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Friday, April 27, 2012

Perfecting The Squat

Camille Leblanc-Bazinet demonstrates an excellent air squat.

The Air Squat (otherwise known simply as the squat)
The squat is the basis for a great number of movements in CrossFit. The unweighted squat is also one of the most basic functional movements someone can perform. It is useful in training and in the real world. In CrossFit, we often use the Olympic-style squat because it carries over well into other movements such as the thruster, clean, snatch, overhead squat, high-bar back squat, and wallball shots, just to name a few.  Mastering the proper form for the squat may take some athletes a  long time, as the squat requires not only coordination, balance, and flexibility, and for many people, an elimination of bad habits. The benefit gained from mastering the squat, however, is enormous, and well worth the investment of time.

How I cue the Air Squat to start is as follows:
  1. Set your feet about shoulder width apart, toes pointing slightly out(about 5-10 degrees from straight forward).
  2. Brace your abs like someone is about to punch you in the gut. Hold your arms out in front for balance.
  3. Send your butt back and down while pushing your knees out.
  4. Descend to the bottom of the squat, keeping your weight in your heels.
  5. Stand up the same way you came down.
This usually gets people moving pretty well, from there I triage the form errors and assign homework for issues that can't be addressed immediately.



There are 5 main Points of Performance for the Air Squat

1. Maintain Midline Stability - Imagine a person standing tall, with a neutral spine (with a natural slight S-curve viewed from the side). Now imagine a straight line piercing that person from the top of their head, down through spine and ending at the bottom of their pelvis. This is what we refer to as the MIDLINE. The CORE constitutes the muscles that stabilize and maneuver the midline. Maintaining midline stability means that our torso does not flex, bend, or twist around the midline. Now, note the midline does not include the knees, and thus, in a proper squat, as shown below, the midline is kept intact.

Vertical line is the frontal plane. Diagonal line is the midline. This squat is precisely AT parallel.
The infamous "dog-poop squat" Midline stability is compromised. This is a both dangerous and weak position, especially when loaded. 
Midline stability is important for many reasons, among them are the prevention of spinal injuries, higher performance output, and better muscle recruitment. When we break the midline, the ability to develop force drops dramatically, so this concept is important not only for safety reasons, but for performance. Injury prevention isn't sexy, but performance IS sexy! Frame it in this light, and people will be much more likely to pay attention to this aspect of the movement.

Developing midline stability in the air squat will transfer over to movements in real life in an awareness of the midline and a need to keep it intact. Midline stabilization is a key component of all weightlifting movements and many bodyweight movements as well.

Sometimes, near the bottom of the squat, the pelvis will tuck under, rendering the "dog-poop" squat position. This is often caused by tight hamstrings, which nearly everyone has to some degree. Stretching or otherwise mobilizing (foam rolling, lacrosse ball, myofascial release, etc) of the hamstrings and surrounding muscles can be beneficial in many cases. Check out the videos at the end of this post for more mobility work.

2. Squatting Below Parallel - In life, we all squat below parallel. Whether you are sitting down to a chair or toilette, squatting down to look at something on the ground or shooting the duck, our bodies were meant to go below parallel.

Squatting below parallel. Note that the crease of the hip is below the top of the knee.

Contrary to popular misguided belief, squatting below parallel does not damage the knees, it in fact strengthens them when done correctly. Any incorrectly done movement has the potential for injury, especially when loaded up with weight. Correctly done squats strengthen the ligaments and muscles around the knees, which actually help prevent injury in the case of falls and twisting motions (such as those often experienced in sports like soccer or basketball).

Squatting below parallel is also safer in the short term as well (except for people with certain knee issues). At the beginning of the squat, the majority of the load is handled by the quadriceps, which pull from the front of the knee. When the hips drop below the knees the weight shifts so that the glutes and hamstrings carry much more of the load, balancing the forces at the knees and lessening shear(sideways) forces at the knee. As a result, stopping above parallel, which involves a sudden stop, and therefore puts increased load on the quadriceps and front of the knee, without balancing force from behind the knee. As a result, squatting correctly below parallel can be actually safer than squatting to just above parallel.

Some common reasons for improper depth may include lack of flexibility, strength, or simple laziness.

Turning the feet out a bit can help if flexibility is an issue and there is pinching at the hip crease. If strength is an issue, squatting to a high box works great; slowly reduce the height of the box until it is no longer needed.
If laziness is the issue...stop being lazy.

3.Knees Track over Toes - Keeping the knees spread apart so that the knees are directly over(or slightly outside) the feet is very important for both safety reasons (preventing twisting and shear forces on the knee) as well as performance reasons. Forcing your knees out on the squat activates the glutes(largest muscle in the body), allowing you to sit farther back on your heels,and acts to stabilize the midline as well. Just take a look at the pictures below. You will never see someone squatting massive weights successfully with knees caving in. If you do, you can be assured they probably won't be squatting like that for very long.
Knees are out over toes. This is a solid squat.

Knees are inside the feet. This increases shear forces on the knee, and reduces the ability to produce power in the squat.

Some common reasons for an inability to keep the knees tracking the toes(assuming it has already been cued) include weak glutes/abductors, tight adductors, or a lack of external or internal hip rotation.

Squatting with a small band around the knees can be very useful for developing abductor strength. Foam rolling or working with a lacrosse ball on the insides of the thigh can be very beneficial for tight adductors, as well as for a lack of hip rotation. The videos at the end of this post will help you work on mobility in the squat.

A few cues I use for helping athletes with this point are:
- Spread the floor! (useful for visualizing the proper way of pushing knees out, activating the abductors)
- Knees out! (useful for quick reminders during a squat)


4. Hips Back - Pushing the hips back, as in sitting down on a chair behind you, leads to two things: one, the powerful posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes, etc) is loaded first, and two, the knees stay back in the squat. Loading the posterior chain first allows it to be loaded more throughout the squat(tissues which are loaded first are loaded maximally), which allows for a stronger squat. Keeping the knees back in the squat serves to reduce shear forces at the knees, which is essential for preventing knee injuries. This also allows heels to stay on the ground, as the farther the knees travel forward, the more ankle flexion is required to keep heels on the ground.

Often, if an athlete is not pushing their knees apart and trying to "spread the floor", they will fall over before they are able to get their hips very far back. Cueing this can benefit both issues simultaneously.

Useful cues include:
- Butt back!
- Sit back!
- Sit back and down.

5. Heels Down - The weight should be centered towards the back of the foot. If the heels come up off the ground, there are a few things that quickly turn bad in the squat. First, the load by necessity shifts to the forefoot and toes. This makes it much harder to balance than standing with flat feet, especially if loaded with weight. Secondly, this shift to the forefoot inhibits in a large part all of the posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings, etc) muscles that are the major movers in the squat.

Sometimes this fault can come from a lack of ankle flexibility and/or tight calves.


A collection of videos from Kelly Starrett on fixing mobility issues in the squat:

http://www.mobilitywod.com/2012/02/prog-13-squat-cycle.html
http://www.mobilitywod.com/2012/02/prog-22-squat-cycle.html
http://www.mobilitywod.com/2012/02/daily-prog-33-squat-cycle.html


http://www.mobilitywod.com/2010/12/episode-117365-working-deep-squat.html
http://www.mobilitywod.com/2011/06/episode-260365-positional-inhibition-and-hip-external-rotation.html
http://www.mobilitywod.com/2011/01/episode-138365-banded-squat-mobilizer.html
http://www.mobilitywod.com/2011/05/episode-250365-creating-loaded-hip-stability-and-torque.html



Below is a collection of videos to help you understand what IS and what IS NOT good form.

http://media.crossfit.com/cf-video/CrossFit_AirSquats.mov
http://media.crossfit.com/cf-video/CrossFit_SquatFlawHeels.mov
http://media.crossfit.com/cf-video/CrossFit_AromasL2NicoleSquatTrick.mov
http://media.crossfit.com/cf-video/SquatTherapy.wmv

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