Squats, for some this word means fun, for others it means torture. Is it going to be the first complex we want to do or the last one hoping we run out of time? Which one will it be? Hopefully the former one by the end of this post! Squats have been a part of strength training for decades (if not centuries). The biomechanical patterns of squats are utilized daily. For example, walking up and down the stairs, standing up from a chair, getting out of a bathtub, etc. So why wouldn’t we train them? From a recreational standpoint, squats should be one of the main movements exercised. Moreover, squats exercise more than just the quadriceps muscles (quads for short). The other primary moves aside from the quads are the glute muscles. Most variations of a squat will also exercise the spinal erectors, muscles of the core (including lower back and abdominal muscles), and even larger muscles of the back and calves as stabilizers. Hamstring contribution during the squat has been a topic of research and we still do not know a definite answer, and that is the reason why we are not going to state whether the hamstring gets stronger or not. However, a proper squat will keep the hamstrings healthier than a partial squat.
What should a proper squat look like? It depends on one’s anatomy, but in a proper squat the body or other resistance should be moving in a line on the way toward the ground as well as on its way up. The hips and the shoulders should rise at the same rate. The thigh bone, the femur, should come parallel with the floor (parallel squats) to assure proper activation of the quads. Ability to perform a deeper than a parallel squat (full squat) is even more efficient for strength gains. When performing a full squat, the lower back tends to start rounding, a phenomena called “butt wink” (possible future post) as a result of tight hips which can cause injuries to the lower back at heavy weights. That’s why we teach our clients to come to the parallel position in their squats. The foot position will once again depend on one’s anatomy, but in most cases a slight toeing-out is to be performed, with the heel staying on the ground the entire time.
How can we perfect our squat technique? It all starts at the ankle. Ankle mobility is incredibly important during a squat as it can determine how the rest of the body will move. Do we want our ankles to be mobile or stiff? Mobile, definitely mobile. A stiff ankle can cause the torso to lean too far forward during a squat in order to maintain control over the center of gravity. Wait, did we just connect the position of the torso to ankle mobility? Why yes, we did! A stiff ankle will cause the shin to be more upright which would be compensated for by an excessive forward lean during a squat. See the figure below for a graphical representation of upper body position in relation to ankle mobility.
The very next joint above the ankle is the knee joint. We have already mentioned the function of the knee joint in a previous post (ACL Injuries). We also described the relationship of the femur and the tibia (shin bone) during flexion and extension of the knee in the same post. According to a study by Hartmann et al. (2013), performing parallel or full squats kept the knees healthier in the long run. Unless there are degenerative issues occurring in the knee joints, we should be performing full or at least parallel squats. Practicing full range of motion during a squat (or any exercise for that matter) increases the flexibility of joints and keeps the soft tissue (muscle, tendon, fascia) healthy. Therefore strength training does not make you “muscle-bound”. In order to develop strong glutes, which are in a lot of cases underactive, we must make sure to push our knees over our toes on our way to the top of a squat. That is why we often have you use a small resistance band when performing squats.
Next stop, hips! Arguably the most overlooked joint in the human body. Hips create frontal, lateral, and rotational movements of the body and that is why they need to be trained in those ways (another possible future topic). Hip flexors do the exact opposite movement as the glutes, and therefore tight hip flexors can cause underactive glutes during the squat as the torso will once again be forced into a forward lean. Tight hip flexors can also cause low-back pain (definitely a future topic) and above mentioned “butt wink”.
The spine should remain neutral throughout the duration of a squat. In order to do this, we must isometrically contract our abdominal muscles. Inward or outward rounding of the lower back can both attribute to incidence of spondylolisthesis when using very heavy loads (Meyerding, 1931). Studies have found core strengthening along with spinal erector and lower back strengthening to reduce incidence of low back pain (Hodges & Richardson, 1998; Jeng, 1999; Norris, 1993; Pollock et al., 1989). That’s why we do all those planks! In simple terms keep your back flat, like you would in a plank, a good morning, or a renegade row
At SLHF, we truly care about each and every client, we want everyone to live the healthiest and fittest lives they can. Please do not hesitate to tell us that something feels tight and stops you from performing full range of motion during any exercise, we have tools and exercises (even at home exercises) that can fix this issue.
Feet should be slightly toed-out, heels stay on the ground
Lower hips directly toward the ground without excessive forward lean
On the way up, knees should be pushed out over the toes to assure proper gluteal activation
Back should remain flat without excessive bending of the neck
Hips and shoulders should rise at the same rate
Core should remain activated throughout the entire exercise
Hartmann H., et al. Analysis of the load on the knee joint and vertebral column with changes in squatting depth and weight load. Sports Medicine. 2013; 43(10): 993-1008.
Hodges PW, Richardson CA. Delayed postural contractions of the transversus abdominis in low back pain associated with movement of the lower extremity. Journal of Spinal Disorders. 1998; 11: 46-56.
Jeng S. Lumbar spine stabilization exercise. Hong Kong Journal of Sports Medicine and Sport Science. 1999; 8: 59-64.
Meyerding HW. Spondylolisthesis. The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery. 1931; 13(1): 39-48.
Norris CM. Abdominal muscle training in sport. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 1993; 27: 19-27.
Pollock ML, Leggett SH, Graves JE, Jones A, Fulton M, Cirulli J. Effect of resistance training on lumbar extension strength. American Journal of Sports Medicine. 1989; 17: 624-629.