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.
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.
The variations that exist are numerous, but these are the main boney ones to consider :
- Femoral neck angle
- Length of femoral neck
- Version/torsion of the femur
- Hip socket orientation
- Length of femur
- Hip socket depth
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? This is an example of femoral neck angle variations.
In this second picture, we see an almost identical femoral neck angle, but the length of the neck is different between the two images, which can affect how much of the head/neck is covered by the socket of the hip joint.
Look at the next photo, specifically at how different the angle is that the ball is pointing between these two femurs. One of these people will have a bony block when they try to squat narrow while the other can squat narrow like a champ. One literally will have to toe out substantially so that both femoral heads are in the socket in the same orientation (left person and right person).
This view represents torsion of the femur. This is typically a genetic result, although it could be due to repetitive motions when the skeleton is still malleable and growing during youth.
Maybe your piriformis isn't the limitation after all.
In this final photo of femurs, you can see the different lengths, sizes, femoral neck angles, and torsion.
Things get even more interesting and variable when you start looking at the hip socket. Take a look at this next picture. On the left, you can see into the socket. This person will likely be able to squat with a deeper vs. the person on the right who literally run into themselves when squatting. This is an example of hip socket orientation variations.
This next picture also demonstrates different hip socket orientation.
This final picture 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. That is an example of hip socket orientation differences.
Additionally, it appears the socket on the left is deeper while the one on the right is more shallow. This is an example of variation in hip socket depth.
The deeper a hip socket, the more overall range of motion will be limited. The shallower a hip socket, the more general range of motion the hip joint will have.
A hard question to answer is this: is a hip tight due to muscles or is it a deep hip socket?
How I Try to Determine Some of these Variables
In this video, I demonstrate a hip assessment I use to try and determine some of these variables.
I go much more in depth into this topic in The Movement Fix Workshop squatting module.
There are common questions that arise after reading this article and learning this information for the first time. Let's take a minute to address them.
"Doesn't the hip socket orientation offset the femoral variation?"
Mckibbin Instability IndexThis is a great question. The answer is no. The demonstrates variation. It's essentially a sum of femoral torsion and acetabular torsion.
"So everyone is going to blame their bones and not work on their mobility"
No. This is one piece of information to be used in the overall picture of someone and how they move. To neglect boney variations would be the same as neglecting height. Height is boney variation. Do you expect a 7' tall person to move the same as a 5' tall person and play sports the same way?
"Is squatting toed forward vs toed out better/worse?"
That would depend on all the factors above. As long as established biomechanical factors to injury are absent from the squat (such as knees collapsing in, lumbar spine flexing, foot/ankle dropping inward) there isn't necessarily a mechanism of injury. If the hip is positioned optimally and the knee tracks over the middle of the foot, there isn't a common mechanism to injury.
With that said, it doesn't mean squatting with your feet turned out 90 degrees is the best way to exercise and strength train and by absolutely no means should this information be used to allow poor biomechanical squats with the toes pointed excessively out and the knees dropping inward.
Athlete's won't squat the same, and they shouldn't! The general principles of squatting should be the same: knees tracking over the middle to outside of the foot, heels staying on the ground, minimal low back and spine motion.
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. There are toed forward squatters and toed out squatters.
That may have nothing to do with tight muscles or "tight" joint capsules and have more to do with bony hip anatomy. Or it could have nothing to do with bony anatomy and everything to do with squatting technique, muscle stiffness, and body awareness.
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