Contrary to popular belief, squatting to or below parallel is not bad for you.
Trainers and Healthcare Providers....quit spreading this nonsense.
What is bad for you:
Lacking baseline mobility in the hips, knees and ankles
Poor spinal stability
A lack of coordinated strength in the lower extremities
A poor understanding of the lift
An insistence to continue performing the lift with heavy weight knowing full well that there is a deficit in at least 1 of the 4 above areas.
Common misconceptions about the squat
1. The knees can NEVER go beyond your toes
If the shin stays vertical, it places extra pressure on the knee (like a wall-sit without the wall) and will create a need to compensate with extra hip flexion/forward trunk lean to bring your center of gravity back towards the foot to maintain balance.
Creates quad dominance rather than hip dominance. If you're training or treating someone who is complaining of knee pain and then teach them to squat in a quad/knee dominant position you're going to create....you guessed it...more knee pain.
2. The knees should always follow a path directly in line with the hips and ankles
(think of a door hinge)
Your knees should track in an outward direction. Coaches often use the “drive the knees out” cue which can be misinterpreted by athletes. Often athletes will literally drive their knees sideways (not natural!) which results in the inside of the foot and big toe leaving the floor which compromises foot position, disrupts your body organization and alters the mechanics of the lift.
Hips below knees
Knees outside the feet
Knees beyond the feet
Feet flat with arch intact
Toes down to the floor
Cues and Explanations
The following is a list of cues I've found success with in helping clients and patients better understand the mechanics of the movement. Work on your own squat and try them on yourself and/or use them on clients/patients where appropriate.
Feet roughly hip width apart
There’s some flexibility here depending on the size, shape and general ability of the client.
Most clients have significant difficulty with a "narrow" stance and will spread their feet out to allow more freedom through the hips and ankles.
Toes pointed forward
A little turn out (10-20 degrees) is fine.
The more turn out there is the less demand the movement places on the hips and ankles.
More turn out will create more variability in the movement which can create new problems.
Create some torque/tension from the hip to the floor
“flex your butt cheeks”
I usually spend a bit more time at this step for a few reps to get the client to feel how recruiting the hips creates rotation (torque) through the whole leg and, in some cases, can address a lot of issues experienced during a squat (lack of depth, comfort at depth, knee pain, pinching in the ankle, collapsed arch).
What's interesting about this cue is that many people have never intentionally contracted their glutes. The "light bulb moment" often occurs as they consciously contract their muscles and feel how it influences the leg position.
Hinge through the hips
(using the “stick your butt out” cue often results in clients arching their lumbar spine).
If they can’t hinge correctly, teach them to hinge first (look for another post about this in the near future).
Coordinate the hinging of the hips with bending of the knees
The hips and knees should bend at the same rate keeping their weight centered over the foot.
Initially, a lot of people can grasp the hip motion OR the knee motion but have trouble coordinating the two together.
Don't "drive the knees out" until the client grasps what is expected as the hip and knee flexes (bends) and extends (straightens).
As the hips flex, the femur (thigh bone) rotates externally (outward direction) and the tibia (shin bone) follows suit and rotates externally as well. This rotation through the hip and knee allows for normal joint mechanics but permits the ankle to dorsiflex (shin towards the top of the foot) normally while the foot maintains its contact with the floor.
Bend your knees but allow the knees to track towards the 3rd or 4th toe
There is some permissible variability here, just don’t let the knee track towards the big toe or inside of the big toe.
Your knees can go beyond your toes! (Some clients may need to hold onto something while attempting this. As the provider or trainer, sit your butt on the ground and cue them into an appropriate position, allow them to hold onto something until they are comfortable with the new movement and depth.
Grip the floor with your toes
Spread your toes out.
Keep your big toe, ball of the foot and heel glued to the floor.
Apply pressure through the big toe like you’re holding a piece of paper to the floor while someone tries to pull it out from under the toe. No white-knuckling of the toes, just attempt to grip the floor.
Now the complicated part comes in coordinating all of these cues or only some of them at once to work at correcting this movement. Changes may occur immediately or you may need to allow the client time to re-learn this movement. Most individuals are very quad dominant, due to other variables to be discussed in a future post, and have never squatted correctly. Work towards restoring the hip as the dominant joint in the squat and you'll be surprised how many other chronic problems begin to resolve as your client starts to move better.