When beginning any functional training program, one should take the time to properly learn some of the fundamental full-body movements that are commonly used in exercise.
The Set Up
While the stance for a squat can vary depending on your fitness goals, the stance that works for most people who are either trying to improve health or athletic performance is positioning the feet just outside of the shoulders. Your feet should be straight or slightly pointed out, however excessive external rotation of the hips in the starting stance will typically leads to an improper squat and can potentially be a clue illuminating a limiting factor hindering your squat performance. To create tension through the hips and trunk prior to lowering, squeeze your glutes tight and brace your trunk as if you are about to be punched in the gut. By “screwing” your feet into the ground, just as you would with your hands in a push up, you can maintain tension throughout the hips and trunk during the decent into the bottom squat. This helps to encourage a neutral spine through the full range of motion.
As you lower into a squat the most important thing to do is keep your shins as vertical as possible. You’ll notice similarities between the push up and the squat. Just as it is crucial to have the forearms completely vertical during a push up, it is equally important to do the same with your shins during a squat in order to load the hips, hamstrings, and quads rather than the much smaller and weaker knees. From the top, start by centering your weight over the front of your ankles and begin to reach your butt back, initiating the movement with your hips. At this point, with shins still vertical, drive your knees outward.
As you reach full range of motion your hips will sink slightly below your knees. To maintain posture and stability continue to “screw” your feet into the ground and drive your knees outward. Holding this tension throughout the body is key for generating higher rates of force during the stand or push phase of the squat.
Continuing to use your feet and knees has tension drivers, rise out of the squat by simultaneously extending your hips and knees. The positions of lowering into and pushing out of a squat should look the same: neutral spine, feet straight, shins vertical, and knees out. Once back at the top of the squat, reset your neutral position by squeezing your glutes tightly, so to prepare for the next movement.
There are many faults that can be seen in a squat, such as the very common “duck feet” fault meaning your feet are pointing out greatly. Being able to see these faults makes body weight squats good not only as an exercise, but also as a tool for finding underlying factors that may be hindering performance.
This pattern is a great indication for lack of stability through the body. Often this occurs not due to strength problems, but failing to create appropriate tension in the hips by “screwing” your feet into the ground. When you create torque through your feet you can drive your knees outward easily and lower into a squat with more comfort.
This fault often occurs when a squat is initiated through the spine rather than the hamstrings and hips. By rounding and lowering the spine it becomes unstable and vulnerable to injury. This fault can be due to many reasons including hip mobility, trunk stability, or motor control troubles.
Knee Forward Fault
As you reach the bottom of a squat the knees should naturally shift forward, but only slightly so the knees are still positioned over the mid foot. The knee forward position frequently happens when you try to initiate this movement with reaching your knees forward rather than reaching your hips backward. Copious amounts of squats performed like this can lead to significant knee pain and tendinopathy due the knees, and not the weight bearing hips, taking the brunt of the force produced in a squat.
Correcting the squat:
Mobility: being able to identify a fault you make during the squat can help better pinpoint the limiting factor needed to be addressed. In general, focusing on mobilizing the ankles, knees, and hips are all good places to start. Using a foam roller to target areas like the calves, quads, adductors and hamstrings can help break up any adhesions or “sticky” tissues that may be affecting your mobility. Also tackling the mechanics of the joints themselves by using a multitude of strategies. This article from Precision Nutrition does a great job explaining the benefits attributed to working on joint specific mobility.
Stability: Deficient stability in a squat is often due to motor control problems rather than lack of strength. By providing active feedback to the body when performing a squat you can clean up some the common faults seen. For instance, take any of the faults above—knee forward, knee cave, or spinal flexion—and apply a feedback technique using resistance bands as seen here; the squat is usually corrected or significantly improved.
Regressions: This is a short list of some exercises that can be used to either teach proper squat mechanics from scratch or to help reprogram faulty mechanics.
1. Walking is just as complex a movement as a squat, requiring the ankles, knees, and hips to work in synchronicity. By paying attention to how you walk (ie: feet pointed out vs. feet straight) you can immediately begin assessing your weak link(s).
2. Stepping up onto a bench or other elevated surface demands all of the same mechanics as a squat, only does so in a unilateral form. This allows you to see not only if a fault is occurring, but also if there is an imbalance from one side of the body to the other. By using step-ups to practice: keeping your foot straight, driving your knees out, maintaining the center of you weight over your stepping foot, and keep a stable torso, you can develop proper movement patterns needed to squat correctly.
3. Heal elevation is a way to perform a squat while encouraging proper mechanics, even if your movement patterns are slightly under par. Addressing movement should always come first, but by simply placing the heals of your feet onto an elevated surfaces you will find it much easier to properly move through the full range of motion of squat while promoting good posture and mechanics.