Mastering Bodyweight Squats
This piece is dedicated to the squat solely as a basic bodyweight movement. A physical action every individual should have the capability to perform, like walking or raising your hands overhead.
Too often, squatting is referenced and conceptualized as an intensive, technically restrictive exercise. Hoards of coaching cues infiltrate the brain: sit back, hard arch, don’t arch too hard, fill the belt with air, neutral spine, knees out, big chest, screw your feet into the floor, drive up, chest up, head straight, etc…
What is interesting though, is one will perform heavy barbell squats with all the coaching cues engaged then, 20 minutes later, have a mental roadblock to squat down grab their wallet from the floor.
When your playing pickup basketball and you go up for a rebound, no coaching cues go through your mind. You just push your butt and arms back then jump.
Tony Allen was the toughest, baddest player in the league
I am not writing within the context of the barbell back, front, box, squat. I am writing through the lens of physical literacy, the ability to safely and efficiently transition through different movement patterns with a full range of motion without impingement or injury.
Being physically illiterate is equal to sending an incompetent 15-year-old to drive a Porsche 911 Turbo with manual transmission. He will grind the gears, ride the clutch, stall out consistently, but he will eventually get to his destination. However, if he keeps driving the same way, over time, the transmission will fail. It wasn’t that last stall out that caused the car to die, it was the compounded days of poor driving beforehand.
The body works in the same manner. Poor movement quality in/out of the weight room provides unnecessary stress on your body til injury strikes.
Rid the concept the squat is solely for the weight room under load. Squatting can be used for just straight chillin, like our friend below.
Squatting should be a seamless movement. A combination of hip and knee flexion/extension while maintaining spinal integrity over your center of gravity. The degree of hip to knee flexion and torso angle is relative to the individual.
Our whiskey friend does an excellent job illustrating this. The muscles and joints are loaded properly but notice how he is not uncomfortable or in pain. He’s just chilling. Certain variables are at play here:
- Proprioception & Kinesthetic Awareness
The squat is a rhythmic, athletic movement and must be treated as such. Back to our basketball reference, place your feet as if you are about to jump grab a rebound. Where are they? They should slightly outside shoulder-width with toes pointed roughly straight ahead.
From here, you can put the most force into the ground safely and effectively. You should be able to squat rhythmically from this position. Again, we are not referring to the barbell back squat exercise, just a bodyweight movement.
Your center of gravity should be evenly distributed through your midfoot with three points-of-contact: The heel, base of the big toe and base of the 5th toe.* This will create a firm arch to be maintained throughout the squat. You are not driving through your heels or the balls of your feet. You don't snag that rebound jumping from your heels or toes.
Dr. Aaron Horschig, of Squat University, makes a great comment concerning the foot during the squat.
“Our foot is basically like a three-wheeled motorcycle. Our goal when squatting should be to maintain the arch of our feet and have our weight distributed evenly. If all of the wheels are in contact with the ground we get more power. If one wheel is off the ground or if the body bottoms out, power is lost and the motorcycle breaks down. When our foot is out of position (arch collapse) stability and power is lost.”*
Torque & Core Engagement
Just because a coach screams lifting cues obnoxiously does not mean the athlete/client will properly conceptualize then physically reciprocate it.
The first rule of being a strength coach is if you don’t know what to do, go around flexing your traps, checking shoulders and barking out vague statements like “STAY TIGHT” or “DRIVE DRIVE DRIVE” 10x over. Yeah, you'll look cool but you are not really coaching.
I can tell you to drive your knees out and activate your glutes/core while you attempt a bodyweight squat. The reason, so you can exert rotational force in your hips through torque while maintaining a neutral spine as you squat. Because, when proper torque is initiated, the correct musculature supports the respecting joint during the movement.*
You could interpret this as simply to shove your knees out, squeeze your butt as hard as possible, and physically rotate their feet off the floor creating a labor-intensive squat. Your face grimaces as if you are under a fully-loaded barbell. The equivalent to our 15-year-old friend driving his Porsche 911 at 75mpg in 2th gear. The gear-to-speed ratio does not match.
Similarly, the human body contracting at 100% while over-exerting torque in the ankles, knees, and hips for a simple bodyweight movement is just as bad as having no torque at all. This creates what Movement Expert Dr. Kelly Starrett calls “force-bleeds”.
The torque and core engagement should match the demand of the movement*. If you are squatting down to pet a dog, the demand on your body should be in first gear. Your core muscles are slightly activated to remain stable and you rest easy squatting as you meet your furry woodland friend. Squatting down to lift a Porsche 911 racing tire, you're going to have to be a little more engaged.
This is where coordination and motor control come into play.
- Proprioception & Kinesthetic Awareness
Timing the core engagement and the amount torque needed (in different joints in the body) throughout movement patterns is where athleticism is revealed. The best athletes do this naturally on the field of play. Think of Bo Jackson or Deion Sanders. Not only could they run and jump with absurd ability, but they could also throw baseballs 400 ft from the outfield to home plate without thinking twice. Their bodies produced and transferred force at the highest and most efficient level possible.
One does not have to have freak athletic ability to groove a great squat, it just takes practice and a willingness to learn proprioception and kinesthetic awareness.
Proprioception is understanding where your body is in space while kinesthetic awareness is the ability to use your body in said space. Proprioception is understanding where your knee tracks in the squat with kinesthetic awareness being the physical ability to create torque in the said knee.
THEN, these two variables are directly related to an understanding of the center of gravity. If you can keep your hips, knees and ankle stable through proprioception and kinesthetic awareness while maintaining your center-of-gravity over your midfoot during a squat, 10x outta 10 you’ll be just fine.
Gaining an understanding of body positioning and how it operates through movement opens up another language of physical literacy. Literally, every physical movement becomes easier. You learn how to optimally manipulate your body in the most advantageous position possible to lift racing tires or chill with a whiskey in hand.
Dr. Aaron Horschig, Dr. Kevin Sonthana. (2016, February 5). How To Teach A Perfect Squat. Retrieved from Squat University: https://squatuniversity.com/2016/02/05/how-to-teach-a-perfect-squat/
Dr. Kelly Starrett, Glen Cordoza. (2015). Becoming a Supple Leapord: The Ultimate Guide to Resolving Pain, Preventing Injury, and Optimizing Athletic Performance. New York: Victory Belt Publishing Inc.
Trey Thornton is a NASM Certified Person Trainer. He spent 4 years interning with the University of TN Chattanooga Athletic Performance Dept. along with spending time at Harvard University Strength & Conditioning. He attained his Bachelor's in Exercise Science From UT Chattanooga and coached at D1 Sports Performance in Bowling Green, KY before joining the TF Staff.
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