The squat is one of the most basic and essential human movement patterns that we use in everyday life. From a toddler picking up a toy from the ground, to an adult standing up from a chair, or an athlete looking to improve their performance by doing weighted squats- we do some form of a squat every day. You may find that overtime a squat may become challenging to perform. As we age, the inability to move through a squat can negatively affect your quality of life. As we grow up, rather than squatting, we choose to bend over from our low back, which requires less energy expenditure but can also place excessive load and strain on our low back if done repetitively.
A squat is a good way to improve mobility, balance, strength, and prevent injury- if done properly. When done with poor technique, it can be harmful for the joints. By changing the way you perform a squat, you can prevent potential injuries. A physiotherapist can assess your joint mobility, muscle length, and motor control during a full body weight deep squat, and help you to make some important corrections.
Performing a proper squat requires good mobility not just in the hips, but in the knees, and ankles, as well. In addition, we need coordination of the muscles involved in order to efficiently move our body through the movement. We call this motor control. Bringing your centre of mass down below the level of the knees is a movement an average adult does not do often. Contrary to a popular belief originating from the 1960’s, squatting below your knee level will not hurt your knee joint.
How to do a proper deep squat
It is important to know that everyone’s squat will look slightly different. We have different heights, centre of balance, leg lengths, shoe size etc. so why would our technique look the same? The following are a few major pointers that physiotherapists and trainers use to assess a squat.
- Feet neutral or slightly turned outward
- Stance width will vary based on anatomical variations- your therapist can help you find the ideal width
- Knees stay over the middle of the feet
- Hip engages throughout the movement
- Low back stays neutral throughout the movement, including the lowest position
Once the technique is assessed, your physiotherapist will determine if there is need to change your technique, as well as identify the root cause of the non-optimal movement pattern.
- Feet are not staying flat on the ground (heel comes off ground). Limited ankle mobility is most often to blame for this mistake. Your feet should be firmly planted to the ground throughout the entire movement with the weight evenly distributed between the toes and the heels.
- Knees cave inwards and don’t remain over the middle of the feet. It often suggests weak hip abductor muscles and/or a motor control issue. This movement pattern can also be paired with flat feet therefore keeping an active arch and strengthening hip abductors can help.
- Low back is unable to maintain a neutral spine and starts to round or arch too much. If you lack hip mobility, your low back will start to round towards the end of the squat. However, if your back arches throughout the movement, it may be because of weak core muscles and/or lack of motor control.
Main Mobility Issues
Joint range of motion can be limited by muscle or joint capsule. The following are three simple exercises to resolve some of the issues limited by a joint. If you are currently dealing with an injury or feel sharp pain while doing the exercises, do not attempt these joint stretches, rather seek help from a trusted physiotherapist.
Ankle: Limited dorsiflexion
Sample exercise: Chair lunge with additional weight
This particular exercise mobilizes the ankle, as well as stretches one of you calf muscles, the soleus.
- Put the affected ankle on a chair or bench, and firmly press heel down.
- Weight shift forward as far as you can, and hold for 10 seconds, return and repeat 10 times.
- Optional: using additional weight such as a 20 lb. medicine ball or dumbbell to increase intensity of exercise
Knee: Limited knee flexion (not as common as ankle and hip limitations)
Sample exercise: Repeated knee flexion with a towel
- Place a small towel roll behind the knee and pull knee back as shown in picture.
- Hold for 10 seconds, repeat 10 times.
Hip: Limited hip flexion
Sample exercise: Goblet squat
This is a great exercise for opening up the hips, and it can be used for a warm up, as well.
- Hold the weight against the chest (start with a lighter weight)
- Position your feet slightly wider than your shoulders and have feet slightly turned out
- Sit back and down between the knees, keeping your chest up and your low back straight. Do NOT let your low back round even if it means that you cannot complete a full squat
- Try to distribute your weight evenly between your heels and toes. If your heel raises from the ground your stance may be too narrow (people with long legs may also have to use a wider stance)
- To increase the stretch, at the bottom, bring elbows to the side and push knees out and try to maintain position (5-30 seconds)
- Return and repeat 10 times.
If you are looking for more information about squats, please read part two of this blog post titled “Reclaim Your Squat Part 2 – The Role of Motor Control“. Other great websites to find resources include: The Barbell Physio and The Squat University.