Movement Patterns #2: The Squat (You NEED to know this)

The squat.  Everyone “knows” the squat.  Not everyone can do the squat.

Sure, they can bring their body towards the floor in one way or another and call it a “squat”.  Which will be followed by “my knees hurt”, “I feel it in my knees”, “I feel it in my back”…etc.  Basically all the wrong places.

I’m not pointing the finger in disapproval or fitness ego elitism, but to solve this epidemic that can easily be fixed in literally 10 seconds with most people.images (4)

I want you to squat correctly, because squats are great for your training, performance, and just being functionally fit for everyday life.

The squat can be used as an amazing tool for building slabs of muscle and/or burning pounds of fat.  It just depends on how you use it in your training.

Nobody wants bad knees or a bad back, nor get one from poor squat mechanics.

The squat, primarily used as a leg exercise, uses the whole body if done correctly.

It also requires the body to stabilize in the right places and be mobile in the right places.

And let’s face it, the gym is a place that can be intimidating enough.  Trying an exercise while being insecure about form or not having proper mechanics can get you injured or cause you to miss out really hitting goals as soon as possible.

And if you can already squat, some tips and tricks in here may help you get more out of it.

BACK TO THE BEGINNING…the Hip Hinge

First things first, you need to move your hips.  What I mean by that, is being able to perform a hip hinge.  Click here if you missed Movement Patterns: #1 The Hip Hinge:  Move Those Hips

The hip hinge teaches you to push your hips back.  Why is this important?  Because it keeps stress out of your knees.  Pushing your hips back will push your weight into your heels, rather than moving forward with the knees and getting sheering forces in the kneecaps.  Again read, Movement Patterns: #1... so I do not have to retype everything.

Done?

Great lets get to the meat and potatoes.

KNEES TRACKING FORWARD

Normally when asking a new client to squat, they will move forward from the knees.  As adults we seem to lose the ability of moving from our hips (and even know what/where our hips are) not literally, but we need to reprogram the movement into our brain and daily life.  Too many people move from the knee joint as a compensation pattern.

This causes a sheering force to go into the knee.  Followed by the common complaint of “squats hurt my knees” or “I feel that in my knees”, which is completely expected.  So we need to stop initiating the movement from the knee and moving forward and start initiating the movement from the hips and going back.

Using the cue “push your butt back” seems to help most people understand what I want.  So think butt, back. Sit into a chair.  You do not sit into a chair by bending your knees forward, you have to push your butt back. Otherwise, you would miss the chair!

 

So building off of the hip hinge movement, you are going to hip hinge back, then bend the knees to lower your butt down into the squat.  The hips will be leading the way and the knees obediently following. When you move from the hips, you will notice that the shins maintain a more vertical position, which means,….Hello more power!!!

Again, you should feel your body weight go into your heels, tension in the glutes and hams. Push back up through the heels to a standing position.  This will work the entire leg, glutes, hamstrings, and quads.

KNEES COLLAPSING INWARD

During the downward portion and upward portion of a squat, you want your knees to remain tracking over the second toe.  This will keep the lower body in optimal alignment and save you from doing damage to your knees.

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To prevent your knees from collapsing inward you want to put a little bit of pressure outward on your knees.  By a “little bit of pressure out on the knees” I mean to keep it in line with the second toe.  I do not mean to push your knees as far out as possible in the other direction creating a whole mess of problems and potential injury.

If you lack external rotation strength in your hips this may be challenging for you.  If are absolutely unable to keep your knees from caving then you should regress and work more on hip stabilization and external rotation exercises such as clamshells.

If you are able to maintain the knee over the second toe, adding a resistance band around the top of your knees can help to enforce more recruitment from the hip external rotators.

You should really feel a bit more stable having those muscles kick on and can possibly assist in adding  more weight to the lift.

Another note on this, make sure you do not roll your ankles out as well.  You do not want to be squatting with all the weight on the outside of your foot.  Keep your weight distributed over your whole foot, feeling it in your heels.

MAINTAINING AN UPRIGHT TORSO

The notion of getting deep into your squat can cause you to compensate through the upper trunk.  Your hip mobility will only let you go so far down.  If you lack hip mobility, you will begin bringing your torso forward to give yourself the “illusion” that you are getting down closer to the floor.

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(photo: breakingmuscle.com click pic for article on other squat mechanics)

As you can see in the pic, the upper body is coming closer to the floor but the hips are not and possibly even rising higher.  When he lifts the weight back up he will be initiating and lifting the weight backup using his back, leading to two things: 1.  he just turned his squat exercise into a back exercise.  2. When he wakes up the next morning he will be greeted by his lower back standing over him with it’s middle finger in his face.

Keep your trunk upright as if the person in front of you could see the decal on your t-shirt.

Also I would get to work on some soft tissue release and stretching for those hip flexors.

ARCHING THROUGH THE LOW BACK

This ties in to the previous section.  People will resort to arching through their lower back in order to “achieve” an upright posture.

Instead of maintaining a neutral spine and straight back, they will either arch through the lower back as a way to give themselves the illusion that they are keeping their torso straight and upright, even though they are not.  Using the squat using a pole against the back is a great tool to use to teach and feel the difference between keeping your back straight or arched.

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photo credit: Bodybuilding.com

You can also end up “butt winking”, which means posterior tilting the pelvis under at the bottom portion of the squat.  I believe people do this because it can give you a false sense of strength.  Posterior tilt feeling the glutes contract, but putting your back in an unneutral spine as well.

LACK OF MOBILITY

Having a lack of mobility in the hips and ankles can a negative effect on your ability to properly squat.

Tight hip flexors will cause you to lean forward as you squat down activating the quadriceps more than the glutes.  They can also be hypertonic, meaning they will kick on really fast to help you perform the movement, again making the squat a quad dominant exercise when we want to be hitting the posterior muscles. It will also have an impact on how deep you can go into your squat.  The tight hip flexors will kick on preventing you from getting deep into your squat.

Lack of mobility in the ankles can also hinder your squatting ability.  There will and should be a little forward movement of the knee.  The tibia, or shin, should not be in an upright position, but slightly angled, parallel with the upper body.  Tight calf muscles will limit dorsiflexion limiting your range of motion and ability to get your hips back and down, without feeling like you are going to fall backwards.

In Closing

So as you can see the squat is more than just a leg exercise.  It is made up of a lot of moving parts.  It also requires a lot of mobility and stability in certain parts of the body to be performed correctly.  If you are lacking in any one of these five departments then I would suggest correcting them before you begin throwing any resistance or weight on top of a faulty movement pattern.

About The Author

Kevin Fulton

Kevin Fulton is personal trainer in Pittsburgh, PA. His goal is to help his clients look, feel, and move better. In his spare time you can find him under a barbell or practicing jiu jitsu.

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