Squatting: 3 Things You've Been Doing Wrong All Along

Squatting: 3 Things You've Been Doing Wrong All Along
Think you know everything about the squat? Turns out knees out, chest up, and sit back aren't always the best options.

Key Points

  1. Knees out isn’t right for everyone and some may benefit from a slight “valgus twitch” (i.e. knees in) coming out the hole as this can improve load distribution through the quads.
  2. Instead of thinking about “chest up” when coming out of the hole, think about driving your traps back into the bar and keeping your hips underneath you.
  3. During the squat, you should focus on trying to sit straight down rather than back. Imagine you’re trying to touch your heels with your butt.

Today I want to challenge you.

Not with an insane workout or nutritional intervention; instead, I want to challenge your mindset.

I want you to reconsider your personal beliefs surrounding the squat and think critically about the movement rather than just accepting commonly overused cues.

These cues may be correct in certain situations but I think that we must first understand the origin of the cue, what it’s trying to accomplish, and the movement patterns of the individual themselves.

It’s time to question the status quo, let’s dig in…

Let’s Get One Thing Straight

When reading this article, I must designate the fact that I am discussing high bar squats commonly associated with Olympic weight lifting.

That being said, I must differentiate between the two because the Olympic squat is NOT a powerlifting squat. As such, cueing will differ between the two lifts and the individual lifter.

Now, I must also mention that I am by no means advocating that everyone must squat as low as possible (i.e butt to ankles also known as ATG within the lifting community) nor am I condoning that this is even possible for all.

Given the anatomical and anthropometric differences cited within individual populations it may never be possible for some without pain or biomechanical compensation.

If you’re interested in learning more, feel free to check out this excellent read on the subject: The Best Kept Secret: Why People HAVE to Squat Differently.

Mechanical (In)Efficiency

Whenever one is discussing biomechanics or the science of human movement, we have to remember that movement competency is the main goal.

Technical proficiency is one of the driving factors behind strength improvements along with neural and physiological adaptations.

In regards to the squat, biomechanical efficiency is best achieved with an upright torso and vertical bar path.

Don’t believe me? That’s cool, you can have a little chat with Andrey Malaichev and get back to me whenever you’re done…

Go ahead, I'll wait...

Why you may ask? As soon as you lose congruency between your diaphragm and pelvic floor you alter breathing mechanics and spinal stabilization. I’ve touched on this topic in explicit detail before and if you’re interesting in learning the ins and outs of breathing mechanics then start here: Breathing and Bracing: The Combo YOU Need for a Big Lift.

Not only that, shearing forces on the spine increase as your torso becomes closer to parallel with the floor. In the low bar squat most lifters think they should be sitting back with a vertical shin angle, wide stance, and angled torso.

This is somewhat correct in order to maintain a vertical bar path over the midfoot but even still, if someone has the requisite ankle mobility to allow more tibial translation (i.e. movement of the knees forward) then their high and low bar mechanics shouldn’t differ too drastically.

Knees Out! Or Knees Out?

If you’ve spent any amount of time around powerlifters or seasoned gym warriors then I’m sure you’ve heard someone yell “knees out!” when they’re spotting a squat. Needless to say, this cue can have its place but it’s widely overused and often misunderstood.

This cue became increasing more popular when Kelly Starrett came onto the weight lifting scene. His book Becoming a Supple Leopard gained immense popularity as he discussed the biomechanics behind many common exercises and some mobilizations which could potentially improve your joint positioning and technique.

Given the debate surrounding the knee-out issues, Starrett’s MWOD team was asked to explain their rationale behind the cue. They responded by saying,

“Let’s establish one thing, with any movement the goal is to produce the most amount of torque and not allow any torsion [to] occur on a compressed/loaded body.”

In other words, Starrett feels that by telling folks to “screw their feet into the ground” and drive the knees out you are seeking to activate specific musculature that sets the pelvis in a stable position and helps to maintain spinal neutrality.

However, multiple issues arise from this concept as discussed by Jean-Patrick Millette and Quinn Henoch:

  1. You limit hip flexion.[1]
  2. You limit range of motion in other planes.[2,3]
  3. Excessive stress to the LCL (lateral collateral ligament) and lateral meniscus.

Squatting: 3 Things You've Been Doing Wrong All Along

For starters, by pushing the knees out you’re increasing activation of the musculature within the hips which limits hip flexion.

The femur must be able to internally rotate within the transverse plane in order to allow for positions of high flexion as many of the external rotators become internal rotators below 90 degrees.[4]

However, if someone is overemphasizing the glutes (i.e. abductors and external rotators) then the adductors will never have a chance to assist in hip extension due to the principle of reciprocal inhibition.

This can be very important within the powerlifting realm as excessive depth (i.e. ATG) is often discouraged given the fact that it requires a larger range of motion and more power output.

But, my goal in writing this article is to create the most mechanically efficient squat, not to use cues which limit depth and encourage someone to muscle up more weight with their spinal erectors.

Related: Get Stronger At Squats With This 12 Week Super Squat Workout

On top of this, when you take a joint to end range (within the transverse plane in this case) you will limit subsequent movements within other planes. Good luck accessing the frontal plane in order to train sport specific movements…

SIDE NOTE: If the lifter has to be told to push the knees out consistently even under submaximal loading then the coach needs to address other issues within the foot (arch instability) and/or hip (glute medius weakness) complex rather than trying to cue around the compensation. The issue isn’t the knees, check up or down the kinetic chain.

Looking to the rest of the world, we see that the Chinese actually teach a very different squat. They still teach knees-out on the descent in order to load the adductors. But, they actually emphasize a slight knee-in position out of the hole as they feel it shifts the weight primarily onto the quads and places the lifter in the most advantageous position.

Make no mistake, this isn’t a deliberate collapse, they believe it’s the body’s natural way of moving by channeling the load through the appropriate musculature.

This “style” of squatting has been nicknamed “Chuanfu squats” after Wu Chuanfu, former coach of the Chinese national Olympic weightlifting team. When asked about this style of squatting in regards to safety, Chuanfu responded by saying:

…at the end of the day, we attain results in the safest way. Why? Because, sport at high levels isn’t safe. But we do what we can to be as safe as possible. So our results with the 300,000 weightlifting athletes that China has in its bank has come to the conclusion that, injuries will not happen pushing the knees in. Along with our 300,000 current athletes, the pre-elimination process of nearly 700,000 athletes gives us a sample size that’s close to a million athletes. Yet, the most common injury in China isn’t knee pain. It’s WRIST pain due to volume and size of the joint.

If you’re having a tough time visualizing what the Chuanfu squat might look like, here’s a pretty clear example that will open your eyes…

That’s a 3.75xBW squat in case you're wondering…

On top of that, take a look at some pictures of folks squatting third world countries. Notice anything in particular?

They’re not focused on pushing their knees out or “screwing their feet into the ground”. They just squat and allow the knees to track overtop of the feet then they stand straight up.

I’ve found both anecdotally and with my own athletes that “knees out!” isn’t always the right cue. Once I stopped focusing on pushing the knees out and instead focused on breaking at the knees and hips simultaneously, my squat mechanics improved and my hip and knee pain disappeared.

Takeaway: Knees out isn’t right for everyone and some may benefit from a slight “valgus twitch” (i.e. knees in) coming out the hole as this can improve load distribution through the quads.

 

Experiment with both and don’t be afraid to break away from tradition if something doesn’t feel right. Everyone is built differently and thus cueing should be individualized.

Chest Up! Or Elbows Down?

Ever since the dawn of the mankind, we’ve been trying to figure out a way to prevent people from falling forward in the squat. Luckily the powerlifting community remedied this problem by broadcasting the “chest up!” cue to anyone and everyone whose spine doesn’t resemble a ramrod.

Slouching at your desk? Chest up!

Driving in the car? Chest up!

Watching the latest episode of Mad Men? Chest up!

Jokes aside, chest up is actually a poor cue in my opinion and I don’t use it with many (if any) of my athletes. Why?

Well, most react to this cue by simply hyperextending through their TL (thoracolumbar) junction which separates your 19th and 20th vertebrae. When this occurs we lose congruency of the pelvis with the diaphragm and neutrality within the lumbar and thoracic spine.

Are you noticing a pattern here? Your abdominals are designed to help promote force transfer throughout the body. Whenever you take them out of position to function optimally (i.e. lose spinal neutrality) you will limit your ability to generate force.

The old adage remains true: a chain is only as strong as its weakest link – the core in this case.

Universal cues never work universally.

If we look again to Chuanfu and his squatting techniques, he teaches that the upper body should not be arched. Instead, squatting should feel natural and not overly forced.

In fact, Chuanfu actually teaches that one should keep the hands wrapped around the bar but somewhat relaxed as the weight should be balanced on the traps.

You can easily experiment with this idea using just the bar. Try to squat a couple reps without holding onto the bar at all.

I think you’ll quickly see that it’s not as easy as you think and it just may highlight a few movement discrepancies or compensation patterns that you weren’t aware of until now.

Drastic example but you get the point…

I know this sounds rather contradictory to most given the large emphasis we place on squeezing the bar as tight as possible to elicit irradiation through the shoulders.

But, don’t mistake what I’m saying - I’m not suggesting that Chuanfu has all the answers and you need revamp your squat entirely.

My main goal in writing this article isn’t to propose hard and fast solutions, it’s to open your mind with a new approach to an age old movement.

Takeaway: Instead of thinking about “chest up” when coming out of the hole, think about driving your traps back into the bar and keeping your hips underneath you (shoutout to Greg Nuckols for this cue). Experiment with a slightly looser grip and try to balance the bar on your traps rather than hold it in place with your arms.

 

If you still struggle with falling forward, check your elbow position and try to bring them closer to parallel with your torso.

Sit Back! Or Sit Down?

You’re probably sitting down when you’re reading this article, right?

Cool, stand up right up quick. Now sit back down.

Did notice anything aside from the weird looks you just got?

You didn’t push your butt way back and focus on a vertical shin angle, did you? You just sat straight down by breaking at the knees and the hips simultaneously. My point exactly.

Related: Shut Up And Squat: Top 8 Excuses People Use For Not Squatting

The knees must track forward to counterbalance the hips moving backward. If they don’t, the torso has to tilt forward in order to keep the lifter’s center of mass balanced over the forefoot and stay upright.

The degree of tibial translation (i.e. knees of toes) will be determine by femoral length, ankle dorsiflexion, and torso length. Longer legs and tighter ankles coupled with a long torso will require the lifter to sit back with a wide stance.

Worried that your knees will implode the second they go over your toes? Time to look at the science, Jack.

Squatting: 3 Things You've Been Doing Wrong All Along

Image courtesy of: Aaron Swanson

This cue likely originated from one of two populations – equipped powerlifters or quad dominant individuals. Equipped squatters are taught to sit back into their squat suits in order to generate a greater stretch and subsequent contraction out of the hole.

However, problems arise for nearly everyone else as they aren’t using squat briefs and therefore this cue must be dictated by the lifter’s biomechanics, not their choice of assistive clothing.

The squat occurs in between the legs, not behind it. If you feel like you can’t drop your pelvis between your femurs then it’s likely due to one of the following issues:

1. Your setup is faulty, thus you compensate with poor mechanics.

Start here - strength coach Greg Robins broke down the fundamental differences within the lumbar and thoracic spine in this video. So, rather than regurgitate what he has explained so well, I’ll just let you watch on your own.

2. You don’t know how to breathe effectively.

Start here - Breathing and Bracing: The Combo YOU Need for a Big Lift

3. You can’t maintain a neutral spine while executing the lift.

Start here – Ground Based Exercises To Increase Core Strength

Takeaway: During the squat, you should focus on trying to sit straight down rather than back. Imagine you’re trying to touch your heels with your butt (hat tip to Dean Somerset on this one).

 

If you have primarily focused on sitting back throughout your training career, experiment with breaking at the knees – remember you want to go down, not back. It may go against conventional wisdom but it may also be a game changer in terms of correcting your mechanics.

But Wait…

“I’ve always squatted knees out and it feels great. Anytime they start to come in, it hurts.”

Cool, keep doing what you’re doing then. Success leaves clues so don’t fix what isn’t broken. I’m not trying to tell you there’s only one way to squat – there’s not.

However, that being said, you must understand that cueing is an incredibly individualized process which can be misconstrued if the coach or lifter doesn’t understand the concept of the cue. 

“I struggle to keep my knees out when squatting should I experiment with the ‘knees in’ cue?”

No. As I noted above, you need to address the structural dysfunction or weakness that may be present within the hips or feet first. If you don’t have a solid movement foundation to start then these little cues may be more deleterious than beneficial. 

Squat Science Made Simple

Some of these cues may work for you but others might cause pain or lead to poor movement patterns. Make no mistake, this doesn’t make them bad cues, they’re just not right for you specifically.

Step outside your comfort zone and try something new even if it goes against the norm. The best way to understand your body is to experiment and respond to feedback.

Remember though, if you let the fear of complexity or personal biases influence your influx of new knowledge, you’ll never be able to reach your true potential due to the self-limiting factor of your own beliefs.