We will simplify the movement in terms of body parts. In general, during a loaded squat, we want the hips, knees, and ankles to flex adequately to reach the desired depth, while maintaining a “neutral spine”.
The amount that the hips, knees, and ankles must flex in order to reach the desired position depends on body structure and the athlete’s goals. Powerlifters, Olympic weightlifters, and strength and conditioning athletes may demonstrate varying ranges of motion to perform the squat, but the general pattern of the movement mentioned in the previous paragraph remains the same – flexion of hips, knees, and ankles around a neutral spine.
Now let’s define “neutral spine”. In normal resting posture, the spinal curves present with a natural lordosis in the lumbar spine, kyphosis of the thoracic spine, and lordosis of the cervical spine. These natural curves help to distribute compressive loads.
Although the normal resting curvature of the thoracic spine is kyphotic, it’s very difficult to maintain a MILD kyphosis under load, and excessive flexion through the thoracic and lumbar spine becomes more likely if position is lost. Losing position and flexing the spine under load is probably not a great idea.
So under heavy load reversal of the thoracic kyphosis of the mid and upper tspine into slight lordosis (extension) is often desirable. This gives us a balance of passive stability (bones and connective tissue) and active stability (muscles) with which to support heavy loads. I highlight “mid and upper tspine” because an excessive extension or hinging of the lower thoracic spine into the lumbar spine under heavy load can lead to issues – just as hyper-flexion under load can.
In summary, a squat requires the requisite amount of flexion at the hips, knees, and ankles with a spine that does not change in curvature during the movement. For most, the spinal curvature will reflect a mild relative extension from beginning to end. The drills described later in the article will resemble or facilitate building this pattern.
Assessment of The Squat
The assessment serves the purpose of screening the athlete for injury or pain, which is out of the scope of this article; but also gives you valuable information in regards to the athlete’s movement function or dysfunction. The goal is to differentiate the need for improved mobility or improved stability (most need some combination of both).
We will define mobility as the ability of a joint system or muscular system to move through its potential xfull range of motion, without influence from the nervous system. For example, does an athlete possess sufficient length of the heel cord and joint mechanics of the ankle in order to attain adequate dorsiflexion when squatting?
Stability can be defined as a joint or muscular system’s ability to control the mobility that it possesses, and can be static or dynamic. For example, static stability of the trunk when squatting is required to keep the spine relatively motionless, even though movement is happening elsewhere downstream. Dynamic stability of the hip joint is needed to control the relationship between the acetabulum and femur in order to achieve full depth in the squat without impingement. Stability is largely regulated by the neuromuscular system, which is considered “active stability”. “Passive stability” can be described as gaining leverage in a movement by using non-contractile tissues such as bony approximation, joint capsules, ligaments, etc. Someone who just seems to “hang on his or her ligaments” may rely on passive stabilizers. This may or may not lead to problems down the road, but it’s important to note that we need a combination of both passive and active stabilizers to squat heavy loads.
As previously mentioned, the assessment can help to differentiate these things for you.
The beginning of assessing an athlete’s (or your own) squat should begin pretty intuitively. Watch them squat. Generally speaking, starting with a more complex pattern and then breaking it down works well to lead you in the right direction. Start with an overhead squat with a weightless object such as a PVC pipe or broomstick.
I am not addressing interventions for pain in this article. If something hurts during an assessment, refer out.
Things to look for in the overhead squat:
PVC pipe/broomstick comes forward or change in shoulder position
Change in spinal curves upon descent
Unable to break 90 degrees at the hips
Any change in foot position
If you see any of these faults, move to an air squat without the overhead portion. Does the movement improve? Do you see the same faults? If taking the overhead component out helps the movement improve, the issue may be coming somewhere from the belly button up. However, this is not enough information to differentiate mobility from stability. In either case, all you know is there was movement fault, and further digging is required.
We will save outlining a full assessment protocol for another time. However, the drills outlined below will help lead you in the direction you need to go.
Building The Squatting Pattern
The following strategies to building a squat are designed to give you the reflexive ability to perform bilateral hip, knee, and ankle flexion underneath a stable trunk, while supporting load. We start with positions of high external support and low load; in order to develop the requisite mobility and stability required to attain the proper positions. The neuromuscular system will be highly involved. However, if during one of the exercises you identify a local joint or muscular system that is holding you back, there are specific mobility drills included that can augment your motor pattern training. Let the movement guide you to what you need to stretch or mobilize. Not the other way around.
We will start here. The most fundamental of all movements – breathing. A full, strong diaphragmatic inhale where the ribcage expands 360 provides us with the following benefits:
A thick, broad base with which to rest a barbell on your shoulders.
Improved thoracic mobility – think of it as mobilizing from the inside out. It is much easier to attain the mid to upper thoracic extension we desire when your ribcage is opened up.
- Reflexive abdominal contraction. When your diaphragm pushes down, your pelvic floor, abdominals, and posterior spinal stabilizers push back – creating a “canister of stability”. This will help keep your lumbar spine and pelvis from losing position during the squatting movement, without having to think as hard about keeping your abs tight.
The supine 90-90 position is easiest to practice in because it affords the most external support. 3-5 sets of 5 breaths.
This video also includes two other drills that will be described below. Keep you neck relaxed when you inhale. Another point that needs to be stressed is the importance of a full exhale on each breath. When you think you’ve gotten all the air out, keep blowing. Then pause for 2 seconds before you inhale. A full, active exhale through the mouth reflexively engages the abs, with preference to the transverse abdominus and internal obliques. Remember all that draw in bullshit? Naw. Just exhale fully. Now you’ve preset the abdominals, set a neutral ribcage position, and restored the diaphragm to its resting length. You are now primed for a massive inhale, with all the benefits described above.
The cue to exhale fully does not necessarily apply when under a heavy barbell. It is simply a drill to train the musculature of the trunk to stabilize reflexively.
Adequate hip extension and resisting an internal rotation moment is important for safe and effective squatting. The glutes come in handy here. It’s even better when you can also maintain breathing patterns and trunk position. Here are two very basic drills to grease that groove. Nail down the basics here, so that in the future simply squatting can be your main glute activating exercise.
Hip Flexor Activation
This is often a demonized muscle system. It is true that increased hip flexor tone can do some funky things to one’s hip and pelvic position while squatting, but doesn’t squatting require hip flexion? So let’s use those puppies the right way! The goal is to integrate the breath to facilitate the abdominals, in order to keep the hip flexors from tugging the pelvis out of position. Here are a couple drills that can help with that.
Now we progress into more dynamic drills where multiple joint systems are relying on each other. Quadruped is a great position to use, because it closely resembles what we need in a squat, but still provides external support (floor) to assist. Here are a couple quick drills to get comfortable keeping a neutral spine with both hips flexed past 90 degrees.
Continuing our road to a beautiful squat, we move to the half kneeling position. There is less external support, but with only one hip in flexion, we can really focus on pelvic control. Enter the split squat… Three variations are included here in ascending order of difficulty.
Ok, let’s squat for real now. The goblet squat is an absolutely fantastic teaching tool for finding your bottom position. The weight can be used as a counter balance, so that you focus on your position without falling on your ass. Also, focus on your foot position. You should maintain three points of contract – big toe, little toe, and heel. You should feel the arch on the inside of your foot as much as you feel the lateral edge of your foot. The amount of ‘toe out’ depends on the individual. Do what’s comfortable, as long as you can maintain your foot position throughout the squat, and your knees hinge naturally over the line of the second toe. With these things in place, there is no knees out, knees in, knees back, etc, etc. There is just squat. Sit down and stand up.
Typically, with most things in the gym, the goal is to progress with heavier weight; and one can absolutely progress a goblet squat with heavier weight. However, for the purpose of this article, progressing to a lighter and lighter kettlebell will force your abs to be a natural counterbalance instead of the external weight.
Remember that overhead squat that we assessed earlier? Let’s work on it. Even if overhead squatting or barbell snatching is not part of your training, having the ability to perform a respectable overhead squat indicates that your squat game is probably ready for some serious loading. It is a very demanding position, requiring the right amount of mobility and stability in all the right places. Here’s a drill to play with. In the video a PVC pipe is used, but a barbell can be used as well.
Now, as I said before, if during any of those drills you felt a sticky joint or muscle group, mobility work is appropriate. We need mobility. In fact, we need mobility before stability. There is no sense in trying to stabilize a joint that cannot move. However, many people spend most of their time trying to improve the mobility side of the spectrum, and neglect the fact that stability must be layered on top. Going from the foam roller straight to the squat rack does not work for everyone. That is why these drills are included last. In reality, they may come first or in the middle of your movement prep.
In a squat, the hip joint does not just simply flex and extend in the sagittal plane. There is accessory rotation taking place, both internally and externally of the hip joint depending on which phase of the movement you are in, and if you are referring to the acetabulum moving on the femur, or femur moving on acetabulum. To keep it simple, just know you need adequate (not necessarily excessive) levels of both. If you have shored up your breathing and trunk/pelvic stability game, but still feel like you hips are restricted, give these a shot to improve the seating of your hip joint.
The ankle takes a lot of blame for bad squatting. In reality, clearing up your trunk stability and hip mobility probably gives you more bang for your buck. However, ankles can definitely play a role in regards to limiting squat depth, especially if you’ve had a history of sprains. Here’s a variation of a common drill that seems to work well to clear space in that pesky joint.
The lat can be a real pain in the ass. Not only does it pull the shoulder into internal rotation and can depress the entire complex, but it can pull your lower back into hyper-lordosis because of it’s attachment to the thoracolumbar fascia. This can be an issue in any of the three major barbell squat variations – front, back, or overhead. Forget hitting a decent bottom position… For someone with overactive lats, just setting up on the bar can be difficult.
Here is a breathing drill to start with before you start cranking on anything. The spinal flexion combined with deep breathing can help to inhibit the extensor tone that the lat can facilitate. 3-5 sets of 5 breaths
Hit some of these stretches afterwards to improve your positioning in the set up of the squat, your overhead squat position, and in the descent. The goal is to attain a moderate stretch in the lat, and then take full diaphragmatic breaths to expand the ribcage against the stretch.
Thoracic spine restriction can hinder your squat by making it very difficult to remain upright in the hole, or to properly set up on the bar. If the tspine doesn’t move, other areas must take up the slack. Often you may see excessive motion in the cervical and lumbar spine to compensate; or cranking on the shoulder joint in an effort to maintain position. The things mentioned already should have done a decent job of restoring flexion and extension of the tspine; but for that last little bit, a bit of extension work can really put your tspine game over the top. Do not crank yourself in rotation that you do not have, but move smoothly into the range you have, and breath your way to more.
Hamstring tightness inhibiting the squat is a bit of a misnomer. Sure the hamstring are lengthened at the hip joint as you descent, but they are shortened at the knee. So it is a bit of a wash. The hamstrings are important, however, in opposing the erectors and hip flexors by keeping your pelvis from excessively anteriorly tilting while you descend. If you insist on stretching your hamstrings, do this drill; where you are also incorporating trunk and pelvic control. Exhale fully and forcefully as you lower the leg.
You now have some tools to help you build and improve your squat pattern, as well as strategies to maintain it. Give the progression a shot, and find what combination of movements work best for you. Some people need little squat prep, others need more. However, this can give you a starting point in regards to identifying your specific limitations, and strategies to start correcting them.