Proper squatting forms the basis of any performance system and is essential to meaningful function as an athlete and a human — which includes the elderly (might need to scale though, bro). As an athlete and as a practitioner who treats fellow CrossFitters frequently, one of the things I love is the emphasis on the squat pattern. But with high squatting volume in any performance system, we need to ensure it’s reproducible.
The best squat width is… “The one that allows the best depth while preserving a neutral spine.”
I understand and share the pride that comes with the ability to squat deep while lifting some serious weight. However, many athletes are unable to squat deep with load due to hip or low back pain. Femoral-acetabular impingement is often the culprit here, where the neck of the femur is literally jamming into the acetabulum of the pelvis. My friend Dr. Dan Pope goes into much greater detail in one of his posts on FAI. These same biomechanics also cause “butt winking,” where there is a reversal of the lumbar spine causing a loss of segmental control. This spinal shear under load is dangerous and never okay; a butt wink is an immediate fault and nobody gets a pass. Altering squat width is a strong start to fixing these train wrecks.
Finding the Best Squat Width
So how do we determine best squat width for depth and performance (and to help prevent hip pain and butt winking)? “Shoulder width” is often used as a general rule; however, that differs for each individual. Many times we just start with a random width and that becomes the default. However, factors such as motor control of the entire system (particularly the over-extended spine), hip and ankle mobility, and individual structural differences in acetabulum and femur alignment all influence squat width and depth.
The sooner the femur runs into the pelvis, the less depth you’ll achieve and squat numbers will plateau. But you don’t need an x-ray to determine how you should squat.
Rather, we need to find the best squat width that allows the most depth while maintaining movement integrity (such as a neutral spine). The best position yields the best performance and the fewest injuries.
The test below helps find where these limitations are least restrictive and determines the best starting squat width.
I like this test (originally from Dr. Stu McGill, spine biomechanist) as a screen for new lifters, for those who are having hip or low back pain, and for athletes whose squat numbers are plateauing.