The Best Kept Secret: Why People HAVE to Squat Differently

Ryan DeBell Uncategorized 28 Comments

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There is absolutely no one size fits all squat position. If you don’t believe me, you are in for a treat. This article will help show you why athlete comfort should dictate squat width, why some people’s (not EVERYONE) feet point out (no matter how much “mobility” work they do), why some people have a really hard time squatting deep, and why some people are amazing at pistols while others can’t do them at all.

Basic Anatomy

The hip joint is basically made up of a “socket” on the pelvis (called the acetabulum) and a “ball” at the top of your thigh bone (femur), which we call the femoral head. Around the hip joint are a lot of muscles, a joint capsule, and connective tissue. There are many other anatomical considerations when considering a squat, but let’s focus on the hip.

Anatomical Variations

When someone has difficulty squatting, or their feet turn out, or they like a wide stance, we all want to jump on the bandwagon and say “your hips are tight, you need to mobilize them”. If we say that without considering anatomical variations of the hip joint, we can be misled.

Let’s take a look at this first picture. Here we have two femurs from two different people. One points more upwards, the other points more downwards. Do you think these people will squat the same when they have that much bony difference?

Pic 1


If you aren’t convinced yet, take picture 2. Clearly one of the “balls” in the ball and socket joint is extended longer off the femur than the other. This will absolutely change the mechanics of squatting between these two people. No amount of soft tissue treatment will change that.

pic 2

Now look at picture number 3. Look at how different the angle is that the ball is pointing between these two femurs. Guess what? One of these people will have a bony block when they try to squat narrow while the other can squat narrow like a champ. Alternatively, one will squat wide and the other will have pain with wide squatting. But doesn’t the difference in the shape of the “ball” make that seem obvious? Maybe your piriformis isn’t the limitation after all.
pic 3

Things get even more interesting when you start looking at the socket. Take a look at picture number 4. On the left, you can see into the socket. This person will likely be able to squat with a narrow stance vs. the person on the right who literally run into themselves when squatting with a narrow stance.\

pic 4

Now look at picture 5. Again we see the difference in how much of the hip socket we can see. There is no way these two people will squat the same. The bony anatomy literally won’t let them.

pic 5

Picture 6 is a view looking at the hip socket from the side. One is pointing straight out, the other is pointing down and in the front. My guess is one of these people will be better at pistols and one will be worse.

pic 6

What is one way you can use this information?



Athlete’s won’t squat the same, and they SHOULDN’T! I hope I shed some light on the WHY. Athlete comfort will dictate the stance that puts their hip in a better bony position. There are narrow squatters and there are wide squatters. That may have nothing to do with tight muscles or “tight” joint capsules and have more to do with bony hip anatomy.

Very few people are at the end range of their hip motion, so hip mobility drills are definitely a good idea.

People will express their hip mobility in different planes, and that is not a bad thing.

All photos were used with permission from http://www.paulgrilley.com/bone-photo-gallery

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Comments 28

  1. Miranda Bressler

    Okay so someone who doesn’t have a personal trainer and is reading up on squats, how do you know if that person is doing their squats right? I love squats but it would be good to know if I am doing them correctly with my body. I have also read up on it a lot. I have flat feet and my feet turn out a bit, the right more then the left. Anyone know any information I can read up on that would help?

    1. Matt Ford

      Unlock your ankles! Using a lacrosse ball, work on the soft tissue in the anterior shin. Both sides of the shin bone. Not on the shin bone, but the tissue surrounding it. Hope this helps!

    2. James

      Your feet should turn out when you squat. If your toes are pointing forward and your feet are parallel, then you’re going to put a lot of stress on your knees.

      Make note of the person talking about defecation. When you squat down without a bar; as if to make poopy on the ground, then you’re looking at a great and balanced example of how your feet should be placed during a high or low bar squat.

      1. Mr Mac

        It goes well beyond just bony anatomy. Infact it goes well beyond the hips.

        In the instance of miranda her increased angle.of gait could be result of retroverted femurs, excessive tibial external rotation, medially deviated STJ axis position, short tfl/iTB. The list is endless.

        I don’t think this article.is trying to suggest you discredit soft tissue influence but rather not discount bony influence on lower limb movement mechanics.

        Really this should have been covered in undergarduate functional anatomy and biomechanics studies. Despite this many personal trainers would be reading this informatiom.for the first time despite many years of practice.

        I am a firm believer in moving all personal trainer qualifications to a university undergraduate degree. Not to suggest most personal trainers aren’t capable of understanding this stuff but rather they aren’t being exposed to critical detail in their training.
        This only adds to the current climate of confusion and misleading information presented by fitness guru bloggers.

        1. ryandebell

          Mr Mac,

          I love what you said:

          “I don’t think this article.is trying to suggest you discredit soft tissue influence but rather not discount bony influence on lower limb movement mechanics.”

          That is exactly the point of this article. I think too often we blame everything on soft tissue and don’t consider the bony structure. Both are important. The ankles are important, the length of the femur and tibia, as you mentioned, are important. You have to take the whole person into account.

          I agree, this stuff shouldn’t be a “secret”, it should be taught from the top down!


          1. Mr Mac

            Glad I came across your site Ryan. Bret Contreras posted a link and am very thankful he has made me aware of your resources.

            Shame you guys are on the otherside of the world otherwise I’d come and check your clinic out in person.

            Thanks.for bucking the trend and actually providing some quality, evidence based (driven by practical experience and methodologically sound research) information.

            I’ll be sure to read your stuff more often now that I have become aware of it.

            Thanks again

            Christian McErvale – Australia

    3. David Scott Lynn

      Hi Miranda, If your foot turns out, yet your knee is straight ahead, then most likely, the medial head of your gastrocnemius and the peroneal muscles on that leg are over-shortened relative to other muscles. Specific tension release in those specific muscles very often straightens the foot. Sometimes long, gently, focused stretching will do it (if you can get the stretch targeted sufficiently), but in other people, it requires manual pressure into the belly of the muscle. Problem is, if, for example, you stretch BOTH heads of the gastrocnemius with a “standard stretch,” you will neutralize the corrective action, and get no real change i structural alignment. …

      When I work (and I’ve been using this technique for well over 30 years), I do NOT do any “cross-fiber” or “stripping” or much side-ways movement AT ALL. I hold steady, specific pressure on the tightest lines of fibers within the muscle, one line at a time. And I often have to hold that steady pressure for MANY minutes, with very little sideways movement. Just let the muscle relax, and sink in a little deeper each time it relaxes some. I go for several “let-gos” to tension. The idea is to learn how to Feel, Relax & Lengthen specific muscles.

      I do NOT try to “strengthen” over-lengthened muscles, BTW. Or at least not until there is definite return of the bone segment to a more aligned positioning.

      Sometimes, ONE treatment does the job, others, not so lucky.

  2. Sy D'Vooh

    Picture 6, quote, “My guess is that one of these people will be better at pistols and one will be worse.” You can say that about any two people without seeing their bones. In fact this is all guess work. Today with MRI you can see living people’s bones, then test how well they can squat. Different stance may apply, but everyone should be able to squat deep, as that is how humans have been defecating for tens of thousands of years, and how most humans alive today still do.

  3. kona2576

    Since you have so much insight on the bone structure….what crunched/popped in my inner, lower butt cheek when I went down doing a cossack squat? The shooting pain crunching happened in the cheek of my bent leg. This morning my lower back now hurts, and a bit down my hamstring but the injury def felt like it was in my lower, inner butt cheek/pelvic joint area. I looked at several pelvic anatomy pics and I can’t see what it might have been.

  4. CW

    This article is very true, there is no one size fits all when it comes to form on a squat. I was a gymnast for years and I can move my legs from my hips in very strange and obviously flexible ways, however, on a parallel squat I just cannot hold a narrow stance comfortably. I have to have a wide stance with my feet turned out slightly to feel my glutes involved in the upward momentum, and to feel like I’m sitting back on my glutes and using them to stabilize instead of using my quads the most when I’m going down. It all comes down to personal comfort and personalized muscle activation. I believe you should adjust your stance to feel the right muscles activating. If I were to do a narrow stance I would just be using my quads. Strangely enough when I am doing ass to ankles squats I can use a narrower stance and still feel the activation in the right places. Nothing worse than doing squats in the wrong stance for your body and using your quads for everything. You need to position so you feel it in your glutes. There is a way to make it work for you, you just need to shift around a bit and practise different stances until you actually feel and see the raise and contraction your glutes do when your on your way up from the squat, and in that position you should also be activating your glutes and hamstrings for balance and control on the way down.

  5. Michael Terry

    In many asian countries, everyone can do full depth squats like nothing, and it doesn’t appear that their stance width is rigidly defined. And I’ve seen video of an African hunter gatherer tribe where everyone full depth squats around the fire, and they even “walk” in a full squat. Those are two completely different sets of bone structures where virtually every member of the group has no limitation on squatting mechanics. I think it’s pretty likely that the vast majority of white people would be super flexible squatters, too, if they grew up with it. And I think most people could get back to that if their lives depended on it.

    1. cdntalk

      I was thinking about that too, and I wondered if their bone structure develops that way from squatting their whole lives. Young bones are quite malleable and could be trained from squatting all the time at such a young age.

      1. Stacy Hackner

        Exactly. I’m a bioarchaeologist, and what I research is how bones adapt to activity. How you sit/squat as a child and adolescent will affect your later ability to squat.

  6. David Scott Lynn

    Thanks for posting this. It helps visualize the problems in making assumptions about bones quite a bit. Slightly different aspect on the pelvis, many years ago I was teaching that the usual way of “measuring” pelvic tilt was the line from ASIS to PSIS was potential trouble. I kept saying there was too much anatomical variation between peoples’ pelvis’ for that to be a highly reliable indicator. After a while, a few physical therapists who were in my programs “threw out” (metaphorically speaking) their goniometers, realizing they were not getting reliable readings with that indicator. Recently, more research has come out proving that point. So I was using secondary indicators to determine pelvic tilt as best as possible (if no imaging was available).

    I think the biggest problem with all this is when people use too much muscular force to try and push or pull themselves into a “proper, ideal alignment.” This is where they risk creating too much soft tissue tension, and putting too much stress on joint structures. With very few nociceptive (pain sensitive) nerves WITHIN the joint capsules, it is way too easy to put a lot of stress on joints and not know it. I tell people that if they are forcing themselves into so-called “proper alignment,” no matter how “ideal” some “expert” tells them it is, they are increasing their risk of damage. This applies for yoga as well as fitness training.

  7. Rose Hartzenberg

    Does this play a role in hip replacements? I have seen a number of people after hip replacements with one leg slightly shorter than the other.

  8. Abe Gold

    As a skier squats exersize the muscles (quadriceps) that get the most work on the slopes. But 30 years ago I tried to stop on ice skates like I can on skis. Smashed my hip so hard doing squats inflames the joint. Now I use the stair climber.

  9. Brigita

    The foot has dozens of muscles, bones, and connective tissues pilnapadystė. When these are heavily stressed, they become swollen and bone structures may change because of weight and gravity, which can eventually lead to flat foot.

  10. Chris Sinagoga

    Here’s how I see it:

    Your height will greatly dictate what position you play in the game of basketball. But the rules of the game don’t change. Same goes with lifts. The rules of squatting (for general training) are 1) Midline stability, 2) Loading order, 3) Laws of torque. (Range of motion is a way to challenge those rules, not a rule itself). This is what I think Kelly talks about when he says that everyone has to squat the same. Of course everyone’s squat won’t look the same, but the movement and mechanics are. Trying to work around these rules would be like my 6’0 self trying to play power forward. It can work in some situations but I will be very limited.

  11. Danny

    Great article and video! I’m a SPT and very interested in adjustments and individualized kinematics. Previously as a tech, I’ve seen PT’s in the clinic assess a patient’s squat, then place a 2×4 board under their heels and ask them to repeat the squat. Is this to compensate for the first rule of keeping the heels on the ground? What is the benefit to the 2×4? Does it help achieve a deeper squat? Thanks again-

    Chandler, AZ

  12. Patti Neelans

    Curious on your take with someone like myslef who has bilateral hip replacements. Right was done with posterior access in 2010 and the left was done 3/2015 anterior access

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