There’s a serious amount of confusion in the exercise world over what a squat should look like, what’s the most beneficial depth, or the most effective stance. People who’ve “figured it out” argue that it’s their way or the highway, then other people saying that everyone’s squat will be different based on their hip structure.
It’s an extremely complex topic with multiple factors that can have knock-on effects depending on someone’s anatomy, background, style of training and adaptability. People could be accidentally shooting themselves in the foot trying to achieve a depth that just isn’t meant to be, or cutting themselves short and avoiding things that’d give them way more complete hip strength.
Today we’re going to look at two anatomical factors that will have an unavoidable effect on your squat depth & stance: Hip Socket Depth & Femur Torsion Angle.
Hip Socket Depth
Your ability to flex at the hip (how deep you can squat) is heavily influenced by how deep your hip sockets are.
Remember that the hip is a ball and socket joint, the head of your femur (thigh bone) has a “ball” on the end of it, which sits in a curved socket (acetabulum) on your pelvis. Because of this, you have loads of range of motion in your hip, but, not everyone’s hip socket is the same.
The depth of the socket can vary, some people will have shallow hip sockets which allow naturally for a great range of motion of the femur, other people will have a deeper socket, which reduces the range of motion:
If you have an average shaped hip, then just below parallel (when your hips are slightly lower than your knees) will most likely be the best position for you to create stable tension and generate power without sacrificing your lower back or in fact hips themselves. I say “most likely” because there are other factors at play but generally, average sockets are more comfortable at mid-range depths rather than ass to grass.
If you have deep hip sockets, you’ll probably be more comfortable squatting just to parallel, whereas a lucky duck with shallow hip sockets will find it easier to squat far below parallel.
If you are on the deeper socket side, pushing for a lower squat might be tolerable at first, but then you could suddenly start having all kinds of pains or impingement sensations. You could accidentally cause unnecessary wear and tear from trying to please high almighty internet-warriors with an unyielding expectation of ass to grass positions… and for what? To need months of rehab to regain stability and maybe give up squatting because it’s too uncomfortable?
So how do you know if you have deeper hip sockets?
Testing bone structure can be difficult without actually getting internal imaging done, but you can get a fairly good idea by passively moving your leg and paying attention to what happens:
1. Set up a phone to video you from the side (this is important to be able to review your movement!).
2. Lie on your back and press your lower back into the floor so your pelvis is neutral. If you struggle with this, bend both knees with your feet flat on the floor – this should make it easier to flatten your back.
3. Maintaining that pelvis position, bring one knee up towards your chest. Stop if you feel your hips/lower back/pelvis move, or if you get a pinching/blocking sensation in the front of your hip.
4. Hold for a second or two, you can also try using your hands to bring your knee a little higher, but only if you can maintain a stationary pelvis position.
5. Let your leg come back down and repeat on the other side.
When you watch your video back, you’ll be able to see where your hip “wants” to stop, i.e. where your maximum hip flexion is before your lower back has to come in to compensate (known as butt winking and not ideal for generating the most power safely in a squat).
At your maximum flex, pause the video and imagine a line drawn straight up perpendicular to the floor, this is 90 degrees. “Normal” hip flexion—which would often coincide with an average hip socket—is 115-120 degrees. If the centre of your thigh is around this 120 degree mark – congratulations! You’re average! If it’s below this, you may have a deeper hip socket, if you’re above this, you may have a shallower hip socket.
It’s also important to test both sides to check for any imbalances. Sometimes abnormalities only present themselves on one side, so you’ll always want to squat to the depth of your more limited hip to avoid any twisting at the bottom or drive up.
You’ll notice from the image below that I don’t get as much depth as Jenni, therefore probably have deeper sockets. We notice this in training too – Jenni can squat down and basically rest her butt on her calves with her back straight… and I cannot, no matter how much mobility work I do.
Sorry, but you can’t stretch bone…
But this doesn’t mean that people with shallow hip sockets are the lucky ones. If you have a naturally larger range of motion, you may also be naturally more at risk of things like Hip Dysplasia (where the socket doesn’t fully cover the head of the femur), and possibly lack stability in your hips. You may also find it difficult to generate force from a fully flexed position.
So, there are pros and cons to both deep and shallow—one has more stability, the other more flexibility. Ideally, you want to be bang in the middle.
Femoral Torsion Angle
Not only do your hip sockets have to be awkward and have whatever depth they fancy, but the angle of the femur head has a massive impact on the position of your feet as you squat.
This concept can be a little confusing as first, so feel free to skip this anatomy bit if you just want to know how it affects your squat.
For those who fancy giving it a go, I’ll try and break it down as best I can!
Your femur has two ends, if we just forget medical jargon for this and remember that the bottom of the femur is the knee end, and the top of the femur is the hip end. The hip end has the Neck and Head of the femur, which is a small, thick protrusion (neck) with a rounded “ball” on the end (head):
The interesting thing is that the head & neck at the top don’t sit at the same angle as the bottom. If we look at the femur from above, you can see that the knee end is straight, but the head points slightly forwards. The difference in position of the top of the femur and the bottom is called the Torsion Angle:
In a “normal” femur, the head at the top points about 10-15 degrees more forwards than the bottom. This is called Anteversion.
A normal angle will give someone freedom to have their toes pointed either straight or slightly out when squatting, neither will put too much stress on the hip socket so preference can be dictated by other factors like mobility restrictions elsewhere.
However, you can have Excessive Anteversion, where the angle between the head and bottom of the femur is greater than 15 degrees. Then, you can also have an angle less than 10 degrees which is called Retroversion.
If you’re still with me, well done!
Let’s have a look at what this means for your squat.
To avoid pinching, and to generate the most power and comfort, your body wants the femoral head to be central in the socket. For a normal hip, the foot is relatively neutral/straight:
When your femur has an increased or decreased torsion angle, to make sure your joint is happy your body must adjust the rest of your leg.
If you have Excessive Anteversion (a large angle of torsion) you need to internally rotate your thighs to bring it back to normal. Squatting with your feet forwards (even slightly turned in!) won’t feel weird, and probably will be the most comfortable position for you. Excessive Anteversion can also favour a narrower squat stance.
If you have Retroversion (a small angle of torsion) you need to externally rotate your thighs to move towards normal. Squatting wider and with your feet turned out will feel miles better than trying to twist your feet forwards.
How do you know which type of hip you have? Well, a great drill to take yourself through is the 27 Squats. You go through multiple different angles, foot positions and widths and it will really highlight which positions you favour.
As you go through it, assess where you feel suffocated, nippy or if pain appears in any positions. Also note where feels like your knees are happy and you have enough “space” to be there, you’ll be able to figure out pretty quickly if you prefer toes in, neutral or toes out!
So, what does all of this mean?
It means, there is no one-size-fits-all squat.
You want to take some time to really assess your own hips and see what feels best to you, especially if you enjoy lifting weights. If you want to do thousands upon thousands of reps over the course of your life then you want to make sure you have the best possible position to respect your own joints.
If you have deep, retroverted hips and are trying to squat ass to grass with your feet straight forwards…. your hips, back and knees will HATE you within a few years.
It’s sad to see when people decide that squatting is just not for them… or worse, that squatting is “bad for joints”, when they were just using the completely wrong squat for them. They could have been happily enjoying themselves and building amazing strength if they just knew to check these few things.
Once you have tested these things you still want to “play” and see where you feel strongest in your squat, even though Jenni has shallow hip sockets and CAN squat with her feet completely straight forward and together, she still prefers to have toes slightly out in her squat as it just feels stronger to her and doesn’t aggravate her knees.
Plus, we’ve only gone over two aspects of anatomy today, we haven’t even touched upon Angle of Inclination, Femur / Shin / Torso length… but ultimately, even when you analyse this stuff it all comes down to experimenting with it yourself and seeing what works for you in practice. Neutral spine and stacked joints are what you are looking for but there will be a depth, stance and foot placement that feels best for your “main” squat.
This video will show you how to do that:
Does all this mean that you don’t need to work on your mobility then since there’s “nothing you can do” about it?
Well, no, there is actually LOTS you can do to help your hips be stronger in a more complete way and potentially add a little more depth to your squat… regardless of your sockets!
You still want to improve your hip flexion; you might achieve more range than you think. Also, remember that hips can extend, rotate internally and externally and move laterally, all of which are involved in the squat, so making sure to have a good level of all these things is important too.
Tighter people want to improve range of motion but will probably have a natural higher level of stability, whereas more flexible people needs to make sure to build strength and stability in their hips to avoid pain from their body fearing potential injury (it’s not easy being too flexible either).
Finally, remember that yes, your hips play a big part in foot position and depth, but the squat is still a FULL BODY MOVEMENT. Sometimes you can be hammering your hips trying to “fix” something, when you had a weakness elsewhere. Two useful things to work on are your thoracic mobility (to help keep your torso more upright) and your ankle mobility (to sit deeper into the squat without sacrificing your lumbar spine).
Countless times have I seen someone not struggle with any of the hip movements from The Simplistic Mobility Method but their upper back movements were shocking and it was actually those that made the difference to their squat.
So, be aware of your anatomy, but keep working on your full body mobility too. Everything is influenced by everything else and having one stiff joint somewhere can have an effect on your entire body.