Squats are cool. Some of you probably disagree with that, but I’m going to do my best to convince you otherwise. For those already onboard the awesome-squat train, I’m about to make your squats safer, smarter and more effective through the geometry of that super-sexy skeleton of yours.
You Are Designed for Squatting
Squatting is not something you have to learn; it’s built into our physiology. If I could snap my fingers and suddenly remove all the muscle tissue from a standing, posture-neutral body, (1) that would be horrifying and (2) that body would collapse into what is essentially a squat position before toppling forward.
Improving your squat mechanics is about removing the stuff that’s in the way of that collapse so that you can “fall” smoothly, allowing a predetermined set of tissues to store the acceleration due to gravity as eccentric muscular tension. You may have heard before that running is a sort of forward-falling; This is similar.
A Good Squat Starts at Your Feet
Your feet are not simply a couple bricks for wrapping in overpriced, brightly colored foam; they are an amazing combination of hardcore load-bearing structures and delicate sensory tissues. Your feet are also the first line of defense between you and gravity, capable of converting violent gravitational acceleration (21.9 mph/s, by the way, or the approximate acceleration of the 2011 Ferrari 458) into kicking ass and taking names.
Despite this, an abundance of squatters and squat coaches have become obsessed with knees, devoting a ton of their focus to which direction the knees are pointing and exactly which toes they track over. Because of that, what I’m about to say may come as a shock:
It doesn’t matter.
From this moment forward you can stop thinking about your knees while you squat. Your knees will do exactly what thy are supposed to do, I promise, if we all decided to stop fixating on them.
Getting Your Joints Organized
The knee is what I like to call an “intermediary joint”; situated between the foot and the pelvis, the knee acts as an adapter between the two, translating the direction of force coming from the subtalar joint in the foot to be used as propulsion by the hip.
The subtalar joint is the most important joint you didn’t know you had; it’s sort of like the body’s steering wheel. It’s just below the ankle, where the calcaneus (heel bone) and and the talus (ankle bone) meet. It does two things, roll in and roll out:
Eversion (rolling in) is the first component of a squat: the foundation on which everything that follows is based. Without it, what you’re doing isn’t really a squat so much as it is a slow, repetitive crushing of all your joints. This is because eversion of the subtalar joint is what creates dorsiflexion of the ankle joint:
Proper eversion begets proper dorsiflexion, which, in turn, creates one of the most powerful motions in in the human skeletal system: internal rotation of the tibia.
The tibia is a full one half of the knee joint. At this stage of our hypothetical squat, it is currently rotating in, and that is exactly what it’s supposed to be doing. The other half of the knee joint—the femur—needs to rotate in the opposite direction. Is that surprising? If you’ve ever seen a picture of the meniscus, it shouldn’t be:
By following the longitudinal axes of the ligaments, it’s clear that this structure is designed to coil: the human knee has much more in common with a spring than a hinge.
And getting that counter-rotation is actually pretty easy. Remember how we rotated the tibias just by everting the heels? Well, we rotate the femurs just by shifting the center of gravity: in this case, forward a couple centimeters:
When you attempt to move your knees, what the vast majority of people do is move their tibias in a horizontal spread. But, since the knee doesn’t move horizontally, it interprets that force as a rotation in the wrong direction. The subtalar joint, however, does move horizontally, so what looks like “knees out” is actually subtalar inversion—a lot of it. This overloads the peroneals, disconnects the weight bearing structures of the feet from the ground and further prevents the knee from doing what it is designed to do.
Furthermore, the overstretched peroneals drag on the IT band which, in turn, prevents the femurs from laterally rotating, which locks the center of gravity over the rear foot.
No good squat can come from that.
Putting It Together
Forget the “knees out” cue—not because “knees out” is wrong, but because what you do when you attempt to follow that instruction isn’t what is intended.
To prepare for your squat, actively roll your heels in, flattening the arches of your feet—just a little will do. This will make the knee joint appear to deviate (toward each other). This is totally ok.
Next, while maintaining this new heel/knee position, shift your pelvis forward. You will notice that your knees automatically begin to rotate away from each other. Continue this forward shift until your weight is centered just behind the toe box, and equally between both feet with comfortable contact remaining between the heels and the floor.
Now as you drop, the resulting backward shift of your center of gravity will be countered and absorbed by your subtalar joints and ankles instead of your knees; your glutes will eccentrically store 21.9 mph/s of acceleration and you’ll pop back up like, well . . .
Remember, a squat may be a natural human movement, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t challenging. Be patient with your practice and use common sense!