by Larry Pastor | November 7, 2012 12:01 am
The ability to successfully perform a deep squat is a fairly good indicator of one’s overall fitness level and movement quality. Is it the end all, be all? Absolutely not, but it ranks right up there.
Squatting, for all practical purposes, is a complex movement that requires stability of the trunk and mobility of the extremities through constantly changing tension and position.What limits squat depth? “Stiff ankles, poor hip mobility, poor core stability” and more…Moreover, the ability to perform a picture perfect (deep) squat pattern demonstrates that someone has proper ankle dorsiflexion, hip flexion, thoracic extension, and glute activation, which, as my good buddy and ass-Jedi Bret Contreras has noted, helps counteract or “undo” much of the musculosketetal issues we see in every day society: low back pain, anterior knee pain, hip pain, hamstring strains, and groin strains, to name a few.
Lastly, the ability to perform a deep squat demonstrates one’s obvious ninja-like qualities. But that goes without saying.
Yet some people just aren’t ready to head to the gym on any given day and squat. They could have really stiff ankles, poor hip mobility, poor core stability, or something more structural in nature like femoral acetabular impingement – all of which can play a role in whether someone can squat to depth.
Depending on your athletic background, squatting below parallel may be a foreign concept to you initially, or you may have been told by a health professional that squatting deep is not good for the health of your knee. However, this has not been proven to be true.
At the risk of preaching to the converted, I can’t emphasize enough that squatting deep is not dangerous for the knees.It was shown that there was no discernible difference between three different squat depths (70, 90, and 110 degrees of knee flexion) with regards to patellofemoral joint reaction force and patellofemoral joint stress.A deep squat requires that the anterior surface of one’s thigh drop below knee level on the descent. If one has the ability to go lower, great! But I find the above criterium to be a fair starting point, and tends to be far lower than what most trainees are used to in the first place.
Just to clarify, I’m not saying that everyone needs (or has) to squat “ass-to-grass.” I’m not that naive nor pigheaded. The fact is, not everyone can (or should) squat below parallel without considering their training history, injury history, postural deficiencies, and/or mobility deficits. I’d be remiss to state otherwise.
Incidentally, what I find ironic is that most people (personal trainers included) think that squatting with a limited ROM is a safer way to squat. Epic fail.
Furthermore – and this should put the nail in the coffin – in a study titled “Patellofemoral joint kinetics during squat in collegiate women athletes” by Salem and Powers, it was shown that there was no discernible difference between three different squat depths (70, 90, and 110 degrees of knee flexion) with regards to patellofemoral joint reaction force and patellofemoral joint stress. (Clin Biomech (Bristol, Avon), June 1, 2001; 16(5): 424-30)
You need to address…
1) Poor Ankle Mobility
To perform a proper squat (or lunge for that matter), the ankle needs or requires roughly 15 degrees of dorsiflexion (think pointing the toes towards the shin). However, because we often wear cinder blocks for shoes, many trainees have really limited ankle mobility.Improving ankle flexibility “will help clean up your squat technique.”While admittedly an oversimplification, lack of dorsiflexion can lead to a cascade of events when squatting: anterior weight shift, pronation, tibial internal rotation, femoral internal rotation, knee valgus, heels coming off the ground, squat technique that makes my eyes bleed.
Luckily, there are a handful of simple drills you can do to help improve ankle mobility (again, specifically, ankle dorisiflexion) that will clean up your squat technique.
Wall Ankle Mobilization (Multi Planar)
Here, you’ll simply start with your toes 2-3 inches from the wall. From there, gently tap your knee to the wall with each repetition. Of note, if you feel your heel coming off the ground, move your foot closer to the wall. Perform five reps pushing the knee inward, five straight ahead (over the second toe), and five with the knee moving outward, for a total of 15 repetitions (per foot).
Knee-Break Ankle Mobilizations
Standing on two 5-10 lb. plates (toes on the plates, heels on the ground), simply “push” your knees over your toes, without pronating or allowing the knees to collapse into valgus (caving in). For some, you may find a significant restriction, but it’s important not to force range of motion. Use what ROM you have, and just rock back and forth.
Perform 10-15 repetitions.
2) Poor Hip MobilityOne problem is called Hip Internal Rotation Deficit. Counterintuitive as it may seem, having the ability to internally rotate the hip is important.A significant factor preventing many trainees from successfully hitting proper depth on a squat is that many have the hip mobility of a crowbar. This can mean any number of things ranging from lack of hip internal rotation to short/stiff adductors to short/stiff hip flexors.
One problem is called Hip Internal Rotation Deficit. Counterintuitive as it may seem, having the ability to internally rotate the hip is important. As physical therapist Charlie Weingroff has stated on several occasions “the body needs to know that it can do something before it can prevent it.”
One needs a certain amount of hip internal rotation to go into deep hip flexion. The problem arises, however, when most trainees have a significant hip internal rotation deficit.
A great drill we like to use at Cressey Performance is the knee-to-knee mobilization:
Lie on your back, feet preferably flat, and rock your knees back and forth. A great starting point would be to shoot for 8-10 repetitions per side. For more serious cases, however, I’d be inclined to have them hold the stretch for a bit. That means that instead of mobilizing the knees, the trainee would just hold the stretch by holding the knees together for a specific amount of time – anywhere from one to two minutes (sometimes as high as twenty)!
Often overlooked due to their attachment points, the adductors play a major role in both hip extension and hip flexion.Another problem is short/stiff adductors. The adductor complex (adductor longus, adductor brevis, adductor magnus, gracilis) is a fairly dense area of muscle that’s a common trouble spot for most trainees.
Often overlooked due to their attachment points, the adductors play a major role in both hip extension and hip flexion. Outside of some aggressive foam rolling or even manual therapy (trust me, NOT fun) in that area, there are a few exercises you can perform that will definitely help.
Split Stance Adductor Mobilizations
Making sure to maintain a neutral spine throughout. It’s important to go into both hip flexion and extension on this exercise. Be sure to not allow the lumbar spine to flex as you sit back!
Half Kneeling Adductor Dips
Very similar to the one above, this exercise is another great movement to help open up the hips and target the adductors.
Prone Hips Flexed Hip Rocking
This is a great exercise I stole from strength coach Kevin Neeld that helps mobilize the hips into both adduction and abduction.Everyone has “tight” hip flexors. Not a surprise, since the vast majority of us spend 10-15 hours per day in front of the computer, at class, commuting, playing video games — in other words, sitting.Starting in a quadruped position, flex one hip to 90 degrees. From there, simply “rock” side to side making sure to limit movement from the lumbar spine and focusing more on the hip capsule itself. It’s important to note that this is a self-limiting exercise, meaning don’t be too concerned with range of motion here – just use what you have and try to improve on that as you go.
Hip Flexor Tightness is extremely common. Everyone has “tight” hip flexors. Considering that the vast majority of us spend 10-15 hours per day in front of the computer, at class, commuting, playing video games, or watching American Idol, it should come as no surprise.
To that end, there are a handful of valuable exercises/drills that we have our clients implement on a daily basis that hammer the hip flexors, but the one we use the most at CP is the wall hip flexor mobilization.
Wall Hip Flexor Mobilization
Specifically targeting the rectus femoris (which crosses both the hip and knee joints), kneel in front of a wall and rock back and forth. Seriously, it’s pretty self-explanatory.
3) Poor Thoracic Mobility
While poor t-spine extensibility causes a plethora of issues up and down the kinetic chain (cervical pain, shoulder pain, anterior pelvic tilt, etc.), particularly regarding squatting, limited shoulder mobility and/or thoracic extension will hinder one’s ability to get into proper position.
Some basic drills one can implement to address this include:
While considered a progression from your typical quadruped extension-rotation, this exercise incorporates a bit more anterior core engagement (see below) as well as a little more serratus recruitment, which is always important for optimal shoulder function. 8-10 repetitions on each side should suffice.
This is an exercise that Eric Cressey popularized and targets both glenohumeral mobility and scapular stability simultaneously.
Simply stand flush against the corner of a wall (or a power rack) with your elbows at your sides, bent to 90 degrees. Abduct your lower arm, making sure to keep your shoulder blades down the entire time – be sure not to compensate by hyper-extending your lumbar spine! Perform 8-10 repetitions.
T-Nation originally posted this article on January 19, 2011. To read the full article, click here.
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