Using the Joint by Joint Approach for Performance and Injury Prevention in Crossfit Part 2: The Squat

Why Your Squat Sucks: Joint By Joint Approach for Crossfit – Part 2

So last time we discussed the joint by joint approach.  If you missed part 1 where we introduce the joint by joint approach you can find it HERE:  Now let’s put it into a meaningful context within a few popular exercises used in crossfit.  The idea is that having mobility in the right areas and stability in others will allow us to be stronger, better athletes and decrease our chance of injury.

Now before we start talking specifics, a general rule of thumb is to create flexibility before stability.  This is a simple rule Gray Cook uses.  If we don’t have the prerequisite flexibility to get into the right position for a squat we can do all the stability exercise in the world with no effect.  (Keep in mind that building stability can help create mobility, more on this in another article)

The Squat – Now a couple things need to be in place for a squat with good technique.

  1. Depth
  2. Flat feet
  3. Neutral Spine
  4. Neck Packed
  5. Relatively Vertical Torso without excessive lumbar curve (Good midline stability)
  6. Knees in line with toes
  7. Normal amount of toe out
  8. Subtalar neutral foot.  No excessive pronation (flat foot).

Let’s break it down further:

1. Proper depth is achieved by adequate flexibility in the ankles and hips. (JBJ Rule: Ankle Mobility, Hip Mobility)

If you’re missing flexibility in the ankles and hips, you lose your neutral spine, your knees cave in, your feet flatten out and your quest for squatting glory ends.

2. Keeping your feet flat is also going to require ankle and hip mobility. (JBJ Rule: Ankle Mobility, Hip Mobility)

A strong squat requires your heel to be flat in order to apply force through the entire foot.  (Ever hear the cue, drive through the heels?)

3. Neutral Spine.  (JBJ Rule: Ankle Mobility, Hip Mobility, Lumbar Spine Stability, Thoracic Spine Mobility)

Keeping the normal lumbar curve in our lower back is huge in preventing lower back injury.  This area needs to trained for stability.  What’s more is that if we lack mobility at the joints above and below the lumbar spine (hips, ankles and thoracic spine, even the shoulder joint in overhead squats)  the lumbar spine will compensate by flexing.  Trying to squat with a flexed lumbar spine will send forces on the discs through the roof.  Not only will this turn your squat into weak sauce but it will open you up for injury.

4. Neck Packed(JBJ Rule: Lower/Middle Cervical Spine Stability)

This one comes directly from Charlie Weingroff.  In my opinion, whenever the spine is under load the vertebrae should be kept in good alignment to decrease the stress on the structures within the neck.  On top of that, packing the neck is going to start working those important deep cervical flexors we spoke about earlier.  More stability in the lumbar spine equates to a more powerful squat, why not the same in the cervical spine?  It also reinforces better posture so who said squats weren’t therapeutic?

Relatively Vertical Torso (JBJ Rule: Ankle Mobility, Hip Mobility, Thoracic Spine Mobility)

This one comes from the high bar position back squat, front squat and overhead squat.  This doesn’t really apply to the power lifting style low bar back squat.  (Although some people are just so tight that they can’t get into either squat position properly)  Tight hips, poor ankle dorsiflexion range, a stiff thoracic spine all lead to this problem.  Its hard to produce power in the squat when you can’t get in the right position to be strong!  Start cleaning these things up and watch your squat position improve.

Knees in line with toes (Prevention of Dynamic Valgus) (JBJ Rule: Ankle Mobility, Hip Mobility, Foot Stability)

I’m sounding like a broken record, but again ankle dorsiflexion range and hip mobility are critical for this. On top of this the body will do what we tell it to and if we aren’t strong enough to go deep into a squat with our knees over the toes our body will still try to make it happen.  When your knees slip into genu valgus its getting support from structures that shouldn’t be contributing to the equation, most notably the MCL (medial collateral ligament) and I’m assuming this is also where a lot of stress on the meniscus comes from.  When the knees slip into genu valgus it also gives the adductor muscles a better angle to help finish your squat.  Trouble is, the position is not a healthy one.

Genu Valgus is coupled with internal rotation of the hip and tibia and usually pronation of the foot.

This is a great position to wreck your knees (No offense to the boss in the picture to the left snatching a house).  As we discussed in an earlier podcast and article this position is also implicated in achilles tendon issues.

Part of the solution will come from strengthening the feet, and contrary to our model, strengthening our hip external rotators and extensors.

Normal amount of toe out (JBJ Rule: Ankle Mobility, Foot Stability)

Charlie Weingroff has an excellent article on foot position in the squat.  A small amount of toe out is going to put us into a strong squatting position.  The problem comes from having an excessive amount of toe out which comes from poor ankle mobility.  Kelly Starret talks about this phenomenon constantly.  If we’re lacking ankle dorsiflexion in a deep squat your body will compensate by turning the feet out.  If we aren’t able to achieve enough ankle dorsiflexion our feet will pronate and with it the knees will slip into genu valgus.  Again, the end result?  Knee and foot problems.

Subtalar Neutral Foot (JBJ Rule: Ankle Mobility, Foot Stability)

We’re looking to maintain a bit of an arch in our feet while squatting.  If we can’t control excessive pronation during squatting our body is going to fall out of alignment.

Although an extreme example, you can see here that genu valgus knees are coupled with excessively pronated feet (flat feet).

Our foot has a joint named the subtalar joint.  This controls pronation and supination of the foot.  The amount of motion in this joint determines how much of an “arch” you’ll have in your foot.  An interesting trend that has been popularized in the physical therapy world and recently backed through research by Chris Powers is the idea that motion at the knee is controlled by the hip.  While this is undeniable, the foot also plays a role in this equation.  Motion at the knee and prevention of dynamic valgus and pronation is going to be controlled by the hip AND the foot.  I think people understand this idea and to fix this I’ll see a lot of coaches using hip external rotation and abduction drills (which is awesome by the way) but the foot is often ignored.

Well, there you have it!  Hopefully taking a look at the squat can start to shed some light on how to start using the joint by joint approach.  Following this approach will get you into a great squat.  The squat is the foundation to crossfit in my opinion.  If we can begin to address the squat we’ve done a lot of good.  This approach doesn’t stop at the squat though.  In the next article we’ll cover overhead press and Deadlift/Olympic Pull variations.  Until then go get some squats in.

See you next week,

Dan

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