Correct Squat Shape: Common Mistakes You May Make
Everyone has to squat.
The squat is a basic human movement pattern and position of rest. Watch as a young child studies the ant trail on the ground and doesn’t bend down to marvel at it. You squat and sit comfortably in this squat for as long as it takes. Watch Hadza tribesmen cook and share meat over the fire. You don’t sit on camping chairs. You don’t stand awkwardly. You sit in a crouch and feel as comfortable as possible. When you travel to many Asian countries, you will see ordinary people, including the elderly, sitting in a full crouch while waiting for the bus or visiting friends.
To squat means to be human. It’s about exploring and inhabiting the entire range of motion in our body. It should stay mobile, agile and effectively young. If you can get a full squat and sit by the age of 70, you will be in the 99th percentile and hopefully avoid most of the physical havoc and dysfunction of aging.
Squatting is also an incredible exercise that targets every muscle in the body, especially if you are doing it with extra weight. Glutes, hamstrings, quads. Core, lumbar spine, traps. Because of this, squatting is incredibly anabolic, which means it delivers a hypertrophic whole-body stimulus. Anecdotally, after adopting a regular squatting habit, people report building muscle everywhere, even the muscles that are not directly affected.
But whether you’re just squatting to maintain the ability to move into this position or squatting to exercise, you need to do it with the right form.
Correct squat shape
The basic form for squats, regardless of whether you are carrying a load or only working with body weight:
Feet about shoulder width apart.
This can vary. In order to determine the optimal distance between the feet to squat, I like to take a step, collect your feet and imagine that you are about to jump as high as possible. Stop and look at your feet. How far are they from each other? This is a good start. For most people, however, this is about shoulder width apart.
Toes flicker 5-20 degrees.
The toes should be pointing forward for the most part, with some slack (5-20 degrees). If you have “duck feet” and your toes are wide to the side, you run the risk of your knees buckling inward and seriously affecting your strength (and safety). The wider your foot position, the more your feet should be exposed.
“Screw your feet into the ground.”
With the feet planted, “screw” your right foot clockwise into the ground and your left foot counterclockwise into the ground.
This can also be referred to as “spreading the ground”.
A squat doesn’t work very well if your core is fluid and limp. They have to be a solid, cohesive piece. That means having a flat back, an activated abdominal muscle complex, activated lumbar muscles, and a neutral spine. You need to support yourself before squatting and stay firm throughout the movement.
Neutral head position.
The neck is part of the spine. Don’t forget to keep your head in a neutral position.
You “sit back” when you crouch, as if your bum is reaching for a chair behind you. You break at the hips first, not the knees.
Knees with feet lined up – “knees out”
Your knees should be in line with your feet. If you find that your knees give inwards (valgus), which can be devastating for your knee health, the hint “knee out” helps.
Keeping your chest up will maintain a neutral spine and “aim” in the right direction as you rise from the crouch. This is especially important when you have weight on your shoulders.
Go as deep as you can without breaking the shape.
Some people will get all the way to the grass before their shape breaks down. Others barely break parallel before their backs are rounded. Go as deep as it feels safe.
Common squat mistakes
What are some common squat mistakes and how can you fix them?
Break at the knees first.
The first joint to “break” in a movement is the joint that takes most of the load. When you try to crouch, the average person who has no experience of crouching and who has been sitting in chairs for a lifetime begins to bend their knees in front of their hips. This puts most of the load on your knees, a relatively weaker joint.
If you break at the hips first, then put most of the load on the rear chain / hip complex, which is much stronger than the knee joint.
Imagine having a chair behind you and reaching back with your bum to find it. This is what a squat should feel like, and this is how you challenge yourself to break at the hips.
Let your knees buckle.
As mentioned above, your knees should stay in line with your feet during a squat. If they give inward, also known as “valgus”, you disrupt the transmission of force, almost as if you were putting a “kink” in a hose.
The valgus knee during a bodyweight squat may not be catastrophic. It can actually be a normal pattern of movement in a resting squat, especially if you know what you are doing. But with extra weight or speed, knee valgus is a great way to tear a meniscus.
To avoid knee valgus, remember the keyword “knee out”. Another good clue is “side heel press,” which means you need to feel yourself and focus on the outer half of your heel pressing into the ground. When you do this, your knees will stay in line with your feet.
Squat with tight calves.
If your calves are tight, your ankle dorsiflexion (which brings toes toward your shin) is poor. Squatting with poor ankle dorsiflexion is a bad idea for several reasons. First, if you can’t dorsiflex, you won’t be able to keep your heels on the floor. They will come on your toes, which can put a lot of excessive pressure on the knee joint – especially when crouching under a load. Second, you find it difficult to maintain an upright trunk posture. A little “lean” is normal and expected, but squatting with very tight calves will force you to lean forward enough to drop the weight or bend your lower back.
Before you seriously crouch, fix your calves. Work on your ankle mobility.
Head and neck not neutral.
Humans can have their torso in the correct position, perfect knee positioning, good hip drive, but the head and neck are everywhere. To fix this, pick a point on the wall in front of you and keep an eye on it throughout the movement. This will soften your tendency to look around and move your head and neck out of neutrality.
First get up with your hips.
I see that very much. Instead of crouching as a single cohesive piece, people rise on their hips as they lean forward on their upper bodies. This makes the squat more like a deadlift or a good morning, and it takes the legs out of the equation and puts a lot of stress on the lower back.
As you stand up, think of “chest up” and you will ascend as a single continuous piece.
Brace at the wrong time.
Remember how I said to tighten your core and back and entire torso before crouching to create a coherent lever to move the weight?
Too often people get under a bar, take the load on their shoulders, and then try to support themselves. Your body is already compromised with the weight; You can’t get really tight with 300 pounds on your shoulders. You need to get tight and support yourself before accepting the weight.
Don’t break in parallel.
Just squatting in parallel puts a lot of strain on the knee. Research shows that the greatest compressive and shear forces that act on a knee during a squat occur at 90 degrees or parallel. Beyond 90 degrees (lower) the compressive and shear forces actually decrease.
Now consider that people are able to squat a lot more weight just by walking in parallel. So you put a ton more force on the knee than the person who is squatting past with less weight.
It is probably safer to briefly stop in parallel than to stop in parallel.
Collapse or “fall” into the ground at the end of the range.
The descent of a squat should be controlled. If you fall to the bottom of a squat or collapse, the more likely you are to get injured, limp, and sloppy.
Slower, faster up.
Hopefully this article will help your squat, whether you’re trying to lift heavy loads or simply improving your mobility as you get older. Have fun squatting!
About the author
Mark Sisson is the founder of Marks Daily Apple, godfather of the Primal Food and Lifestyle movement, and the New York Times best-selling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, which describes how he combines the keto diet with a pristine lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is also the author of numerous other books, including The Primal Blueprint, which is credited with the growth of the Primal / Paleo movement in 2009. After three decades of researching and educating people about why food is the key component in achieving optimal wellbeing, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real food company, the Primal / Paleo, Keto and Whole30 friendly kitchen staples manufactures.
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