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.

Did you hear that? That was all NASM certificate holders simultaneously gasping in horror.

“Blasphemer!” — NASM certificate holders everywhere

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:

IMG_0281

 

 

LEFT: inversion RIGHT: eversion

LEFT: inversion
RIGHT: eversion

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:

Pictured: a dorsiflexed ankle. Limited eversion means that ankle either doesn't bend as much as it is supposed to or it does bend and just compresses the crap out of every compressible bit that might be in the way.

Pictured: a dorsiflexed ankle. Limited eversion means that ankle either doesn’t bend as much as it is supposed to or it does bend and just compresses the crap out of every compressible bit that might be in the way.

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.

What looks to the untrained eye like the simple hinging of a type-3 lever is actually a coiling action, driven by that initial eversion of the subtalar joint

What looks to the untrained eye like the simple hinging of a type-3 lever is actually a coiling action, driven by that initial eversion of the subtalar joint.

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:

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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:

(side view)

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  . . .

i.chzbgr

 

Happy squatting.

 

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!

 

47 Responses to “Read This Before You Do Another Squat (Then Do Several, After)”

  • Ben L

    I’m not sure if this will get a reply as its quite old.

    I’m a little confused, by rolling the heels in you mean rolling it towards yourself right? Not externally? I’ve always read to externally rotate the heel and keep weight on the lateral heel

    Reply
    • Kevin Moore

      Yeah, it is pretty contrary to a lot of the conventional advice out there, Ben. But yes, I mean that the heels roll in, as in, toward each other. The trick is they don’t exactly stay there. As in the video, as the glutes eccentrically contract during the decent, it creates a more passively inverted (rolled out, to the lateraly side) state in the heels. If start your squat in that position then you run into a lot of joint friction on the way down.

      Let me know if you need any more help with this!

      Reply
  • […] Finding the medial edge of the foot during squats: Read This Before You Do Another Squat […]

    Reply
  • Becky

    Great article! I’ve recently joined crossfit after completing a 6 week boot camp. Of course, squats are an integral part of every workout. I stepped wrong off a curb in 2009 and suffered a trimalleolar ankle fracture which required a plate and 9 screws to repair. I still have all the hardware in my ankle. Two of those screws are along the medial malleolus and seem to block my ankle from full dorsiflexion. I have stretched and worked on my heel cords at my PT and Dr’s behests. When I dorsiflex my ankle, it seems one or both of those screws is the culprit rather than a tight Achilles tendon. I do not feel a pull of tightness in my calf or heel cords but rather a hard stop from the anteromedial aspect of my ankle. Now that I have joined crossfit, the coaches have started watching my squats very closely and noticed that my left heel refuses to stay on the ground. After explaining about my hardware, they had me try a 10 lb weight plate on the floor wedged under my heel. Adding a 15 lb barbell to practice overhead squats felt much more balanced and comfortable using the plate. Then last week they started working on clean and jerk and I was concerned about trying to hop at the same time trying to make sure my foot landed properly on the plate. So I did those movements without the plate to avoid landing wrong on my foot. Instead I’ve noticed a new problem…the lateral aspect of my left knee is now painful and gets worse when I have to do any squats or jumping. My question: is there anything I can do to work on improving my ankle range of motion to improve the proper mechanics of my squat so I can continue with crossfit? I have great coaches who modify movements and exercises for me as needed but I’m beginning to think there’s a limit to what my ankle is going to allow me to do safely. It’s a huge source of frustration since I have avoided much physical activity other than walking or a stationary bike for the last 7+ yrs largely because of convincing myself I can’t do anything else due to my ankle. I have thoroughly enjoyed crossfit so far but I keep running into stumbling blocks with my ankle and now my knee. It seems I’m spending more time nursing painful and inflamed joints than I am actually spending time at the box. Any input or advice would be greatly appreciated!

    Reply
  • Jen

    Love this❤️ Makes perfect sense with a lot of what I am studying your execution was spot on 👌🏻

    Reply
  • Ella

    I started squatting every day and after a week or two my knees started to hurt efter I did like 50 squats… How could that be if squats doesn’t effect your knees?

    Reply

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