Squats have long been a staple in the strength and conditioning world. They are a core component of training programs for both novice lifters and competitive athletes. Despite how ubiquitous the squat is, most people lack a deep understanding of everything involved in the movement pattern and what it takes to have good squat form. The squat is a complex coordinated movement that requires a great deal of mobility and stability at multiple joints throughout the body. This series will take you through each component of the squat. By the end, you will have a much better understanding of the movement and how you can squat with maximal benefit and minimal risk. In this article, I will go through a high-level overview of the squat so that we are all on the same page before getting into the nitty gritty details.
What is a Squat?
This may seem like a silly question, but I think it’s important to define the squat and specifically which variations will be discussed in this series. Our working squat definition is – a combined movement that lowers one’s body toward the ground, bringing the buttocks closer to the heels as if to crouch or sit. While there are many squat variations, we will be focusing on only double-limb squats with the feet aligned with one another in the frontal plane (the plane that splits your body in half front-to-back). Although much of the information from this article applies to other stance orientations such as split-stance and single-leg squats, these variations include additional biomechanical requirements that I will not be focusing heavily on here.
Squat FOrm – Involved Joints
As mentioned above, the squat is a complicated movement pattern that involves synchronized motion at multiple joints throughout the body. I’m going to focus on the major joints in this series as this is where the bulk of issues arise. The major joint complexes involved in the squat are the joints of the spine, hips, knees, and ankles. Other joints may be involved to varying degrees depending on the specific variation you are using (i.e. shoulders for barbell back squat; elbow and wrist for barbell front squat), but these four are at play in all squat types. Good squat form depends on sufficient mobility and stability at each of these regions. Limitations in one area will often cause overload and breakdown in another. Next, I’ll quickly go over the movement at each of these major joint regions.
The Spine in a Squat
The spine should remain stable when squatting, maintaining a relatively constant position. Although the angle of the spine changes due to movement at other joints, the joints within the spine should not move much at all. This stability allows the load that you are lifting to transfer entirely to the lower body without excess stress on the spine. The muscles of the trunk provide stability, but do not produce the movement.
The Hips in a Squat
During the eccentric (lowering) phase of a squat, the hip joints are moving into flexion (narrowing the angle between thighs and belly). As you move into the concentric (lifting) phase, the hip joints move into extension (opening the angle between thighs and belly). In addition to these sagittal plane (the plane splitting your body in half right-to-left) motions, the hip joints also move into relative internal rotation during the eccentric phase, and relative external rotation during the concentric phase.
The Knees in a Squat
While squatting, your knees move into flexion (bending) on the way down and into extension (straightening) on the way up. Full range of motion into flexion requires some internal rotation of the tibia (lower leg) relative to the femur (thigh bone) at the knee joint, while full range of extension requires some external rotation of the tibia relative to the femur at the knee joint. This also involves motion of the patella (knee cap) distally (toward the foot) during the eccentric phase, and proximally (toward the hip) during the concentric phase.
The Ankles in a Squat
As you drop down into a squat, your knees move forward over your toes. This creates relative dorsiflexion (closing the angle between the tops of the feet and the shins). Coming back up from a squat, this is reversed and the ankle moves in the direction of plantar flexion (opening the angle between the tops of the feet and the shins).
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Squat Form – Involved Muscles
Squats are truly a full body exercise. As such, there should be engagement throughout the body as you squat. I will focus on the major involved muscle groups.
At the level of the trunk:
- Erector Spinae – located in the back, these muscles backbend the spine. In the case of the squat, they maintain an upright spine by countering the weight against gravity and balancing the pull of the gluteal and hamstring muscles.
- Abdominal Muscles – includes multiple layers and a variety of fiber orientations. These function together to contribute to stability of the spine and trunk.
- Diaphragm – the primary muscle of respiration (breathing), the diaphragm pulls air into the lungs when it contracts. Functioning together with the abdominal muscles and pelvic floor, the diaphragm increases intra-abdominal pressure to stabilize the spine.
- Multifidus – deep muscles of the spine that function mostly for stabilization.
- Pelvic Floor – a group of muscles at the base of the pelvis that supports the bowels and bladder. They also function with the diaphragm and abdominals to increase intra-abdominal pressure for spinal stability.
Moving down to the hips and knees:
- The Gluteals – includes gluteus maximus, minimus, and medius. The maximus is one of the primary movers in the squat, responsible for motion at the hips. The minimus and medius function primarily for stability.
- Hip Adductors – function to stabilize the hips and knees while also contributing to movement at the hips.
- Quadriceps – another primary mover in the squat. The quads are responsible for movement at the knee joint.
- Hamstrings – function to support the gluteal muscles in controlling movement at the hips.
Finally at the ankle:
- The Gastrocnemius and Soleus – function together to control the motion at the ankle and knee, providing a stable base for the squat.
The Value of Squats
Squats are an excellent exercise to develop strength, size, and power in the lower body. When performed properly they also train stability throughout the core, hips, knees, and ankles. The beneficial effects throughout the body are a major reason that squats are so commonly included in fitness programs.
Beyond their utility for athletic performance, the squat is also a common movement pattern in daily life. You use the motions and muscles trained through squatting every time you climb stairs, sit down in a chair, or pick something up off the floor.
Squat Form and Anatomical Variations
I will be describing mobility and movement in this series, but I will not describe or define “ideal” squat form. The reason for this is that there are countless anatomical variations that affect movement. No two bodies are the same and with a complex movement pattern like the squat, these anatomical variations create natural differences in the ideal movement for each individual. I won’t go into too much detail on this, but you can read more on the subject here.
Looking Forward – What’s Coming in the Series
Going forward in this series, I will dive more deeply into each of the joint complexes and muscle groups mentioned above. I will discuss mobility, stability, and provide some suggestions for training. We will cover the major mobility issues that frequently limit the squat and even the role of breathing. By the end you’ll understand everything that goes into a squat and have the tools to improve your squat form.
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Health Advice Disclaimer
This article provides examples that are applicable to many, but not all people. They are based on typical presentations seen in my personal clinical practice. This information represents common findings in the population discussed, but can in no way take the place of professional evaluation and treatment by a licensed medical practitioner. It is impossible to provide 100% accurate diagnosis or prognosis without a thorough physical examination and likewise the advice given for management or prevention of any injury cannot be deemed fully accurate in the absence of this examination.
If you are currently experiencing any pain or injury, seek professional evaluation before undertaking this or any exercise program. Ensure that you are medically cleared for exercise before undertaking any exercise program. Significant injury risk may occur if you do not seek proper evaluation. No guarantees of specific outcome are expressly made or implied in this article.