The squat is one of the best whole body exercises that you can do. It challenges the overall mobility and stability of the entire body. There is a common misconception with the squat that there is an “ideal squat.” Traditionally the ideal squat consisted of the feet planted straight forward, knees tracking over the 2nd toe, chest up, and the head looking straight ahead. Unfortunately, this advice does not suit everyone because we are all built slightly different. This blog post will discuss how to figure out what is limiting your squat as well as how to determine what the best squatting pattern is for your body.
The first step is to assess your squat. Go ahead and do a squat as low as you can go. I’ll wait for you to do it… Okay perfect. Now we have a starting point. Here is a video of my overhead squat.
Next let’s check if there is an upper or lower body limitation. For this part simply cross your arms over your chest and do another squat. If your squat improved by doing this, you may have an upper body dysfunction limiting your squat.
Now let’s see how much mobility is possible for you. You will lie on your back with your arms overhead and then bring your knees up to your chest as far as you can go.
If you were able to bring your knees up passed 90º, you have enough mobility to squat below parallel. If you were also able to keep your arms flat against the ground, you have enough upper body mobility to do an overhead squat. This means you are most likely limited by a stability problem and not a mobility problem.
The most common stability dysfunction I see is an anterior core weakness. If the front of your core is dysfunctional, your brain won’t let you go into a deep squat in fear of falling backwards. Performing planks is a great way to strengthen the anterior core but it is also important to train core activation with the squatting movement. Examples would be doing core activation rocking into a stability ball or placing a exercise band around your knees while squatting.
If you were not able to bring your knees passed 90º or if you couldn’t keep your arms flat on the ground, you are probably limited by a mobility issue.
A mobility issue is a little bit more complicated than just trying to stretch out tissues. You can have either a soft tissue restriction (muscles, fascia, etc) or you may have a structural limitation. Common soft tissue restrictions limiting the deep squat would be the quadriceps, gluteals, or calf musculature. Check out our blog post on how to mobilize these areas here.
A structural limitation limiting the deep squat could be many things such as a deep hip joint or a rotated femoral head (anteverted or retroverted hip). An anteverted or retroverted hip means that your femoral head (top of the thigh bone) is rotated either forwards or backwards, respectively. For your hip to be in a “neutral” position, your feet would either be rotated inwards for a anteverted hip or outwards for a retroverted hip. For a deep hip joint, you are kind of just SOL. It means that you have an inherently stable hip joint, but are structurally limited from performing a deep squat because the rim of the hip joint makes contact with the leg. You could still perform squatting movements but just know that you may not be able to go as deep as someone with a swallow hip joint.
One way to figure out how to optimize your squat based on your hip structure is to rock onto your heels from a quadruped position. Try spreading your legs further apart and repeating. You are looking for which distance allows you the most mobility in your hips, which would be your optimal squat position.
As you can see, there is not a one size fits all approach to squatting. Your squatting mechanics should maximize the movements that are available to you. With that being said, it should be noted that technique matters when you are loading a squat. Improper technique or inappropriate loading strategies can increase your risk of injury. Train smart and don't be afraid to ask for help.