There is no such thing as “perfect form.”
Deal with it.
This is a subject I’ve been known to wax poetic about from time to time. If you meet me in real life, feel free to ask me about “perfect form,” and hear the complete hour-long lecture/rant. But for this medium, I’ll keep it snappy.
First off, we have to ask ourselves: “why are we trying to find a perfect form to begin with?”
My guess is that it comes out of the assumptions the modern (as opposed to postmodern) world is built on. Everything is knowable. With the great, omniscient tool of Science, we can understand the workings of any system to determine how to optimize its function. The universe and everything in it works just like clockwork, so all we have to do is figure out how all the pieces of each clock function, and we’ll know how to make it work perfectly. This is the type of thinking that leads people to ask questions like, “what’s the best diet?” or “what’s the best program?” or “what is perfect form?”
This type of thinking was discarded in just about every branch of science and philosophy by the 1920s (perhaps retained as an ideal, but not as something actually attainable in the vast majority of cases), but it’s still alive and well in our common cultural consciousness. Especially in biology – like when we’re talking about us and our bodies – statements involving words like “perfect,” “optimal,” and “universal” have no place whatsoever, unless they’re used as a shorthand for an idea along the lines of “pretty good,” or, “the best we can do with what we know now.” Along those lines, we’re pretty good at being able to make statements of “better” and “worse” in a lot of general cases, but even such judgements in those general cases can’t be mapped directly onto all specific cases. Even if we could know the truth about perfect form for an exercise for the theoretical average person, you couldn’t treat that as applicable in all cases.
With that philosophical rambling out of the way, I want to show you some reasons why this is the case. I’ll use the squat to illustrate.
1. Different limb lengths
Leonardo Di Vinci’s Vitruvian Man may have had idealized “average” proportions, but odds are that you don’t. In a population, there are characteristic average lengths for each bone in relation to your total height. However, your segment lengths may differ by a few percents, throwing off the goal of finding “optimal” mechanics.
Take, for example, the torso and femur. The femur is, on average, about 24% of the total height of the body. The trunk is about 29.5%. How long your femurs are in relation to your torso will largely determine how far forward to have to lean at the bottom of a squat. Someone with shorter femurs and a longer torso, relatively, will be able to stay fairly upright and have a strong bottom position with almost any squat form. Someone with longer femurs and a shorter torso will have to lean quite a bit farther forward.
What may be “optimal” for the average person with 24/29.5 proportions will be increasingly less appropriate as someone’s segment lengths get further and further from average relative lengths.
2. Different anatomical features
For the squat, hip anatomy alters how (or if) you’ll best be able to squat to depth, and it can alter how much tension is on each muscle that flexes, extends, or causes rotation at the hips. Some people have hips that let them squat below parallel with a really wide stance, but that stop them well above parallel with a narrow stance. Others have hips that let them drop their butt onto their ankles with their heels touching, but that limit depth as soon as they get barely outside shoulder width.
Factors such as where the hip socket is placed on the pelvis, the shape of the pelvis itself, the angle and rotation of the femoral neck, and the depth of the hip socket all influence what types of squat forms will be better or worse for each individual. This is a subject that has been written about in quite a bit of depth here, so for the purposes of this discussion, I’ll just leave it at that.
Furthermore, there are variations in knee anatomy that influence proper knee tracking. Some people have femoral condyles that are about the same length, while for others the medial condyle is quite a bit longer. This influences how the joint will move and how much stress will be on the menisci and ligaments with various degrees of knee flexion, hip abduction, and femoral rotation.
3. Different training goals
Let’s say you want to squat the most weight humanly possible to just below parallel for the sport of powerlifting. A slightly wider stance that allows you to use your hips more and that will stop you just below parallel due to a powerful stretch reflex is probably your best bet.
Let’s say you want to grow some mammoth quads for the bodybuilding stage, or increase your leg strength for weightlifting. Since quad activation increases with squat depth, the technique that allows you to squat as deep and upright as possible will be more appropriate.
Even if you could determine the “perfect” way to squat, such a declaration would still have to be placed in the context of what, exactly, you were trying to accomplish by squatting since different techniques are more or less appropriate for different purposes.
4. Different injury and training histories
Different people have different strengths and weaknesses that determine what positions they’ll be stronger in. If you have an absurdly strong posterior chain, the flat-soled, incredibly hip-dominant squat may be the best way for you to move the most weight. If you’ve got Tom Platz’s quads, a purposefully hip-dominant squat takes your greatest asset out of play.
Furthermore, what if you have a injury to your knee, or an ankle mobility restriction? For you, the “best” squat form would be the one that allows you to train around your restrictions pain-free, “optimal” mechanics be damned.
So what do we do about it?
Stop trying to cram yourself into a restrictive box, or waste your time seeking out “perfect” form. Embrace your individuality and differences.
You may see that most great powerlifters squat a certain way. Is that because it’s the universal best way to squat for powerlifting, or because most great squatters have similar physical characteristics that cause a certain range of techniques to give them the best results?
You may see that most great weightlifters squat a certain way. Is that because it’s the universal best way to squat for weightlifting, or because most great weightlifters have similar characteristics that allow them to excel in their sport? I’m talking primarily about depth in this instance – the best weightlifters are the best, among other things, because they’re the ones who can get the lowest. They may all be able to squat ass-to-grass, but that doesn’t mean everyone can.
Instead of chasing perfection, chase “better.”
Instead of trying to find “optimal” technique, learn how to troubleshoot.
Troubleshooting is the most important skill you can develop as an athlete or coach.
Play with your stance width, your footwear, how much you point your toes, how much you abduct your hips, how far forward your knees track, your bar position, whether you break at the hips or knees first, etc. If you try something, it feels better for you, and it lets you (depending on the reason you’re squatting) move more weight or train the squat harder, then that’s better. It may or may not be better for most people, but that’s irrelevant. It’s better for you, and that’s what matters. And better is the best you’re going to do.