Why Squats are Snowflakes

How Anthropometrics and Hip Positioning Can Determine Your Ideal Squat Variation

In honor of the IA community continuing to squat its tailbone off each Tuesday for the next few weeks, I thought we’d briefly address why the squat, a movement so seemingly simple and non-complex, is a deceptively special snowflake. 

If you take a second to consider, it makes sense that there would be as many distinct squat patterns as there are people that squat. Starting with anthropometric variance (height, weight, limb ratios, etc.) and adding in an individual’s specific musculoskeletal adaptations to years of sport, exercise, repetitive movements and postures (or lack thereof), we’re presented with a litany of explanations for why your squat will never be the same as anyone else’s. 

Despite the fact that everyone holds their own non-replicable movement capacity, we tend to harbour an expectation that each athlete is one of about five general cues (plus a mobilization or two) away from exhibiting a ‘perfect’ squat. We visualize this ideal squat to involve, in no particular order: feet symmetrically aligned somewhere between hip and shoulder width apart, a neutral spine with lumbar curve in-tact, unrestricted depth below parallel, zero lateral/medial hip shift, knees tracking in line with toes, relatively vertical torso, with heels and toes anchored to the ground throughout. 

Because we know that achieving this ideal requires a generous range of actively accessible motion though the ankles, knees, hips, and spine, we prime our squats with foam rolling, spine and joint mobilizations plus glute activations to stimulate our neuroreceptors, get the juices flowing and open up positions we avoid or don’t move into throughout the day, which our brains have a tendency to protectively restrict. 

Basically: we’ve got a solid, basic working knowledge of the squat, we’ve got our bases covered with movement prep, and yet many athletes still struggle with feeling like their squat doesn’t look or feel ‘right’.

A quick detour before I move on: An unsatisfactory squat may be an issue of *actually* taking the ten minutes a day, every day, to do your prehab. I know, I know. It’s boringgg. I’ve been known to slack on my ankle dorsiflexion and eccentric hamstring work, too. More often than not, I just have to take a deep breath, set a timer for 10 minutes, and get it done. It’s always worth it. If you’re reading this and realizing that you have no idea what your personal ‘weakness work’ is, see a PT (like the lovely people two literal steps away at FX!) and find out. Remember, to pave the most efficient path to your health and fitness goals: Assess, don’t guess.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, we can address the fact that there are certain anatomically-determined aspects of your squat that we simply cannot change. The easiest ones to pick out of the weeds are: trunk vs. femur proportions and position/angling of and between the hip sockets. What? Okayyy, here we go…

  1. Femur Length

Those with long femurs (a long femur = more than 26% of your total height) usually boast strong and comfortable deadlifts, but are at a mechanical disadvantage when it comes to keeping the hips close to their center of gravity throughout a squat. Let’s give our long-femured gym-goer a purely hypothetical name: Laura. Laura’s tendency is toward stronger deadlifts but proportionally weaker squats. She struggles to keep her trunk upright, folding aggressively forward while attempting to maintain balance over the midfoot – especially if she struggles to drive the knees out. If you are like Laura, your goal is to find a squat style that allows you to maintain an upright posture. Taking a wider stance and strengthening your capacity for hip abduction (getting the knees out) will work in your favor, as they both effectively reduce the distance that your hips have to travel away from your midline the closer you get to and front parallel. If hip abduction is a struggle or a wider stance feels off, you’ll likely benefit from wearing lifters/ using a heel block (2.5 or 5 lb plates work, too), along with allowing the knees to track forward – again, reducing the distance your hips move back and trunk dips forward. You may also find that front squats are more comfortable, as the anterior position of the weight is easier to keep in line with your center of gravity (yay, levers). 

  1. Trunk Length: 

Long trunk + short femured lifters, congratulations: you’re built to squat! Your body is set up to keep your hips closest to your center of gravity throughout the movement. How do you know which category you fall into? Good question. Let’s take it from Greg Nuckols

“…the femur averages 26% of the body’s total height, so measure from your hip to the outside of your knee joint.  Divide that number in inches or centimeters by your height in inches or centimeters.  If you get .26 on the dot, then you’re average.  If you get more than .26, you’re erring farther towards “long femured” and if you get less than .26, you’re erring farther towards “long torsoed.””

  1. Anteverted vs Retroverted Hips: 
    The final point we’ll consider today is the specific articular geometry happening at your hips. The visual above shows how the angle from which the femoral neck snuggles into the actetabulum affects everything along the chain, down to the direction your feet point. This explains much of why some people are able to keep the toes directly forward without rotational compensation from the tibia/femur, while others feel right at home sitting into a deep squat without significant discomfort or adjustment of stance and toe angle. 

    Dean  Somerset discuss at length in this article, but here’s the crux of it all: 

    “The shaft of the femur doesn’t just always go straight up and insert into the pelvis with a solid 90 degree alignment. On occasion the neck can be angled forward (femoral head is anterior to the shaft) in a position known as anteversion, or angled backward (femoral head is posterior to the shaft) in a position known as retroversion. Zalawadia et al (2010) showed the variances in femoral neck angles could be as much as 24 degrees between samples, which can be a huge difference when it comes to the ability to move a joint through a range of motion.” 

    Of course, there are other factors at play to further complicate things: 

    A) The acetabulum itself may be angled forward or backward, to the the tune of thirty plus degrees – which translates to thirty or more extra degrees of flexion compared to your retroverted friend, who would exhibit that much more extension. 

    B) The center-edge angle, which indicates the difference between the center of the femoral head through the vertical axis and the outer edge of the lateral hip socket, has been shown to vary from 20.8 to 40 degrees according to a study done by Laborie et al (2012).

    C) Not only that, but there can be significant difference (20+ degrees)in anteversion and retroversion between your right and left sides, according to more studies done by Zalawadia. How fun! This means that it is entirely possible that, for those of you who naturally assume a staggered stance when you squat and can’t seem to shake the habit, this is exactly why. Now again – this could also be the result of soft tissue differences. So now the question remains – how do you know what’s caused by what? And what do I do about it?

    For one, if you’re having regular pain or feel ‘off’ while squatting (despite your best efforts to mobilize and activate), you can try a few passive mobility tests that can at least give you feel for whether or not certain ranges of motion are accessible right off the bat. If they are, then you know you’re not limited by things you can’t change. Your homework is then to get there actively (see a coach for help). Even better – see a PT to help determinoe whether your tendencies are geometrically determined, soft tissue related, or both – and as a result,  help you future out which pre-squat routine and squat pattern is best suited to you. Happy Squatting! 

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