Squatting has become one of the most polarizing topics in health and fitness. It is a foundational exercise for building strength and in rehab. Although it is a useful tool, there are conflicting views on how you should squat. So what is the truth? What is the correct way to squat? The reality is, there are going to be minor differences in every individuals’ squat depending on their goals and their anatomy. These factors can cause minor differences such as bar placement on the back, range of motion, stance and foot position. For individuals trying to move large loads from point A to B, the bar may have to sit lower on the shoulder and they may sit the hips back farther. For a 6’4’’ basketball player working on building explosiveness, the bar may sit higher on the shoulders and the range of motion may not be as large. For an individual recovering from an ACL or knee injury, that load may be in front of the body and the tempo may be slower. Even though technique is situational there are some commonalities for everyone. Below are 5 of the biggest myths and misconceptions we see associated with the squat.
#1 Your Knees Should Never Go Over Your Toes
This is by far the most popular squat myth. You may have heard the cue “sit the hips back”. This is false for a couple of reasons. The first of which being that when squatting, our optimal position for the center of gravity is over the middle of the foot. If you try to keep the knees behind the toes, the weight will shift toward the heels, the thighs will no longer be able to rotate and the pelvis will run out of room as you are trying to sit down. This will cause your hips to shoot behind you and cause the torso to lean forward, as seen in the picture above. Occasionally, you will find an individual whose anatomy allows them to squat while keeping the knees behind the toes, but this usually has more to do with that particular person having short legs.
#2 “Chest Up!”
This is a cue that instructors and coaches have used for years and can come with some negative implications. Firstly, when you drive the chest upward on the lowering portion (eccentric) of the squat, the rib cage lifts from the abdomen and causes the low back to arch more. You may have heard this being called an anterior pelvic tilt. When the pelvis becomes rotated into this position one of the consequences is that the edges of the hips (pelvis) are now pushed towards the knobby heads of the thigh bone (femur). Due to this, as you lower yourself before you get as deep as you want they will contact each other leading to a phenomenon known as “butt wink”. This is a term used to describe the low back collapsing and rounding in the bottom of the squat. So it is actually quite ironic. The attempt to lift the chest and be more upright is actually what is causing your torso to be more pitched forward as well as causing rounding in your low back.
Secondly, one of the most important aspects of squatting is abdominal bracing. When you are in this chest lifted position where the ribs are being forced upward causing them to be no longer flush with the stomach you are actually making this area more unstable and harder to hold air in putting your body in a more vulnerable position under maximal loads. You will also be weaker out of the bottom of the movement when you are changing direction taking away explosive energy.
Lastly, even if you do everything perfectly on the way down, if you are battling with the weight on the way back up to the top you should still NOT lift your chest as all this will cause is your hips to rise behind you forcing you to do some weird hybrid good morning (back extension) due to your legs already being straight. We see this mechanic very often in those new to squatting.
#3 “My hamstrings are too tight to squat correctly.”
I frequently hear people talk about how they think their tight hamstrings are the culprit for their lumbar collapse at the bottom of the squat or their ability to achieve a desired depth. Besides the fact that the hamstrings are a commonly tight muscle in most people and it usually has more to do with things such as neurodynamic tension and the fact that people do not perform movements that require overly flexible hamstrings at frequency which would allow them to be mobile. The muscular function of the hamstring is to create flexion (curling) at the knee, and extension at the hip (forward not backward tilt). When we squat we are moving the hips and knees more or less at the same time so the net effect on hamstring tension is almost nothing and it ends up not being that involved in the movement. Most of you need to work on your technique and positioning not static stretching your hamstrings for 20 minutes a day.
#4 “Drive through your heels”
Frequently we hear people being told when squatting to sit back on their heels or to “drive” through the heels when coming up out of the bottom of the squat. This often leads to the toes and ball of the foot lifting off the ground when squatting causing the weight distribution to become very focused on the heel.
Although this isn’t entirely incorrect as we do want the primary force production coming from the mid foot to heel, what we actually should be striving for is “three points of contact” on each foot with the pad of the big toe, pinky toe, and heel. Maintaining these three points of contact will allow us to have the largest possible relationship with the ground. The benefits of this are including but not limited to the ability to use dorsiflexion (foot towards shin movement) effectively, increased firing of hip musculature from the big toe contact, more stability in the eccentric (downward) portion of the movement, and lastly a more efficient stacking of the knee over the foot. The knee traveling forward over the foot creating dorsiflexion is also an essential part of us being able to close the knee joint completely and achieve a deep squat.
#5 “Look Up”
Not really sure where this one came from either. Somewhere along the way I guess some weightlifters came to the conclusion that if you look up that’s where you will go. When squatting we want the elbows relatively in line pointed under the bar. The reason being here is that the hips tend to travel in the direction that the elbows point. When we look up at the start or during the movement the elbows tend to flare behind the body making the movement become loose and detached. It is best to identify a point in front of you to focus on and fixate on that point throughout the duration of the movement even if it is slightly below eye level.