keeping your shins vertical and driving your knees out. Squat to a depth just below the knees. On the ascent (concentric phase), make sure to initiate the push out of “the hole” by driving through the hamstrings and glutes and not “sawing” your knees forward. Exhale as you come to an erect position.
Having trouble going through a proper range of
motion while maintaining good form?
Hire me!........just kidding.
If this is the case, first make sure it is not a matter of motor control. I.e. going through the proper sequence of the above instructions in order to organize your spine into a braced neutral position, create proper hip and shoulder stabilization, and put yourself through the entire range of motion. Be patient and take your time while trying to go through the motion properly. Don’t just complete the task. Instilling proper movement patterns takes patience, focus, and a lot of practice. Embrace the challenge and don’t get discouraged.
The squat movement pattern is a foundational skill that carries over into every other functional movement. Mastering this technique will keep your joints healthier, make you more powerful, and help to prevent injury. Our daily tasks and habits force our primary drivers (hips and shoulders) into very compromised positions. By “drilling perfection” in the gym and being more cognizant of your posture in your daily life you will be able to reprogram yourself into routinely doing the right things. In which case your workouts will be more efficient. More efficient workouts = better results!
Ok, so you’ve tried following the instructions, but your body is hitting a wall somewhere and you have to either stop, fall over, or put yourself into a bad position in order to complete the movement. The next step would be to restore proper joint mechanics and mobilize at the point of restriction.
“Restoring proper joint mechanics” means making sure the ball and socket joint of the femur is in optimal position. Due to sitting around for long periods of time the head of the femur becomes frozen in a bad position in the socket which leads to a number of different consequences. We need to make sure and get this back into proper alignment which will enable you to put yourself into a good position to squat correctly.
A good technique is to get into the quadruped position on the floor. Align your left knee directly under your hip and then shift the majority of your weight to that side. Maintaining this pressure of pushing the femur into the socket, kick your butt out to the left over the knee and then slowly rock your hips backwards toward your feet and then forward past the knee bringing your pelvis towards the ground. Repeat this movement for a couple of minutes on each side. Following up with some hip circles from the same quadruped position is a good follow up and feels great.
“Mobilizing at the point of restriction” means organizing yourself into a braced neutral spine position and then using assistance to get yourself into the end range of your squat to open things up a bit. Remember, you don’t want to instill poor mechanics, so even during mobilization techniques you want to focus on getting your spine braced and neutral. Use a suspension trainer, rail or anything else you can grab onto and perform a proper squat. Hang out in the bottom of your squat and focus on moving around to get the joints loose. The primary components of a squat are ankle dorsiflexion, knee flexion, and hip flexion to name a few. So, if you are locked down in one of those areas you will start to have trouble with your technique. Keep those areas in mind when you are at the bottom. Keep your feet pointing straight forward and think about pushing your knees out into external rotation and kind of bouncing around a bit. Your butt should just about be touching the floor. Don’t stay static! 2-3 minutes of work per side is a good rule of thumb for the amount of time it takes to spark a positive change.
Becoming more mobile from this point will entail myofascial release (foam rolling, smashing with a lacrosse ball) of a few target areas to restore the sliding surface of the skin, muscles, and nerves and get optimal results. The plantar fascia of the foot, achilles, calves, quads, hip flexors, glutes, hamstrings, and t-spine are the hot spots. 2-3 minutes per area is best. You have to really get in there and scrub out those tight areas in order to make a difference.
Now it’s time to retest!
Now try out your squat again and see how you feel. If you went through that protocol, I’m willing to bet it’s way better!
If you still feel like you are having trouble with your depth that is something you can definitely progress. Do this by using a box set up. Start with the number of risers that enables you to keep a neutral spine all the way through the movement. Squat down onto the box, pause at the bottom while keeping your muscles engaged and then drive yourself back up to the start position. If your knees are caving in, you can’t keep your back straight, or your hips are tucking under, a.k.a. the dreaded “butt wink”, that means your setup is probably a little too low. Once you have mastered that height, it’s time to lose a riser and work from there moving forward. Putting a mini band around both legs just above or below the knee is also a good trick to get your external rotators firing up.
Let’s wrap it up!
Hopefully this information has given you a better understanding of the concepts and principles of how to squat properly. Let’s keep it real, no one wants to read an entire book on squatting. In order to keep this information condensed, a few things that could have been elaborated on were simplified.
The important take aways from here are:
How to perform the movement safely and correctly
Obtaining a good base knowledge of the muscles and joints being
How to address limitations in your range of motion
Focusing on “drilling perfection” in the gym because “practice
Remembering to instill good habits away from the gym
Stand with your feet shoulder width apart, toes pointing straight forward
Squeeze your glutes
Breathe in through your stomach, exhale and brace your core
Screw your feet into the floor,
Take in a breath and hold
Squat by driving your hamstrings and butt back, keeping your shins vertical as you descend
Lower your butt to just below knee depth and initiate the drive back up through the hamstrings and glutes without sawing your knees forward
Keep your back straight through the entire range of motion
Exhale as you come to the top of the movement