How Different Squats Load Your Back, Knees, and Hips Differently
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Different squats will load the main joints and associated muscles around those joints differently depending on style, bar placement, and weight distribution.
The main considerations are torso angle and shin angle. The alteration of those two variables is what will be the main way you can tell which joints are being loaded more and in which way.
As a general rule, this holds true:
The more vertical the torso, the more angled the shin in a squat. The more angled the torso, the more vertical the shin.
When the torso is more vertical, you have more compression of the spine, less shear, and more stress on the knees.
When the torso is more angled (and shins are more vertical) you will be loading the spine and hips more and the knees less, generally speaking.
Need more hip and low back mobility? Start with Day 1 of our Hip/Low Back Mobility Program for free:
In the next few sections, we will examine two different variations of squatting and discuss how the different areas of the body are stressed differently from one to the other.
You can use this information as a way to change the variation of squatting you use depending on what area you want to stress more or less. If someone is dealing with knee pain, as an example, you could try performing a squat variation that stresses the knees less and subsequently the back more.
In the front squat (or as pictured, the goblet squat) you can see that the shin angle is large, meaning the knees are tracking forward over the toes. This will put more stress on the knees than a squat variation where the shin is vertical (see the next section).
There is nothing wrong with the shin being angled in a squat if it's pain free. However, if there is knee pain, a simple thing to try is choosing a squat variation that has less shin angle.
As mentioned earlier, when the shin angle is large, it typically means there will be a more vertical torso. As you can see in the image, the torso is nearly vertical.
If someone has back pain with back squatting, sometimes front/goblet squatting feels fine on the back because it's vertical and for some reason being angled bothers the back.
[Why does the torso being angled sometimes both someone's back but being vertical doesn't? The Movement Fix Podcast Episode 66 with Dr. Scotty Butcher gets into much more detail]
Low Bar Back Squat
The low bar back squat (sometimes performed with a bench or box, which is called a box squat) is quite different than the front squat in the angle of the torso vs shin.
Notice in the image that the torso is angled and the shins are comparably vertical.
This will place less stress on the knees and more stress into the hips and back. Stress isn't bad if correctly dosed. If something hurts or is sore, it's a good idea to stress it less. So for achy knees that don't feel like they want to front squat, a box squat or low bar back squat may be a better option for that training day.
The back and hips will take more stress in that case, which is great if the back/hips feel ready to be trained hard.
In this post you've learned the following:
- The larger the shin angle, the more knee stress there is
- The larger the torso angle, the more back/hip stress there is
- Stress isn't bad, it just has to be dosed correctly
- If knees are painful or sore, a vertical shin squat is preferable (or no squatting that day if there is no pain free training option)
- Sometimes when people have back pain with squatting, they can tolerate a front squat or a goblet squat because it keeps the torso vertical and changes the back stress
- Sometimes you just need rest!
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