Ah the squat. A great exercise and probably one of the greatest topics of debate in the fitness industry. I am not here to prove anyone else wrong or get crazy specific with technique (even though it is needed sometimes). I just want to impart what general wisdom that I do have to those who are either brand new to squatting or for novice lifters who have never looked at the details.
Squatting is a very natural human movement. Technically we are designed to squat all the way down to the ground with little to no restrictions. Sadly, however, our modern day habits have morphed us into sedentary chair lovers. Our nervous systems have to deal with so much stimulation that many of us have just become giant blobs of stress, which means tight tissues for everyone!
Luckily exercise and daily self TLC can help combat this chronic state of stress. When you go to do your squat at first, I am willing to bet that you probably have a mobility restriction somewhere. Don’t panic. You can still squat, but you will definitely need to find a good coach to help you increase your mobility so that you can continue to get better. Eventually you will be a squatting champ! Well, maybe not a champ, but you will at least be able to squat safely and experience the benefits of a strong lower bod.
I will try to cover the most important parts of the squat technique. This will cover the bodyweight squat but the majority of this technique will apply to loaded versions of the squat like barbell squats, kettlebell front squats, etc. Let’s get to it!
Rule # 1. Maintain a NEUTRAL SPINE
Your spine has natural curvature. The Lower spine has a natural lordotic curve and your T-spine has a slight rounded curve. When your upper back has an excessive curve it is called kyphosis and when your lower spine has an excessive curve it is called hyperlordosis. Essentially your spine should resemble a very slight S. When your spine looks like a very pronounced S, that’s when you can run into problems. If that is the case, then you need to find a way to fix your posture. A good corrective exercise specialist or therapist can help with that. In extreme cases sometimes surgery is needed.
If you have a generally healthy spine, then keeping it neutral means keeping it in the position that you would have it in if you were standing up very straight. This does not mean creating excessive spinal extension. I usually tell people to have a “proud chest.” This will usually get people to go from a rounded posture to a tall, flat backed posture. If you ever see someone whole walks with confidence, they probably have their head up, their shoulders are not rounded forward, and their chest doesn’t look like its hiding from the world. This is the position that your spine should be in for the squat. If you sit down most of your day then you likely have some degree of that kyphotic and/or hyperlordotic posture that I explained earlier. Again, I cannot stress enough how important it is to work on correcting your posture. Otherwise you may end up with musculoskeletal problems down the road. No Bueno!
During the squat the head can be up and slightly extended (slightly tilted back) or completely neutral if you'd like to be 100% by the book. You just want to make sure that you are not maximally extending the cervical (neck) spine even though its probably what you will instinctively want to do.
Simply put, for a neutral spine position your back should be one straight line from head to tailbone. (See image below)
Rule # 2. BRACE, BRACE, BRACE!
This next point is very important. When I learned to do this, my lower back stopped hurting and I was able to lift significantly more weight. Bracing is generally characterized by maintaining tight abdominals throughout a certain movement. Keeping your ribs down and abs tight creates more rigidity in the torso and helps you to maintain that neutral spine that we just talked about. Breathing correctly plays a role in this too, but for now I just want to emphasize the tights abs. If you forget to brace your abs, chances are that you will begin to compensate by excessively extending your back and using your lower back muscles. In the squat, this can be problematic, especially if we have weight on our back. The combination of a neutral spine and tight abs makes for a strong torso throughout the squat. The two tactics work in synergy. One helps to maintain the other.
In terms of breathing, you want to start your inhale just as you are starting to sink down into your squat. There will be a brief period where you might want to hold your breath. In my opinion, you do not want to hold your breath for very long at all as this can lead to too much intra-abdominal pressure. If you hold your breath as you push back up from the bottom of the squat, then you could be at a higher risk of injury. You could develop a hernia for example. What works for me is an inhale at the top and finishing the inhale on the way down, then a brief hold at the bottom, followed by a strong exhale on the way up. Some people like to inhale at the top, hold as they sink and then exhale on the way up. Figure out a sequence that works well for you, but just remember not to hold your breath on the way up from the squat.
Rule # 3. Leg & Foot Position
This is right around the time when the debate for squat technique starts to get crazy. I will explain what has worked well for my clients and me. Remember that everyone has different levels of mobility. Some people can squat from any angle and others are limited to one or two variations. For the standard squat, having your feet anywhere from shoulder width to about 10 inches outside of shoulder width apart seems to work for most people. Any narrower and you start to see more restrictions in mobility, though not always and only if you are trying to go for depth, which I will explain next. Any wider and you might as well do a sumo squat. Still, if you find a range outside of what I recommend that is comfortable for you then more power to you. I like to have my stance a fairly wide as this feels the most stable for me. (See image below)
As for the feet, you have two options. You can either keep your feet pointed forward or turned out up to 30 degrees. Again, if we were doing a sumo squat then we would allow for more foot turn out, but in this case we want to be in a stable position where we are not constantly fighting to keep our knees from falling in and having our feet over-pronate. Keeping the feet in one of these two positions is the standard. If you struggle to be in either position, then you know that you have some mobility work to do. Do not fret though, you can still do other squat progressions that will assist you in gaining the mobility that you need.
Toes out roughly 30 degrees
Rule # 4. Hip Position, Squat Depth & The Butt Wink
Yet another topic of debate is what to do with the hips when sitting down into the squat. There is more than one way to skin a cat, so I am not going to say that the way that I am about to explain it is the end all, beat all. However, when I was coached to change my form, I was able to use my glute, hip and pelvic muscles a whole lot more.
When I coach the squat I tell people to keep their whole foot on the ground, but put 60% of the weight in the back half of the foot. I simultaneously tell them to sit back into their hips like they are sitting back into a chair. Some coaches do not like this cue for various reasons, one major one being that it might make a squatter load their weight improperly. I think that it is situational. For people who tend to load more into their knees, this cue works well because they finally start to let the big muscles around the hips do the work. For other people it could be an issue with the squat sequence, balance or anything in between. How you do the squat will ultimately depend on your individual anatomy and mobility, but generally, sitting back into the hips and heels works well.
The butt wink is quite a controversial topic. It is the point in your squat when your tail bone begins to tuck under and your lower back initiates total rounding of the spine. In an ideal world the butt wink would not happen no matter how deep you go into your squat. Unfortunately for most people who are not experienced lifters or naturally mobile, the butt wink will occur at some point before they reach a full depth squat.
Generally I go by the hip crease below the knee rule. This means that when you go down for your squat, you should be able to keep a neutral spine as the crease where you bend at your hip goes just past the knees. I have found this to be safe while squatting with relatively heavy loads. However, I still believe that if you plan to lift for a long time, a full depth squat with a neutral spine should be a goal that everyone with generally healthy joints has. Some people who have injuries or permanent restrictions may not be able to reach this goal, but in those cases there are always alternatives.
Example of butt wink and rounding back
Rule # 5. What to do with the Knees?
So where should your knees be as you sink into your squat? Well, I know you’re getting tired of hearing this, but….it depends. Lots of coaches will tell you to drive the knees out and not let them come too far over the toes. Others will tell you to keep your knees in line with your feet and let the knees come over the toes as much as you need to get good squat depth. Again, it is completely situational and both modes of thinking could be correct. As long as you can load into your hips enough, you are maintaining good squat posture and you aren’t coming up off of your heels then in my book, you’re good. Everyone moves a little differently, and as long as you are being safe, you do you.
What you do NOT want to do is let your knees cave in. This is called a valgus knee pattern, or knock knees. This is usually referring to walking gait, but in people who have this tendency you might also see it when they strength train. It can happen in walking, running and of course, squatting. This is a hard thing to address in some people, but in my experience, this is where the cue to drive the knees out in the squat can come in handy. People who have this faulty pattern my also want to spend some time doing specific corrective exercises to try to fix the problem. It can take a while to adapt to a new motor pattern, but it will save you from a whole lot of knee, hip and back pain if you can address it.
Valgus knee pattern
I cannot express enough how everyone is different when it comes to movement. Yes, we all have the same general anatomy and physiology, but specific things like bone length, bone density, tendon thickness and general coordination have a lot influence on how you move. That’s why you hear that some people are born to be sprinters or gymnasts and others are born to be bodybuilders or powerlifters. At the end of the day though, humans evolved doing squatting movements. It is considered a fundamental human movement and anyone with all of their joints intact can benefit from training it in some way.
I hope that this post helped you to better understand the squat. If you have any questions or you would like to talk about it, feel free to leave a comment.
Thanks for reading. Now go do some SQUATS!