Learn about the hip and different tests to figure out the best squat stance for you.
The following article is written by Dean Somerset. Dean’s brand new resource, Advanced Core Training, is available for sale this week only and is recommended by the PTDC. Get your copy by clicking here.
You may have to squat differently than someone next to you. This should be pretty common sense, considering the diversity of the population. If you had all your clients try to perform a squat, there would be those who smash depth and those who struggle to bend past 90 degrees.
Does this have anything to do with training history, time spent under the bar, or simply tissue health? They absolutely play a role, but isn’t the end-range defining criteria to how much mobility you have and can use.
We know joints deteriorate with age and those deteriorations cause reductions in range of motion. However, I have a 72 year-old client who can still squat hamstrings to calves, while his group training partner has to have a 10 minute warm up to simply hit 90 degrees. Women tend to have better overall mobility than men, but some can still struggle mightily to control their positions without tipping over.
A common set up for a movement like a deadlift involves keeping everything relatively square. Both feet pointed forward, shins equally close to the bar, and knees vertical over both squarely lined up feet. This has been taught as the way to limit imbalances, but in complete honesty may be causing more imbalances than it’s solving. It assumes symmetric structure, which as I’ll show isn’t always the case.
Let’s even look at individual differences in size. Look at a sample classroom in high school and you’ll see a huge difference in physical size and shape, sometimes massively so. You could even see this within a single family where siblings could be much different in terms of height, weight, and overall limb lengths. These physical differences showcase the simple fact that we’re all different, and this fact continues on to the shapes of our joints and how much and where they can display range of motion.
Looking at simple anatomical variance, there can be a massive difference between individuals in the shape, alignment, positioning, and relative angles of attachment of specific bones and joints, meaning their ability to move will be entirely different from someone who has a different set up.
One basic tenet when it comes to the available range of motion a joint may have is this: You can’t stretch bone into bone without something going wrong. If your joints run out of room and wind up pressing one bone into another, you can’t get more range of motion out of them without causing some trauma to the joint or causing neighboring joints to increase their movement to accommodate. Therefore, the shape and position of your joints will directly dictate when and where you develop this bone to bone contact, and will ultimately be the main limiting factor for the ultimate amount of mobility you can use.
Let’s focus on the hip for this discussion because there’s a lot more research done on positional and anatomical variances that can help paint the picture.
Commonly the femoral neck angle is the most known individual difference. A femoral neck angle is usually classified into 3 categories: coxa valga (a more vertical angle inserting into the pelvis), coxa vara (a more horizontal angle inserting into the pelvis) and what is considered a more “normal” angle of roughly 40-50 degrees. The funny thing is the normal angle occurs with less frequency than the combined angles of coxa vara and valga, meaning it’s somewhat more rare to see.
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, and even showed a significant difference between the left and right hips of the same individual, which can be a huge difference when it comes to the ability to move a joint through a range of motion.
Consider someone who has a femoral retroversion will likely have a bone to bone contact sooner in a flexion range of motion compared to someone who has more of an anteversion alignment, and if that difference is 20 degrees or more, that could be the difference between squatting above parallel and sitting your hamstring comfortably on your calves.
A difference of 20 degrees of hip flexion is massive. Depending on the individual a full squat could be anywhere from 140-160 degrees of hip flexion, with parallel occurring around 110-120 degrees.
The acetabulum itself could have a lot of different alignments, all of which could affect the range of motion of the joint and the ability to perform different movements.
The acetabulum could itself be in a position of anteversion or retroversion, and this difference could be more than 30 degrees. This means the same shaped acetabulum would give someone who has the most anteverted acetabulum 30 extra degrees of flexion than someone who had the most retroverted acetabulum, but would give them 30 degrees more extension than the anteverted hips.
The shape of the hip socket could also be different too! Some people would have a more flat shaped cup socket, but as Fern & Norton showed, there could be a focal positional change in how the socket is set, and also the shape of the socket itself. Occasionally, someone may have a focal versus global retroversion or anteversion, which makes the hip socket look more like an oval or C-shaped cup.
This C-shaped socket would mean there would be some ranges of lateral flexion that provided massive abilities to flex or extend the hip, but slight variations in this lateral positioning would alter the range significantly.
Additional to all of this mess is that the right and left hip could be significantly different in their alignment and positioning
Zalawadia (same guy as before) showed that the angle of anteversion or retroversion of the femur could be significantly different from left to right, sometimes more than 20 degrees worth of difference. This means trying to train for symmetry could be inherently wrong, and using parallel stances or symmetric set ups (both feet turned out 20 degrees, etc) could be wrong as well, depending on the individual.
Looking at the above example, samples with greater than 20 degrees of anteversion accounted for 25.9% of the women’s left leg samples, but not a single incidence in the right leg. From 15-20 degrees, there was only 8.6% of the population registering, and from 10-15 degrees, 60.8% of right legs and 11.1% of left legs hit this range, meaning more samples showed less anteversion in the right leg than in the left, and the difference wasn’t consistent between the actual degree of anteversion. Every hip was different.
The same could be said for men, where the vast majority of left leg samples occurred between 15-20 and greater degrees of anteversion, and right leg samples occurred between 5-15 degrees. A 10-degree difference in range of motion from one hip to another is substantial, especially when trying to pull significant numbers around in the gym
There are those who will discard this information and continue to say everyone should squat deeply, ass to grass as it were. To that I would say if they can, train hard and take advantage of it.
However, if they don’t have the hips for it, they will likely pay the price for training outside of their anatomical limits.
In significant cases of femoroacetabular impingement, the individual could develop cam or pincer lesions on the bones of the femoral neck or acetabulum, respectively. This happens when repeated compression of bone into bone occurs and a callous begins to form. The only way to get rid of this is to not do flexion activities and probably surgical removal of the callous with the hope the labrum isn’t damaged. Even then, the outcomes could be more related to the type of hip you have.
Fabricant et al (2015) showed that 37% of asymptomatic individuals had clinically significant markers of impingement related structural changes in their hips, and this number skyrocketed up to 54.8% in athletes. He also found that post op recovery was best in patients with retroversion versus anteversion for removal of pain, recovery of strength and range of motion, and speed at which they restarted their desired activities.
There’s even a link to SI joint pain based on the type of hip set up you have. Morgan et al showed the radiographs of people with a history of SI joint pain had a 33% occurrence of cam impingements and 47% had what would be classified as deep hip sockets.
Range of motion restriction at the hip affecting the nearby SI joint? You don’t say.
Now with the variations in hip structure, alignment, size, and position, comes the obvious question: how much influence does any of this have on squat depth and performance?
From my experience with my own training and working with my clients, I’ve found those who have a more anteverted positioning tend to have no problems squatting to depth whereas those who have more of a retroverted positioning tend to struggle with depth, but rock out with extension. People with a more lateral positioning of the acetabulum tend to require a bit of a wider stance than those with a more inferior location, and tend to struggle mightily with their feet closer together.
If one hip is more anteverted and one is more retroverted, it may be that the individual has to stand in a slightly rotated stance to allow a squat depth to be reached. One foot may have to be turned out slightly compared to the other, which seems to commonly be the right foot. The numbers shown earlier that allude to the difference between left and right anteversion allude to one potential reason behind this.
In terms of using this to design a training program for your clients, the good thing is you don’t need to use a lot of radiographic images to determine your clients’ hip architecture, but rather just see how well they move in specific directions and whether they have limitations, pain, or freedom in different planes and ranges of motion with a few simple self-assessments.
This is a simple way to determine what your best squat depth can be. Using a solid object that isn’t going to move, and ideally within sight of a mirror so you can see whether your low back is rounding or whether your hips are going through a posterior tilt, squat down as low as you can using the support for balance. Find a position where you’re as deep as possible without letting your low back round. If you get to a point where your back rounds, that’s essentially the limit of your hip flexion in that position, and going further produces the dreaded butt wink.
While at the bottom, open your feet to a slightly wider position and see if you can get lower into the squat than before, then turn one foot out and in and see what happens. Narrow your stance and repeat, but concentrate on which position gives you the best depth without flexing the lumbar spine or creating pain in the front of the hip. If you can’t squat because of hip pain, get that addressed first.
Supported Squat Self AssessmentIn an upcoming article from Dean Somerset we’ll be featuring a number of assessments you can do on yourself and your clients. This is the first of those assessments.—This video is property of Somerset Fitness & Marketing, LLC and is used with permission. Learn More about Dean Somerset at www.deansomerset.com and subscribe to him on YouTube at www.theptdc.com/deanyoutube
Posted by Personal Trainer Development Center on Friday, July 31, 2015
Once in a position where you achieve your deepest squat, find a way to maintain a vertical posture while slowly letting go of the support, and then stand up without assistance. Use the support to lower back into the same squat position and repeat, then lower into the squat without assistance. The movement should feel fluid and easy, without obvious strain or tightness preventing you from getting to the bottom position.
You may only be able to get to 90 degrees of hip flexion with your thighs parallel to the floor, and that’s okay. You might be able to squat so low your hamstrings are pressing into your calves, and that’s okay. There’s no right or wrong, just looking at your individual abilities.
Hip Bridge Test
Lay on your back with bent knees and drive your hips up without arching your low back and see how much extension you can get. Most people will get to neutral, and maybe slightly more than that to about 10 degrees. Some people can get incredibly far into extension, as judged by the line from the middle of the thigh through the torso. A straight line denotes neutral, whereas a position of slightly flexed is a negative angle of extension, and a position where the hip is ahead of the torso is a positive extension angle.
Hip Extension Self AssessmentIn an upcoming article from Dean Somerset we’ll be featuring a number of assessments you can do on yourself and your clients. This is the second of those assessments.—This video is property of Somerset Fitness & Marketing, LLC and is used with permission. Learn More about Dean Somerset at www.deansomerset.com and subscribe to him on YouTube at www.theptdc.com/deanyoutube
Posted by Personal Trainer Development Center on Monday, August 3, 2015
For individuals who lack extension to or past neutral, developing anything that would resemble a good kick in sprinting would prove challenging. Likewise, hip thrusts would be a bit of a struggle to get to a solid lockout, and would always look like a short range of motion.
This tests the lateral capability of the hip joint in a somewhat passive manner. On hands and knees, try to open the knees as wide as you can without ripping yourself in two. When you get as wide as possible, try to sit back without letting your low back round.
Lateral Hip Mobility Self AssessmentIn an upcoming article from Dean Somerset we’ll be featuring a number of assessments you can do on yourself and your clients. This is the third of those assessments.—This video is property of Somerset Fitness & Marketing, LLC and is used with permission. Learn More about Dean Somerset at www.deansomerset.com and subscribe to him on YouTube at www.theptdc.com/deanyoutube
Posted by Personal Trainer Development Center on Tuesday, August 4, 2015
This gives an idea of how wide you could theoretically make your stance during a squat or deadlift, albeit maybe at the hindrance of stability. This may not be where you would have your deepest position, but just where the very outside edge of your lateral movement ability would be. If you barely get your hips to make a 90 degree angle with each other, your odds of taking a very wide sumo stance or squat stance is likely pretty slim without causing some serious hip pain or discomfort.
These three tests will give you a lot of information:
- What position gives you the best squat depth, and what your actual ability to go into hip flexion is from that depth.
- How much hip extension you have in a gross sense.
- How much lateral mobility you have.
From this you can determine whether you have a lot of mobility, a specific directional limitation, or are built more like the Tinman from The Wizard of Oz, always looking for the oil can.
Let’s break down a couple of scenarios and see what positions would be best for you.
- Low flexion, low extension, low lateral movement: You’re the proverbial Tinman. Getting to depth is always an issue, so doing higher squats to a box may be your reality. Likewise, deadlifting from the floor may be an aggressive amount of flexion, so taking somewhat of a modified sumo stance may be required to prevent low back involvement and possibly rack or block pulls. In fact, conventional pulls from the floor may be your deficit deadlift. The good news is you can carry and hold anything forever. You’re a prized infantrymen for hiking through rough terrain with a combat pack because you’ll never break down.
- From a performance basis, if you have a limited amount of hip flexion, you might have trouble getting a neutral spinal position during conventional deadlifts. A more stable position may be a modified sumo stance or a full sumo stance. Potentially, depending on the relative asymmetry of the hips, you may require one foot turned out or the other, and you might even require having one foot posterior of the other relative to the bar.
- Good flexion, low extension, low lateral movement: You can squat well, but sprinting is a challenge to get any kind of kick without having your low back do all the work. Shoulder width stance is awesome, but going much wider than this causes some lateral hip discomfort. You prefer conventional pulls to sumo, and can pull from the floor well.
For any mobility related drills, you would be best suited to maintain the squat depth you have, and spend more time working on lockout glute contractions for things like deadlifts, swings, and hip thrusts. You may not be able to go heavy on hip thrusts since your tendency is to not get the lockout, so keep the weight lower.
- Good flexion, low extension, high lateral movement: You can pick your squat stance from a wide array of possibilities. Sprint extension is tough, but the lateral mobility makes you look like a ninja at times.
If you can squat to the floor, working on hip mobility drills and squat accessory movements is pretty much a waste of time. You’re there, and you can get there at the drop of a hat. They’re good to use as a warm up, but you won’t gain any more mobility from them.
Likewise, if you can only get to parallel with support, there’s likely no squat mobility drill in the world that done thousands of times will produce the ability to squat to the floor. You might squeak out an extra millimeter or two, but that’s about it. Working more on your squat depth may produce low back pain, SI pain, and potentially hip impingement.
- Low flexion, low extension, high lateral movement: You can squat deep, but need to have a country mile between your feet. Wider is better for you, so sumo pulls and very wide stance squats are best to hit depth. When you move to slightly wider than shoulder width, you lose any depth and wind up feeling tight.
Working on squat depth and mobility with a shoulder width stance will likely produce impingement symptoms, so spend more time working on internal and external rotation movements and controlling the range you have without pain
- High flexion, high extension, high lateral movement: You’re some kind of sick mobility Cirque du Soleil freak who can pretty much do any movement possible. You also likely have trouble with the odd bit of tendinitis here and there as your muscles try to provide stability that may not be present in your hip sockets, but it’s manageable.
With this information, you can choose your exercises based on what works well for you and what doesn’t, and avoid banging your head against a wall trying to form your hips into a range of motion they may never get. Keep what works, discard the rest, and always look to progress while limiting your risks.
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