How to Teach a Perfect Squat

Welcome back to Squat University. When we talk about the squat many people often want to jump right into discussing the barbell squat. We forget the basics of the bodyweight squat. If we don’t address the movement of the squat before the exercise version of the squat we set ourselves up for failure.

If we can fix the issues that present during the bodyweight squat we give ourselves a greater capability to carry the load of the barbell. We should all have the ability to perform a full depth “ass-to-grass” squat without any weight. Period.

We all want to live, play and compete in a pain free manner for as long as we live. This starts with learning how to squat correctly with the bodyweight movement.

The Absolutes of Squatting

During this lecture we will discuss the 5 absolutes of squatting. It doesn’t matter how tall you are, your level of weight room experience, or your goals with sport training. These absolutes must be followed in order to squat correctly and remain pain free.

Toe Angle

Most people have a pretty good idea of what the perfect squat looks like in the bottom position. What if I told you that the set up and movement of the squat is actually more important than the bottom position itself?

It is a common misconception that everyone should place their feet at the exact same width during the squat. The width of our stance is not one of the absolutes of squatting. Most people are going to have slight differences in how wide they place their feet. Individual mobility limitations and anatomical differences will impact the width of your stance. The goal is to place your feet in a position that will allow for a full depth squat and still feel comfortable. That being said, placing your feet at around a shoulder width is a good starting position for most.

The stance you assume should be able to carry over to a number of other movements you may perform throughout your day or on the field of play as an athlete. This is the reason why the squat has been called a functional movement. Think about the defensive ‘ready position’ of the basketball player or that of a third baseman just before the pitcher winds up. The starting stance of the squatting movement is a universal position that carries over into many other movement patterns. For this reason we want to use a fairly straightforward foot position to start this squat.

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A near straight-forward foot position with a very slight 5-7° out-toe angle during the bodyweight squat is ideal. If you have difficulty performing the movement to full range with this foot position, it may indicate you have certain issues in mobility that warrant attention. This is our first absolute of the bodyweight squat.

StraightForwardFoot.png

Some coaches will cue their athletes to squat with a much greater angle of out-toeing during the bodyweight squat. Teaching athletes to set up in this manner will likely carry over to other movement patterns that are derived from the squat.

Toe Out angle.png

You probably will never see a good linebacker stand in his ‘ready’ position with his toes turned out like a duck. This position is not only inefficient but it also increases risk of injury. That linebacker will not be able to move quickly from this position or unleash an extreme amount of power into his next tackle with his feet turned out.

For the bodyweight squat, a straight-forward position is idea. For the barbell squat, it’s acceptable and desirable to toe out a bit more. This will allow a lifter to descend to a greater depth and increase stability. The specifics of the barbell squat movement will be a topic of another lecture.

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The Tripod Foot

Once we have our toe-out angle set, lets discuss what we’re doing at the feet. When we create a good arch in our foot, we inevitably form what we call a ‘tripod’ foot. The three points of the tripod consists of the heel, the base of the 1st toe and the base of the 5th toe. Our foot is basically like a three wheeled motorcycle. Our goal when squatting should be to maintain the arch of our feet and have our weight distributed evenly. If all of the wheels are in contact with the ground we get more power. If one wheel is off the ground or if the body bottoms out, power is lost and the motorcycle breaks down. When our foot is out of position (arch collapse) stability and power is lost.

Trike

Distributing the body’s weight over the three points of contact of the foot allows for the most efficient base of support possible. Mastering the tripod foot is the 2nd absolute of squatting.

TriPod Foot.jpg

Hip Hinge

Once we have established a comfortable foot position (as close to straight-forward as possible and in a tripod position) we are ready for our next step and cue; drive the hips back.

Correct Squat %22Hips First%22

Every squat must start with a hip-hinge. By driving our hips backward and bringing the chest forward in a hinging movement the posterior chain (glutes and hamstrings) are properly engaged.

The hips are the powerhouse of our body. During the squat these specific muscles drive us up and out of the hole, allowing us to lift tremendous weights. It is therefore imperative to make sure these muscles are used efficiently. This establishes our 3rd absolute of squatting.

Creating External Rotation Torque

Our last cue before starting our descent for the bodyweight squat is to create external rotational torque at the hips. Creating this tension creates a spring-like tightness in our hips that will ensure our knees track with ideal alignment during the entire squat.

To create this torque at the hips I use the cues to “squeeze your glutes” and “drive the knees out”. In performing these actions we essentially wind up the spring-like mechanism of our hips. If you try this, you will instantly feel the outside muscles of your hips engage. Immediately the knees will be drawn a good position in line with the toes and an arch will be created in the foot.

HighArchPhoto

If we look at the arch of our foot, we notice that it moves in relation to the rest of our lower body. If the knees bow outward – the entire foot moves into a full arched position. When the knees fall inward – the foot subsequently collapses and the arch flattens out. For this reason, the correct position for our lower body can be achieved by the proper action of our hips.

LowArchPhoto

We have to remember to not compromise the ‘tripod’ foot during this step. For this reason, make sure to not push the knees out too far. Some athletes will misuse the cue to drive their knees too far out to the side. The goal is to align the knees with the toes. Creating this rotational torque at the hips is the 4th absolute of squatting.

Bad Foot Position
Pushing the knees too far wide will cause the foot to lose stability. Observe how the base of the first toe is now off the ground.

Postural Integrity

Correct technique in the squat relies on every part our body working in perfect coordination. This includes maintaining our trunk and neck in a neutral and straight position. The concept of postural integrity is our 5th and final absolute.

In order to remain balanced during the squat we require our center of gravity to be over the middle of our foot. This requires a more forward chest position. However, just because the trunk is required to lean forward does not mean our chest should collapse like we have a turtle shell on our back.

A cue that can help maintain the ideal straight trunk position is to hold the arms straight out in front of our body. By holding our arms out in front our body, our trunk naturally assumes a more straight position.

Balanced Squat.jpg

Maintaining a neutral neck position will depend on the angle of the torso. During the bodyweight squat our trunk is usually inclined forward over our knees. This requires the athlete to look forward or slightly down (at a point 10-15 feet forward on the ground). If the trunk is required to be in a more vertical position (front squat or overhead squat) eye gaze can now be focused more forward or even slightly up (at a point 5 feet above the horizontal).

Review Time

Lets now review our 5 absolutes for the bodyweight squat.

  • Point your feet as straightforward as possible. 5-7 degree toe-out angle is acceptable.
  • Maintain three points of contact with your feet in relation to the floor establishing the ‘tripod’ foot.
  • Hip Hinge to engage the posterior chain (glutes & hamstrings) by pushing your hips backwards slightly and bringing your chest forward. Your bodyweight should be balanced over the middle of your feet.
  • Create external rotational torque at the hips by squeezing your glutes and shoving the knees out to the side while maintaining the ‘tripod’ foot.
  • Solidify our postural integrity by holding our arms out in front (parallel to the floor) while looking straight ahead.

 

The Bodyweight Squat Movement

 The Descent

Once you have accomplished the five absolutes, you can start the descent toward the bottom of the squat. Don’t think about stopping high or dropping too low. Just descend into the bottommost position your mobility will allow.

Make sure to stay balanced the entire movement. It is important to use this time to feel for where your weight is being held over your feet. This ability to sense body position is called proprioception.

During the descent try to and keep the shins in a vertical position for as long as possible. When we fail to keep our shins as vertical as possible for as long as possible, the knees begin to move forward over the toes too soon. This pre-mature forward movement increases forces on the knee joint and leaves the athlete off balance.

Bodyweight Squat Transition

Bottom Position

When you have reached full depth in the squat, you should feel solid and completely balanced. Your weight should be evenly distributed between the front and back of your foot. If we drew a vertical line for your body’s center of gravity in this position, it should run right through the middle of your foot.

The Ascent

Standing up from the bottom of the squat is all about hip drive. This is accomplished by pushing the hips up and backwards. While driving the hips, also visualize pulling your shins back to a vertical position. Doing this allows for efficient use of posterior chain. This takes pressure off the knees and places the muscles of the hip in a position to create tremendous force.

Ascent.jpg

During the ascent of the squat the knees need to stay in a stable position. This means keeping the knees in-line with the feet throughout the entire movement. Improving this control allows us to avoid injury while increasing the efficiency of our movement. By increasing the efficiency of our movements we increase the potential to produce more power and increase strength. Who wouldn’t want more power, more strength and meanwhile avoid injuries?!

Take Away

The bodyweight squat is often a movement passed over by athletes and coaches. Too often we assume we have the capacity to perform a perfect squat. Don’t take for granted anyone can perform this movement just because they are athletic. The squat is a movement first and an exercise second.

Until next time,

SquatBottom
Dr. Aaron Horschig, PT, DPT, CSCS, USAW

With

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Dr. Kevin Sonthana, PT, DPT, CSCS

 

 

 

 

Published by

Dr. Aaron Horschig

Doctor of Physical Therapy, CSCS, USAW coach and athlete.

7 thoughts on “How to Teach a Perfect Squat

    1. The bodyweight squat sets the movement foundation for the barbell squat. It teaches the principles of how to coordinate movement, use full mobility and remain balanced. We use the squat on a daily basis when we drop down to pick something up, when we sit down in a chair or many around the world use it as a resting position (aka the “third-world-squat”). For this reason the squat is a movement 1st and an exercise 2nd. Once you learn the proper bodyweight squat you can easily transfer those learnings over to the barbell version.

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  1. When i am at the final stage of the bottom of my “depth” squat, my back and neck are aligned and straight yet not nearly as vertical as your back is in the two images above (my image looks very similar to the one image of whem you personally would even begin the descent. Why is that

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    1. Good question Oscar – it could be due to ankle stiffness. When the ankles are stiff, they don’t allow a vertical chest position. I’d check out “Ankle pt 1” on this site – it has a quick test you can use to determine your level of ankle mobility

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