Squatting… What to say, probably the most natural but complex movement of the human body (if we exclude crawling, walking and running). Most people are losing the perfect squatting form during growing up because of multiple reasons (sedentary life is the general cause and losing of hips – ankles – T spine – shoulders mobility, losing a proper motor control, losing strength/stability… comes like a consequence).
Don’t panic, I do not intend to write a ton about squatting – just a bit about 4 basic variations which create important different positions. I will be writing about basic differences between 4 variations and how can you apply them IF you have some restriction(s) on the body… Which one to choose? Which one works best for you at the moment? People are doing squats more than ever before, and my task is to explain how, with a small change, you can do/make your favorite exercise in a healthier way for you. You can orientate yourself by looking at the photo below. Of course, in an ideal situation, every major, non-structural, weak link when it comes to mobility/stability (and so forth) should be fixed first – but I will explain which one to choose if you can’t fix it at the moment for some reason.
Let’s do it! What’s happening if you have restricted ankle mobility (dorsiflexion mostly) but good hips? Probably low back bar squats work better for you because it forces you to lean torso more forward which isn’t bad in your case because you have mobile hips enough… but challengeable dorsiflexion will not be needed. Barbell tends to come over mid-foot (vertically in-line with mid feet) which cause leaning forward but moving back of the knees (counterbalance). You need a good hip mobility for this (I am not talking about “sumo” position of legs) and very decent feet dorsiflexion. It’s easier to make sagittal plane hip mobility if you are pretty fit and have a proper hip complex anatomy. Load on the spine could be big because the moment arm between the hips and the bar is the longest of those 4 positions but the bar is at lower position on the spine compared with classic back squat so there is no big difference – with hope you don’t have a pretty heavy/big ass so you don’t need to make counterbalance by leaning torso too much forward 🙂 . (take a look at the photo below). Also, “butt wink” could occur earlier by doing low back bar squat. Classic back squat is something between the front squat and this one… Classic back squat requires a bit more of ankle dorsiflexion but a bit less of inclined position of the torso compared with low back bar squat (so you can play with this infos with the aim of finding the best option for you – it depends on many factors). Let’s assume that feet are parallel (toes directed straight forward) and hips-to-shoulders width apart (starting position), in all 4 basic squat variations. “Sumo” position of legs makes everything “more friendly” (safer position for knees and spine), but that’s another topic.
Personally, I don’t like back squat because of the load on low back but everything depends on load you are using and how much your body is prepared (for example, rear foot elevated split squat is more spine-friendly and you need less weight for the same outcome because it’s the unilateral exercise). Anyway, you should be using classic back squats because some researchers have found that it’s (along with Smith machine squats and loaded jumps) even better for improving jumping and sprinting performance than Olympic weightlifting for example (when used by athletes with strength training experience).
On the photo below, you can see some most common situations when it comes to limb length differentiations. Remember, you can find various combinations but these two are the most common.
What’s happening if you have poor hip mobility but great ankles? Front squats are your friend. There is 2 options on the photo: goblet squat and front squat. Before I forget – you need to know that the front squat variations engage front core and quads more (front chain muscles) and the back squat variations back core and butt/hams more (back chain muscles). So, why the front squat variations are your friend in this case? Because it’s the opposite of the back squat: torso stays more vertical – which is good for those who have poor hip mobility; and knees goes more forward – which requires good ankle dorsiflexion. This is the case a bit more with goblet squat of course, because the weight is further away from the chest compared with the barbell front squat (don’t put anything below heels because it can hurts your knees – they are going more forward and torso more upright consequently, and as you see on the pic above – an outcome could be the same if you have pretty long femur only + if you put something below heels = potential tragedy). Bottom-up KB position (like on the main photo above) probably engage core muscles a bit more because the KB center of mass is on the higher position from the hips compared with normal KB holding which requires greater stabilization/engagement by the deep core muscles. Plus, if you try “single-arm KB bottom up goblet squat” it would be even more useful because you engage working arm shoulder stabilizers pretty good (rotator cuff mainly), and core a bit more of course (+ anti-lateral flexion a bit). Of course, try to avoid wrist straps and weightlifting belts if you are not braking your PR (1RM) – you will do the favor to your grip and core strength. But anyway, you need to have insanely strong core if you want to lift heavy things on proper and safe manner…
Personally, I prefer more goblet squat because the classic BB front squat requires good wrists mobility and challengeable elbows flexion. A good elbow flexion is tough sometimes, especially if someone possesses pretty big muscles in front of the upper arms. Also, it’s pretty challengeable to maintain elbows up during lowering phase (upper arms parallel to the ground), especially if you have kyphosis, short/stiff lats or similar restriction in shoulder joint complex and around. By doing goblet squat, you don’t have the same issue (but some people don’t like this position also for multiple reasons and they need to do 2 KB front squat with a bit lifted elbows). If you still prefer BB front squat but don’t have good mobility in the proper areas, you can use straps or crossed arms in starting position. If you want more stable option you can use 2 KB front squat or Zercher squat (but that’s another topic). “Zercher sumo squat” is pretty safe variation for low back, and in general. 1 arm shoulder carry “sumo” squat is another awesome option because it engages the core more.
Having anterior hip pain? Or pinching, tightness… Goblet and front squats don’t close the hip joint down as much. As I mentioned above, torso is more upright so you just need to have a decent ankles dorsiflexion and you are all good 🙂 . Of course, “sumo squat” position is great in this case (widen your stance and turn your feet out). It will open up your hips better and decrease stress on the front of your hip. So, not everyone is made to squat feet straight ahead, shoulder width apart (if you have a deeper hip socket, different angulation of your femur, or a different position of your hip socket – your bony anatomy could be limiting you… deep squatting may not be for you as well). You must to find the stance that feels good and works for you. Also, if you increase lumbar arch while squatting, it’s going to place the pelvis into an anterior tilt (APT) and it can decrease the space in the front of the hip for the hip to go into flexion and problem occurs… Of course, the next reason could be lacking of ankle mobility (dorsiflexion). In this case, your hip will have to go into more hip flexion to compensate for the lack of ankle dorsiflexion to go deeper into the squat.
Knee pain? Back squats tend to load the hips more and knees less. As I mentioned above, torso is more leaned forward and therefore there is no need for more ankle dorsiflexion so your knees stay back and don’t suffer from unpleasant straining. Try also to lift your big toe slightly off the ground (this forces you to keep your weight back on the heels mainly which protects your knees. Try also box squat (this force you to sit back, not down, which puts the stress on your hips – not your knees. You can also try “sumo” legs position or some another squat variation (split squat for example)…
What’s happening if you have poor hip mobility and restricted ankle mobility both? Simply, choose some split squat variation or similar… where you can’t lose sagittal plane balance because of some restrictions mentioned above (among the other things). Plus, these variations are more “spine friendly” (torso is straight upright, as well as front shin which is good if you lack ankle dorsiflexion). Or you can use some front squats for example but by progressing ROM from week to week – you will be surprised how well ROM/motor control will be improved (it’s not about dynamic/static stretching and foam rolling/and similar only). The general rule – big basic/compound lifts should be almost everyone’s priority, and do some supplement isolated work if you have some specific joint issue/weak link(s).
In my opinion, doing front squat variations is more natural because it’s better when you squat “vertically” (naturally) down without thinking too much about pushing butt too much back during lowering phase – front variations look more natural. But anyway, squatting is so complex movement so you can find some individuals who look opposite of what I was describing. At the end, everything is always individual and basic theories don’t work with everyone – or it doesn’t look so. Keep experimenting…
With hope that this is going to help you to choose the right variation according to your current situation – best regards!
Thanks for reading and all the best,