Squatting: Do you have the tools for this technique?
One of the basic fundamental movements that form the cornerstone for many functional exercise regimes is the SQUAT. It is also one of the exercises most used to improve strength and power.
Squats are beneficial for day to day activities such as climbing stairs as well as of extreme importance to athletes such as runners, cyclists and even swimmers (think of the split seconds saved in a powerful push off from a tumble turn).
Whether it is partial or full movement, FORM during a squat is paramount. Poor posture, incorrect technique, overloading and compensatory movements can place excessive strain through joints resulting in injury including ligament and tendon injuries and lumbar disc problems amongst others.
WHERE TO START?
Slow progression is important. Follow the simple guide below that you can also find on our downloads(link) page. Start without any weight or bars. Perform the exercise in front of a mirror so that you can see that you are doing the correct movement. If necessary, get a friend or physiotherapist to watch you and guide you through the movements. Only when you are able to do all the components correctly unloaded, should a weight be added. This should be done in small increments and within safe limits.
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Squat depth should be relative to the activity or sport that each person is participating in. In CrossFit style exercises such as the clean or snatch, maximal squat depth needs to be obtained in order to perform these movements correctly. However, squatting to full knee flexion (bending) should be avoided in people with kneecap pain and dysfunction as it is at this point that forces compressing the kneecap onto the thigh bone are at their peak.
As stated above, the normal curve of the spine should be maintained, this is also known as lumbar lordosis or extension. At a certain depth in the squat, the curve starts to be lost and the sacrum starts to tilt backwards. This can be a result of tight buttock (gluteal) muscles, poor core stability, tight hamstrings or tight connective tissue structures around the pelvis. Therefore the squat depth should be limited to slightly higher than this point of compensation to prevent strain on the lumbar spine.
FRONT vs. BACK SQUATS
A front squat is where the bar or weight is held in front of the body normally resting on the upper arms, while a back squat is where the bar or weight is held behind resting on the upper back or shoulders.
Front squats have been shown to have the equivalent activation of the front thigh muscle to back squats. However, due to the changes in angles and center of gravity created with a front squat the buttock muscles are more dominant. The front squat may therefore be more beneficial when training with knee problems as it stresses the knee joint less.
For a squat to be balanced, the bar needs to move directly over the middle one-third of the foot. This is not altered for variations in bar position.
WIDE vs. NARROW SQUAT
The stance of the squat is also an important aspect to look at. The wider squat stance allows for a larger base of support. This increased ground support transfers up through the spine and allows the lumbar spine to keep its natural curve for longer through the movement.
Apart from the recommendations listed above, the following may help to prevent injuries caused by squatting…..
- When a person presents with low back pain, research has shown that they automatically compensate by increasing the amount of hip flexion that occurs and the amount of lumbar stiffness during a squat taking them out of lumbar extension placing further strain through the spine.
- Leaning too far forward (i.e. increased hip flexion) during a squat results the weight to be lifted with the spinal muscles and not with the legs. This can lead to severe injuries of the spine. Adequate core strength is essential to brace the spine and protect it from injury. Appropriate core activation techniques should be taught/learnt prior to loading the spine excessively.
- Fatigue should also be a notable warning sign and should be adhered to in order to prevent injury. It is when fatigue sets in that injuries are more likely to occur due to poor concentration, poor biomechanics and loss of control.
- As hip stability and strength has a significant influence on knee position as well as on conditions that affect the knee, correct and balanced hip strength is essential for correct squat technique as well as for general knee injury prevention. It therefore may be necessary for such strengthening to take place before the squat is introduced into the program of a beginner or injured athlete.
Performed correctly, the squat is beneficial in strengthening the lower body. Movements should be slow and controlled and performed within the individual’s abilities to prevent injury.
HOW CAN A PHYSIOTHERAPIST HELP?
Poor Biomechanics and movement due to weakness or tightness of the muscles in the legs, pelvis and spine or even shoulders can lead to painful squats. Physiotherapists can diagnose this through appropriate assessment, treat tight tissues and poor joint alignment with hands-on soft tissue and joint mobilisations, dry needling, taping and exercise rehab, making your training sessions more enjoyable and productive! Helping you to use the right tools for the technique.
References & Additional Reading:
- ACSM Current Comment: Safety of the Squat Exercise. American College of Sports Medicine. http://www.acsm.org/docs/current-comments/safetysquat.pdf [Accessed 10th June 2014]
- Bazrgari B., Shirazi-Adl A., Arjmand N. 2007. Analysis of squat and stoop dynamic lifting: Muscle forces and internal spinal loads. European Spine Journal 16:687-699
- Bell D.R., Oates D.C., Clark M.A., Padua D.A. 2013. Two- and 3-dimensional knee valgus are reduced after an exercise intervention in young adults with demonstrable valgus during squatting. Journal of Athletic Training 48(4):442-449
- Bloomquist K., Langberg H., Karlsen S., Madgaard S., Boesen M., Raastad T. 2013. Effect of range of motion in heavy load squatting on muscle and tendon adaptation. European Journal of Applied Physiology 113:2133-2142
- Clark D.R., Lambert M.I., Hunter A.M. 2012. Muscle activation in the loaded free barbell squat: A brief review. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 26(4):1169-1178
- Comfort P., Kasim P. 2007. Optimizing Squat Technique. Strength & Conditioning Journal 29(6):10-13
- Dionisio V.C., Almeida G.L., Duarte M., Hirata R.P. 2008. Kinematic, kinetic and EMG patterns during downward squatting. Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology 18:134-143
- Gullett J.C., Tillman M.D., Gutierrez G.M., Chow J.W. 2008. A biomechanical comparison of back and front squats in healthy trained individuals. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 23(1):284-292
- Lynn S.K., Noffal G.J. 2012. Lower extremity biomechanics during a regular and counterbalanced squat. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 26(9):2417-2425
- McKean M.R., Dunn P.K., Burkett B.J. 2010. The lumbar and sacrum movement pattern during the back squat exercise. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 24(10): 2731-2741
- Powers C.M. 2010. The influence of abnormal hip mechanics on knee injury: A biomechanical perspective. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy 40(2):42-51
- Rippetoe M. 2007. Popular Biomechanics. The Crossfit Journal Articles. 55:1-5
- Sung P.S. 2013. A compensation of angular displacements of the hip joints and lumbosacral spine between subjects with and without idiopathic low back pain during squatting. Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology. 23:741-745
- Schoenfeld BJ. 2010. Squatting kinematics and kinetics and their application to exercise performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 24(12):3497-3506
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