Squatology, Your Guide to Squat Success - Part I
“There is simply no other exercise, and certainly no machine, that provides the level of central nervous activity, improved balance and coordination, skeletal loading and bone density enhancement, muscular stimulation and growth, connective tissue stress and strength, psychological demand and toughness, and overall systemic conditioning than the correctly performed full squat.” -Mark Rippetoe
While many might not agree with everything Coach Rippetoe says, his stance on squats is echoed by many fitness professionals – including myself. No other movement is as basic to the evolution of man as the squat.
The squat requires hip flexion, ankle dorsiflexion, and proper thoracic extension under load. As such, a person will require ample hip, thoracic, and ankle mobility to show proficiency in the squat pattern. The squat and its numerous variations when used properly can help just about anyone achieve their fitness goals. Want to lose body fat? The full squat is highly metabolically demanding; the amount of muscle used in the full squat is quite possibly unmatched by any other strength exercise. Load up the bar and perform a set of 20 and your heart will want to jump out of your chest! Want to get stronger? The full squat greatly strengthens the legs, glutes, core, and back– the most important muscles from a performance perspective. In fact, squat strength has been shown to correlate significantly to jumping ability – one of the most sought after qualities in all sports. Want to build muscle? The squat is basically unmatched when it comes to muscle building. Most of our muscle mass is in our lower extremity – precisely the area that is best targeted by squats. An additional benefit of performing squats is maintenance of and even an increase in mobility and flexibility. Who do you think has greater functional mobility?
To set yourself up for squatting success, your warm up should address the areas that need most attention in the squat. We will start with thoracic mobility. Under load, we want the thoracic spine in extension to allow for a more even and safe loading of the spine. For many people, this area is critical not only for squat success, but also to prevent shoulder dysfunction in the future. Fortunately, this area is the easiest to address. All you need is a foam roller and two tennis balls taped to each other. Perform thoracic extensions (10 reps) on the tennis balls after foam rolling the thoracic spine. Not only will this help with your squat, but your posture will improve as well.
Going down the kinetic chain, hip mobility is the next important factor in the equation. A deep squat requires significant hip flexion, and an inability to produce enough hip flexion will not only limit your squat potential but also put you at risk for injury. Increasing hip mobility will take stress off your low back, potentially decrease knee pain, and improve core functionality. From a genetic standpoint, your hip structure is the #1 variable that will determine how deep you can squat. The shape and depth of your hip sockets, and how they interact with the femoral head are something we can't change. Mobility can always be improved upon, however. While you will find a plethora of hip mobility exercises online, our favorites at Wattage are the walking spiderman dynamic stretch followed by a static hip flexor stretch.
At the very end of the chain we have the ankles. The ankles can make or break your squat and are usually the culprits for a not so deep squat. Don't believe me? Most people have absolutely no problem squatting deep on the balls of their feet. Ask them to keep their heels down and form goes out the window. This tightness in the ankles can result from years of poor footwear choices, a sedentary lifestyle, poor gait patterns, and ankle injuries. In fact, not possessing adequate dorsiflexion can lead to knee problems, hip problems, and potentially low back problems. To address this issue I like to use the following 4 drills: calf/anterior tibialis release, ankle mobilization with band, calf stretch with straight knee, and then a calf stretch with bent knee. After performing all these drills I like to sit in a deep squat (either supported or not) for a couple minutes to really implement the added mobility in a dynamic manner.
Keep in mind that improvement in mobility take time and effort. Using these mobility drills once a week won’t help much if you sit at a desk for 8 hours/5 days/week. In fact, I typically recommend doing these drills up to 2 times a day if someone is in dire need of improvement. It is also important to realize that you may never squat like a baby again – and that’s fine. Having respectable form in which you can squat to or past parallel with a neutral spine is better than displaying form which can lead to injury. At the end of the day, we all possess a different anatomical structure that determines how we squat. For this very reason it is illogical to ask everyone to squat in the same manner, no two people will move exactly alike. Some people will display picture perfect squat form effortlessly, while others will struggle to achieve a "decent" enough squat. While that may be discouraging, we should all strive to improve upon our movement capabilities. Here are a few squat pictures to illustrate my point.
In part II we will look at the different squat variations and progressions that I like to use with beginners, and how to execute the barbell back squat - my favorite lift of all. Also, more pictures of squats! Stay tuned!