Are you Squatting Correctly? Part 1

Post by Laura Gold, PT, DPT

Drop in to any gym, weight room, crossfit box, or bootcamp session and you’ll be guaranteed to find someone doing some form of squatting. Squatting is a great functional exercise – that means besides being a challenging movement, it has good carryover to the things we do in everyday life like work and sports. Unfortunately, I can also say that you can drop into most of those places and you are just as likely to find someone doing a squat incorrectly. Commonly they are not targeting the intended muscles or even worse stressing other areas of the body and increasing the risk for injury. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to highlight a few of the common mistakes we see with squats as well as some cues to help you improve your technique. This week we will take a look at trunk and low back posture.

The Classic Forward Lean
This error in form involves excessive forward bending of the trunk as the body lowers into squat position. It is especially problematic and puts considerable strain on the back if performed with heavy weight.  Because of the beauty of physics, the more you lean forward the more torque the weight has on your back. Yowch!

How it should look:
The angle of the trunk should be closer to vertical than horizontal, but does not have to be a perfect perpendicular angle to the floor. The angle of the trunk should be about parallel to the angle of your lower leg/shins. To check for this squat error, stand next to a mirror so that you can view yourself from the side. Check your form and make sure your trunk and shins are parallel (imagine a line coming out from the top of the knees. Would that line intersect your trunk?) (In the picture below the left is an incorrect squat. The right is a correct squat.)


The High School Coach Squat
I am sure that many of the coaches out there who require their players to squat are teaching their kids the correct form. However, when I was in high school we were taught to squat (with heavy weight mind you) with our chests bowed out and our butts out, putting a big curve in the lumbar spine (lower back). Now this is actually a very stable position, but there are two problems with it. First, it is stable because the little joints in the lumbar spine called “facet” or “zygaphophyseal” joints (picture the knobby joints on the back of the vertebrae) are locked into extension. In the PT world, we advise against locking out joints in an exercise or movement because it wears them out and in the long run, makes them not so stable or even arthritic. The other problem is that when you lock out your back you are cheating yourself out of an excellent opportunity to improve core strength! If your body is not working to maintain a neutral spine position during squatting, you will not be prepared to engage your core when you attempt the functional movement you are trying to strengthen (whether it be force production in running or powering through the offensive line).

How it should look:
The low back naturally has a bit of a curve to it – an appropriate amount of “lumbar lordosis” helps our spine work more like a spring and absorb shock. So what we want to see is a low back that neither rounds out nor curves very far in (the rear goes back like you are sitting in chair but doesn’t stick out). We want the happy medium which we call a “neutral spine”.  Again, try standing next a mirror with a side view. Place your hands on your hips so that you can feel the front and back of your pelvis on each side. Allow your pelvis to roll forward and low back to cave in, then go the other way tilting the pelvis back, tucking the tail bone under and rounding the low back. Now find the happy medium between the two. If you are used to spending a lot of your time in a lordotic posture (pelvis rolled forward), the happy medium might feel a little awkward at first. You may have to remind yourself to tuck the tailbone a bit to get to that happy neutral spine. Now that you have your neutral spine, try your squat. Does the low back sink in as you get lower? Does it round out at the bottom of your squat?  If so, fix it! (In the picture below the left is an incorrect squat. The right is a correct squat.)


Next week we will delve into knee alignment!

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