The Best Kept Secret: Why People Have to Squat Differently
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.
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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.
Basic Anatomy - Bones of Hip Joint
In this photo, you can see a full diagram of the hip.
On one side of the hip, you have the pelvis. The pelvis is made up of three bones that together form the hip socket.
The femur fits tightly into the hip socket, covered by connective tissue and then layers and layers of strong muscles.
Basic Anatomy - Femur
In this diagram of the femur, you can see all the labeled parts. For this article and for the variations that are related to squatting, we will primarily be focusing on the head and neck of the femur (the labels of those parts are written on the bone in white).
The views in this image are from the front and from the back. You can also imagine taking a view from the top down, which will be important when we discuss torsion/version of the femur.
Basic Anatomy - Hip Socket
Here you can see the femurs are made transparent so you have a better view of the hip socket, technically called the acetabulum.
These diagrams are standardized and typically show what's considered 'normal anatomy'.
Humans, however, are not all the same and the way the femur and hip socket is shaped can vary from person to person, which will make the way they squat different.
Basic Anatomy - Hip Socket from the Side
In this final diagram, we see a hip socket from the side.
In the next sections, we will be looking at real bones instead of diagrams. To note from this diagram is the orientation of the socket. There can be variations in this orientation as well as the depth of the socket, as we will see in the upcoming section.
Generally, the deeper the hip socket, the less range of motion as there is more bony coverage. Conversely, the shallower the hip socket, the more range of motion there will be.
Let's take a look at some real bone photos and discuss the real world variations.
The variations that exist are numerous, but these are the main boney ones to consider:
1. Femoral neck angle
2. Length of femoral neck
3. Version/torsion of the femur
4. Combination of femoral variations
5. Hip socket orientation
6. Depth of Hip Socket
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.
1. Femoral Neck Angle Variations
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.
2. Length of Femoral Neck
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.
There can also be differences in the size of the femoral head. There is a relationship between the size of the femoral head and the depth of the hip socket.
The more 'full' the socket of the hip is with the head of the femur, the less overall range of motion there will be in hip motion.
3. Torsion of the Femur
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.
4. Spectrum of Femoral Variations
In this final photo of femurs, you can see the different lengths, sizes, femoral neck angles, and torsion.
There isn't one variable with the rest of the factors held constant from person to person. There can be different neck lengths, different amounts of torsion, varying neck angles, and of course variations in the hip socket depth and orientation.
With all of these factors considered, it can be overwhelming. The video at the top of this page demonstrates how I try to make sense of this information.
It isn't an exact science, it's a best guess based on the available assessments and information.
5. Hip Socket Orientation
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 picture also demonstrates different hip socket orientation.
As you can see on the pelvis on the left, the sockets appear to be pointing upward and more forward. If you consider the socket like a flashlight, the femur would express its range of motion where the beam of light would shine.
The pelvis on the left would allow for better narrow and deep squatting arguably.
6. Depth of Hip Socket/Socket Orientation from Side View
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?
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?"
This is a great question. The answer is no. The Mckibbin Instability Index 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.
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So What Do you Do?
First, the video at the top of this page shows an assessment that can be used to determine athlete squat stance. We also have this blog post demonstrating this more in depth.
Generally, blaming your bones for the quality of your squat isn't the best idea. Constantly working to become a master of your body and getting as much range of motion in your joints that you can is best.
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
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