Breaking down the Squat – What makes a ‘good’ squat?

What makes a good squat? Or even an acceptable squat?

The ideal squat is a hotly debated topic in the health and fitness world, but with so many opinions out there it can get very confusing to know if you are completing this fundamental movement ‘correctly’.

Having worked with countless clients, both in the strengthen and conditioning realm, and the rehab and pain management realm, I have seen time and time again the results of poor movement, as well as poor or misunderstood coaching and advice. From research, experience, and working with other health professionals I am confident in prescribing to the general rule that: everyone’s squat is their own!

Yep that’s right, everyone will have a slightly different approach, technique and range depending on their individual makeup, strength and preferences.

So what makes a squat a good one? Below I will discuss a few things I believe form the foundation of a safe and efficient squat pattern.

Anatomical Variance

Anatomical variance plays a large role in how someone can safely perform a squat. Generally this variance has more to do with a persons bones than anything, particularly the length of the tibia (lower leg bone) compared to the length of the femur (upper leg bone), as well as the size and shape of the femoral head the and acetabulum (the two bones that form the hip joint). The individual makeup of these will effect the available depth and the alignment of the lower limbs and feet while preforming the movement, as well as influence the forces placed through each joint. The relationship between the length of the bones and someone’s ability to squat can be seen really well in the video below:

In regards to the hip joint, the depth of the socket and the size of the humeral head will determine how much the joint will move before boney contact stops further movement. Painful conditions such as Femeroacetabular Impringement (FAI) occur when there is too much bone around the anterior/superior aspect of the joint, on either bone, causing the surfaces to be in contact with each other abnormally. Whether this condition is painful or not will effect how a person squats.


Squat Alignment

Good alignment is a big coaching point for me when teaching or correcting squat patterns. The alignment of a good squat will depend on the anatomical makeup of the individual, and how the movement is loaded. Ideally we like to see the load directly over the mid foot to evenly distribute the load over the whole foot. So depending on if you are loading from the front or the back it will change the pattern quite a bit.

With a front loaded squat (image below right) the torso should be more upright, making the torso and lower leg angles different. 

With a back loaded squat (image below left) the torso and lower leg should have roughly the same angle and therefore appear parallel.

Back Squat v Front Squat
Image courtesy of Google Images

Now in order to make this nice alignment happen, a few things need to occur which people tend to struggle with: the ankle must be able to dorsi flex (decrease in angle), the knees/line of the femur should point over the 2nd/3rd toes, and the lower back needs to remain in a relatively neutral position. We’ll discuss more about the lower back and knees pointing over toes component later in motor control. So for now we’ll focus on dorsi flexion.

Ankle Dorsi Flexion

When the ankle dorsi flexes during the descending phase of the squat the knee will move forward, and depending on the length of your bones, the knee might track forward of the toes. Despite the popular notion that knees forward of toes is bad for your knees, this position is quite safe, and very necessary to maintain balance. It also avoids getting into a position that generates extreme forces on the lower back. The greater the amount of hip flexion when compared to knee flexion, the greater the forces on lower back. Referring to the pictures above, you can see the relationship of back, hips, knees and ankles are different in each set up.

But how do I increase ankle dorsi flexion? This video by Dr John Rusin (2017) goes through a simple technique that can be used to mobilise the ankle.


Squat Motor Control

Two of the main issues I see with squat patterns are motor control issues, where the person cannot maintain a neural spine causing lumbar flexion, as well as sacral counter-nutation, which is otherwise referred to as a butt wink. The other motor control issue is where the persons knees cave in.

Butt Wink

A butt wink is generally seen as a bad thing that puts the lower back at risk, this is true for the most part, however when the person undertaking the squat displays control of the ‘wink’ both into the wink and out of the wink, then many believe, myself included, that this is a perfectly acceptable movement.

Like every thing in movement, health, and fitness, good points can be made for both sides. From my own experience squatting with a well controlled butt wink has not resulted in pain even with heavy load and repetitions. So as long as the athlete can maintain good control of their wink, then coaching it out of them may be a pointless exercises.

Knee Cave in – aka medial knee displacement

Knees caving in can mostly be attributed to a lack of strength in the hips and somewhat to do with the feet and ankles, as feet and ankles that cave in will in most cases drag the knees inwards with them. Not in all cases, but enough to be note worthy. Limited movement of the ankle, in particular (but not limited to) poor dorsi flexion, will also contribute to the knees caving in while squatting. Weakness in the gluteus maximus and gluteus medius, the two main muscles that keep the knees out and in alignment while squatting, will need to be assessed to make sure they are activating and are adequately strong enough to resist the inward forces on the thighs while squatting.

So my hips are found to be weak, what should I do?

A way to strengthen the muscles of the hips while squatting has traditionally been to wrap a resistance band around the knees. The intent was to activate the glutes while the squatter actively resists the inward force of the band. However recent studies have shown that this did little to stop the knees from caving in, and instead a targeted hip (and ankle) strengthening and flexibility program yielded improvements in knee cave in (Bell et al. 2013).

I have found good body awareness, good coaching, and foot strengthening to be best ways of correcting this issue. Being aware of where your knees are in space and actively working to keep them out and in alignment, working with loads that you are able to control the alignment of the knees, having someone keep a close eye on you, and strengthening the feet, hips and trunk, should all be front line ways to correct knee cave in.


Squat Depth


Your anatomical makeup, your flexibility, and your motor control all determine the actual physical depth of the your squat. A one size fits all approach to this is definitely a bad idea! Trying to force depth onto a body that is not structurally made up to do so, or does not have the required motor control risks not only short term injury, but long term issues. However the depth of you squat should also be determined by your training goals! As the specificity of your training program should line up with your overall intended outcome.

Limit your depth to match desired outcome

A 2016 study by Rhea et al. has shown that participants who performed quarter depth squat training had greater improvements in athletic performance measures, including vertical leap and 40 yard sprinting times, when compared to those undertaking full or half depth squats. As the joint angles displayed during a quarter squat are similar to that seen during sprinting and jumping, this makes the quarter squat a far more specific movement for those activities. Keeping in mind a quarter squat can be loaded far heavier than a full depth squat, so adjust your loading depending on your ability, your desired depth, and your intended training outcome.

Mobility is important

Mobility/flexibility factors particularly in the hips and ankle will play a role in your squat depth. If you hips are tight and you lack dorsi flexion on the ankles you wont be able to squat to full depth without compromising good form and risking injury. Talk to your coach or myotherapist for specific hip mobility drills to unlock your hips!


The End Game

So there you have it! Some food for thought on what constitutes a ‘good’ squat. Key points I would like to emphasise are:

1. Your squat is your own! So work in a pattern that you are comfortable with and feels natural. Don’t fight your anatomy!

2. Focus on motor control of the spine and hips before loading the movement.

3. Ankle dorsi flexion is super important (in case you haven’t read that enough yet!), and knee forward of toes is not necessarily a bad thing.

4. Be specific as you can be with your squat programming depth and loading. This applies to your training in general.

If you are experiencing pain while squatting, have your movement assessed by a trained professional, it is amazing what a good pair of eyes can reveal to you about how you move. Remember injury and pain are likely to occur if poor technique and movement patterns are left unchecked.

Happy lifting squatters!


Written by Dan Hammond, Myotherapist (Bachelor Health Science – Myotherapy) and Master Functional Trainer (CertIV Fitness). 2018

References:

1. Bell, D. R., Oates, D. C., Clark, M. A., & Padua, D. A. (2013). Two-and 3-dimensional knee valgus are reduced after an exercise intervention in young adults with demonstrable valgus during squatting. Journal of athletic training48(4), 442-449.

2. Rhea, M. R., Kenn, J. G., Peterson, M. D., Massey, D., Simão, R., Marín, P. J., Favero, M., Cardozo, D., & Krein, D. (2016). “Joint-angle specific strength adaptations influence improvements in power in highly trained athletes,” Human Movement, 17(1), DOI: 10.1515/humo-2016-0006

3. PersonalTraining.com. (2015). Squats Part 1: Fold-Ability and Proportions. Viewed 15 December 2018 at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Av3LO2GwpAk

4. Dr John Rusin. (2017). Manual Ankle Dorsiflexion Mobilization. Viewed 19 February 2019 at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=llLAV7D3U4w

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