The squat, it’s been called the king of all exercises, and for good reason. The squat recruits more muscles and utilizes more joints than almost any other exercise (I see you deadlift). Yet, in the fitness industry there are a number of differing opinions on, not only their merit, but how they’re properly done. For this reason, a number of new trainers and clients learn how to do back squatting incorrectly (certainly with lack knowledge on the subject). There are a few givens in terms of results that are not up for debate and for that reason, squatting is a preferred exercise for building lower body strength and size, especially in the quadriceps. Let’s try and answer some of the common questions related to squatting.
DOES IT MATTER HOW LOW I GO?
When it comes to training, we should always try and train through the full range of motion in a particular exercise. Longer muscles have been shown to be stronger and pre-stretching a muscle leads to better motor unit activation. Not only that, but it is healthier for our joints to take them through a full range of motion regularly. Despite these truths, the acceptable depth for a squat is a highly debated topic.
A couple opinions AGAINST full depth squatting are: it’s bad for the knees, transference (sport in question never goes into such deep angles of flexion (hip, knee and ankle) so we don’t need train there). The first AGAINST argument is one that is an understandable concern. Safety always trumps performance. That being said, a full range deep squat is actually a better alternative for our knees. This study compares a full depth squat to a half depth squat. In the comparison, the full depth squat led to more knee extensor strength and better adaptations for tendons (stronger). In fact, half depth squats showed signs of long term degenerative conditions (reference). The reality is, it’s much more difficult on the tendons to stop a heavy load part way through a range then it is to utilize a full range to it’s fullest end point. A full range also gives the benefit of utilizing the stretch shorten cycle of both the muscles and tendons leading to more flow in kinetic energy. For any clients that have knee pain, it’s important to determine why they have knee pain. We want to investigate and find solutions to that issue while allowing them to squat fully again, instead of avoiding it indefinitely because of the pain. The same would be expected a shoulder dysfunction and overhead pressing; never lifting our arms above our head is not an option in the world we live in, and therefore, curiosity, treatment and progressive loads are the process for this ailment. The reality is, squatting isn’t bad for our knees, it’s just that our knees are a major joint and so of course, there is always going to be stress there, just like the hips, ankles and back. One final study shows that if you try and stabilize the knee and keep it from flexing (keeping shin vertical), you will just transfer that added torque to the hips and back. Potentially saving the knee to stress the hips and back = not a valid solution.
For the second AGAINST argument that questions the validity of transference between training full depth and sport or life mechanics, an important point to remember is that we supplement our sport with strength training, we’re not trying to mimic our sport in the gym. If we want to build a strong healthy lower body then we’re going to squat to full depth in training. Once you’re playing your sport, you can operate in the ranges you need to for that instant. From a performance perspective, this study compared vertical jump and countermovement jump performance following training with either full or half squats. Jump performance showed improvement after training with full range over half range. I’ve seen many athletes told to only half squat in training and the research proves that that is less effective. From a muscular activation perspective, it should be obvious that a deeper position puts more focus on the quadriceps, but less obvious is the fact that a deeper squat also recruits more gluteus maximus activation. This study shows exactly that. If you look at the angles, you’ll notice that the hip and knee are both reaching maximum flexion when we approach full range and thus we’re maximizing both knee and hip extension. We’re starting to paint a pretty clear picture here, squatting to full depth is not only safer and better for our joints, but it also improves performance and maximizes quadriceps and gluteal activation. Now the only question that remains is, how do I do it properly?
AM I DOING IT RIGHT?
In my experience, motor learning and patterning is the first place to start with squatting. I’ve trained a number of people who lacked a deep squat because they’ve never been made/shown to deep squat, not because they were unable due to limitations. Learn from a professional how to do it well with bodyweight so you can load properly. Once we’ve added load, we will have increased load and stress on our joints. For this reason, loading order (of joints) is very important in squatting. Although we want full depth, to get great knee flexion, we’d still love for our hips to carry a ton of load. To accomplish that, the hips have to be the first thing to absorb load, then the knee and ankle. So unlock your hips (back) then bring hips back in to heels as you drop (bend knees, hips come back forward). From there, we want it to be as natural as possible or else it will be difficult to repeat under load. The easiest place to look for obvious fixes is the feet. Proper hip/knee/ankle alignment will always be shown in the foot. With everything in place and done well, weight is always evenly distributed in the foot (front/back/left/right). To maintain this distribution, our changes always occur in hip and knee since the foot is grounded.
If weight is on the toes, push your hips back. If weight is on the heels, bend your knees more. If arch is collapsed, externally rotate femur out (or knee). If weight is on outside of foot, rotate back in a little by putting a slight bit of pressure in the big toe. If depth is prevented by tension, perform mobility exercises first, roll out calves, soleus and lateral head of the gastrocnemius.
How far “OUT” do my knees go?
I think we all know that we want to cue the knees out in the squat, but how much? This is simple to answer, and it goes back to the foot. The hip is more stable, knee is better aligned and arch is more active when we’re rotated externally. However, too much so and we can lose all of those things. Cue the knees out just as much as you need to to pick up the arch and tighten the hips, but not so much that it becomes unnatural and the foot starts to shift out.
If you, or if you are a trainer: a client, has trouble with depth, the ankle is often a problem, as well as the hips. Find greater range of motion in ankle dorsi flexion and hip internal rotation. If a client has trouble with hand/shoulder positioning, help him get shoulders back more through pectoral mobilization and posterior displacement.
FURTHER READING AND RESEARCH
Some of you may be familiar with the “celtic hip” point of view when it comes to squat depth debate. Our stance is this: if you have done all assessment and have worked on depth, mobility and have accurately determined that it is not fascia or muscle preventing your depth, but bone, then heck, there is your answer. Is EVERYONE able to squat with depth, maybe not. BUT, we tend to find that clients jump to this conclusion all too fast. We hear, “I just cannot physically do that!” all too often after trying only once or twice. We say that a client should rule out all other possibilities related to things that we CAN work on or control before chalking it up to bone genetics. If you want more info on this concept and ideology, Tony Gentilcore has a great in depth (no pun intended) article on T-Nation.
Footwear plays a bigger role than most people would expect. The type of shoe you wear can have a large effect on the kinematics of the movement. The two things that will have the biggest impact on your technique are the lift (the height of heel vs height of forefoot), and the arch support. The lift of the shoe will change the level of plantar flexion of the ankle and will change the amount of knee bend which can occur. Little to no lift will create a more stiff ankle (shorter heel cord/calf complex) and will thus limit your depth and leave your torso more horizontal and the bottom of your squat. Having a large lift will allow the knees to track further forward and thus keep your torso much more upright at depth. This is noticeable in an Olympic lifting shoe which uses the lift and upright torso to assist positioning in the catch of the snatch and clean. The arch support of the shoe will have a great effect on the hip, knee and ankle alignment of the squatter. Little to no arch will cause a collape of the foot and internal rotation of the hip and knee. This is often seen in minimalist shoes. As great as they may be in theory, many trainees lack the ability to maintain a strong arch on their own to compensate for the shoe and thus get into poor positioning at depth. On the contrary, a shoe that has some arch support will help to keep your hip, knee and ankle in a good alignment. This is extremely helpful for those who lack the ability to keep their arches strong will hitting deep (maybe heavy) squats. I suggest avoiding a one shoe fits all approach, as many different activities require different characteristics from your footwear, the squat is no exception. You can squat in any shoe, the question becomes how efficient is it?