The Perfect Squat: Sorry…IT DEPENDS
by onsite, January 5, 2017
Remember back in kindergarten when we were taught, “we’re all different and no two of us are the same.” This single virtue has been lost among many fitness professionals who try to implement blanket fixes to one of the most complex human movements, the squat. With a simple internet search, one could find several hot takes on literally every aspect of the squat from cervical position to toe angle. For example, “If you are doing a squat exercise, make sure not to do a deep squat” or “you shouldn’t allow your feet to go out past 12 degrees.” It would be great if there was one set of rules for squatting that we all could follow, but going back to the kindergarten virtue, “we are all different and no two of us the same”. Let me explain…
Two important factors that must be considered when squatting or teaching a squat include: how does individual body structure contribute to squat pattern and what is the individual goal for performing the squat.
There’s an incredible amount of variability between body segments and structure. Don’t believe me, check out this recent picture of Olympic gold medalists Simone Biles and Kevin Love.
One must appreciate how body structure facilitates function. There’s a reason why Love is a basketball player and Biles is a gymnast. An article published by the National Strength and Conditioning Association concluded that “physical stature and body segment dimensions are more potent discriminators than flexibility” at predicting movement dysfunctions during the parallel squat. Is this meant to be an excuse for all the tall statured, short torsoed, long femured individuals (like myself), NO. However, it must be considered in the prescription and analysis of the squat pattern. Other considerations include previous surgeries (i.e ankle fusion, TKR, hip replacement), previous injury, joint integrity and soft tissue restrictions. In some cases, the individual has all the range of motion and flexibility at a joint that they’re going to get. Sometimes the most talented manual physical therapist and skillful corrective exercise coach cannot yield greater ranges of motion. Before teaching or stepping into the cage to perform that “perfect” squat, consider the individual biomechanical factors at play.
The other critical factor determining the type of squat to be performed by an individual is the goal for completion of the movement. An Olympic power lifter should and will squat differently than a professional basketball player. Using this example it is easier to understand why squats are individualized and how standardized approaches and hard fast rules do not and should not apply. Slight variations of the squat can yield significant differences in joint loading and muscle activation. A body builder looking for greater quad development may choose to squat to parallel. Whereas the lineman looking to develop explosion off the line may elect for a deeper squat. A rehab professional may utilize a heels elevated position to emphasis load on patellar tendon where as another patient would benefit from a toes elevated position to enhance ankle mobility. Part of the beauty of the squat is its variability to target specific structures and no one should be pigeon holed in a movement archetype.
Let’s not forget that we are “all different” and included in that is that we all “move differently” as well. Person “A” will squat differently than person “B”, even a kindergartener knows and appreciates that. Squats are a critical component in rehabilitation and fitness programs so do not waste time squatting in a manner that does not reflect your goals or is not compatible with you body structure. In a world of scorching hot takes and thirst for black and white answers, the squat pattern will remain a gray area and the best answer will always be “it depends”.
Scott Robertson, DPT, SFMA