Written by: Kevin Cann
I love the squat. This exercise to me is the single most important exercise one can do in their training program. Now, this does not mean that we should see everyone throw a bar on their back, sit down and stand up with it. The squat has many different variations whether we just use our bodyweight, a kettlebell for goblet squats, or front squats.
A well coached squat is a corrective exercise. Someone comes in complaining of knee pain and you teach them how to properly load the glutes and hamstrings, the knee pain magically goes away. The beauty of this is that it doesn’t just go away when we squat with shins as vertical as possible, but it goes away even when they go back to living life and doing everything that hurt before.
I am a big proponent of keeping the shins as vertical as possible in the squat because it counteracts everything we do in life. Life is very quad dominant and we perform most actions with our knees in front of our toes. I believe that training should help counteract the negatives we encounter in life, and squatting is one major way to do that.
It is very important that we coach people into performing a picture perfect squat. One of the cues that we tend to use a lot as coaches is “knees out.” The “knees out” cue is there to help us load those hamstrings. This cue is there to elicit external rotation of the hip. No matter how often we tend to say this, many of our clients will still demonstrate valgus collapse, knees caving in, in the squat.
Now, I do not think a little valgus twitch without pain is bad, but we still want to correct this fault to the best of our abilities. The more tension we create, the more stable we become, and ultimately the more weight we can lift. I have been telling clients to “drive their knees out” and “screw their feet into the ground” many times with no avail.
A couple of weeks ago I had an epiphany while talking to Murph. We were discussing the big toe and its role in the squat. This set off a loud bell in my head. The whole time we were focusing on trying to get tension in the hips to keep the knees out, we forgot about the other end of the knee joint, the foot.
Often times poor squat mechanics are chalked up to poor ankle mobility. Now, how much ankle mobility do we need if we are teaching a squat where the shins are as vertical as possible? The answer is, not as much as you think. I would even go out on a limb here and say that ankle mobility is over diagnosed as an issue in the squat.
Does ankle mobility play a role? Absolutely, but did you actually assess the ankle by itself? In the majority of assessments I perform, the ankle has enough mobility to squat. If that is the case why do we see the forward lean and/or the toes turning out when someone squats? The answer may lie in the foot.
Fallen arches are an ever more common trait. More than likely this is due to dysevolution due to being more sedentary and wearing shoes with stiff soles. Our arches actually give us the ability to propel forward in gait. They stiffen up and then they push us forward.
The arch of the foot is not only important for walking, but also for performing squats. Our feet are our base of support keeping us upright. The foot should form a tripod consisting of the big toe, little toe, and the heel. This gives us the biggest possible base to stabilize ourselves and drive force through the ground.
Often times when people squat you will see them lift up their big toe. In fact, I have used this cue many times in my coaching career. Due to human movement being a science I reserve the right to be incorrect. This cue, in my opinion on this day, is incorrect and here is why.
According to the joint by joint theory developed by Mike Boyle and Gray Cook, and expanded on by Charlie Weingroff, we need big toe mobility, midfoot stability, subtalar stability, and talo-crural mobility. Basically, this is saying that if we do not have big toe mobility, or midfoot stability, we will not have adequate ankle mobility.
In the case of fallen arches we see this. The arch has collapsed in, losing stability, and when we cue the client with fallen arches to create that arch, we see the big toe come off of the ground. When we create the arch, we need to make sure all 3 points of that tripod stay in position. This is how we display proper foot mobility.
To quote Charlie Weingroff “Stability is the ability of the joint system to control movement in the presence of potential change.” After we get our client to create an arch by “screwing their feet into the ground with all 3 parts of the tripod down” we need them to maintain this foot posture as position changes.
Often times as we squat the arch will collapse and we will see the valgus collapse of the knees. This could be due to the weight being too heavy or just poor motor control. This has led me to teach the squat from the ground up with clients as opposed to the spine out (ultimately we are doing the same thing, but client focus is directed to their feet instead of their hips).
Relearning the squat works best in your bare feet so you can get the proprioceptive feedback from the ground. Stand with your feet flat on the ground. The big toe, little toe, and heel should be in contact with the ground at all times. The cue I start with is “make your feet wide and screw them into the ground.” This will build that strong arch. Make sure they are aware of how this feels as cueing them to maintain this position dynamically can help. Even though we are having them focus on the feet the hips are building tension as well.
If you have problems remaining upright in the squat, or the knees caving in take a look at your feet. If you do not have big toe mobility, or midfoot stability, you will not have ankle mobility and this trend will continue all of the way up the body and may even look like it is a thoracic spine mobility problem. Before you throw on the lifting shoes, learn how to make a solid base with your feet. If this is an issue, fix it and watch the weight go flying up.