It is important to perform exercises correctly so that you reduce the risk of strain or injury. This applies to all types of exercise but for the purposes of this article I will focus on how to squat safely, whether this is part of a gym routine or a movement you perform in your everyday life.
For those of you who follow our Sittingwell Facebook page, you may have seen a blog by Ryan Debell that we shared. It was all about squats and why one method does not fit all. For those who missed it and would like to read it click through to the blog on squats and bone structure.
Why a safe squat is different for each of us
If you have ever been told how to squat, you were probably instructed to make sure your feet pointed forward, your hips were shoulder width apart and to keep your chest up as you pushed your bum backwards whilst bending your knees. Now for some of you that leg and foot position will work perfectly, but as Ryan demonstrates in his blog, the bony differences are often forgotten and this is where problems can arise.
The hip joint in the main contributing joint in the body in terms of how we stand to perform a squat. It consists of a ball created by the head of the thigh bone (the Femur) and socket, provided by the pelvis (called the Acetabulum). Surprising I know, but we are not all built the same! There can be quite big differences when it comes to the shape of our bones. The images below show how the shape and position of both the ball and socket of the hip joint can vary.
In these two images above you can see the pelvis on the left has the socket facing almost forward, and on the other pelvis it is directed out to the side.
Also with the thigh bone, sometimes the ball/head at the top points directly inwards and sometimes it is at more of an angle towards the back.
The image above illustrates how widely this angle can vary.
These anatomical changes determine the range of movement that will be available at the hip joint. Once one bone makes contact with the other you have reached the end of your range. This is the reason some of us will never be able to do the splits!
How does your anatomy translate so that you know how to squat safely?
Well. Put simply, the more your hip joint/socket is pointing out sideways from the pelvis, the less you will be able to squat with feet pointing forwards and legs hip width apart without putting strain on other joints to complete the movement.
If you don’t have the range of movement at the hip joint then you are likely to round the lower back towards the end of the squat, putting a massive strain on the ligaments in this area and risking injury to your back.
If your hip joint is positioned more to the side of the pelvis, then a wider stance and turning your feet out to 45 degrees will put your hip joint in a better position. You will then be more able to perform a full squat without rounding the lower back and maintaining a safer spinal alignment throughout the movement.
So how do you determine the shape and position of your own hip joints?
There is no need to go to the extreme of taking an x-ray for an accurate analysis. You can work out the best posture and optimal range of movement with a couple of checks, and a bit of trial and error. If you are really serious about your gym workout, looking at your technique on video will give you a good idea too. An assessment of the hip joint by an exercise professional should also give you the answers.
Here are a couple of pointers for you to start with:
1 – Check your current squat and see if you round your lower back
For this you will need either a video recorder or a friend with a good eye.
Stand in your usual squat stance and slowly go through the motion of a full squat. As you squat down watch what happens at the base of your back. Do you reach a point where you clearly see your pelvis tilt back and your lower back flatten out? If you don’t then great news you are already performing your squat safely. If you do then you are straining your lower back each time you squat so time to try something different. Widen your stance and turn your feet out slightly then repeat the check. This time you should be able to do the movement without the pelvis rotating back.
The images below show the two variations you are looking for. The first image shows an example of the pelvis rotating back and the lower spine being strained. The image after shows the correct alignment of the back as a result of a change in foot and leg position.
2. Assess the shape of your hip socket.
A healthcare practitioner will easily be able to do this for you, but you can get a reasonable idea yourself to begin with.
Here you are testing the shape and position of your hip joint. With this you are looking to get a feel for the curve round the outside of the pelvic socket so you will need to do this slowly and focus on what you are sensing.
Whilst lying on your back, bend one leg and slowly pull it in a straight line towards your chest. How far can you bring your leg towards you before your buttocks start to lift off the floor? Do you feel any pinching in the groin or stretch in the buttocks? Bear in mind that sometimes tight muscles or soft tissue bulk will prevent you reaching your full range of movement.
Now you have an idea of the range of hip flexion you can achieve in this position, this is similar to the range you will get in a squat with feet hip width apart. Next bring your knee outwards slightly. You may feel the arc you are drawing with the knee as it follows the circumference of the hip joint. As you bring the knee out to the side slightly, are you able to bring your knee closer to your chest, again without your hips lifting off the floor? If you can then it is likely your hip joint is positioned more laterally and you will be better having a wider stance to perform a safe squat. If the straight leg felt easier then your hip joint is pointing forwards more and you are more suited to the traditional stance.
Please also consider that compensations will occur if muscle tension is getting in the way. A good squat also needs good flexibility of the hamstrings(muscles at the back of the thigh), gluteal and calf muscles, so regular stretching may also be required.
Doing the checks in this blog and adapting your squat stance accordingly will reduce the strain you put on your back and help you to avoid back pain and have a much more effective workout as a result. I hope you found this guide helpful, please pass it on to others if you did.