If you’ve spent any time within a gym or training facility, you could see 100 people squat and likely find 100 different ways in which people will achieve what is a highly complex pattern of movement.
Multiple joints moving across the body, trying to synchronise right side and left side, often under load, varying tempo and levels of complexity.
Yet the fundamental component of squatting remains the same across all of us, how are you handling pressure within the body.
At IFT we’ve spent more and more time recently working with individuals within movement based professions, talking around these mechanics of pressure management. Whether it be pressure of air within a ribcage, or pressure of fluids within the pelvis, a lot can be learned about an individuals movement competency by understanding how they control this pressure.
Take a look at the image below, a very simple side on view.
Notice the blue lines outlining the body, the upside-down triangle representing our pelvis (Illium) and the small blue tail attached showing our sacrum. The two red lines represent two of our diaphragms, the thoracic diaphragm which we’re all mostly familiar within, and our pelvic diaphragm often referred to as our pelvic “floor”. The green dotted lines are our abdominals and the orange lines show the direction of pressure within the body.
Before we head into the understanding of what this first image has to do with squatting, lets take a quick detour to look at some basic mechanics of respiration.
So as we breathe in (red dotted lines), we’re negatively changing the pressure gradient within our lungs, this is how we pull air into the body. Air moves from areas of high/low pressure and vice versa. Our thoracic diaphragm (top red line) descend (push down) into the contents of my stomach as well as pushing down on the pelvic diaphragm (bottom red line) creating an eccentric contraction. You’ll notice this as the stomach moves outwards due to this downward pressure and the sensation that arises within the pelvic floor on inhalation.
At the same time, my thoracic cavity also expands front to back and side to side to create room within our chest to take air in and fill the lungs. The high pressure below (contents of the pelvis), creates low pressure above, airflow naturally moves between these two areas.
On exhale (solid red lines), the reverse of this action occurs… Pressure increases within the thoracic cavity driving air out, diaphragm(s) reascends and we’ve effectively managed this change in pressure.
This is what happens in an ideal world.
However we all fall on a spectrum of how well we can effectively control pressure within the body.
Imagine superimposing this posture on an individual within a squat pattern. Pressure moving up and down, maintained side to side, without compensation. Without delving too much deeper, this would be an individual within the biomechanics to sit into a squat position and effectively muscles to perform activity.
A big contributing factor is the ability to rotate the illium(s) posteriorly (backwards) using abdominals whilst managing pelvic and thoracic pressures. This a fundamental requirement of changes in height eg… squatting. Remember this part as it’ll form an important component of our solutions…
Take a look at the image below, this is an example of the changes internally when someone is in a pattern of extension/inhalation. This could be postural patterning in terms of an anterior tilt of the pelvis and subsequent hyperinflation and external rotation (upwards) of the ribcage. (For more on how these types of patterns are generated, take a read here.)
Or similarly this could be someone who has had the position created by elevating the heels, through shoes or the use of some other implement (heel-elevated squatting).
Notice how in this position, the direction of pressure had now changed. Both diaphragms are now descended. But take note now how due to this forward rotation/tilt of the pelvis, pressure is now getting deflected diagonally forward into the abdominals rather than upward. With this directional, deflected change in pressure, notice how compression now occurs within the lower back (black blocked area).
If we don’t have the abdominal strength to handle this pressure change, we’ll compress further into the lumbar spine to create the stability we need to push against. The only way to stabilise a joint is through compression.
Add to this the upward rotation/inhalation at the ribcage, and we’ve now created an area of high pressure in the back and low pressure in the front. Airflow in the ribcage is now directed forward. Think of someone we may refer to as “barrel chested” as a perfect example this patterning. Closed airflow in the back, lots of airflow in the front.
Imagine this management of pressure, airflow and fluid, within a bodyweight squat pattern.
Think as pressure moves down, it gets directed forward into abdominals, whilst simultaneously compressing into the lower back. This may be someone who really struggles to achieve depth even at bodyweight. They lack the basic mechanical position to deal within the pressure change required to squat.
How might they achieve depth?
Well if they run out of room within the pelvis to maintain this anterior rotation, they’ll posteriorly rotate and “tuck under” to achieve greater depth. This is what we’re seeing mechanically when someone “butt winks” in a squat. It’s simply anterior to posterior rotation of the pelvis.
Add a barbell into the equation in a back squat position, and we’ve driven the individual further into extension and the compensation strategies heighten. More compression to generate stability, less depth, greater likelihood of compensation…
We may look to get round this by adding a heel raise.
Whilst moving someone into further extension, it also enables the individual to “sit” more upright. Think about how this influences pressure between our two areas of focus… By creating a situation in which we can sit upright without the need for an increase in ankle dorsi-flexion, it realigns the pelvic and respiratory diaphragms into a more optimal position.
From a movement perspective this may work well. But have we done anything to change the way in which this individual manages pressure?
Another tool at our disposal is the use of a weight belt (purple rectangle).
Whilst doing nothing to change the pattern, what we’ve now done is change the management of pressure. The weight belt now acts as our “fake” abdominals. We can now increase intra-abdominal pressure by pushing into the belt and receiving the sensory feedback and stability we normally miss as a result. The outcome creates greater pressure management through an external source.
Ever seen an individual using a weight belt regardless of the lift or load, becomes they feel stronger for it?
Thats a major pressure management issue…
If all our concern is about the outcome of weight lifted, heel raising and weight belts may be effective options. They’ve both provided strategies to overcome a pressure-related issues within the body. In performance environments we see this all the time.
Yet in general public, when health becomes our concern, these are potentially are more harmful strategies then they are effective if we don’t manage pressure well.
So how do we deal within this pressure change whilst respecting pelvic and ribcage mechanics?
The first part of this image should look pretty familiar. Extension, inhalation and poor pressure management, this could be someones natural posture/patterning, or for this scenario we’ve created this posture by placing our individual into a barbell back squat loading position.
Lets firstly separate how we deal with the pelvic position and the the ribcage.
So the goal is to maintain pelvic diaphragm position so we can use these powerful muscles to “push” us out the bottom of our squat pattern. For this we need our posterior rotation of an illium mentioned at the start of this insight.
How do we achieve this? Abdominals…
If we stand up and exhale fully, you can feel this mechanism in action. You’ll notice your hips “tucking” underneath you, abdominal muscles working and a contraction within your pelvic floor muscles. If we can perform this posterior rotation of the illium whilst maintaining the optimal position of the sacrum (flexion/nutation) we’ve now set up the pelvic position to maximise the potential use within the squat.
We maintain the natural curvature of the lumbar spine (lordosis), as well as pressure management, and can now control pressure down into the pelvis without i being deflected forward. This is how we “sit” into the squat.
Moving now above the pelvis, once we’ve exhaled and found optimal pelvic position, how do we maximise muscular activity to manage pressure?
One of the cues often used is to inhale and “drive the shoulder blades together” into scapular retraction, with the aim being to increase stability. But think about what this does mechanically?
If we drive my shoulder blades together, our spine and everything attached (eg… ribcage) moves forward into extension. We now know that when this occurs we create high pressure in the back and low pressure in the front. Air now moves into the front of the ribcage… extension and inhalation. This is driving us back out of our pelvic position. We’ve created stability at the expense of position. If my only goal is the weight being lifted, this may be an acceptable solution, but it comes at a cost.
Imagine having set the pelvis with our exhale and follow this with an inhale that creates circumferential expansion, front to back, side to side. This will move shoulder blades into protraction on a ribcage and spine thats retracted. Consider the pressure changes this creates, how we now have muscular activity, rather than compression, from which to control pressure whilst maintaining the natural curvature of the thoracic spine (kyphosis). Pelvis is underneath ribcage, both diaphragms are optimally positioned and we have a massively stable base from which to lift weight.
We’ve achieved this without having to move aggressively into our extension based posture and have avoided overusing joint compression for stability.
It’s based upon this management of pressure within the body, thoracic through air and pelvic through fluid, that we use the squat progression pattern we do at IFT.
Learn to Goblet Squat to box. Normal curvatures, good pelvic and thoracic position, abdominals working effectively. Circumferential expansion through airflow. Box set to the point in which pelvic position is maintained by the client.
Learn to Safety Bar Squat to box. Increasing load with form without moving back into stress/extension posture.
Learn to Front Squat.
Learn to Back Squat. Can you be in extension and still control it??
It’s all about manipulating and managing pressure within the body.
The mechanics of squatting are vastly complex. The management of pressure within the body is THE fundamental component of how we perform activity. Airflow is fundamental to how we manage pressure.
We have two choices, we can either change the exercise to find a position to MAXIMISE load within ONE exercise, or we can TEACH the individual to manage pressure within the body within ALL exercises.