Just last week, a long time athlete client of mine came in with an aggravated SI joint that happened while she was squatting during a high school team lift. Since this athlete is a softball catcher and has incredibly stiff hips, I wasn’t really surprised until i asked her to show me the stance she was using when she tweaked her back.
See…we’ve spent the better part of 4 years teaching this athlete a wider, “toes out” stance to help her work with her stiff hips and squat safely. HER stance allows her hips to open up properly and also helps her ability to control her core simultaneously. When she squats this way, she feels safe and is almost always pain free. Money, right?
So…what stance did I see? Instead of her feet being outside of her shoulders with her toes turned out, I see her feet right about shoulder width with her feet pointing almost completely straight ahead! While this stance does work for some people (many Olympic weightlifters in fact), it does NOT work for her (as her now strained SI joint can attest).
I asked her, “why in the hell were you squatting like that?!?!? You know that crushes your hips!”
Her response was absolutely insane (to me anyway), “My weights “coach” said that this is how I should be squatting. I tried to tell him that my hips don’t feel good doing that and he bugged me until I did it his way. And then I hurt my back.”
(Insert massive facepalm and many choice words from me here)
After a few minutes of letting my blood come down to a simmer, we did 3-4 corrective exercises and managed to get most of the heat out of this poor girl’s lower back and hip. I also instructed her to stand up for herself next time and not let this happen again. In addition to the whole situation being pointless, which I will address below, this kid has a full scholarship to play college softball ahead of her and NO weight workout is worth screwing that up.
To be fair, do I think that her weights “supervisor”was purposefully trying to put her in a situation where she hurt herself? Probably not. But it definitely could have been avoided had he 1) listened like a good coach does, 2) not been a dumb ass and listened like a good coach does, and 3) had some more knowledge about the various types of hip structures that affect squat stances.
While there are several factors that can affect an individual’s squat stance, one of the least known but most important factors is hip structure. As it turns out, there are several different formations of the hip joint and squatting mechanics will often be dictated by what hip structure one has. Here a fantastic article from Ryan DeBell that dives deep into the issue and if you or your athlete has had trouble with squats, you need to stop now and read it. Like NOW!
Since we obviously don’t X-ray machines handy (wouldn’t that be cool though?), there are two simple tests that tell us if a squat pattern “works” for a given client given their hip structure.
First, does it hurt? Pain is a pretty good indicator that the stance you are using is incorrect. It doesn’t matter the location – hip, knee, low back, ankle, shoulder, neck, whatever – pain is bad and we should be coaching our clients out of pain whenever possible. I am a firm believer that all people should be able to squat in some way, shape, or form but it shouldn’t involve pain for them to do so. It really is a rare occasion that we can’t get someone at our facility do some form of pain free squatting after some tinkering with their stance.
Second, does if feel “right”? Yes – this is not highly objective but most people have a natural squat stance that they can eventually find with some good coaching. “Smooth” or “effortless” would be some other good descriptions that might resonate with some people. In my experience, when you find the “right”stance for an individual, that person will like squatting a whole lot more going forward.
Back to our high school athlete…I am 99.99% certain that her hip structure (barring X-ray proof) is one that necessitates a wider, toes out stance. When she uses HER stance, she can squat smoothly, confidently, and with minimal issues. As I mentioned above – it feels “right” to her. Isn’t that all that really matters when it comes to her squatting?
In summary, if you haven’t found the “right” squat stance for you, keep tinkering -it’s definitely there somewhere. Or if you have someone telling you to squat in a way that hurts or doesn’t feel “right”, I encourage you to stand up for yourself and find or use a stance that works for you. Trust me – your body will thank you later!
Don’t know how to find that perfect squat stance? Feel free to contact me – after a long layoff, I am now accepting distance coaching clients again. I would love to help!