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Squat Myth Busters: "Shoulder Width Stance" Technique

My first impression of the squat was from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Pumping Iron”. Arnold and Ed Corney were at the squat rack with hundreds of pounds on the barbell. They were doing everything they could to move that barbell up and down without failing. Being the nerd I am, I then ran to my computer and typed “squats” into Google to see what popped up. Holy cow, squats were the thing! How did I miss this? If I wanted to grow muscle and be stronger, I had to do squats! But I’ve learned over time that, in order for the squat to do all the magical things it does, it has to be done “properly!”

It seems that every personal trainer, exercise rehab specialist and fitness person recommends that you squat. It has been suggested that the squat can help with quadriceps, hamstring, glute strength (what about the other muscles?!), core strength, and speed up the recovery time from a lower body injury. Some fitness resources would say that the squat is vital for the success of building muscle and getting stronger. All of the touted benefits can be yours if you perform the squat with the proper technique. Oh yes, the technique of squatting!

We all know how to squat right? How could we not? There are hundreds of Youtube videos and web pages teaching you the various techniques associated with squatting. Let’s take a few minutes to define what most fitness sources would recommend for a squat technique and see if it makes sense.

One of most common cues is to start by lining your feet up with your shoulders. Everything has to be shoulder-width apart, as if your shoulders are a perfect frame of reference for the rest of your body. A challenge with this already is that we all have different proportions. The easiest example is the difference between men and women. Most men have wider shoulders than hips, and most women have wider hips than shoulders. Even if they are close to the same, the differences from one man to another man can be huge. Every individual has idiosyncratic proportions that MUST be considered.

The foot is also cued to be pointing straight ahead so everything “lines up.” You have to be conscious of foot placement, where your butt goes, what your knees are allowed (or not allowed) to do and what your back does! Taking these steps should place your foot in the sagittal plane (a vertical plane which passes from front to rear dividing the body into right and left sections). Visually, it looks like you’ve set up an ideal sagittal-plane shoulder-width squat but there are a few things we have yet to discuss. (Here comes the fun part!)

When you squat, your knees are shoved forward and your butt is shoved back to help manage your centre of mass. As a byproduct, reciprocal dorsiflexion (ankle flexion resulting in shin to move towards foot) has to occur to accommodate the tibia travelling forward. Most biomechanics books will say that you have 20-30 degrees of dorsiflexion available from neutral. From the image below you can see that the axis of the ankle — the talocrural joint, or where the talus and tibia/fibula meet — is 20-30 degrees posterior (back) from the frontal plane (a vertical plane that divides the body into ventral and dorsal). The plane of motion is approximately 20-30 degrees lateral (away from midline) from the sagittal plane.

This would mean that motion at the talocrural joint would NOT line up with the direction that the foot is facing and the plane of motion of the squat. This also means that the 20-30 degrees of dorsiflexion becomes redundant. The sagittal plane motion of this squat would only allow around 10-15 degrees of dorsiflexion as the tibia would bump into the talus a lot sooner.

If you are set on doing the squat with your feet shoulder width apart, a few things may happen with your body to accommodate the lack of foot motion. Your knees may be forced outward (genu varum), to allow the talocrural joint to travel closer to its intended plane of motion, thereby distributing the joint forces at the knee differently. If you have an active trainer watching and they cue you to “keep your knees in”, you might notice that your squat starts to look like a Beyoncé dance move with your butt being shoved really far back. At this point we have somewhat wandered from the original image of what a squat was intended to look like.

Please keep in mind, I never said that any of these things were bad. I can think of a few scenarios in which I would employ a squat like this, however it has to tailored to the goal. How a squat is performed is entirely specific to the individual, their current abilities and how well they are prepared.

To make this style of squat for someone experiencing a challenge more comfortable, you can do a few different things. You can place a small board underneath the heel of the squatter. This will put the talocrural joint into a relative amount of plantar flexion. The new starting position will allow the tibia to travel further forward more freely before maxing out in motion. If you don’t have a board handy you can use a sturdy shoe. Most gym shoes do have about a half inch to one inch heel lift that will have the same effect. You can also slightly change the plane of your feet. Turning your feet slightly outwards can free up your talocrural joint and allow a little more motion comfortably. There are tons of other potential solutions and what I have given you is just off the top of my head. Experiment and give me some feedback about what has worked for you!

This is just the beginning of our squat exploration! We only covered a very small piece of what is considered while looking at the mechanics of a squat. This article was fairly bias towards the lower leg. I will continue this series, each time discussing a specific squat, some basic and advance anatomy, and the mechanics associated. I will be doing a small series addressing different rumours and misconceptions about squats and discuss some mechanically sound evidence to test if they are true.

This brings me to a quote from a course that frequently stirs me to rethink everything. Edward DeBono said: “It’s historical continuity that maintains most assumptions, not repeated assessment of their validity.” So let’s continue to question, reassess and explore together…

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