Over the years I have helped 1000’s of people squat better. As a physical therapist, my career has evolved over the years from working with injured people to working with healthy people looking to optimize their body and maximize their performance. In fact, I’m starting to refer to it more as “performance therapy” than “physical therapy.”
Lately, I’ve seen more and more people come to me to learn how to improve their squat. Often times it’s one of two reasons why they can’t quite get find perfect squat form:
- Something hurts when I squat
- I can’t squat with perfect form
After going through a full body assessment, I always assess their squat form. I don’t mean a rigid deep squat test, such as the one within the FMS of SFMA assessments, but an actual loaded squat. I don’t say a word, I just observe. Well, I actually record a video of it, but the point is I don’t want to cue the squat at all so I can see how the set up and how they perform their squat without my coaching.
What I often find is that many people are trying to squat with perfect form, or least what they believe is “perfect form.” Perhaps they just picked up a copy of Starting Strength, or just attended their level 1 weekend certification, or just went through a foundations course at their box. The quest for “perfect squat form” probably isn’t that simple.
I’m starting to wonder if there really is a such thing as perfect squat form.
Is Perfect Squat Form a Myth?
Don’t get me wrong, you have to start somewhere. I personally recommend people read Mike Robertson’s article on How to Squat and the book Starting Strength is worth every penny. My point isn’t that you should throw away any attempt to squat with perfect form, there are good ways and bad ways to squat, you have to start somewhere.
But I almost feel like we are over-coaching and using the same coaching cues during the squat with everyone. Yes, there are many faults the can occur during squatting that should be avoided. Bret Contreras has a nice article about solving 7 squat dilemmas. But there is a big difference between correcting faults and overcorrecting people without faults.
Here is a good example, imagine you are squatting with your knees caving in towards each other, or tracking medially into a valgus knee position. This would be a great time to cue someone to force their knees out. However, it is possible to force your knees out too far and I’m not sure I want to cue someone that is squatting with decent form to aggressively force their knees out. It’s a good thought to prevent knee cave in, but don’t go too far in the opposite direction.
But more importantly, I’m not sure there is a textbook way to squat, simply because we are all built different and have different daily habits. There is a textbook perfect squat form for YOUR body, but it may be different for the person next to you.
This is why proper coaching and an individualized program built for you is the best way to succeed at perfecting your squat form. There are several limitations that we all have that may be limiting our ability to achieve a perfect squat form.
The first thing we need to understand is that everyone’s anatomy is unique. Bret Contreras does a nice job discussing our how our anatomical differences impact our squat mechanics and Ryan DeBall has a great article as well. In fact, our pelvis and femurs are completely and vastly unique.
Look at these photos of several different pelvis and femur bones by Paul Grilley:
Looking at these photos, it is striking how different we all really are on the inside. The angles of how the femur bone forms as well as how it sits in the socket can be dramatically different between people.
This is what I find to be the biggest factor impacting why people can’t perform a squat with perfect form. How can you say there is one way to squat when you look at these photos? The spectrum of variation is so wide.
Unfortunately there isn’t a quick fix for anatomical limitations. Rather, a detailed biomechanical assessment can be used to determine what may be the best squat mechanics based on your anatomy. Sometimes this means that you will need to limit depth. People never want to hear this, but sometimes you just simple run out of anatomy and can’t physically flex your hips enough to achieve deep squat form, at least without significant low back compensation.
Luckily, not everyone has significant underlying anatomical variations. Some just have mobility restrictions of their joint capsules and muscle tissue. This is common in the person that assumes a frequent postural position over several years, such as sitting. Most adults will have postural and mobility limitations that can be improved and subsequently improve their squat performance.
So, keep this in mind if you are a coach at a gym with adult fitness clients that are looking to start squatting. Chances are they won’t be immediately able to perform a squat well until you clean up some of their movement patterns. Rushing this process is how newbie adult fitness clients tend to hurt themselves while squatting. They don’t have the mobility to squat with proper mechanics, and without this mobility, you are just going to compensate and put extra stress somewhere else, like this guy, who probably doesn’t have the mobility to be squatting:
A detailed assessment process can accurately determine if you have an anatomical or simple mobility limitation.
I also want to briefly comment on squatting like a baby. I know many people have commented that if babies can squat perfectly, why can’t adults? Dean Somerset wrote about this recently, but this concept is really ridiculous. There are many factors that make babies able to squat well, including their head to body size ratio, femur height, acetabular position, but most importantly the simple fact that their bones aren’t fused! Adults will never have the mobility of a baby, this has nothing to do with motor control.
Motor Control Limitations
Another possible area of limitation that can be negatively impacting your squat performance is poor motor control. I again tend to see this in adults that have been sitting for the majority of the day the last 10-30 years. When you sit all day, you don’t need abdominal control, lumbopelvic control, or posterior chain activity. The chair simply does all of this for you. You essentially learn how to turn all of these off!
This can be seen in someone that has poor movement patterns, however during my clinical assessment have no real mobility restrictions of their joints or muscles.
Sadly, however, I also see this often in my younger athletes. I’m amazed at how poor our high school students move. I blame it on sitting and staring at the TV, Xbox, or iPhone all day, but kids can’t even touch their toes anymore!
We have close to 100 high school athletes training with us at Champion Physical Therapy and Performance, and a large portion of them are performing corrective exercises and goblet squats until their motor control improves!
Your Perfect Squat Form
It’s always going to be in your best interest to work on your mobility and motor control limitations to improve your squat form. However, realize that we all have different anatomical factors that may also be limiting your squat form. This is why getting a proper assessment and individualized program is important if you are serious about enhancing your squat performance and reducing your chance for beating yourself up.
A custom program of mobility drills, corrective exercises, and individualized squat mechanics can really help you. Sometimes you have to work within your own unique anatomical limitations. Perhaps you just need to toe out a little more or widen your stance by an inch. That may mean that you don’t perform the textbook perfect squat mechanics, but that may be OK, it’s your perfect squat form.