by Erwin Seguia
Let’s talk about squatting:
Whether you are a recreational, office league, semi-professional, or elite athlete, squats are an important movement that any individual should be able to perform with a good amount of form. Regardless of sport, the squat is an essential movement, which is a basis for movements not limited to running or jumping. This article, the first of four, will briefly discuss mechanics, proper cueing, benefits, and proper equipment. Through this series, I hope to impart some of my knowledge, mixed with updated evidence from articles and literature, with some dry and stupid humor betwixt it all. Now, there is an unlimited amount of topics that I initially wanted to discuss, but let’s keep it simple (as best I can) for now.
As a Physical Therapist, it is surprising to see the amount of people who I treat (and observe) who have trouble being able to perform a proper squat. Interestingly enough, we are all initially hardwired to perform a proper squat from birth. Shenanigans, you say? Let’s observe.
The picture above is explanatory enough. Note the upright torso where the head is looking forward and/or upward, the chest and spine are in a neutral position, the butt is straight back, which causes the weight to sit on the heels of the feet, and the knees do not move forward over the big toes. Why we move away from this position as we age is an answer that is beyond me – be it injuries, decreased flexibility, or laziness, but it is important to replicate this form to decrease stress on the knees, among other issues.
Let’s discuss proper form from the head down moving segment by segment:
Head position: Your head should be in a neutral or extended position throughout the squat, looking straight forward, or you can look at a point 10-15 feet on the floor in front of you.
This is something that I have seen in practice – the lumbar spine’s (lower back) motion will follow cervical spine (neck) motion. As a result, looking down at the floor (a common practice) may cause the Lumbar spine to round out, and vice versa — looking up or keeping the head looking forward will keep the lumbar in a neutral position.
Long story short, any deviation of the head forward will throw the spinal posture into a poor position that can compromise core stability during your squat.
Spine and Trunk: Your spine should be in a neutral position with the chest upwards throughout the whole movement during the squat. If you look at any powerlifter or Olympic lifter performing any squat (Front/Back/Overhead), you will notice that their trunk will look the same throughout the descent and ascent phase of the squat.
Here’s a video – skip to 3:39
Depending on your style of squat (Box versus Traditional versus Powerlifting, which will be discussed another time) your posture will vary, but variations in the spine will cause a shift in your center of mass (COM) and as a result, your body will adjust accordingly.
In the literature, a study done by McKean et al. (2010), which analyzed lumbar and sacral movement during a squat, found that having a stance wider than shoulder width showed decreased lumbar flexion (bending) during a squat in both men and women. 1 This is something to be aware of depending on your mobility issues.
From my experience, I have seen poor trunk control attributed to decreased core strength or even flexibility at the hip. This is evident in a forward trunk lean during the entire squat movement where the whole upper body will come forward.
Hips: This depends on the goals for your squatting in terms of hip versus knee strengthening. For today, we will discuss hip strengthening – so you will want to sit your butt straight back as if you were skiing. Skiing? Let’s look at a picture of Lindsey Vonn.
Kidding. Sort of.
Note the position of her butt. Jokes aside, at the bottom of the squat, the position of the hips should be as if you were trying to sit in a chair too far from you, which will decrease muscular stress on the quadriceps and activate the gluteus maximus (what everyone thinks of when they think of ass, obviously). But seriously, she’s got a big butt.
When rising from the bottom of the squat position, you want to think about squeezing your butt cheeks together while standing up. Another issue here may be hip flexibility in the hip flexors or hamstrings, which will prevent you from getting into a deep squat or even maintaining a neutral spine throughout the squat.
Knees: If you looked down, or if someone was observing your knee from the side, your knees should not go in front of your big toes during the downward phase of your squat. While this is again subjective and depends on your goals, there is a decrease on knee joint forces when the tibia stays in an almost upright position (a la baby picture earlier in the article).
A study done by a professor of mine at NYU shows that stress at the knees is less during a front squat compared to a back squat, and shows that lighter weight of a front squat shows the same activation with less shear forces at both the knees and spine. This will be discussed in the next article in the squat series.2 Lorenzetti et al. (2012) discuss decreased reaction moments and stress in the knee when the knee is allowed to travel forward over the big toe as well, which may make your knees happier when you are performing a squat.3
Another cue is to make sure your knees stay in line with your feet during the descent and especially during the ascent phase of the squat. Moving away from this line will cause stress to the respective part of your knee (medial or lateral menisci). While one or two workouts like this will not be initially bad, years of improper mechanics during the squat will cause long term damage to your knees, and you don’t want that.
Ankles and Feet: Your feet should be around shoulder width, and your toes can be pointed outwards slightly depending on your ankle mobility. Your weight should be in the heels while you are descending, and when ascending, you should be thinking about pushing through your heels, which helps to activate your tush (yes, I said tush). Like at the knees, movement of the knee in front of the big toe or getting into a deep squat requires ankle mobility.
Tight calves and decreased dorsiflexion (moving your foot towards your shin) will limit your ability to get into a deep squat.
What a load of information. Ready for more?
The benefits of squats are plentiful and glorious for every person no matter the individual. For the college-age girl or even young professional who is striving to look good in that dress or pair of pants, or the lay man who is looking to improve their 5k or even half-marathon time, there are plenty of studies that show squats benefit athletic activity.
Escamilla et al. (2001) discuss the benefit of proper squat form in knee rehabilitation which benefits the hips, knees, and ankles4, while Felicio et al (2011) showed they also improve quadriceps and gluteus medius activation.5
There are multiple studies that have shown the benefit of squats related to explosive force production6 and increased peak power, force, and velocity7 in rugby players.
Want to increase your vertical? Moir et al. (2011) discuss protocols that improved countermovement vertical jumps in NCAA DII Volleyball players.8
Lastly, let’s discuss equipment use.
Giorcelli et al. (2001) concluded that subjects with belts lift slower and demonstrate a more efficient squat lifting technique than those who did not lift small or heavy boxes without belts.9
My opinion in terms of equipment use during exercise is very minimalistic. I don’t use a back belt during heavy squats (my 1RM is somewhere in between 275 and 300 something lbs.) and I feel that the use of a back belt is analogous to using a crutch while walking. I understand the use of back belts during heavy squats over 300 pounds, but feel that the use of those below 300 pounds means that you should probably be working on core strengthening.
Olympic Lifting Shoes?
Sato et al. (2012) observed kinematic changes in subjects that used weightlifting shoes during a barbell back squat and found that the inclination of the heels helps to prevent forward trunk lean during the descent/ascent phase, as well as increase quadriceps activation.10
I personally don’t have weightlifting shoes, due to my minimalistic equipment mindset, but these can be easily replaced by putting 2.5 or 5 lb plates underneath your heels (especially if you’re a broke former graduate student). However, nothing can replace proper lifting technique.
The next article in this four-part series will discuss front versus back squat mechanics, squat depth, and programming.
Erwin Seguia is a Physical Therapist at Therapeutic Inspirations in New York City who loves to treat shoulder and knee injuries. On the side, he serves as an on-site Physical Therapist at CrossFit Concrete Jungle and other CrossFit gyms in the New York City area and is a freelance Personal Trainer to private clients. When not in the clinic or pretending to be able to lift light, light weights with good form in a fast manner, he spends his time kicking a football (not American) around the various parks in the NY Metro area, living vicariously through his Fifa14 Be a Pro, and demonstrating his lethal ability on big maps with a G36 RDS in MW3 and his ineptitude in finding the melee button in CQC. Please feel free to shoot him an email with any questions on any topics, health or physical therapy related or anything else appropriate, that you would like him to discuss.
- McKean MR, Dunn PK, Burkett BJ. Quantifying the movement and the influence of load in the back squat exercise. J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Jun;24(6):1671-9. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181d8eb4e.
- Gullett JC, Tilman MD, Gutierrez GM, Chow JW. A Biomechanical Comparison of Back and Front Squats in Healthy Trained Individuals. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Jan; 23(1) 284-292.
- 3. Lorenzetti S, Gülay T, Stoop M, List R, Gerber H, Schellenberg F, Stüssi E. Comparison of the angles and corresponding moments in the knee and hip during restricted and unrestricted squats. J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Oct;26(10):2829-36.
- Escamilla RF. Knee biomechanics of the dynamic squat exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2001 Jan;33(1):127-41.
- Felício LR, Dias LA, Silva AP, Oliveira AS, Bevilaqua-Grossi D. Muscular activity of patella and hip stabilizers of healthy subjects during squat exercises. Rev Bras Fisioter. 2011 May-Jun;15(3):206-11.
- 6. Turner AP, Unholz C, Potts N, Coleman SG. Peak power, force and velocity during jump squats in professional rugby players: Power, force & velocity during jump squats. J Strength Cond Res. 2011 Sep 9.
- 7. Turner AP, Unholz C, Potts N, Coleman SG. Peak power, force and velocity during jump squats in professional rugby players: Power, force & velocity during jump squats. J Strength Cond Res. 2011 Sep 9.
- Moir GL, Mergy D, Witmer C, Davis SE. The acute effects of manipulating volume and load of back squats on countermovement vertical jump performance. J Strength Cond Res. 2011 Jun;25(6):1486-91. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181da8597.
- Giorcelli RJ, Hughes RE, Wassell JT, Hsiao H. The effect of wearing a back belt on spine kinematics during asymmetric lifting of large and small boxes. Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 2001 Aug 15;26(16):1794-8.
- Sato K, Fortenbaugh D, Hydock DS. Kinematic changes using weightlifting shoes on barbell back squat. J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Jan;26(1):28-33. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e318218dd64.