Analyzing the Squat

Programming 101: always incorporate a hip dominant, knee dominant, upper body vertical push/pull, upper body horizontal push/pull, an anti-extension based exercise and a loaded carry. Boom. You’re a strength and conditioning coach.

But what makes an exercise knee dominant as opposed to hip dominant?

Lets take the back squat, a traditional “knee dominant” exercise and analyze it.

back-squat 4-Place your feet about hip width, you may turn them out slightly if you need to.

-With a bar placed on your shoulders, initiate the squat by reaching your hips back and keeping the weight in your heels. Don’t let your knees come forward over your toes and drive your knees out to get your glutes and hamstrings to turn on.

-Keep reaching your hips back until you get to parallel.

-Now. Press your heels into the ground and bring your hips through.

I went through this because I wanted to paint you a visual.

There is nothing “knee dominant” about this squat. We are limiting knee movement and ankle flexion, making it a hip dominant exercise.

This is good, right? Lets hammer the hamstrings and glutes in everything we do!

The first picture is what I would consider "knee dominant" The second is a modern version of the squat

The first picture is what I would consider “knee dominant” The second is a modern version of the squat

Lets look at it’s original name. Knee dominant. This could be a title we ignore, or it could be a constant reference and something we need to truly understand.

We have butchered the most natural human movement to make it a loaded exercise.

Lets analyze the squat pattern and look at how we can make it a more natural movement while under load.


Knee Dominant: Seems redundant, but I believe this needs to be said again.

Lets start from bottom:

The Feet: Keep them straight. and keep the weight stacked through your heels. I don’t mean that you should press your heels through the floor, I mean that you should keep your weight over your heels. There is a difference.

The Knees: We want to achieve”Triple Flexion.” Triple flexion is when you get flexion of the ankle, knee and hip at the same time. If you are limiting ankle flexion, you are limiting knee flexion. Why would you limit knee movement in a “knee dominant” activity? The knees have to come forward and when your coming out of the squat, the knees need to be dominant.

Drop your back pockets towards your heels and stack your weight through your heels

Drop your back pockets towards your heels and stack your weight through your heels

The Pelvis: Think about the squat as a pie chart of movement. To complete a squat, you want 1/3 of the motion to come from the ankles, 1/3 to come from the knees and 1/3 to come from the pelvis. Now think about what would happen if you restricted the movement at the knees and ankles. You would have to get more movement at the pelvis to achieve the position. This is what happens in our current squat model. An Anterior tilted pelvis has become an acceptable compensation when performing a squat. When your lower back is in extension, it’s impossible to get pure hip extension.

What to Do About it: Put your weight in your heels and slightly tuck your back pockets towards your heels. This will put most of you in a better spinal position.

Holding The Weight: Placing a bar on your back automatically puts you in extension. A big chest, mixed with gripping the bar to create stability is placing emphasis on the neck, chest, and lower back. Using a front squat can allow you to relax your chest and maintain good position throughout the lift, if your sternum is in a good position.

Don't push through your heels, find your heels. Stacking the weight over the toes will further put you into extension

Don’t push through your heels, find your heels. Stacking the weight over the toes will further put you into extension

The Movement: Stack your weight over your heels and tuck your back pockets towards your heels. Now reach your hands out in front of you so your sternum drops back and down toward your hips. Initiate the movement by driving your knees forward and squat until your hips tuck underneath you. At the bottom, keep the weight in your heels, press your toes into the floor, pull your knees back and push the floor away. This will pull your hips through and create true hip extension. You should feel your quads extending the knees and your hamstrings extending the hips while the glutes drive your upper torso. There is a tendency to make sure clients don’t feel their quads working as much as their hamstrings. All of the muscles in legs are important. If you have knee pain while squatting, I would bet you’re not using your quads or hamstrings the proper way. When the quads are “pushing” the knee and the hamstrings are pulling it, you create stability at the joint. Instability occurs when only one of the muscles are working. Initiating the concentric part of the squat with your toes and knees activates all of the muscles in the lower body. Initiating with your hips means you are putting the emphasis on the pelvic and low back region.

Pushing The Floor Away: This is an important concept to understand. While you’re at the bottom of a squat, imagine the floor rising up in to your feet. You want to push the floor down, NOT reach your head up. Reaching your head up causes your sternum to come forward and your pelvis to tilt anteriorly. This places emphasis on the lower back and extension muscles.