The back squat is rightly called the “king of exercises”, in fact, it’s said that if you don’t have squats in a training program, then you don’t have a program.
Now, I’d never be so absolute, but the squat is a fundamental movement pattern and forms the foundation for lower body performance training and rehabilitation.
Despite squats being such a fundamental movement, because of the amount of muscles and joints involved, there are a lot of chances for compensation.
Compensation is an interesting topic.
Some claim it leads to injury, yet the research is unclear on this.
Additionally, real world examples abound, one only has to look to the recent Paralympics to see examples of high level compensation, so it’s not necessarily a bad thing to compensate.
What Makes A Good Squat?
With the back squat, we can split lifters into two groups:
- Competitive powerlifters, whose goal is to lift the most weight in competition
- Everybody else
If you are a competitive powerlifter, you can probably ignore this advice, because your goals are so unique.
If you are like most people and you are squatting to improve your leg and core strength to assist with physique goals, health goals or performance goals, then read on.
Executing a squat optimally requires the following:
- Adequate ankle dorsiflexion range of motion and motor control
- Adequate hip and knee flexion range of motion and motor control
- Adequate isometric strength of the erector spinae muscles to maintain the spinal alignment
- Adequate abdominal strength to maintain pelvic and rib cage position
- Adequate thoracic extension and shoulder external rotation range of motion and motor control
Unfortunately, most people are deficient in one or more of these areas, which can negatively affect their ability to squat efficiently with a barbell.
That’s not to say they can’t squat heavy loads.
It’s common to see people who are strong squatters with well developed quads, perhaps adductors and low back muscles, but with relatively underdeveloped glutes and sometimes hamstrings.
Others have extremely well developed calf muscles as well.
What is happening?
Their bodies are using a different recruitment strategy to the “optimal” one, which relies on the glutes as primary hip extensors.
Why does this happen?
Our brains are not concerned with long term well-being when it comes to movement, but rather, completing the task at hand, at that moment in time.
When it comes to standing up with a loaded bar on your back, this can mean using whatever muscle is most readily recruited or in the most mechanically advantaged position.
When people have biomechanical limitations elsewhere in the body, this can affect the movement.
As a result, a hip extension becomes a back extension.
Analysis of My Squat
This was a set of 10 repetitions in the back squat, which I have taken still shots from at various points (they aren’t all the same rep, as you can see by the time).
To the untrained eye, my set looks pretty good, but as you’ll see, upon closer look, there are a lot of compensations occurring that are costing me efficiency.
I’m using myself as an example, as my issues are some of the most common issues I see, just in differing degrees.
My elbows should be further forward, under the bar or as close to as possible, facilitating thoracic spine extension and activation of the erector spinae muscles to stabilise the spine. Additionally, I have a forward head posture, again related to not getting enough extension through my thoracic spine.
This is where it gets tricky, as this bottom position looks really good at first glance. My torso and shins are greater than parallel (blue lines), my hip is below my knee, what’s not to like?
Well, for a start, my weight is too far forward – thus the centre of the barbell is in front of my toes, instead of through my midfoot (yellow line). This sets me up to use a knee extension dominant strategy to stand up.
The most likely culprit for this is a lack of hip flexion range of motion or control.
My ankles don’t have the best dorsiflexion range of motion either, which wouldn’t help.
What we cannot see in this picture is whether my low back is flexing to compensate or what is happening at my feet – they could be pronating to give me extra range of motion at the ankle.
The problem with this strategy, is that by shifting my weight forward by using spinal or pelvic flexion, I will have to extend again at some point, which takes the spinal erectors from stabilisers in the movement to prime movers.
Here you can see that my torso and shins are no longer parallel (blue lines).
My knees have extended faster than my hips, which have to remain flexed somewhat to keep the weight balanced – this is most likely due to my limited ankle range of motion, which meant my bottom position wasn’t as good as it should have been.
Another factor is the isometric strength of my spinal erectors and abdominals and their ability to maintain my trunk position.
This sets me up to have to use my lower back spinal erectors to straighten me up quickly, as in the image below.
Here you can see what has happened – my knees have extended only slightly, whilst my back has extended quite a lot in a short time.
What should have been a powerful drive from the hips ends up as a two part movement – the initial extension of my knees with minimal hip extension, followed by the compensatory back extension to get my torso more upright again.
Finally, once my knees are at almost full extension, my hips are still flexed – I’ve stood up by extending my spine more than my hips.
A Squat Is Not A Squat
This example demonstrates the effect that mobility and motor control limitations have on the execution of movement – I can get the squat done, but sub-optimally.
Now that you are aware, if you watch the video (it’s easier in slow motion) you can see that I compensate by using my back extensors (erector spinae) as prime movers, something their not optimally designed for (we have massive glutes for a reason).
Luckily, our bodies are adaptable, and even “sub-optimal” biomechanics aren’t a recipe for injury – it all depends on adaptability.
Up to a certain point, my low back muscles, joints and ligaments will get stronger to withstand the loading of squatting.
Once that point is reached, I will no longer be able to progress, or I’ll get injured.*
*I’ll get injured not because I’m moving incorrectly, but rather, our bodies are only capable of adapting so much, and inefficient movement patterns put increased demands on an area that are not as well designed to withstand them. The same is true even if I had “perfect” squat mechanics – after a certain point I will fail to progress or get injured.
Does It Even Matter?
I always ask myself, if a patient is paying me money to obtain the best result possible, does this information add value to their experience and outcomes.
In the case of what I’ve just discussed, does it even matter if you squat with optimal motor patterns or not?
As always, it depends.
If I’m not going to the gym, and I only squat occasionally to pick something up at home, then it probably doesn’t matter. As long as I’ve got the physical capacity to withstand the demands of that task, I’ll be okay.
However, if you are squatting to improve your aesthetics, performance or leg and core strength, then executing the movement optimally matters.
Sure you can get away with “just squatting” and moving weight however you can.
But is it ideal? Not to me.
The reason being, that despite our bodies being adaptable, we only have a finite amount of energy. For every inefficient movement pattern, energy cost of execution and recovery increases, thus gains (performance, health, aesthetic) decrease.
How you do anything is how you do everything.
To me, the argument of whether you should aim to improve your movement quality and efficiency is a moot one.
Even if the benefits were neglible, I am a person who takes pride in striving for improvement.
In the case of exercise, improving the movement for the sake of improving the movement is enough of a reason to do so.
Be better. – Greg Dea, Sports Physiotherapist
I understand that this mentality doesn’t apply to everyone, so all I can say is this:
- If you are training for aesthetic goals, and you are squatting to improve your leg and hip muscle development, an optimal movement pattern will best recruit the muscles of the glutes, quads and hamstrings.
- If you are training for a performance goal, then an optimal movement pattern will improve sequencing of hip extension, as well as power and strength, in turn improving running speed and jumping height.
- If you are training for a health related goal, then striving for optimal movement patterns can be an end unto itself.
- Anecdotally, the people I see who strain their backs squatting typically demonstrate this type of movement pattern.
So How Do You Improve Your Squat?
To improve your squat, you have to identify what is limiting your performance. It could be any of the following:
- A technical issue
- A flexibility issue
- A mobility issue
- A motor control/stability issue
- A strength issue
- A structural/anatomical issue
To identify what your particular issue(s) is/are requires an individual assessment.
Once you know your issues, the interventions are relatively straightforward.
This blog post was written by Dr Nick Efthimiou (Osteopath), founder of Integrative Osteopathy.
This blog post is meant as an educational tool only. It is not a replacement for medical advice from a qualified and registered health professional.