Apr 28, 2020The Squat: A More Detailed Look
In my first article of this series, I gave a quick introduction of what to look for to keep your athletes safe when performing squats, deadlifts, and cleans. It was broad and basic and only pointed out some major issues that can be easily noticed. Over the course of the next three articles, I will focus on one lift at a time and dive deeper into many mechanical faults that can take place and talk on what coaches should strive towards when coaching their athletes. This is not an exhaustive list, and there are many more technique points and cueing options that can facilitate a well-developed and safe squat pattern.
The squat is one of the most fundamental movement patterns performed in the weight room, and one that is very often performed poorly. In a weight room culture that only cares about how much weight is being put up, technique and safety tend to fall to the wayside. Don’t get me wrong, improving overall strength is important, especially in younger athletes, but never at the cost of poor technique. I don’t chase weight room numbers with my athletes, and we rarely, if ever, do one-rep max. We do, however, always have the goal of improving strength and, more importantly, power. Our primary focus is to establish and maintain flawless technique while lifting, not to endlessly lift more and more weight. When the form breaks down, we reduce the weight. After all, the ultimate goal of the weight room is to facilitate their sports and build bodies that are more resilient to injury. They are athletes, not powerlifters. If you are training competitive powerlifters, of course the focus will be slightly different. For coaches wondering where to start, “Movement over Maxes” by Zach Dechant is a phenomenal place to start.
Common Technique Flaws
As with any movement, I start with the feet. The foot contains 26 bones, 33 joints, 19 large muscles, and more than 100 ligaments. Translation: the foot is incredibly complex. The foot is the only part of the body that is continually in contact with the ground during athletic movements and exercises in the weight room. Therefore, it makes a lot of sense to look first to the foot (and big-toe) and see how it functions. But how many coaches actually take the time to do this? If something is going wrong at the foot, it can (and often does) affect everything else up the kinetic chain. The primary movements of the foot are dorsiflexion, plantar flexion, eversion/pronation, and inversion/supination.
A major issue I see in many athletes is a lack of dorsiflexion. Not being able to dorsiflex can lead to the very common technique flaw of the heels coming off the ground during the squat. This can arise from a myriad of issues including previous ankle injuries, constant use of braces, or wearing shoes with an elevated heel, which forces the foot into continuous plantarflexion. However, this could also be due to the athlete simply not knowing how to squat properly, so determining the ankle dorsiflexion range of motion is crucial. A quick test to assess dorsiflexion ability is to have the athlete kneel next to a wall with shoes off. Start with their toes next to the wall and instruct them to touch the knee to the wall while keeping their heel on the ground. Have them continue to move back until they can no longer touch their knee to the wall while maintaining ground contact with their heel.
However, improving mobility without also improving stability can also lead to issues. The big-toe/foot/ankle complex must be mobile, but it also must be stable and strong. Cal Dietz and Chris Korfist offer a fantastic course on training and strengthen the feet on CoachTube, from which I gathered a lot of this information. Ensuring a strong, stable foot not only improves safety, but it will also improve performance, as there are fewer energy leaks with a stable foot. Most of us are familiar with the tripod-foot coaching cue; however, many athletes cannot truly feel this with the cushion-filled shoes that most of them wear. In order to test and have them feel how a stable and strong tripod foot should feet, have them balance on one leg and raise the toes off the ground. This will force the athlete to utilize the tripod foot, and it can quickly be seen if there are any stability issues. Of course, we do not want to squat with toes up, as engaging the big toe into the ground will help induce more gluteus maximus engagement on the concentric portion of the squat, but this is a great assessment to notice balance issues. I have found that athletes who squat well bilaterally, suddenly fall apart stability-wise when placed in a split-squat position, so an athlete’s stability in this position should be assessed as well.
Another issue that I see all the time is excessive pronation during the squat, where the athlete cannot maintain the arch of the foot and there is an inward collapse of the foot. This again often comes back to the lack of a strong foot and can be assessed by using a modified navicular drop test or simply looking at an athlete’s ankle to determine if there is excessive pronation. If an athlete exhibits the inability to maintain an arch while walking or standing, they certainly will not be able to maintain it under heavy squat loads or during explosive athletic movements like sprinting and jumping. Pronation of the foot can also lead to excessive knee valgus, however, knee valgus can also be a result of weak hip abductors, or they may have simply never been taught correct technique. Whatever the cause of excessive pronation and knee valgus, these technique flaws must be addressed. We must keep in mind that there is some degree of knee valgus required in sport in response to ground reaction force and that injury is multifactorial and very complex, but excessive knee valgus should be avoided when squatting.
Excessive external rotation of the feet can be an issue, and it certainly is when the feet “spin out” during the squat. That is why teaching the athlete to “claw the ground” can be advantageous. This method engages the tripod foot stance, helps maintain foot arch, and secures the big toe into the ground. However, we must keep in mind that several anatomical differences may exist in our athletes, including hip socket depth and angle, femur shape, and femur anteversion, and no amount of stretching or corrective exercises will change this. Dr. Aaron Horschig wrote a great article explaining this in more detail. Simply put, some athletes perform better with a more narrow, toes-forward stance, while others will benefit from a wider, toes-out stance. Butt-wink (the posterior rotation of the pelvis at the bottom of the squat, which leads to excessive lumbar flexion) has been noted as a potential technique flaw as well, but this topic remains controversial and the research is limited, but potential causes point to the anatomical differences mentioned above. Lastly, a lateral hip shift to one side is often seen in athletes as they begin the concentric phase of the squat. This can be due to many factors such as muscle weakness and anatomy as listed above. Dean Somerset has a fantastic article on lateral hip shift that dives into what can be done to address it.
I am certainly not saying we deny the athlete from squatting if any of the flaws listed above are present, but it is something we must address and continually improve upon. Otherwise we are doing a huge disservice to our athletes. There are several options that we can utilize with our athletes to work around movement issues until they are able to perform squats correctly and safely. I like athletes to get as low as they can (with flawless mechanics) in their squats, however, I do program box squats and ½ squats in certain situations. I don’t think athletes always need to go below parallel, however, I do think it is something they should be able to do. When I first get a new athlete, I have them squat and hold as low as they can with a neutral spine and their heels on the ground. I prefer shoes off for this so that I can really see how the athlete moves into the squat and how well they own the position. If an athlete struggles in this position, I will often have them hold onto a squat rack and move as low as they can (photo 17). This does a great job of getting them to feel what it is like to be in a good, low squat position. This also allows them to feel their weight evenly distributed across their tripod foot without having to worry about balancing. An easy hack for athletes who lack dorsiflexion ability is to simply place 10-pound plates under their heels. This will automatically improve the squat depth and clean up a lot of mechanics issues. However, this should be viewed as a temporary fix, and coaches should work to remove the need for it by improving mobility and technique.
In terms of squat progressions, I prefer to have new athletes master the goblet squat before they ever touch a barbell. Usually I like the athletes to reach a minimum of 3×6 at 80-100 pounds before progressing to a bar. I frequently program goblet squats even with my advanced athletes. I also prefer front squats over back squats, because it promotes better joint positions and in my opinion is more conducive and transferrable to sprinting and jumping mechanics. I also make sure my athletes master the front squat before I allow them to perform power or hang cleans. I often have athletes come to me whose coaches had them clean, but never taught them proper front squat technique — this is a recipe for disaster. Photo 20 shows a proper front squat technique. I do still program back squats, but to a much lesser degree than I used to. Photo 21 shows the position I prefer in back squats. I have also incorporated much more unilateral training, such as split squats, rear-elevated split squats, lunge verities, and single-leg squats. In my opinion, the battle over unilateral vs bilateral is silly and we should incorporate a mix of both.
I hope this article will help you identify some common technique issues in the weight room during various squatting activities. Again, this is certainly not an exhaustive list and there are many nuances that will arise, which is why each athlete should be assessed and treated as an individual and on a case by case basis. The top priority in the weight room is to keep our athletes safe and healthy by instilling and perfecting their movement technique. The primary role of the weight room is to facilitate their sport and to build resiliency, not getting infinitely strong. I am all about building strength, but we must do it in a safe and sustainable way. Remember, most high school athletes will never play a college sport, and many college athletes will never play a pro sport. We must consider their lives beyond sport and help create good, strong, and healthy movers for their lives outside of sport as well.
If you would like to contact me directly and discuss technique issues or if you have a differing opinion I would love to hear from you. My Twitter and Instagram handle is @danielflahie and my business email is [email protected]. Feel free to reach out to me by any of those methods. I am available for remote training and as a resource to help educate coaches on technique, help develop training programs and create a safe and effective weight room culture for schools without a strength coach on staff.