The squat – one of the most primal and necessary movements of the human body, yet one of the most poorly coached and performed movements at your local gym. This is primarily due to lack of mobility in sedentary individuals, but also poor coaching from personal trainers and coaches. The following is a list of three coaching cues for the squat, why these cues are flawed, and alternative cues to help reduce injuries and improve performance.
1. Drive through your heels.
Driving through the heels is perhaps the most used cue for teaching the squat, which for beginners can be very helpful in keeping a client’s/athlete’s heels on the ground during the movement. The problem with this cue comes when a client/athlete has mastered the basics of the movement and begins loading the squat. As load gets added to the movement, it becomes increasingly important to support the knee and hip joints to prevent injury. To do this, one must keep their joint in balance by simultaneously contracting the muscles on opposing sides of the joints.
It is well understood that the glutes and hip flexors balance the hip joint, and the hamstrings and quadriceps balance the knee joint, but many coaches over-look the role the gastrocnemius (calf) plays in stabilizing the knee. Because the gastrocnemius originates on the femur, not only does it extend the ankle, it also assists in flexing the knee joint. By cueing a client/athlete to only push through their heels it reduces the amount of tension the gastrocnemius can supply and limits its ability to support the knee.
This cue also reduces the sports performance benefits of the squat. While the squat itself is a closed-chain movement (i.e. feet do not move), the neurological patterns it strengthens generally are not (i.e. running, jumping). By preventing an athlete from driving through his/her toes at the top of the squat they are limited in their ability to train the powerful ankle extension movement which is necessary in sports.
Alternative Coaching Cue – Squeeze the glutes and pull the knees back as you stand up.
By simultaneously squeezing the glutes and pulling the knees back at the bottom of the squat the client/athlete can smoothly ascend by extending their knees and hips at the same rate. Not only does this reduce the stress on the joint, it also maximizes the efficiency of the movement for athletes.
2. Keep your knees behind your toes.
If you played athletics in high school, chances are your coach warned you about the extreme dangers of your knees traveling over your toes during a squat. The fear is that anterior movement of the knee past the toes will create excessive torque and cause injury. This simply is not true – many movements in everyday life as well as sports require the knee to travel in front of the toes. Furthermore, a study by the University of Memphis concluded that preventing the knees from traveling over the toes during the squat increased torque at the hip by over 1000%. This increase in torque results from a necessary excessive forward torso lean. By preventing the knees from traveling forward, and as a result driving the hips back, the upper-body must compensate by shifting forward to maintain center of gravity over the feet. Doing so puts an undesired amount of stress on the lower back and hips.
Alternative Coaching Cue – Drive your knees forward, butt back, and let your torso drop to the ground.
By stabilizing the core, and letting the knees and hips move naturally forward and backwards, the torso can better stay centered over the feet – this reduces the stress placed on the back and hips.
3. Keep your head/eyes up.
Another very popular cue used by coaches is to instruct the squatter to look up towards the ceiling during the movement. The idea is by looking up the lower back will not be able to round, and as a result prevent injury. The danger of this cue is it works too well. Not only does it prevent flexion of the lower back, it actually causes excessive extension of the lower back.
Why is this bad?
The first and most dangerous issue is the compression it puts on the vertebrae of the lower back and neck. While excessive flexion in the spine is well known to cause injury, excessive extension can be equally as dangerous. Secondly, the act of arching the lower back during a squat causes anterior tiliting of the pelvis. This shift not only puts a lot of stress on the hips, it also causes inhibition of the glutes. This lack of activity in the glutes robs the squatting movement of much of its strength and performance benefits.
Alternative Coaching Cue – Set/brace your core and keep eyes straight ahead as you drop down into the squat.
The goal throughout the entire squat should be to prevent as much movement in the back as possible. A helpful cue for this is to imagine a string between the sternum and the pelvis. During the squat, this string should neither shorten nor lengthen.
By neither looking up or down, the spinal column can maintain its natural alignment. The important thing to remember is that while the torso should naturally lean forward, the shoulder must stay back to prevent rounding of the lower back.
Whether it is sitting on a toilet or dunking a basketball, no movement in life or sport is more crucial than the squat. By continually squatting with proper form not only will you build stronger more powerful legs, but also nourish and lubricate the joints of the body. Inversely, avoid this movement and watch your legs shrivel up into a tiny-jiggly mess.
Now get off the couch and into a squat rack!