Does your squat measure up?

Squats are an essential exercise for any equestrian who wants to perform their best, as well as to reduce the risk of injury. A squat is a simple functional movement that can indicate biomechanical issues that will have an effect on rider position. A squat will tell you if your hamstrings, glutes, core, and/or spinal muscles are weak which will cause you to fall forward in the saddle. However, most of us do not know the correct position to complete the most basic squat. Poor alignment and posture when performing a squat can cause injuries if not corrected, especially when doing weighted or plyometric squats.  

As a Doctor of Physical Therapy, I use squats to identify biomechanical issues, such as weak gluteal muscles,  that may inhibit normal movement patterns throughout the body, like difficulty with the rising trot.  Once muscle imbalances and areas of limited mobility are identified, I can prescribe specific exercises to strengthen these deficits. 

Why Squats?

Since squats target strength and flexibility, they are important to riders for several reasons. The first being, it improves core and leg strength which helps the rider stabilize between their hips for better balance in the saddle. They also improve strength of the lower spine and hip muscles that control forward and backward motion so we can better absorb the motion of the horse. Lastly, squats are good for the tight rider to improve flexibility so that they do not inhibit the horse’s movement at the wrong time.

How to Assess a Squat

Most of us know that the downward motion is achieved by dropping the hips to or just below your knee joint. Then the upward motion is achieved by extending hips, knees, and ankles until you are standing again. However, there is much more to the squat than just your hips, knees, and ankles. So what can a squat tell you about your body’s neuromuscular strength, stability, and mobility? 

When I’m assessing a basic squat, I’m looking at your movement from your head to your feet. Each segment of your body is telling me what your specific limitations are that can lead to poor performance or injury. 

Think about the squat being assessed from three different aspects. The upper body movement which consists of your head, neck, and torso. The lower body which assesses movement of the hips, knees, tibias (lower leg), and feet. Then finally, the quality of the entire movement from the downward motion, depth of the squat, then how you return to the standing position. 

Factors of a Correct Squat 

A squat is best assessed when the individual holds onto a dowel that rests on their shoulders to keep their forearms parallel to the torso. This position helps facilitate back extensors, shoulder reactors, and latissimus for correct torso mechanics during the squat. 

It’s important to assess the stance as part of the squatting exercise. A correct stance allows you to avoid injury and learn the proper motor control necessary to perform the exercise. If the stance is too wide, the compression forces behind the patella and/or between the lower leg and upper leg may increase. Likewise, too narrow of a stance may lead to forward compression of the upper leg on the lower leg. Either of these scenarios done repeatedly over time can lead to knee pain and injury.  

Foot position plays a key role in knee function when squatting in regards to how your patella tracks throughout the movement. A common recommendation for foot position is slightly turned in or partially turned out. Extremes in ankle rotation cause stress on the structures of the knee and should be avoided in all types of squats.

Ideally,  the core muscles on the front and back of the torso contract to stabilize the trunk and hips in order to counterbalance unwanted movement and to regulate the lower body’s movement throughout the squat. The pelvis should remain in neutral pelvic tilt with square and stable hips with minimal side to side movement while performing the downward motion. There should be unrestricted movement of the knees to pass over toes during the downward motion until the desired position of the hips at or slightly below the knee joint is achieved. Keeping your knees back behind your toes will lead you to lean forward, which causes greater compression at the lower spine and hips– putting these joints at higher risk for injury.  At the lowest part of the squat, the trunk and lower leg should appear to be parallel to one another. The foot placement should be shoulder width apart with the entire foot on the ground through the entire squat. Bodyweight should be emphasized through the heel and outer part of the foot during the downward and upward movement of the squat. 

Reap the Benefits of Squats

Squats are a powerful exercise that when done correctly will strengthen trunk, core and lower leg muscles, as well as improve flexibility and balance at your hips and knees to be ready for the rigorous demands of riding. The squat can be an excellent tool to evaluate biomechanical issues, such as muscle and joint asymmetries on and off the horse. Once these weaknesses are identified, corrective exercises can be prescribed to improve posture, balance, and the effectiveness of leg aides.

Working with a Doctor of Physical Therapy decreases your risk of injury while squatting and ensures that you will maintain the correct depth and posture to get the most out of your squats.  Dr. Shields can help you translate the strength you build while squatting to your equitation and success in the saddle. 

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