Spike and Claw For Better Squats (and more!)

"Spike and Claw" For Better Squats (and more!)

Phil Hueston, NASM-PES; IYCA-YFS

Who loves squats? I do!

I've always been a big fan of squats. For my own workouts and those of my athletes - of all ages. Squats offer a massive "return on investment" in terms of improving multiple apects of the athletic skill-set, including strength, power, coordination, core strength and activation, injury prevention and, yes, even speed. They provide a huge cardio-respiratory endurance benefit, especially when combined with other movements in complexes and circuits. Squats may also be the classic "grind" exercise, perfect for animals (like me) who just like the challenge for its own sake.

Wait. Squatting improves speed? Yes, squats have a significant impact on speed. Squatting  improves speed strength, in spite of arguments to the contrary, thereby positively impacting speed development. Speed involves the ability to drive force into the ground. Higher force production equates to better speed development, when considered in the "raw" sense. Squats also develop deceleration, when programmed and performed correctly. Deceleration is arguably the skill that you should be teaching your athletes first and foremost if you want their speed capability to increase rapidly.

For those coaches out there who argue that squatting doesn't translate to speed, agility and quickness improvements, consider these two simple thoughts:

  1. What is "first step quickness?" At its essence, it's the ability to quickly and efficiently produce force through the initial movement of the lead leg in the onset of the running motion. And how is force production improved, in short answer? Through improvements in lower body strength and power.
  2. Teaching speed technique is great and necessary to improve our athletes. But it will only improve the output curve in those areas to a small degree without improvements in horsepower and force production.


I liken speed and agility technique improvement to upgrading and improving the transmission and steering system on a car. If I drop the tranny and steering package of a Formula 1 car into a Yugo, it's a total waste. However, if I give that Yugo a bigger engine, stronger parts and then equip it to use the system correctly, now I have a shot at making that Yugo go! (Yu go? You get the idea.)

Even if we leave speed development out of the discussion, there are still a bundle of reasons to perform them and include them in programming, so let's move on. The squat is arguably the most primal movement pattern of all and involved in so many athletic and everyday movements. Avoiding them or allowing poor form and execution is to virtually guarantee injury in the athletes you train.

If your athletes don't squat, or don't squat well and with proper form and execution it's not a matter of if, but when the knee injury will occur. For many years, I've had athletes and clients tell me "I don't squat because it hurts my knees." My response has been the same since the beginning:

"Your knees hurt because you don't squat. I don't know what you're doing instead, but it's not a squat."

If you don't squat, how do you sit on the toilet?

Of course, we know that there are other factors which may cause discomfort during squatting, but others have addressed those issues in excellent fashion and it's not my intent to re-hash what they've done here.

My purpose today is to suggest a method to create better foot-ankle complex alignment so you can improve your athletes' squatting form and, by extension, their results. So let's get to it.

It's complex. Foot-ankle complex, that is.

The foot-ankle complex is not often studied relative to the squat, since we normally focus on the effects of squatting on hip flexion and extension, lumbar spinal stabilization and knee alignment and stability. But what happens at the knee (and hip) is greatly affected by what happens near the bottom of the chain during squats.

The ankle is comprised of two joint complexes with an effect on squat form, the talocrural joint and the subtalar joint. During squatting, the talocrural joint is the articulation of the tibia and fibula with the talus and functions to facilitate movement through plantar flexion and dorsiflexion. The subtalar joint in the squat is primarily responsible for limiting eversion/inversion and maintaining postural stability of the foot. Normal ROM in the talocrural joint is 20° in dorsiflexion and 50° in plantar flexion before unwanted frontal plane compensation occurs. ROM for the subtalar joint is about 5° each for inversion and eversion before forefoot movement occurs.1

The gastrocnemius (gastroc) and soleus are the primary muscles responsible for stabilization of the foot-ankle complex during squatting. Both are designed to function best when the center of pressure (COP) in the ankle is maintained within a limited range. This range is primarily in the sagittal plane. It begins at the mid-foot, with ankle torque directed toward plantar flexion while in the upright position of the squat. As the deceleration phase begins, the COP is displaced toward the toes and a corresponding increase in plantar flexion torque is applied to the ankle. When the movement shifts into the acceleration phase, COP is shifted toward the heel, with a measurable decrease in plantar flexion torque.2

The soleus and gastroc seem to fill the roles we should expect for them during squatting, based on their position, design and integrated function. The gastroc seems to fill the role of dynamic knee stabilizer during squatting. Its position and integrated function allow it to offset momentary knee valgus as well as limiting posterior tibial translation (3,4) Gastroc activity peaks at maximal knee flexion and decreases as the knees extend.

The soleus is more active than the gastroc during peak ankle flexion during the squat.5 In fact, the gastrocnemius seems to function primarily in an isometric fashion during the squat. Dionisio, et al. noted a co-activation of the gastrocnemius and anterior tibialis during the mid-eccentric phase of the squat at higher movement speeds.2 This co-activation helps to stabilize the ankle during the landing phase of plyometric movements as well.

Weak ankle musculature has been indicated as a cause of faulty mechanics and poor movement patterns during the squat. A lack of medial gastrocnemius, tibialis anterior and posterior may decrease the ability to prevent pronation at the foot. Pronation at the foot is virtually always accompanied by eversion. This combination exacerbates knee valgus and contributes to medial knee displacement (MKD).6

Needless to say, if we are employing the squat in an effort to improve hip extension strength and develop higher levels of lower body stability and strength, these are not the droids, er, outcomes we desire.

Wow, that's a lot of science and stuff. Now what?

Ok, now that we've had a basic review of the science, it's time to learn an art. You can maximize your clients' foot-ankle complex stability, and by extension, their positive results, by remembering a fairly simple cue.

Spike and claw. That's it, 3 simple words.

Here's the cueing process. Tell your client the following (or some reasonable facsimile):

  1. Stand in a comfortable squat stance with your middle toe pointing at "12 o'clock."

  2. Press your heel into the ground as if you have a spike extending from it. Drive it all the way in.

  3. Push the ball of your foot into the ground. Don't let your arch press down.

  4. Push your toes into the ground as if you're grabbing onto it. Don't let your toes curl under. Try to apply equal pressure with all the toes.

  5. Hold this exact position as you move through the fullest range of motion possible without losing control of the "spike and claw."

  6. Stop to reset as needed.

Go ahead. Give that a try. I'll wait.

See? Told you it would work. This technique helps you teach your athletes to maintain proper talocrural and subtalar alignment without having to give them an anatomy and biomechanics lesson. Proper foot-ankle complex alignment in the squat will increase the stability strength in the complex as well as the entire lower leg.

Will it work in the real world?

Recently, I had a client complaining of knee pain while squatting. She indicated the pain was on the medial side of the knee cap, from just over the top of the knee cap "around" it and ending just below it on the medial side. Watching her squat, I knew she had difficulty with ankle alignment and the resulting pattern deviations that result. Slight valgus and medial knee displacement were issues for her when we did her assessment.

So, when we began her squatting progression, I asked her to "spike and claw." After explaining, as I did above, what I wanted her to do, she tried again, with less pain and better knee control and ankle position. When we took her shoes off and repeated the process, things got significantly better still. The reason? She could actually look down and see the difference in her foot-ankle complex position when she used the "spike and claw" cueing and positioning technique.

When I asked "how does your knee feel now?" She looked at me with the look of someone suddenly aware that something was missing and told me "it's gone!" Will this rapid change occur for every client? Probably not. But believe me when I tell you, you need a simple way to make your clients understand the importance of proper foot-ankle complex alignment during squatting. This one is not only simple and understandable, it works!

Establishing the ability to perform this stabilization of the foot and ankle will allow you to move your athletes successfully on to power movements with less fear of form deficiencies and movement pattern deviations. The ability to control and prevent unwanted joint movement during power movements and exercises means better results in less time.

It also helps in one other important way. Eliminating foot-ankle complex deviations during squatting will help make soft tissue improvements "stick" better, especially in the lower body. The Ilio-tibial band, hamstrings and calves take a beating during poorly performed squats or while proper squat technique is being developed. As a result, athletes tend to spend a lot of time on soft tissue preparation and post-workout recovery. Foam rolling takes longer and hurts more, and the time curve in which long-term improvements (i.e., reductions in pain) is much longer with repeated bouts of poorly performed squats or while a client is in the "learning curve."

Using this technique will also let you progress to single leg movements more quickly. Think about it. If your athletes can control the position of their foot-ankle complex more effectively, how many deviations and movement issues related to single leg squatting and other movements would simply "work themselves out?"

Yes, we have to know and understand the science behind the realities of what we do. But in the end, our service to our athletes and clients begins and ends with results. Being able to find simple, effective ways to condense a ton of deep science into a useable set of cues that your athletes brains can interpret and then translate to movement (or in this case control of movement) separates the coaches who get results from the coaches who are just science wonks. And while the "geeks may inherit the earth," great coaches will always have athletes seeking them out. Which do you want to be?

 

 

Notes:

1. Clarkson, HM and Gilewich, GB. Musculoskeletal Assessment: Joint Range Of Motion And Manual Muscle Strength. Baltimore, MD: Williams and Wilkins, 1999. pp. 374.

2. Dionisio, VC, Almeida, GL, Duarte, M, and Hirata, RP. Kinematic, kinetic and EMG patterns during downward squatting. J Electromyogr Kinesiol 18: 134-143, 2008.

3. Bell, DR, Padua, DA, and Clark, MA. Muscle strength and flexibility characteristics of people displaying excessive medial knee displacement. Arch Phys Med Rehabil 89: 1323-1328, 2008.

4. Rasch, PJ and Burke, RK. Kinesiology and Applied Anatomy (5th ed.). Philadelphia, PA: Lea and Febiger, 1974.

5. Toutoungi, DE, Lu, TW, Leardini, A, Catani, F, and O'Connor, JJ. Cruciate ligament forces in the human knee during rehabilitation exercises. Clin Biomech 15: 176-187, 2000.

6. Bell, DR, Padua, DA, and Clark, MA. Muscle strength and flexibility characteristics of people displaying excessive medial knee displacement. Arch Phys Med Rehabil 89: 1323-1328, 2008.