Squat depth can be a touchy subject with many people, it’s all too easy to hate on squatters for going too heavy and doing quarter depth squats, then there is the other lifter who will drop some plates to get to full depth and get criticism to go along with DOMS.
There is an easy way to do squats without hurting your back, commonly referred to as ‘butt wink’, this is the moment at the bottom of a squat when the pelvis begins to rotate backwards and slip under the body. This is also known as posterior pelvic tilt or just pelvic tilt and when it becomes severe this can be damaging for your back.
Many people will do anything they can to avoid butt wink, most common is a massively over arched back or they may pull out of a good squat to avoid even the slightest pelvic tilt and annoyed about it, then every obscure assistance exercise ever mentioned gets attempted.
Well it is important to get good levels of joint flexibility and joint integrity, particularly moving heavy weights in a complex movement like a back squat. Just like passing the knees over the toes, pelvic tilt has been blown way out of proportion, this is more a question of degrees and personal build and sometimes avoidance techniques make it worse.
Starting with the basics, your lower spine (lumber) can be in one of three positions at the bottom of the squat or any other movement: extension, neutral or flexion.
Carrying any sort of load, even a light one on the lumber when in flexion is incredibly dangerous. Many fitness gurus etc. start cringing at the sight of any pelvic rotation at the bottom of a squat, but rather than flexion the lumbar is more neutral here.
Using a neutral spine is safe and does not negatively affect strength, some degree of butt wink is required to come out of back extension and into a neutral position. You can be the perfect athlete with an amazing squatting form and a bit of pelvic tuck will still happen at the bottom.
Any Olympic lifter or strong athletes who use full-depth squats you will see that their spine will slip into a neutral position at the bottom of the squat.
If you want to know if your wink is the permissible or dangerous one then you need plenty of experience or a discerning eye to even notice. Watch plenty of squat videos, get instruction and get feedback from people who know what they are doing then try it in your reps and you’ll find what you need.
So someone has taken a look at you doing squats and they have found you to have bad butt wink, this means one of these factors are in play:
1) You Have Poor Hip Flexibility
If your hips and hip flexors are tight then you will probably start the squat from a position called ‘anterior pelvic tilt’ whereby the hip flexors pull the lower back into extension as they tighten up, causing the pronounced arch found in many people’s normal standing posture. As you work down into a squat position, tight hips can pull on the pelvis creating a premature wink during the squat motion.
Solution: Start by working on hip mobility, overhead squats and goblets are great for achieving this, these movements also train you to squat with a tall spine and open hips. As proper form is employed, the hips are trained to drop downward more than backward, this improves mobility and minimizes butt wink. If you are a beginner I would recommend the goblet squat as the quickest way to get better at squatting.
2) Body Working Against You
Everyone is built differently. One person’s hip sockets may be placed somewhere on the pelvis compared to someone else, some may find the need to use a wider stance when squatting to stop a big wink whereas some prefer to go narrower. Anyone with deep hip sockets might be prevented from doing a full range squat at any width without considerable pain or discomfort in the hips.
Solution: Get to know your body and work with it, perform squats with different widths and if you don’t have any success then try different squat variations, you don’t necessarily have to do barbell back squats.
If your tall, improving ankle mobility may be the key to improving squat potential. The ability to dorsiflex (bend foot towards your shin) is essential to getting full depth without dangerous amounts of butt wink. And despite what you may be told by people, being able to get your knees out over the toes is essential to able to squat safely especially a frontal squat as this reduces pressure on the lower back.
3) The Overarch
If your back has ever been injured or even if you are just worried about it, a back squat may be started with a pronounced extension to avoid butt wink. This makes sense, extend to avoid flexion, this is a common way to avoid butt wink but it may make the situation worse.
Solution: Start the barbell squat with tight abs and squeezed glutes, loosen these muscle groups in order to arch the back, this will result in the pelvis tilting forwards, shortening the hips before squatting even commences. The wink will occur earlier and more prominently than if started in a strong and neutral position. Believe like a power lifter, think tight and stay safe.
Practicing the squatting technique is of massive importance rather than just going through the motions of several different moves. Utilize a range of squat variations to improve mobility, geometry and flexibility. Now use corrective exercises such as the Peterson step-ups, split squats and terminal knee extensions as add-ons to ensure smaller muscle fire powerfully.
Take the time to become a better squatter as opposed to a bigger squatter. Lower the weight significantly, gradually build up the range of motion and be prepared for long-term strength and goal gains.
So now you know how to squat effectively without issues that could create crushing back problems.
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