Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
14 May

The Missing Link: Movement as a Skill

Kelly Starrett

This is a guest post from Kelly Starrett. Kelly is an expert on performance-based orthopedic sports medicine, and the founder and operator of CrossFit San Francisco. He also blogs at mobilitywod.com, presented at this year’s PrimalCon Oxnard to rave reviews, and has a great new book out, Becoming a Supple Leopard. He’s been busy! Now, enter Kelly…

Humans have the amazing ability to resolve their own pain and heal themselves…infinitely. Although this might be difficult to believe, especially if you are suffering from chronic pain, with the proper lifestyle choices, you have the brilliant capacity to correct motor control errors and alleviate pain at any age, forever.

However, a proper lifestyle doesn’t simply mean managing your nutrition, sleep, stress, hydration, and exercise. To become an impeccable healing machine, you also need to understand how to move safely and effectively in all situations.

The equation looks something like this:

Right Lifestyle + Correct Movement = Impeccable Healing Machine

It’s simple. The way you move and the positions you acquire throughout the day have a direct impact on your overall health. It turns out that sitting with a rounded back, standing with your lumbar spine overextended, walking with your feet turned out, or squatting incorrectly can, overtime, wreak havoc on your overall quality of life. Imagine exercising or trying to get a full night of sleep when your low back is glowing with pain. It’s not going to happen. As long as you are in pain your sleep is compromised.

Here’s the problem: People usually wait until they’re injured, overweight, or sick to address their issues. Just as you shouldn’t have to wait for a diabetes diagnosis to know you should stop eating a heaping pile of cake at every meal, you shouldn’t have to wait to blow out your knee or herniate a disk in your back to know that you should stop moving as if you were constructed from steel. Again, it’s not rocket science.  If you don’t like being sick, you adopt a healthy lifestyle to prevent the onset of disease. Learning from this logic, if you don’t like living in pain, which I’m sure you don’t, you learn how to move correctly.

You can eat gluten-free, get eight to nine hours of sleep in a pitch black room, exercise daily, and drink a ton of water, but if you’re not moving with good form, it’s a problem – especially if you’re playing sports and lifting heavy weight. Look, if you’re going to live to be a hundred and twenty years old (it’s possible), you have to start treating position and movements as a skill.

In my book, Becoming a Supple Leopard, I provide a master blueprint for all human movements. But for the purpose of this blog, let’s isolate and discuss one of the most important transferable human movements, which also happens to be one of the Four Essential Primal Movements – the squat.

Squat Technique

The squat is more than just a strength-based exercise done at the gym. It’s how humans lower their center of gravity. Think about it. Every time you sit down on the couch, get up out of a chair, or remove yourself from the toilet, you’re performing a close iteration of a back squat. On any given day you most likely perform hundreds of squats. Now, imagine what happens if you have bad squatting technique: Your body lets you know that you’re doing something wrong by firing the pain signal. You might not feel the consequences immediately, but eventually it will catch up. And when it does, you’ll wish you had paid more attention to the quality of your movement.

Here’s the deal. Squatting with bad form has transferable consequences. For example, if your knees cave inward, your ankles collapse, or you overextend at your lumbar spine while performing your hundred-plus squats per day, chances are good that you will exhibit these very same faults during loaded, dynamic movements, such as jumping and landing. It’s no wonder so many people suffer from low back pain or blow out their knee before age thirty.

You should look at the squat as a diagnostic tool for identifying movement faults and limitations in mobility. If you can’t squat butt to ankles without defaulting into a poor position (rounding your back, knees tracking inward, etc.), it’s an indication that you either a) don’t understand how to perform the movement correctly, or b) you are missing range of motion in one or more areas of your body (i.e., dorsiflexion, hip internal rotation, tight hamstrings). Luckily, both issues have solutions. Bad form can be fixed by learning the proper movement in stages, and a restricted range of motion can be fixed through regularly practicing specific mobility exercises (all of which are found in Becoming a Supple Leopard).

The bottom line is you need to learn how to squat correctly and then practice the proper mechanics every time you lower your center of mass, whether you’re back squatting in the gym, picking something up off the ground, or sitting down and getting up off a chair. It’s the same technique.

Step 1: Get organized

Step 1: Get organized

The key to executing a perfect squat is to start in a good position. This means bracing your spine in a neutral position and creating torque (stability) by screwing your feet into the ground.

To begin, establish your squat stance with your feet just outside your shoulders with your feet straight – somewhere between 5 and 12 degrees – and your weight centered over the center of your feet or just in front of your ankles. Note, the straighter your foot position, the more torque you can create. And the more torque you can create, the easier it is to maintain stability (good position) as you descend into the squat.

Next, squeeze your glutes as hard as you can, align your ribcage over your pelvis, and then lock in the position by engaging your abs. Keeping your belly tight, screw your feet into the ground as if you were trying to spread the floor. To be more specific, screw your right foot into the ground in a clockwise direction and screw your left foot into the ground in a counterclockwise direction.

Finally, align your ears over your shoulders and look forward to maintain a neutral head position. As you do this, set your shoulders in a stable position and tighten your upper back by lifting your arms to chest level, pulling your shoulders back, and externally rotating your hands slightly.

Step 2: Load your hips and hamstrings

Step 2: Load your hips and hamstrings

Keeping your back flat, reach your hamstrings back, drive your knees out laterally, and start lowering into the bottom position. Note: I say, hamstrings back because the drive your hips back cue can cause people to overextend at their lumbar spine. In addition, focus on keeping your shins as vertical as possible. This allows you to channel your weight and power into your hips and hamstrings, which are the muscles designed to handle the load. If your knees translate forward, you’ll lose power from your posterior chain and increase the shear (twisting) forces to the soft tissues within in the joint (patellar tendon, ACL, etc.)

Step 3: Pull yourself into the bottom of the squat

Step 3: Pull yourself into the bottom of the squat

Most people have no trouble bracing their spine in a neutral position and hinging from the hips. Lowering into the bottom of the squat, on the other hand, is where things start to fall apart. This is where the invisible becomes visible. If you’re missing range of motion or you don’t have the motor control to perform the movement, this step in the sequence will illuminate your weaknesses.

As you lower into the bottom position, continue to screw your feet into the ground and drive your knees out – keeping your back flat, belly tight, and shins vertical. To maximize tension in your hips and hamstrings, think about pulling yourself into the bottom position instead of dropping into the bottom position. The goal is to drop your hip crease below your knee crease.

It’s important to note that if you can’t descend into the bottom of the squat with proper form, you should reduce the depth of the squat. The last thing you want to do is ingrain wonky movement patterns for the sake of performing the full range movement. It’s a simple rule: Don’t sacrifice form for range.

With that being said, every healthy human being should be able to perform a butt-to-ankle squat. After all, the bottom of the squat is really just Grok’s Paleolithic chair.

Step 4: Drive out of the bottom position

Step 4: Drive out of the bottom position

Rise out of the bottom position the same way you lowered into the squat: with your trunk braced, your back flat, your knees out, and your shoulders and upper back tight.

Step 5: Reestablish the top position

Step 5: Reestablish the top position

As you stand up, reestablish the top position by squeezing your butt. Remember this sequence and practice it every time you squat.

Mobility Rx

Learning how to squat with good form is always the first step. But what if you can’t keep your shins vertical or your back flat as you descend into the bottom position? What if you can’t keep your feet straight and your knees out as you hinge from the hips? Well, assuming it’s not a motor control issue – meaning you understand how to perform the technique correctly – there’s a good chance that you’re missing range of motion in one or more of your joints and tissues.

Pinpointing the problem area can be difficult. Your body is a system of systems. It takes some experimenting and some diligent mobility-time to get to the bottom of your business. The key is to spend time mobilizing in the positions that are giving you the most trouble. For example, if you’re unable to open up your hips in the top position because your hip flexors are tight, perform the Couch Mob. If you’re struggling in the bottom of the squat, mobilize in a position that looks like the bottom of the squat. Simple.

Couch Mobilization

Couch Mobilization

Single Flexion with External Rotation Bias

Single Flexion with External Rotation Bias

If you’re missing range of motion or you’re in pain, you can do something about it. Remember, you are an impeccable healing machine. Adopt the right lifestyle and get to work on fixing your crummy positions and movements.

To help illustrate how position and mobilization techniques can improve your squat, here are some relevant MWOD (Mobility Workout of the Day) videos:

Squat Quick Test: Is It Your Ankles or Hips?

Tight Ankles, Bad Squatting

Episode 363: Pre-Squat Hip Opener Mob-Rx

Daily Prog: 1/3 Squat Cycle

Daily Prog: 2/2 Squat Cycle

Daily Prog: 3/3 Squat Cycle

To learn more about Kelly Starrett’s Movement and Mobility system, check out his new book, Becoming a Supple Leopard: The Ultimate Guide to Resolving Pain, Preventing Injury, and Optimizing Athletic Performance and visit mobilitywod.com

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Many don’t understand the importance of movement to spinal health. It’s really the best way to keep the spine and discs healthy throughout life. Moving spinal joints through a complete range of motion is like oiling the gears on a bike. A flexible spine is a healthy spine (for the most part), and primal exercise is like feeding your belly dark, leafy greens. Nom nom.

    Dr. Mark wrote on May 14th, 2013
    • I meownch catnip.

      Animanarchy wrote on May 14th, 2013
      • And some other spicy greens. I don’t even know what they are but they grow wild and plentiful like they are taking over the forest. I graze on them, eat handfulls as I walk through. I haven’t had any river shellfish yet this year. It’s almost time I go get some.

        Animanarchy wrote on June 11th, 2013
  2. Good tip on driving your hamstrings back, will try using that today. Been a big fan of your morbilitywod website. Thanks for sharing.

    Luke wrote on May 14th, 2013
  3. Having been born with a severely malformed spine, I know that lifting heavy things is not a good idea. And I thought I couldn’t do the squat. But I tried it just now and — remarkably for me — it was pretty easy and felt good! I guess I’ll be incorporating squats (gradually) into my daily exercise routine. Thanks for the clear instructions and encouragement!

    Jim Haas wrote on May 14th, 2013
  4. This guys the real deal and he has great web workouts. Just sprinkle with some Esther Gohkale and you’ll be good to go!

    Nocona wrote on May 14th, 2013
  5. Love this: Right Lifestyle + Correct Movement = Impeccable Healing Machine

    Just tweeted exactly that.

    Awesome work, Kelly. Your book is the very first one I downloaded onto my new iPad mini. It’s so great to have it there, so I can take it around with me wherever I go.

    Susan Alexander wrote on May 14th, 2013
    • I don’t see a kindle version….

      Diane wrote on May 14th, 2013
      • Get the real book. Great for reading through, then handing out to friends and family.

        Hal L wrote on May 14th, 2013
      • There isn’t a kindle version. Only iBooks. They said kindle messed up the formatting too much.

        Stuart wrote on May 14th, 2013
      • Kelly wrote somewhere that Kindle version got ugly formating (all book fall apart) and that they would distribute iBook version only. Keep in mind it’s loaded with pictures which makes it even more complicated for Kindles.

        Petr R. wrote on May 21st, 2013
  6. Shouldn’t your knees track the direction of the toes? Pushing your knees out with straight feet seems strange.

    Ben wrote on May 14th, 2013
    • I was wondering that as well, because I’ve always read to keep your knees over your feet (not push them out).

      Alyssa wrote on May 14th, 2013
      • I think he is mentioning pushing out your knees as a cue so that you avoid bowing your knees inward which can happen as you come out of the bottom of a squat.

        Ishan wrote on May 14th, 2013
    • Ben & Alyssa,

      Most trainers teach to track over the feet because 1) most trainers don’t know what they’re talking about and 2) most people have awful hip and ankle ROM so to compensate, they must turn the toes out more. Therefore driving the knees out, with toes already turned out, is analogous to driving the knees outside the feet with toes forward. You will find, however, that you can create much more torque by keeping your toes as straight as possible.

      For the best squat progression tool see Kelly’s buddy, Carl Paoli, over at gymnasticswod.com

      Zach wrote on May 15th, 2013
  7. Very timely. I bought this book a few days ago and have gotten through the first few chapters. I am really looking forward to feeling better. Thanks for creating such a great resource.

    spayne wrote on May 14th, 2013
  8. If you have ligament laxity there is nothing that is going to fix this chronic pain a part prolotherapy believe me, even the proper training and diet won’t help in the long run since the ligaments are stretch they cause even more pain.

    Yes to heal with prolotherapy a diet without sugar, high protein and some collagen supplements will do wonders. So some condition wont be healed just by following this article

    From someone who has been chronic with back pain due to ligament laxity for 11 years now.

    yannick wrote on May 14th, 2013
  9. The Alexander Technique teaches a very similar squat technique, I have done them for many years (approx 20 years), now at 48 I can still do a full squat and sit in the bottom position, have played high level rugby with associated leg and hip/low back injuries, no problem for the squat. This method (without the arms raised), is as natural for the body as walking. Use this method next time you pick up a box or anything from the floor. Remember look at the object you are picking up. Functional strength at any age…..

    Robin wrote on May 14th, 2013
  10. I started watching this guy on youtube several weeks ago, and then set out to learn how to to butt-to-ankle squats without falling backwards like I used to.

    I got there, but with relatively poor form. I was happy!

    But now I have a bad right hip joint pain when I hip stretch. I can no longer stretch it out. I haven’t squatted like that in about 6 weeks and I still can’t really stretch it because of the pain.

    Doing glute bridges really relieves the pain if that is a que for any advice.

    Ryan wrote on May 14th, 2013
    • He did say, never sacrifice form for range! Hope you can heal and get back to working on the form so you can see the benefits of doing this.

      Stacie wrote on May 14th, 2013
    • When squatting, especially Olympic style (“ATG” squats), getting your knees out wide is really important. Based on where you’re describing the location of the pain (sounds like hip flexors), you may have impinged them. This happens when knees are not out wide enough so the soft tissue gets pinched between the femurs and the pelvis at the bottom of the squat.

      If this seems like your issue, then the fix is knees out (shoot for about 30 degrees). That will also help in squat strength because then the adductors will be called into play to assist the hams and glutes in the lift.

      Jeff wrote on May 14th, 2013
      • Ryan,

        Second what Jeff said and see the above couch stretch on his website for helping with the hip pain.

        Zach wrote on May 15th, 2013
        • Thanks, Zach!

          Ryan wrote on May 15th, 2013
      • Thanks so much, Jeff. I appreciate your advice and will try this out.

        Ryan wrote on May 15th, 2013
  11. The Alexander Technique will also help you (1) to become aware of yourself as a whole – your mind, body and spirit, (2) prevent undue strain and tension in your body, (3) become aware of how you approach daily activities, and (4) change persistant harmful habits.

    Ann wrote on May 14th, 2013
  12. To see perfect squats watch an infant, my 11 month old must do at least 200 a day squatting down to get things etc. it looks so completely natural and easy.

    Tatts wrote on May 14th, 2013
  13. I try to teach my undergraduate students that there is more to physical activity than weight loss, getting buff and increasing your ‘fitness’. We move now so that we can move later (and for the rest of our lives). Like Kelly alluded to in this post, there’s no point eating well, sleeping well etc. if we can’t enjoy the simple act of movement.
    We definitely need to place more emphasis on the importance of movement for movements sake. Great article as always

    Isaac Warbrick wrote on May 14th, 2013
  14. OK … eat well, hydrate, get plenty of sleep, sunshine, fresh air, recreation, do well at your career, take care of your family (children and elderly parents), maintain your home and yard, be involved in the community and charities, always maintain good posture, stay up on current events and the latest in health and wellness, when you exercise make sure to cover strength, movement, endurance, anaerobics, flexibility, explosiveness, balance, agility and coordination. Got it? :)

    George wrote on May 14th, 2013
  15. I tried following these instructions, but they made my knees hurt bad by the time I had got my butt down to about halfway to knee height. Like before they trimmed the cartilage behind the kneecap (after I fell on my knee).

    Fail again. These cues don’t work for me.

    Lyn wrote on May 14th, 2013
    • So you give it one go, feel some pain, and now you’re done with it? C’mon, where’s your perseverance?

      It’s not gonna be perfect your first go-round. At this point, the progression he provided is a good way to TEST your mobility, not develop it (that’s what the other 5-6 links are for).

      Do each one of those MWODs a day for the next week and then retest. If you’re really confident it’s a broken endeavor, take a picture of before and after to prove how well it won’t work ;)

      zmsays wrote on May 16th, 2013
  16. Thanks for the information. But I have a question. When my toes are pointing forward, my knees are pointing inwards, and it not very possible to bow or squat. So in order to have some knee motion I HAVE to point my feet outwards …. (This is something that should have been taken care of when I was a child but the doctor told my mom it was no problem. Turns out it was, because I have had my deal of backpain, kneepain etc.)

    But how do I squat properly, then?

    Ikie wrote on May 14th, 2013
    • Ikie,

      Sounds like you are either 1) not getting organized prior to initiating the squat (e.g. screwing your feet into the ground) or 2) your hip/ankle ROM is so awful that you have negative range of motion.

      For a great instructional video on what Kelly is teaching, see the air squat progressions at gymnasticswod.com.

      Zach wrote on May 15th, 2013
      • I can do squats, no problem. In fact I love them. But since my knees, when I am standing with my toes forward, are pointing inwards, I DO have to change the angle of my feet (about 5 degrees) before I can squat or else my knees will bump into eachother (ok thats a little dramatical, but maybe you can see the problem now.) Also the joint will hurt, because its torn in a diagonal direction. I think it’s a kind of turned-in knees. In the video they say that squatting with feet pointed outwards is a sign of a wrong squat, but I cannot think of any other way to do them.

        Ikie wrote on May 15th, 2013
        • Ikie,

          Some people naturally toe out due to retroverted femur or an externally rotated tibia, which would explain your knee’s internal rotation when you have your toes pointed forward. In this case that is just your bodies anatomical structure and so it is ok to toe out while doing your squat. You should probably get an evaluation to see if it is due to anatomical structure, habit, or muscular tightness.

          Emily wrote on May 15th, 2013
  17. Thank you for this article and outlining the steps of the perfect squat, I had been doing it wrong. I have looked at You Tube videos but none are as clear as your outline. Now to get to a butt to ankle squat

    Gari wrote on May 15th, 2013
  18. Here is an entertaining video of Kelly explaining this: http://youtu.be/ze0ckQX-peo

    Alan Reilly wrote on May 15th, 2013
    • Nice link. Thanks Alan. :)

      Cal wrote on May 15th, 2013
    • Thank you very much for the link. Now I have a much better understanding of “screwing my feet into the floor” and why correct foot position is so important. Written explainations only go so far.

      b2curious wrote on May 17th, 2013
  19. I tried this exercise and first experiences some stress light pain on my knees but I feel this was more a necessary stretch as the this subsided. Great well balanced technique, thank you so much for this article. I’ve added this to my morning routine :)

    Richard wrote on May 15th, 2013
  20. Hi kelly I have been watching your videos for a couple years now. Having had two knee surgeries in one year. Spondolthesis in my spine and now a shoulder reconstruction. You have been awesome. If i were taking better care of what i put in my body and how i move I think i could have avoided the back injury and Both knee surgeries.
    Ps i did not order your book yet but I will this week. Thanks for all you do

    Andrew wrote on May 15th, 2013
    • Several people have mentioned knee pain when trying this.

      A few things to consider:

      1) if you’ve been doing things incorrectly your whole life, then this movement will be very challenging. This is the beauty of it though. It’s showing you now, BEFORE injury, of how poorly your motor control and ROM is.

      2) The first step, screwing your feet into the ground, cannot be emphasized enough. This sets the pelvis, knee, ankle in proper position and activates your posterior chain (hamstring, glutes, etc). If you do this and are still getting pain then you should use the “contract and release” method to allow you to get into an improved position. This method can be found on Kelly’s site (it’s similar to the yoga concept of breathing into a pose).

      3) For a more detailed instructional video see Carl Paoli’s air squat progressions at gymnasticswod.com. Carl and KStarr both work together as a team so their language is the same. I suggest using gymnasticswod for teaching motor control and mobilitywod for clearing up ROM issues.

      Zach wrote on May 15th, 2013
  21. The cue to spread the floor with the feet is gold. That really helped me maintain spinal alignment at the bottom. Thanks.

    Erica wrote on May 15th, 2013
  22. Kelly’s info has been instrumental to my own athletic development and coaching. I’ve been to his seminar, participated in his webinar, read Supple Leopard, and have detailed notes from his MobilityWOD website. He keeps this practical and simple, and has a great technical framework from which to approach mobility. Thanks for continuing to put your stuff out there KStar!

    Matthew Myers wrote on May 15th, 2013
  23. I’ve done the couch stretch in the past, but haven’t done so in a while. To get the best stretch, the shin really needs to be as vertical as possible. But, when I do that, I get a really sharp pain on the lateral side of my patella. The only way I can do this stretch without pain is if my shin is at an approximate 45 degree angle.

    Any ideas?

    Frank wrote on May 16th, 2013
    • It could be, as suggested a few posts up, a range of motion issue. You may have to gradually progress to having the shin vertical, over the course of several months. If your squat technique is not as good as it could be, correcting it could be helpful as well. I used to have patellar pain all the time, had to wear the knee braces for “runners knee” if I was doing much walking. Going primal all but eliminated the knee pain. (I think the squats, with a decent technique, really helped.) I do have some minor hip tightness, and if I let it get out of hand, my still knees let me know. My ankle issues are another matter entirely and I have addressed them in a different comment.

      b2curious wrote on May 17th, 2013
    • I was searching the Mobility WOD site for things to help with my tight ankles, and stumbled across this one about tight calves, which affects both ankles and knees. http://www.mobilitywod.com/2010/08/episode-03-new-concept-and-homework/ Don’t know if that’s even related to your patella pain during the couch stretch or not, but figured it was worth mentioning.

      b2curious wrote on May 17th, 2013
  24. Is the book going to come out on kindle

    Vernon wrote on May 16th, 2013
    • No, only in iTunes. Apparently, converting to kindle screws up the formatting.

      Frank wrote on May 16th, 2013
  25. Thanks for the tips on driving the hamstrings back. That made a difference allowing a much smoother transition. Still working on not needing a counterweight though. :/

    Dave wrote on May 16th, 2013
  26. This post was very helpful for me. For a little over a year now, I’ve been frustrated with trying to figure out what the problem with my squat was. I’ve been meaning to do “Dear Mark” on the topic for months, but kept forgetting. I thought I had good form ( my back rounds just before I reach butt to ankles), but I found myself unable to maintain a full squat for more than about 10-20 seconds before my shins begin to hurt. I knew my hips were a bit tight, but nothing major, and yoga’s really improved that, even before finding MDA (or link hopping to Mobility WOD), but I never considered my ankles. Why, I don’t know, because for as long as I can remember I’ve had trouble with my ankles. The VA says I have “marked limited mobility” in both ankles, but more so in the right. They’re calling it residuals of a left ankle sprain and right ankle fracture (avulsion fracture, the tendon pulled loose a chip of bone at the top of my foot) while in the Army. I pulled up the video mentioned at the bottom of the post “Squat Quick Test: Is It Your Ankles or Hips, even though as soon as saw the title, I knew my problem was my ankles. I tried the test, assuming the roller skating position know as the pistol or shoot the duck. (Can’t say I recall calling it either, but I used to be able to do it.) Sure enough, when balancing on my left foot, I fall over, right at the end. When balancing on my right – it’s just pitiful, just pitiful. As if I needed further confirmation, I began working on ankle mobility and I really feel it in my shins!

    Thank you for solving the problem with my squats that has been perplexing me for a while now.

    b2curious wrote on May 16th, 2013
  27. Great article! I think another often under-appreciated factor here is the mindfulness practice that can be had from learning any skill or movement. So often I try to power through a workout without thinking about it, but I get the best results when I slow down and think about what I’m doing each moment.

    Nichole wrote on May 17th, 2013

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