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Squatting: Ideal vs. Reality

From the gyms of America to the streets of India, proper squatting technique is a hallmark of effective powerlifting and functionality. The squat pattern is needed for many day-to-day patterns, such as picking things up off the ground and getting down to and up from a chair. Yet the vast majority of people in America squat improperly, placing excessive strain on the knees and lower back.  Or they don’t squat at all and place even more load on the back (see photo below).  And then they add weight to this poor movement at the gym, accelerating their way to injury. This is why physical therapy offices are filled with people doing mini-squats, quarter-squats and sit-to-stands. We’re trying to teach people to move correctly, all over again (similar to my discussion of pushups).

How not to pick something up from the ground.

How not to pick something up from the ground. Image: Ambro /

Believe it or not, just about everyone knew how to squat properly at one point in time: childhood. If you want to watch the best squat form (or any other movement), go watch a five year old pick something up from the ground. Somewhere between five and fifteen, it all goes to hell, partly from the fact that we get taller, but the ground doesn’t follow. And we replace general running around and movement with either: sitting all day or training very specific sport movements. So if your body doesn’t continue to use the squat, you lose it. That’s why you see sixty and seventy year-olds from other countries squatting their butts to the ground without any ache in their back or knees: they’ve done it properly since childhood and haven’t stopped.

But all is not lost for those who’ve taken a multi-decade hiatus from squatting. Hidden somewhere deep in the recesses of your brain is that child who knew how to squat. And we can bring him or her back. This topic will be split into two posts.  This first post will review the “ideal” squat form and provide a few qualifying factors to properly set your expectations for finding how much squat you’ve still got. The second part, due out in a couple weeks will review modifications, progressions and cues for getting you to squatting better.

Ideal Squatting Form

A “perfect” squat involves hinging back through the hips and lowering your butt toward the ground while maintaining a relatively upright torso. In technical terms, your upper body angle should match the angle created by your lower leg (between the knee and ankle). You should be looking forward at the bottom of a squat, not staring at the ground. Your spine should also be in a straight line, though for most people the tailbone starts to tuck under once your hips go below the level of your knees. Both feet are set about hip-width apart (or a bit wider) and are relatively pointing forward or slightly turned out (15 to 25 degrees). Feet should not be significantly turned out (no ballet, sorry).  Both feet should turn out the same amount and stay in the same position throughout the entire squat. The hips, knees and ankles should stay in line throughout the entire squat; the knees should not buckle inward or outward. The feet should stay firmly rooted in the ground, ideally balancing the weight of your body between your heels and your big toe. Your heels should not lift off the ground, nor should you place excessive force on the outside or inside edge of your foot.

You should primarily feel the butt muscles working. There should be no strain in the back nor pinching feelings in the front of the hips. Most problems and compensations start to occur as you get into, and return back up from, deeper squats. It’s best to stop going down into a squat when you notice one of these major compensations occur. Aside from a slightly turned out foot on one side, this guy’s squat looks pretty darn good:

This Guy Can Squat

This Guy Can Squat Photo: imagerymajestic /

Proper form should be achieved before adding any major load to the squat (don’t go power lifting with 100 pounds if your squat with 10 or 20 pounds looks like crap). Here are a couple tips for function-specific squatting:

Picking Something Up: The first battle is getting down to the object on the ground. The second battle is getting back up with it.  Position yourself as close to the object as possible before you squat, ideally practically underneath you (as you squat back, your torso will end up right over it). Get a firm grip, turn on the butt muscles and bring it up. If you can’t get down that far right now, try getting down on one knee and use a lunge pattern to pick it up.

Getting Out of a Chair: You’re already in a “squatting” position, so you need to set your bodyweight at the right position to allow the proper muscles to fire.  Imagine yourself at the bottom of a squat. Your feet are firmly rooted in front of you. Shift your weight forward slightly so you feel your weight go to your butt and heels.  Then engage your butt to bring yourself up.

Qualifying Factors for Squatting

Powerlifters love to bucket squat (butt to floor) and add lots of weight on their back. They’ve probably practiced a bunch, have proper movement patterns and have worked years at the technique. And a fair number of hem have probably gotten injured in the process, too. This does not give us all license to strap 100, 150 or 200 pounds on our back and squat. Ideal squatting involves the two bones that comprise your hip (your acetabulum/pelvis and femur/upper leg bone) moving in perfect, synchronous harmony. But that which is ideal, isn’t always real. Many factors can impact your ability to squat including age, injury history, training history, chronic muscle tightness and even genetics. Because of this, we must take the “ideal” squat form and tailor it to the person to make it as functional and strengthening as possible while minimizing improper strain and injury risk.   My general motto: If it hurts, don’t do it.

Here are a few potential concerns:

CAM impingements – Based on genetic predisposition and certain activities you do when you’re younger, you could have certain bony growths on your acetabulum or femur that makes deep squatting nearly impossible to do properly.  You’ll feel a pinch in the front of your hips when you go down into a deep squat. Chronically poor movement and tightness can also create a pinching feeling too, so it’s important to distinguish whether your discomfort is soft tissue related (muscle, fascia and usually correctable) or more permanent (bone).

Hip anteversion/retroversion – Ideally the hip is set up where your feet are turned out at about a 15 to 25 degree range. But genetics may have your hip aligned where it needs to turn out more or less to have it move properly. This can predispose you to increased risk of injury due to non-ideal alignment, but this is a relatively small percentage of the population. The majority of us are pulled into these undesirable movements due to chronic compensations.

Chronic compensations learned from muscle tightness, injury or improper training – If certain muscles are improperly tighter or shorter than others due to sustained positions (sitting all day, carrying weight on one side of the body, etc.), injury (avoiding bearing weight on one side of the body) or improper training, then these compensations need to be undone before progressing in weight with the squat pattern. Many times, the proper squat pattern not only needs to be reintegrated into training, but also into daily functioning.

To determine your current, best squatting position, get on your hands and knees so your hands are directly under your shoulders and your knees are under your hips. This means your legs are hip-width apart. Unlike the picture below, keep your toes untucked.

Hands and Knees

Hands and Knees

Slowly move your butt back towards your heels by pushing yourself back with your hands.  Maintain a flat, neutral spine and torso as your butt moves back (don’t flex or extend your spine). See how your body feels as you go backwards and stop when you feel your back move improperly or if you feel any discomfort or pain.  Return to the starting position. Repeat the same movement about 3 to 4 more times to loosen up.

– Then move your legs a little closer together and rock back.  Does it feel better or worse?  If it feels better, then you may need to squat with your legs and feet a little closer than hip-width distance apart.

– Then move your legs a little wider than hip-width distance and rock back.  Does it feel better or worse?  If it feels better, then you may need to squat with your legs and feet a little wider than hip-width distance apart.

– If the first distance felt best, then squat with your feet and legs hip-width distance apart.

Now that you know how to start your squat pattern, my next post will discuss making sure you execute it properly from standing, to squatting, to standing again.

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