Do you ever wonder why some people seem to make squatting look so easy? There chest is almost straight up and down, and they can pop below parallel like nothing. And then other people, who are still very strong and capable, just look kind of awkward squatting with their chest dipped way forward.
A lot of people assume that the latter group squats like this because of their tight hips. Although tight hips or lack of mobility can play a big role in this, it is not the whole story. There is also a belief out there that tall people are cursed when it comes to squatting because their legs are long. This is also not entirely true, as some tall people are great squatters, and some short people struggle to squat well.
What really determines if someone is “made” for squatting is actually the length of their femur relative to their torso and their tibula/fibula and of course physics. Generally speaking, people with short-femurs are going to be better squatters. Think of Matt Fraser, and anyone on the Chinese Weightlifting team. It is rumoured that in China, kids are selected at a young age based on the ratios of femur to torso, and get plunked into training academies if they have an advantageous ratio. Generally speaking, people with long femurs (most white people of european descent), will have more difficulty squatting prettily because to make up for the long femurs their torsos will have to be tilted much further forward than their short femur-ed counterparts. Here is an image that illustrates this well.
No matter how much hip and ankle mobility some people might do, there are no stretches or exercises that are going to shorten your femur and lengthen your torso. Having said that, improving ones hip mobility, even if they have long femurs, will improve their squatting, so don’t give up just because you have long femurs.
In my experience, people with short femurs tend to be quad-dominant, meaning that they use their quads more than their glutes to squat. People with long femurs tend to be glute, or posterior chain dominant, meaning they use more of their glutes than quads to squat. Also long-femur lifters, although they struggle in the squat, are often much better at deadlifting.
It is also worth mentioning something called the "Asian Squat". If you travel in Asia, you will see people "resting" in what Crossfitters call the squat-test. With immense ease they can rest in the squat position and make it look easy. Most people over the age of 20 in Canada can't even get below parallel in such a position. Here is a picture I took in Vietnam of some guys "resting" while they waited for their boat to leave. Look at that depth. This is the result of a life-time of using this position to rest, long femurs, and hips built to squat. Sorry white-folks, for most of you this will take years of dedication to attain, and even if you get there you won't make it look as easy.
Tall people can fit into either category, and their actual heigh doesn’t make squatting harder. Some tall folks have short femurs, and some have long femurs. Just the same, short people can have long femurs and struggle with squatting. What matters is the femur length, not the overall height. Here is another picture that illustrates this. These two girls are the same height, but one’s femurs are much longer. The girl on the left will be a much better squatter than the girl on the right because of her shorter femurs.
Some strength coaches will argue that people with long femurs should spend the bulk of their time low-bar squatting and contend that high-bar squatting will always be difficult and limit their ability to lift heavy weights. I do agree with this, however, in the sport of fitness, in which olympic lifting is extremely important, high-bar squatting will need to be utilized because it much closer mimics the front-squat position which is obviously used in the clean. In my experience, for long-femur lifters to go high-bar, the have to have great ankle and hip mobility to stay safe. When deciding which squat to use, that could be an entire other blog post, but you should choose whichever squat is going to allow you to squat safely, and push yourself enough so that your training elicits a change. If you are really tight, and have long femurs, low-bar is a better than a high-bar. If you have short- femurs, you are lucky and can chose whichever best fits your goals.
After restrictions based on mobility are accounted for, one's femur length is going to greatly influence whether or not someone is a natural squatter. You are either born a squatter, or its going to be a bit of a battle. For both short and long femur'ed folks great hip mobility is a requirement for squatting well, but especially for the long-femur folks.
Here are three of my favourite hip mobility exercises for loosening up tight-hips. Mobility doesn't have to be complicated, but it has to be consistent. If you are serious about opening up the hips, pick 2-3 exercises at a time to focus on for four weeks at a time. You will get better results this way compared to picking a different flavour of the week mobility exercise you saw on Instagram each time you stretch or "do mobility".
The classic hip opening drills are the "Couch Stretch", the "Pigeon Pose", and the "Squat-test", but since these are widely know, I have presented three movement based hip opening drills that you can add to your arsenal. Enjoy. The "Hurdle Under"
"Hip Opening Crawl"
Grit Human Performance,