I like to think of myself as a realist, and not an idealist. In my reality, not everyone can, and certainly not everyone should, squat ass to grass while exercising.
I bolded exercising because my argument here is dependent on one caveat, which is this:
EXERCISE AND MOVEMENT ARE NOT THE SAME THING
EXAMPLE: The lunge as an exercise vs the lunge as a movement.
It’s ridiculous to say that the knee should never go past the foot when lunging into the the bottom back corner of your closet to find that badass tie with skulls on it; sometimes your knee will go past your foot when moving around in life and THAT IS FINE. It’s different when you load it. If I put additional load, or perform a ton of repetitions, or change the pace at which I perform a movement in order to make it challenging and turn it into exercise, I need to make sure that I put my body in the best bio-mechanical positions in order to produce power safely, for the amount of time I am doing it, in order to keep the exercise safe, as many of the “suboptimal” positions for creating power rely on structural support vs muscular support. (think, a lunge where you have your knee pass your front foot relies more on the back of the ankle and on the knee structure for support relative to a lunge position where your front leg is 90 degrees bent) In exercise, if you continue to go to these suboptimal positions the demand on the structural bits of the body will continue to increase because the muscular contribution will lessen as fatigue sets in. This is why when exercising, form which places less relative load on structure, and more on muscular, is a better option.
Back to the squat…
Squatting as a movement and squatting as an exercise are two different things.
- Butt wink! Beware the dreaded butt wink…it’s the plague of our generation and many strength coaches would have you believe that you shouldn’t have this happening…EVER. Well, the problem is, it is natural for every person at some depth, and even babies have the butt wink! Seriously, look at all the annoying pictures of “perfect” deep squat babies, and you’ll see most of them in a butt wink. But(t) it’s okay! The spine is made to flex, it’s made to allow for this to happen in movement…it only is a problem if you turn it into an exercise-by loading it, by doing it for lots and lots of reps, or by doing it explosively. Unweighted, and assuming no existing bulges or disc issues, a deep squat can be a goal, and can be improved by some smart mobilizations and more often by just practicing getting stronger at available ranges of motion. However, we need to be realistic and understand that sometimes structural, and not muscular limitations is why the butt wink exists, and because of this we shouldn’t spend ages trying to “fix” something that is just natural anyway. Exercise the squat under load, with reps, and explosively in the available ranges of motion where the muscular system is prioritized over the structural system-this means that many, aka most, will not be squatting ass to grass and that is ok. We can work those ranges in different exercises where the hips are taken out of the equation (single leg, split stances). Please watch this video with Stu McGill discussing anatomical reasoning as to why you shouldn’t squat past the butt wink, and then only apply his advice to exercise which is different than unloaded movement! Also check out this article which also discussing structural differences and how they can be the limiting factor for depth/position and that no matter how many lacrosse balls you own, you aren’t changing the shape of your skeleton. Some people are just not going to ever be able to squat ass to grass with feet close, or hip width, or ever. Those that can, will have a butt wink at some point, and probably are safer and better off not doing it under load
- Bilateral limitations. I don’t think anyone has ever argued with me, maybe anyone, that if someone lacks the mobility to press a barbell over head in good position, that perhaps they should press a dumbbell or kettlebell so that the shoulder girdle/elbow/back doesn’t get jacked up as a result of compensation. Why can’t we understand that a bilateral squat is asking of the ankles/knees/hips/back the same thing, to move in certain ways while the feet are stuck in a certain position on the floor the same as hands on a barbell in an overhead press. Perhaps the answer isn’t to hammer that screw into the ground with a hammer, perhaps the answer is to grab a freaking screwdriver instead. Aka, take Ben Bruno/Mike Boyle/others’ advice and do more single leg stuff and still get really strong. If you aren’t planning competing in bilateral squatting competitions, doing more and more weight in that position grants you no special powers, doesn’t make you taller, and won’t get you laid. So maybe take the safer route with less limitations and just maybe get more athletic as a result by taking stances which allow you to place more stress on muscles and less on structure.
- Ankles-most people really need soft tissue work on the lower leg, ankles, and feet, and will likely be able to get a little big lower based on this. However, some, will have that ankle impingement issue and they won’t get that better with voodoo floss, the stick, or anything else. Bone into bone..that shit doesn’t change.
Now…you should want to improve your existing mobility, just understand that you can’t all become gumby. We also probably want to increase our structural (tendon/ligament) capacity to resist injury-and that means challenging it. This is why Andreo Spina, Dewey Nielson, Ido Portal and others talk about and teach that we should explore our movement capacities, our ranges of motion-and how it is a journey not a race. Those structural bits take a long ass time to change, and it’s ongoing—truly “use it or lose it”. An example is in high school my 80 year old coach had us walk on the outside of our ankles every single day to strengthen and familiarize our bodies with that potential in the hopes that it would somewhat prepare us for that possibility. I think that this has merit, Gary Gray is another person who champions this type of approach. Just be smart about how far you take it! Standing up from crossed legged floor sitting position is a great drill to practice challenging the body, but you probably shouldn’t 1RM that drill! In life you will pick stuff up that is a little too far in front of you and you can’t keep your back perfectly neutral-but let’s not train that possibility just because it’s a possibility.
The body is made to be resilient, but it must be challenged to be that way. This creates the opportunity for some truly stupid attempts at preparing the body to be resilient, so be careful while trying new movements and earning new ranges of motion.
My approach is…
- Do bodyweight stuff as best as you can and in as many ways as you can
- aggressively load your available and owned ranges of motion.
- add specific attacks at improving your limitations with foam roller, lacrosse, scientific stretching etc.
- Do weighted romanian deadlifts and pull overs (aka the RDL of the upper body) because the loaded eccentrics will probably improve your flexibility more than the yoga class your are doing.
- Be smart
In summary: don’t think you can get everyone to squat ass to grass, don’t think you suck if you can’t, don’t think that it’s a good idea to load limitations, don’t think that bilateral squatting is an exercise that cures cancer, and above all…exercise is not the same as movement! Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean it should be loaded, repeated, or done explosively.