The Pro sports blog
The material provided here is general information and individual advice should be obtained with an evaluation or assessment by an appropriate physical therapist
Emily Snee, SPT, CSCS
Squat Technique: What variables matter?
The squat at its core is a movement that most people perform on a daily basis. It is one of the most functional exercises that challenges the entire body. When the squat is assessed in the physical therapy setting, it is most likely chosen because it is one of the greatest tests of lower-extremity strength. The squat activates the quadriceps, gluteal muscles, hamstrings, hip adductors, hip abductors, and many other stabilizing muscles. But can we as physical therapists manipulate technique variables in order to increase the activation of specific muscles?
Increased quadriceps muscle strength and size are desired outcomes for various patients rehabbing from ACLR, anterior knee pain, etc. Studies have shown that to increase the activation of these muscles during the squat, the patient must perform the motion to at least parallel. When loading the squat, it has been shown that loading in a front rack position leads to increased quadriceps muscle activity as compared to the typical “back squat” position. Stance width does not have any effect on the activation of the quadriceps muscles.
If the desired outcome of the squat is to target the gluteus maximus, the only variables that need to be altered are depth and stance width. A patient must squat as deep as possible and with a wide stance (140-200% greater trochanter distance) in order to increase glute max activation. To ensure increased activation of the hip adductors, have the patient squat with a wide stance as well. Other factors in squat technique, such as degree of hip external rotation and heel height, did not influence the activation of any muscle.
Optimizing muscle activation by manipulating technique variables is a great way to make the squat a more useful intervention, however the simplest and most effective way to increase muscle activation is to increase the load. Studies have shown that utilizing 70-90% of a patient’s 1RM will activate the lower-extremity muscles to the greatest degree, while maintaining safe and correct technique.