The other day at the gym I was watching a trainer coach her client into terrible squat form that will unquestionably lead to back pain. While well intentioned, the advice to ‘sit back’ or ‘stick your butt out’ can be problematic and requires revision. Today I speak with the guys over at Mind Pump who will demonstrate what good squat form is and provide some helpful tips.
Dr. Michael Ruscio: Hey, guys. This is Dr. Ruscio. I’m here with my good friend Sal Di Stefano from Mind Pump.
Sal Di Stefano: You said it right.
DrMR: Yeah, I’ve been saying his name wrong for a while now. I’m finally getting it right.
And I wanted to talk about squat, squat form and consult someone who knows a lot about this. I was at the gym the other day watching a trainer coach her client, seeing a squat form that I think was well intentioned but was probably in need of update, which is, “Stick your butt way out.” And you guys may have heard this. It’s, “Come way out here like this.” And this poor girl is squatting and trying to come out of the squat like this. And her low back is not going to be liking that.
So there have been some updates made to what the appropriate squat form should be. Or I should say that’s never changed. But what we thought was right and what we now think is right have shifted.
So I wanted to ask a few questions. We’ll start with a summary. And then we’ll go into some demos. But what are the basics of good squat form?
Sal: So squatting is a very functional, foundational human movement. So this is something—and I want to make this point. It’s something that we actually are supposed to be able to do very naturally. So getting good at squats is extremely important for overall health.
Now, that being said, because we never squat—we usually sit; that’s about as close as we get to squatting in normal life—we’ve lost this function. So it’s something you have to relearn. So you can’t just jump into a squat. I tell people like this all the time when they try to run. “You can’t just go run. You have to learn how to run because you’ve never run.”
Sal: And what happens is you develop all these recruitment issues. And those are the ones that you start to default to when you try and do a squat.
Sal: So proper form. There’s individual variance here. But you definitely want your feet to be pointing slightly out. Feet can be shoulder width or slightly wider. And when you squat, the knees actually break first. You showed that demo of the girl bending way over. The knees start to break first. That’s when you start to sit back.
But you want to be really grounded. You want to have tall posture. Your knees don’t want to come in. They don’t want to come out. And you don’t want your heels to come off the floor. And that’s the basics around what a squat should look like.
DrMR: And then we’ll develop that more with some demos in a moment. But that’s one. Two, does the ideal squat form differ if it’s weighted, to body weight?
Sal: So both of them look extremely similar. The big difference is when you have a weight on your back, bar placement, scapular retraction (that’s where you place your shoulder blades), your upper body posture, your grip—that all plays a massive role. And when you’re doing a body weight squat, none of that plays a role. So it’s far more advanced.
DrMR: Okay. And we’ll come to the details there in a moment. And then are there any common injuries that make you recommend one squat form compared to another? For example, perhaps if someone has a low back injury, they would do better with a front weighted squat rather than a back weighted squat.
Sal: So front weighted squats typically are a lot more difficult, believe it or not, on people. And they can actually be worse. It really depends on the individual when we’re talking about injuries. I would say this. Very rarely is an injury going to stop you from always squatting, or squatting forever. So if you have something that’s preventing you from squatting, address that issue so that you can squat because the goal is to be able to squat.
DrMR: Sure. Okay. Alright. So now we’re going to come back and fill those questions in with more detail and with a demo.
Justin Andrews: Alright. The first thing you want to consider when you’re going to do a body weight squat just to begin with—how am I going to set up my posture? How am I going to set it up so I have optimal mechanics in this exercise?
So Sal had mentioned standing in a shoulder width position, also like a hip width position. So maybe a little bit wider. So I’m going to start actually focusing on my feet, maybe with a little bit of external rotation. And there are going to be three different points I want to consider with my feet of where to apply pressure. So somewhere around your big toe to your pinky toe, up here towards the tongue of your shoe, I want to go ahead and now ground my feet. And I’m going to keep and maintain a nice soft knee which is a slight flex in the knee.
And now I’m going to go ahead and squeeze my glutes and lock it out. Draw in, so I’ve got core activation. I’m going to bring my chest up so I’m tall. I’m going to retract my shoulders and depress them down at my side. And then I want to make sure that I’m keeping my head in the proper position, so I’m not way out here with a forward head position.
So once I have myself in good posture, I’m going to go ahead and drop it down into position where my knees start to break a little bit more. And I’m dropping down with my hips. You can raise your arms up as you come down. You can keep them at your sides. But one of the first things that I do is I want to make sure that I keep just enough tension so I’m bracing and supporting my body. Even though I don’t have any load yet, I want to really train my body to respond properly to respond and protect my joints.
So I’m going to go ahead. Keep a nice, tight core that’s bracing my spine. Make sure I can still breathe. And now, I’m going to squat my way down. And you’re going to find right away you’re going to have a point where it doesn’t feel like it’s comfortable anymore. Now, I’m going a bit low just to show you an example of how low of depth you can get into your squat. However, I know this is going to take some time and work to get into a position that feels comfortable as this feels for me.
So what we want to do is we want to scale that. And I have a chair here actually to use if, say, that I have a point in that squat where I get about here, and that’s about as far as I can go before I start breaking in my posture. So I want to maintain this chest position, my abs—making sure they’re bracing the whole time, my shoulders retracted because what I’m doing is training myself then later on to apply load. Very important to master this first before we add weight to it. So the chair is a good way.
Most of the time people, at the bottom of their lift—that’s where most of the issues lie as far as strength. So a lot of times, we’ll start in the bottom position, and we’ll work our way up from there if that’s the issue. So I’ll just start, just like you’re sitting in a chair. But now I want to be intentional about how I’m making my way up.
So same things apply. I’m going to apply pressure here in that triangle. I’m going to try as hard as I can to get vertical out of my chair and not use momentum to come forward. So that means I have to activate and get my muscles to tense up. So now I’m recruiting, driving my feet down into the ground. Then I’m going to brace and push my way up.
So it seems very, very simple. But you can be very intentional about the process. And that’s what matters. So there’s one technique.
DrMR: Now, Justin, one thing I want to ask you. Can you speak to and maybe help people who are confused if they’ve heard you really have to stick your butt way back? Because I see more and more people doing that at the gym where it seems like they’re imbalancing that direction of overly sticking their butt out. And they’re losing the aspect of getting their body underneath the bar, if they had a bar, let’s say.
DrMR: And they’re overly sticking out. So if someone has been taught that way, can you explain to them how you would amend that?
Justin: Well, now, we’re in a compromised position with our lower back when we start to hinge our hips even further back. So as you can see, as I’m dropping forward with my upper body where a lot of the force and the stress are going to catch up here in my lower back. So this could be due to poor ankle mobility. This could be due to poor hip mobility. People teaching it with the wrong mechanics.
But yeah, the ideal way to do it is to make sure you incorporate dropping down so the hips really can stretch and get to the position that you want so you can recruit your glutes and your quads. And so this is a simultaneous thing. You want to be able to apply the biggest muscles that are in your legs into the lift.
So this really limits a lot of force production that you can apply, which you’ll see people also do good mornings, which is a hip hinging movement. So what you’re talking about primarily is a different exercise.
Justin: So they’re not doing it right. So I wouldn’t even call that a squat if that answers your question.
DrMR: Yeah, and so would you just demo that inappropriate form compared to the more appropriate form just so people, if they’re going to watch it and look at themselves in the mirror, they’ll know what to do and what not to do?
Justin: Sure. So for instance, what he’s talking about, I’m going to go ahead and try to break at the hips here to hinge. But now I’m not dropping vertically with my hips. I’m pushing them back. And a lot of times, they’re loaded back here. And I’m trying to come down and push my butt out as far as I can and then come back up. So that’s what we don’t want to do. We’re in a compromised position that way. And that’s not what we’re teaching.
So instead, we want to break at the hips. But we also want to start with the knees in a flexed position, hips drop. And they break. But I’m in line. And it’s okay if my knees travel forward a bit which is another thing that a lot of people are afraid of.
DrMR: That’s a key. A lot of people are taught, “Don’t let your knee ever come in front of your toe line.” And I think that’s a mistake because it forces your butt backwards, thus putting torsion on your low back.
Justin: Again, range of motion is definitely an individual thing. So you’re going to figure out where you range of motion ends and your threshold is. And we want to really try to connect to that. So you want to find where that end range is. So if my threshold is here with my knees, that’s where I’m going to start. But I really want to connect to that process so I could advance and I could get a little bit more mobility. And there are a lot of other exercises that will help with that process.
But just to be on the safe side, you’re going to find the threshold. Just really try to connect to that. And so if that means just staying there and then squeezing and connecting to your muscles, you’re going to get more response at least and be supported.
DrMR: And when you say the “threshold,” they’ll hit a point where they feel like if they go anymore, they really start slumping over or bending forward or losing their balance.
Justin: Compensation is going to happen in some form.
Justin: Yeah, your body is going to want to do anything it can to help you out.
DrMR: Sure. And then the other thing—are there are any modifications you make to the squat that are helpful if people have a knee injury, a low back injury? Are there any common and helpful recommendations there?
Justin: So we’re just going to start with really connecting. So if there is any kind of issue that’s going to place you in bad mechanics, I’m going to start with addressing that very specifically. So if you’re not bracing properly—the whole set up that we talked about in the very beginning, if you have a hard time with any of that as far as, “I don’t know what drawing in feels like. I don’t know how to breathe while my abs are tight. I don’t know how to retract my shoulders. I don’t know how to press them down and maintain that.” There’s a lot of work in that specific area. We need to stay.
DrMR: Okay. And I’m sorry I don’t know this. But do you have a video series on squat? I’m assuming you do.
Justin: We do, yes. That’s on our Mind Pump TV channel.
DrMR: Okay, so we’ll put a link in the notes. Anything else that you want to add?
Justin: Definitely something—if there’s an injury there, let’s not avoid it. And let’s not do exercises in replacement of the squat. The squat is such a foundational move. The goal should be to get back to the squat. So however we have to do that, just be diligent about the process. And if you need more information, we definitely are a resource for you. And there’s other information out there on how to improve every single portion of that as far as being in good posture and improving your squat.
What do you think? I would like to hear your thoughts or experience with this.
Dr. Ruscio is your leading functional and integrative doctor specializing in gut related disorders such as SIBO, leaky gut, Celiac, IBS and in thyroid disorders such as hypothyroid and hyperthyroid. For more information on how to become a patient, please contact our office. Serving the San Francisco bay area and distance patients via phone and Skype.