Welcome to the most butchered yet respected, the most complicated yet beneficial exercise in the history of human movement; the squat.
Whether you’re under the bar, holding a kettlebell, or sitting down on a box, you definitely have squatting programmed somewhere in your workout. There are many variations to this glorious exercise, and many ways to execute it. What we are going to discuss today is the anatomy of the squat, and which set up may be best for you based on the structure of your own skeleton.
A squat that is executed properly is one that requires the contraction of almost every muscle group from the neck down. Isometric core contractions (lats, transverse abdominis, rectus, pelvic floor, erector spinae, obliques) to provide stability, as well as eccentric hamstring, glute, quad, and abductor strength during the descent, and finishing with explosive concentric power from the same lower body muscle groups on the way back up. This is an incredibly complex movement that takes a long time to perfect and setting it up properly will help to ensure you build a solid foundation.
Back in the beginning of my training/lifting career, I was a stickler for what I believed to be perfect form; feet slightly wider than the hips, toes forward. Bar set perfectly on the highest thoracic vertebrae. Pinky fingers set just to the insides of the space in the bar knurling when gripping the bar, finishing with the hardest external rotation from the hips you could muster with enough knee drive to part the Red Sea.
Over the next decade, I trained clients that simply couldn’t get into that position. For whatever reason I caught myself modifying their stance, hand position, and amount of forward lean. This was about the same time I started watching guys like Ray Williams squat.. over 1000lbs with untied shoes and a pretty wide stance.
Maybe every client isn’t meant to have the same start position and depth with their squat. Basically, what we found is that it all comes down to mobility and stability, as well as anatomy and leverages.
First, we will go over mobility and stability to see if you are able to get yourself where you need to be with a bar on your back.
You require adequate ankle mobility to produce the dorsiflexion required to get your knees to travel over your toes as you drop into hip flexion. Now, before you all get started, I don’t care who says what, but you cannot back squat properly unless the knees travel over the toes slightly. There’s also no risk with such a little amount of sheer force, especially when the weight is being pushed through the heels and the knees are being driven out.
Here’s a simple test to perform to see if you have the range. Walk up to a wall and put the ball of one of your feet against the baseboard, with the other foot behind for support. Now, push your knee forward gently and see if your knee can touch the wall, or if it even comes close. If so, congrats, you’ve got some nice ankle mobility going on. If not, then you have to try and figure out where the lack of mobility is coming from. Generally, a lack of mobility somewhere means a lack of stability somewhere else. If the ankles are guarding, usually because of an unstable foot, or weak glutes, then no matter how much you try and mobilize them, nothing will happen.
Hip mobility is an interesting thing. Your hips are essentially the center of your “X” and move in so many planes. Because of this, we have to take into account core strength, glute strength, hip flexor length, hamstring length, and so many other factors. It’s going to be tough to figure out why you can’t get into a deep squat without writing an entire dissertation, so we will simply rule out a couple of things.
Stand with your feet slightly wider than your hips. Drive the knees out, and without leaning too far forward, see how low you can get. It’s best to film this so you can look and compare. Perform 5 squats.
Now, grab a relatively heavy kettlebell. Let’s say approximately 20-25% of your total weight. Hold it in front of your chest and engage your core while you squat. Can you get deeper and stay more erect with a kettlebell? Most people can, and there’s a reason for it. This has now changed your center of gravity and engaged your core. Increasing the amount of weight in front of your body means you don’t have to recruit your glutes as much, so if you fall backward without the kettlebell and can stay tall with it, posterior hip strength is where you should spend some time.
Thoracic spine and shoulder mobility are required to get your hands in a position on the barbell to stabilize everything above your waist. Personally, I like to keep my hands closer together when I grab the bar so that I can really pull down when I inhale and engage my lats hard. If you can’t put your hands close because of limited shoulder mobility or thoracic spine extension, keep your hands a little wider, but work on your mobility in the interim.
Now that we’ve looked at your mobility and stability, let’s look at your anatomy and leverages.
We are going to start at the bottom and work our way up. I don’t want you to go through the same problems I did by trying to force yourself to squat the way you think is right, as opposed to the way you feel is right.
Foot Placement – The stance during your squat is generally dependent on your overall mobility, as well as the structure of your femoral head, and the shape of your acetabulum. Some people are born with perfectly shaped femoral heads, and the smoothest acetabulum you’ve ever seen. These are the outliers. The freaks. The people you and I long to be. They can have a closer foot placement, and get much closer to the ground, without having the dreaded “butt wink” or sacral rounding associated with structural inhibition.
Now, don’t get this confused with someone that simply doesn’t have the required stability/mobility to drop that low into the squat without leaning forward or falling backward.
If you can’t get low and are wondering if it’s a structural or mechanical issue, there’s a simple test you can perform to see where the issue lies. This is vitally important if you are training a client and you are trying to get them to push deeper and deeper into a squat pattern that they legitimately can never hit because of their anatomy.
Start on the floor on all fours. You’ll need someone standing beside you to see if you pass or fail with this one. Place your hands just as wide as your shoulders and keep them under your chest. Your knees stay shoulder-width and are directly under the hips, with your toes pointed and pressed against the floor. This position now mimics the 90-degree marking of the squat. We have taken away all aspects of stability and are now just checking structure. While keeping your back completely straight, sit back on your heels. If you don’t round your back, and can sit on the heels, congrats; you now know that you don’t have bony prominences affecting your ability to drop it like it’s hot. If you can’t get low without rounding your back or feeling that terrible pinch through the front of your hips, then I have bad news for you. Well, not bad news, but just know that your squats are going to be limited. 90 degrees is going to become your best friend. I don’t see this often, but I’ve had a handful of clients over the last decade that unknowingly suffer from these anatomical abnormalities, so I restrict their movements to save their joints.
If you pass the test, but can’t squat low to save your life while standing, then you know that you’ve got some mobility/stability issues that you have to work on before your ass hits the grass.
Once you figure out if you have the appropriate hip structure to perform a proper squat, we can figure out where you like to keep your feet during this movement. I like to get clients to put their feet where it’s comfortable for them. If they aren’t pointing the toes out too aggressively to compensate for poor ankle mobility, and as long as they can drive the knees out laterally past pinky toe, then foot position is up to them.
Forward lean vs. upright torso. This has been debated for years, and it largely has to do with femoral length. The same goes for how high or low you place the bar on your back during the squat. What we’ve found is that generally, the lifters that have longer femurs tend to lean forward more to compensate for the longer limbs, which is completely fine, and adopt a lower bar position on their back to keep it centered over their hips. If the femurs are shorter, the opposite is true. Higher bar placement, and less forward lean. If you keep the strength coming from your glutes as you come out of the bottom of the squat, and don’t turn it into a good morning, then all is good in the world.
It’s now time to put this jumbled mess together and talk about the perfect execution of this movement.
Grab the bar in a place where your shoulders are comfortable and you feel “locked down” when you put the bar on your back. Set it lower on your vertebrae if you have long femurs, higher if you don’t. Unrack the bar and take a couple of steps back. Breathe. Let the weight sit and get used to how it feels. Now, place your feet in a comfortable stance and grip the floor. Create tension through your legs and pull the bar down against your back. Feel strong. Inhale a deep breath low through your diaphragm. Push it into your pelvic floor and hold it. There should be tension throughout your body. This next step is very important. Don’t unhook your pelvis when you start your movement. This happens to too many lifters. Not only does it compromise your lower back, but you lose all glute strength during the exercise. I simply mean that I don’t want you to go into any sort of anterior pelvic tilt. Keep the breath strong and start with simultaneous hip flexion and knee flexion as you drive your knees wide. Drop to YOUR squat depth, and drive back up, keeping the breath in to provide stability. Make sure that you don’t straighten the legs first, then drive the shoulders back. This decreases strength greatly and compromises form. You should rise the same way you dropped; straight down and straight back up. Once you get to the top, exhale slowly and get ready for the next rep.
Follow these rules when it comes to squatting and you should have a long and strong lifting life. If you are finding you are having any sort of pain or restrictions, then maybe the back squat isn’t for you. Getting properly assessed by a professional is something I believe everyone should do. No matter how solid you feel, a trainer can see the smaller details and can give you tips to fix compensations that you may not even realize are happening.