Squats. And Circus. A tale of two blog posts

I had an idea for a blog post. It went something like this:

As you may or may not know, I am at odds with group fitness classes. For me, the fundamental issue is that I believe everyone needs some degree of personalization in their training. You know, ‘cause every body is different and has different needs—if optimal performance and injury prevention are important to you. And so it was that early on in my journey as a strength and conditioning coach for recreational circus artist-athletes, I found myself teaching group workout classes.

It was in the course of doing this that I noticed something surprising.

It was something that I encounter all the time with my “general population” training clients that I didn’t think would be an issue with circus folks, probably because of circus arts’ relatively high demands for athleticism. But there it was. And ever since then I’ve been meaning to write about it because it’s kind of a big deal:

A lot of people seem to have trouble squatting.

A lot is hardly specific and can easily end up sounding like most or all and that’s not necessarily accurate. However, since I first noticed this as an issue, I have continued to see people who have trouble squatting well often enough to feel comfortable saying it happens way more often than it should. 

Let’s talk about a good bodyweight squat.

Oh yes—bodyweight. You didn’t think I meant this, did you?

No, no. I mean, there’s a time and a place for that, I’m sure.

(This probably isn’t the place for me to get into my thoughts on this, but I actively choose not to add back squats to the training plans I design for circus folks. That’s for another time).

So yes: let’s talk about a good old-fashioned bodyweight squat.

(I should have gone a bit lower for this photo…you get the idea, though)

What makes for a good squat?

A squat represents a complex symphony of movement events; a balance of mobility and stability at their finest.

By way of a quick (and by no means exhaustive) summary, I would suggest that a ‘good’ squat features the following:

  • No rounding of lower back (normal lumbar curve is maintained),
  • From the side, torso and shin angles are approximately the same,
  • Knees track laterally of feet,
  • Feet maintain their arch (no collapsing of the arch),
  • At the bottom, thighs are at least parallel with the ground.

[alert type=”info” close=”false” heading=”The Deep Squat isn’t for everyone.”] Out there, in the swirling world of information about fitness and health and strength and such, there exists a school of thought that the ATG squat is what everyone should be able to do and should strive for. (Lingo: ATG = ass to grass) The thing is, that’s a one-size-fits-all kind of approach and, well, one size doesn’t always fit all. Yes, it’s true that being unable to squat to at least parallel, if not lower, suggests that something in your system needs work…but there are also individual anatomical considerations that, when taken into consideration, could make squatting below parallel an unrealistic goal (for some people).. [/alert]

Being able to squat well suggests not only that your ankles and hips have some good mobility, but that your knees and core have some decent stability. On top of all of that, it suggests a certain amount of core control, which is good to have.

  • Good ankle mobility
  • Good knee stability
  • Good hip mobility
  • Good core stability
  • Good squat.

It’s ok to notice the alternating pattern there.

Squats gone bad

A not-so-good squat will often feature one or more of the following:

  • One or both arches collapse,
  • Ankles roll in (foot pronation),
  • Knees cave in (knee valgus),
  • Butt winks (lower back rounds),
  • Thighs do not make it to parallel with the floor
  • Pelvis rotates

And just what does this have to do with circus?

Well, that’s a good question.

Every climb on silks (specifically French/Russian/standard climbs depending on what you call them in your neck of the woods), every time you step up on trapeze, every time you squat as an acro base, every time you step up onto your acro base… your body is performing a squat (or squat-like) movement.

And those movements ask some very similar things of your body.

So my squat is a bit wonky, why does that matter?

This is where my original blog post idea falls apart. I thought it would be nice if I could outline the squat issue, as I’ve done, and then provide you with some handy tips to improve your squat.

The thing is, when it comes to improving your squat, well, it kind of depends on what’s not working with your squat.

Knees collapsing inwards? The question is why is that happening? Is it your knee? Hip? Ankle?

Ankles/feet pronating? Is this happening because of something to do with the feet or could it be the hip?

Tilting pelvis? Again why? It could actually be a mobility or stability problem in the hips or low back.

The point here is that because the squat is such a complex movement, we can’t really say why it’s not working without digging deeper and looking at some more fundamental elements such as mobility and stability.

If you can’t squat well, it’s a sign that something isn’t working as well as it could be. The tricky thing is that we won’t be able to tell what that is without taking a closer look at some other things.

Hooray! New blog post idea: getting a movement check-up!

I have to tell you: I have a complicated relationship with Crossfit. (Oh, by the way: tangent alert!)

What I love about Crossfit is that they have built a community around the idea of being an athlete. Life begins to include thinking about (and, in theory, taking action related to) recovery and nutrition…all with a view to optimizing how your body (and mind) performs.

What bugs me is that, on the surface at least, there appear to be movements that feature regularly in their workouts that would be inappropriate for the vast majority of adults to perform. And there does not appear to be much of a screening process where coaches figure out whether the individual athletes have the necessary mobility and stability pre-requisites to perform certain lifts.

Bringing this tangent back to my point:

If your squat isn’t quite right, how do you know? And once you know, what do you do about it?


At the end of the day, if you would like to optimize how well your body performs, it is really worthwhile having a qualified set of eyes to watch you move.

Yes. I am saying that all of this was to say that, in my opinion, everyone should go through some form of movement assessment and evaluation.

Kind of like going to the dentist, you should find a professional who can evaluate how your body is moving and provide some guidance for improving any dysfunctional patterns or muscle imbalances that have crept in.

In the long run, it will help you to stay strong, balanced and healthy.

There are several ways you can go about this and I’ll rank them in order from Most Awesome to Also Good

Most Awesome:

Find a good sports medicine professional (a physical therapist, a chiropractor, an osteopath) who is familiar with treating circus artists/gymnasts/dancers. Have them evaluate you. They will likely do some form of manual therapy where necessary and provide you with corrective exercise along with some insights into how to make your training more balanced. It’s possible a follow-up session or two will be recommended, depending on where your body is at.

[Aside: Yes, you read that right: at least once per year, you should go to see a sports medicine professional for a check-up. Even if you’re not injured. Perhaps, especially if you’re not injured.]

And then,

Work with a personal trainer/strength coach who they recommend. They’ll recommend this person because they have an established relationship. This way, the strength and conditioning work you do with them will be in line with the findings of the sports medicine pro.

Depending on your experience with strength and conditioning work, you may only need to spend three months or so with the trainer before you’re ready to switch to a training plan you can follow on your own.

Repeat this process in about six months—and then you won’t need to work with the trainer as long (unless you want to).

Also Good:

Find a good sports medicine professional (ideally, one who is familiar with treating circus artists/gymnasts/dancers). Have them evaluate you. They’ll treat your body according to what they find and prescribe some follow-up exercises. Ideally, there will also be some guidance in terms of making sure your training keeps your body balanced.

Recognizing that the exercises prescribed by your sports medicine pro are intended to be supplemental to your strength training, you can add these into your existing regimen (which, again, should be strengthening and helping to maintain body balance).

Or, this is also Also Good:

Find a good personal trainer/strength coach. Have them take you through a movement screen and design a strength and conditioning program based on their findings and your goals. Since you’ve found a knowledgeable and professional trainer, if they come across anything particularly dysfunctional, they will refer you to a sports medicine professional (or you can choose one yourself). From there, they will coordinate with the sports medicine professional to make sure that your strength training is supporting (and not interfering with) the work they will be doing with you.

The bottom line:

Try a bodyweight squat in front of a mirror. See what it looks like. If it looks a little off (or if you’re just not sure), know that there’s a possibility that something isn’t working quite as well as it should be. This is your “check engine” light going off. Now is the time to act. Do some research and find out who the good sports medicine pros are in your area. Make an appointment to go see them. (And remember to ask lots of questions!)

And have a look at what you’re doing to make and keep yourself circus strong. Are you building functional and balanced strength? If so, great! If not, find yourself a coach who can help you with that. In the long run, your body will thank you for it.