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Midline Stabilization Part 4: The Squat by Kelly Starrett - CrossFit Journal

In ExPhysiology, Videos

January 30, 2009

Video Article

Midline stabilization is essential for effective functional movement. Kelly Starrett, of San Francisco CrossFit, explains the essential anatomy and physiology of it in this excerpt from his one day seminar at CrossFit Santa Cruz on November 9, 2008.

The midline is the entire spine, and its stability is dependent not just on the core, but also on all the prime movers of the body, including the hip, glutes, and hamstrings. Excessive tightness in any of the prime movers will affect the core muscles, often resulting in low back pain.

In this part 4, Kelly shows how easy it is to forget about midline stabilization in the squat. He explains why it is essential to train even the air squat with a supported core, and he covers some of the common midline flaws found in a weighted back squat.

This is the fourth of a series from Kelly on the theory and practice of stabilizing the midline in functional movement.

4min 55sec

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23 Comments on “Midline Stabilization Part 4: The Squat”


wrote …

Very interesting.

As an sprint athlete I do a substantially high amount of heavy squats and have as far as I am consciously aware, always just prior to initiating the downward momentum of the squat, actively gave my pelvis that slightly exaggerated anterior tilt he was talkin about that is really a fault. Will be nice to implement this into my next few 1RM and Tabata sessions and see the impact on my core and drive strength through the ROM.


wrote …

Just like the last one (on pullups) that was a very illuminating video - I could really feel the difference throughout the full range of my squat. I can hardly wait to try this under a load, and share this with the athletes I train.


wrote …

I have a question with respect to Kelly's instruction not to turn the pelvis over to get the butt back. I'm new here, been reading through all the old squat stuff I can find to get the basics. There's a great PDF somewhere "A Crossfit Startup Guide: Part 1" by Todd Widman that collects a bunch of great stuff on the squat. There's an excellent video in there (entitled "Squat Therapy") of Coach and Nicole introducing a student to squat therapy during which Nicole specifically instructs the student to roll the pelvis over. In watching videos of nicole and annie doing perfect squats it appears that they are rolling the pelvis. Also, there is a great video in the same Widman pdf of Jeff Martin and "CrossFit Kids - Teaching the Squat" in which his instruction to the kids before lowering themselves is to push the hips back, or essentially roll over the pelvis. I've been practicing air squats like a ba$tard this week trying to look just like these pros do, and rolling my pelvis feels like the only way to nail that solid unlazy bottom. Looking for any clarification on the pelvis issue. Many thanks.
PS. Where's Part 2 by Widman?


Alex Europa wrote …

Whoa! I think I just figured out why my times on high-rep Clean WODs like Grace and Elizabeth never matched up with the rest of my performances. My lower back is always the first to fatigue - we're talking like the fires of Hades back there. I have similar lower back floppiness like Danielle's in the video...I think fixing this major fault (that I never even recognized!) will make a huge difference in myself as well as my athletes.

I really need to get to one of these seminars! Nice job Kelly!


wrote …

I agree with Eric. It seems like from this last video by Kelly that the beginning of the squat is turning out to be more like the beginning of a good morning vs. traditional squat. At what point should the knees start to bend and lumbars start to curve if not at the very beginning?



replied to comment from Jason Haywood

same as Eric and Jason,i'm now confused,having trouble with when to turn over the pelvis now after watching that,just recently with the p/p article it was about turning the hip over for active hip,but now it's as if we've not to turn the hip over? cause if you're doing p/p,p/j,you're only looking for that small dip before driving back up.


wrote …

Furthermore; it seems we are all about lumbar curve in the squat, the dip/drive etc. Reading coaches article on muted hip shows the pelvis dropping and rotating forward; by sucking in my belly button and pulling my ass up to my belly button (as kelly instructs), I feel like I am in fact rounding my lumbar and rotating my pelvis backwards. Rips article on active hip is all about an arched lumbar and pelvic lock. I'm watching a video now of Nicole at a Level 2 cert "fixing the dip" clearly instructing students to roll the pelvis at the beginning of the dip.

My question: Is there a pelvis roll in the dip/drive, but not in the squat, or should we not roll the pelvis until we're in the hole on the squat?

Other than this, kelly's video makes great sense, love the lay on your back drill and lift your legs..helps with Lholds bigtime. Cheers


wrote …

I believe Kelly has hit on a key topic. Most people don't have the capacity to discern the difference between Lumbar and Hip motion. It's a disassociation issue. Maintaining a neutral curvature in the lumbar spine preserves the delicate structures. When cued most people will anteriorly rotate their pelvis "locking up" the Lumbar spine. Unfortunately the facets don't like that too much. Some great exercises for dissasociation are the Bird Dog, Prone hip extension, even a ball bridge. The ball bridge is usually taught by posteriorly rotating the pelvis concurrently with hip extension. I think it should be taught with the emphasis on Hip Extension with no lumbar motion. Hope this helps someone or sparks some debate......Thanks Kelly once again


replied to comment from Eric Love

Eric (and others),
I'm sure Kelly will jump in here shortly, but you guys are right that most HQ-based instruction teaches to turn the pelvis over. The reason is that the overwhelming majority of athletes have a bigger issue with losing the lumbar curve in the bottom of the squat than with excessive pelvic rotation. Turning the pelvis over at the top is a great way to minimize or even eliminate that problem.

While there are some people out there who have the ability to excessively rotate their pelvis, this is a MUCH smaller concern than losing the lumbar curve at the bottom. For those few folks prone to excessive anterior rotation of the pelvis, Kelly's instruction is invaluable. For folks who can maintain proper alignment of the pelvis and spine throughout the entire range of motion for the squat, Kelly's instruction is more precise, and probably would lead to increased performance under max loads (I just don't have the data to say for sure).

But, Kelly's instruction requires a more sophisticated athlete, and he is educating his athletes for that sophistication. For most beginning athletes and folks with tight hips, the cue to turn the pelvis over as hard as possible remains very effective, even if it is slightly imprecise and allows for a small number of very flexible athletes to develop bad habits. And for those athletes, Kelly's instruction would become essential.


wrote …

Eric, I think what you see is Nicole and Kelly addressing two different faults of the squat. Nicole is correcting a loss of the natural/neutral lordosis as the trainee goes deeper into the squat.

Kelly is correcting a tendency to exaggerate the natural lordosis at the beginning of the squat.

In other words, you can give the cue of "roll your pelvis over" to help the athlete achieve the proper lordosis if it is lost because of too much trunk flexion. Or an athlete can "roll the pelvis over" past the point of the neutral lumbar curve and the athlete needs to dynamically engage the anterior trunk musculature to bring the spine back to neutral.

I think the fundamental idea of both Kelly and Nicole's advice is to get the athletes spine to neutral and lock that position in with the trunk musculature then maintain this relative relationship of spine to pelvis throughout the movement. They don't contradict one another, they are just addressing opposite extremes. The balance between those extremes is the neutral lordosis which is the strongest, safest and most effective posture for the trunk to receive load and efficiently transmit power from the legs to the rest of the body.

Keep in mind that the pelvis can rotate forward about the hip joints while still maintaining the proper relationship with the spine, as in the deadlift.


wrote …

Eric, Jason, Peter,

Thanks for you comments.

I agree with Tony, Rip, Nicole, etc. Before any squat/deadlift/etc can begin, the athlete has to be able to initiate an active lumbar curve. Too many athletes aren't even capable of performing this movement in a simple standing position. Cuing anterior pelvic tilt/forward pelvic rotation by turning the pelvis over is a gross and simple cue to help novice athletes achieve or find this safe, starting low back position. Rip reports that at his barbel certs for example, that many of the attendees cannot even approximate this foundational setup correctly. Rip and Lon have subsequently begun to teach this active lumbar positioning prior to any other instruction.

But like lumbar flexion is a violation of the mid-line concept in athletic movements, so too is over-extension of the lumbar segments. An over -extended spine is a problem because: Most people will tolerate an over-extended position in spite of the fact that it violates our mid-line concept, novice coaches fail to correct the fault because, at the very least, their trainees won't end up with a flexed spine bottom position, and it leads to horrible low back dysfunction.

Injury and aesthetics aside, remember our primary goal. We are obsessed with increasing work capacity, and an overextended lumbar spine will ultimately retard force production and the ability to generate high work outputs.

In athletes with the capacity to generate excessive lordosis (lumbar extension), turning the pelvis over aggressively, maximally closes the weight baring facet joints of the those lumbar segments, creating a perceived, very tight set up position. Additionally the athlete has momentarily created pre-stretch on their hamstrings by creating more length between the attachment of the hamstring at the pelvis and the knee. This over-extended setup allows for a very vertical squat descent by creating a more “vertical torso” above the over-extended/hinged lumbar segments. These hyper-lordotic athletes tend to be very good at overhead squatting for example (and Nicole Carroll is very good at this for example.) A neutral, normally extended, mid-line stable spine will tend to force the torso of the athlete forward at the waist, with butt translating backwards, and knees tracking over the feet during the squat descent. This anatomical positioning is required to keep the barbell in balance over the mid-foot. In the hyper lordotic squatter, the athlete will have to allow their knees to translate well forward of the foot in order to maintain their hinged set-up when they reach full compression in the hole. When the knees translate well forward of the foot, full posterior chain hip-function is muted, thereby decreasing potential force production. When back squatting, it is common to observe the lordotic athlete significantly reverse their hyper extension when approaching the bottom of the squat. This is hyperextension reversal is confused as “winking”, or reversal of the lumbar curve seen typically in athletes with tight hamstrings, and above parallel in the squat. Thus, in order to fully activate maximal hip extension at full compression, the overextended athlete attempts to reverse and correct into a better, more neutral spine. One that should have been set up from the start.
Finally, we should be teaching our athletes to maintain a fencepost like spine under load or hip flexion/extension task. The spine is supple and dynamic, but shouldn’t be under high loading. It should be rigid. Allowing our athletes to create a turning moment in the low spine under load will decrease work outputs and predispose our athletes to injury. We need to decrease shear and flexion opportunities in the squatting spine. This is why many Olympic lifting coaches will promote very turned out, knee forward, vertical, neutral back positioning in the front and overhead squatting positions. The athlete will be more quad dominant but with a more neutral spine. Backsquatting is all about the posterior chain. We should minimize these back loading faults in the backsquat too.

Kelly Starrett


wrote …


So if the "roll over" of the pelvis is a not good, but an acceptable way to teach beginners how to squat, how can a beginner like me develop a good squat without the bad habit of excessive lordosis?

I am the definition of the person with tight hammys and butt winking at the bottom of my squats. 6' 4" tall with an all day sitting engineering job; tight hammy's are the bain of my existence.

Kelly, your articles in the journal are few but so precious. Please continue to extend your wealth of knowlege to the community. Your "Hamstrung" article changed my life. Flexibility is not glamorous and as you say in your article, you can't post your best hamstring angle on the boards anywhere.

3...2...1...get some!


replied to comment from Jay Stellwagen

Jay, practically speaking, if you're defining yourself as the tight hammy person, it's extremely unlikely that excessive lordosis will be a problem for you. It's much more likely that turning over your pelvis as hard as you can will lock you into a solid, proper position.

Just to clarify, the roll over cue is not bad. In fact, it's ideal for the majority of beginning athletes. It's just not entirely precise, and there are a small number of (mostly female) athletes for whom going too far is possible. For the rest of us, turning the pelvis over is as good as we need to get.

And, to clarify further, this is not a dispute of Kelly's points. Kelly's points are subtle and sophisticated, designed for a good coach or accomplished athlete. Fixing the butt-wink is a much more urgent issue that is dampening your performance much more than a theoretically possible excessive lordosis at the top of your squat.

Does that make sense?


wrote …

Thanks Kelly and Tony.
I'm in the same boat as Jay, tall, tight hammies, and so far captain butt wink. For the life of me I can't get rid of the wink and its driving me nuts.
My takeway from this thread; I will attempt avoid the pelvis roll at the top of my squat per Kelly and as I drop into the hole will probably need to keep jacking that thing forward to keep that lumbar curve. Maybe in time I will get flexible enough for the wink to go away, and I can relax the pelvis a bit.
Apart from practice, time and a little therapy any tips on getting rid of the wink?

Thanks for everybody's time.


wrote …


Thanks for clarifying. I am a long way off from having to think about excessive lordosis and if I ever got that flexible it would probably be the least of my worries. It sounds like from yours and Kelly's advice that the lumbar extension problem is reserved for the gumby's among us.

Great advice guys!



wrote …

Hi, Kelly,Tony, thanks,
i'm the same as Jay and Eric,extremely tight hamstrings,can maintain excellent lumbar curve till i get to bottom of the air squat ,then it gets pulled round by the hammstrings,i've had another cossfitter suggest that it's a tight hip capsule,but i'm pretty sure in my case it's my tightness in the hams.what i'm wondering now ,is if i should be changing how i hold myself depending on whether i'm doing air squats or heavy weighted squats ,either with the lumbar curve or without for the weighted squats ? from reading your reply Kelly it looks like i should be maintaining a rigid back position, which makes sense,but i'm still torn from the advice we get about using the turnover of the hip for power,eg, heavy thrusters,push-jerk,etc,albeit with relatively different weights to a back squat.
thanks for any advice,or clarification,


wrote …

Great job that you have started to identify and correlate your body mechanics with your your function (who cares if you have tight hammies? Oh, you reverse early in your squat and are they are acting like a big set of brakes on your engine? Then your hamstrings are a problem.)

You may not be physically capable of attaining an ideal bottom position yet in the squat. You may need to be consciously adjusting your positioning to maintain your fixed/mid-line stable spine. We all teach a more turned out foot/hip position for example, to help keep the torso more upright (less affected by hamstring length) for our hamstring challenged athletes. Will we accept a greater knee forward, bottom position in our athletes that cannot maintain safe lumbar positioning otherwise? You bet. Allowing for the knee to track forward of the foot will give the pelvis much needed hamstring slack, and protect the neutral spine (most important).

But, we want out athletes to understand the implications of their compromises. First, knees well forward of feet and shins well past vertical will mute your hip extension potential and bias the athlete toward a more quad dominant function. Are you an Olympic lifter receiving 150kg in the hole? You bet your ass your back is going to be straight, with knees forward. That's how the back works and that's the "compromise of the sport", and ultimately why front squatting and overhead squatting are very different beasts than the backsquat.
If you have tight hamstrings and hips and you end up in an airsquat position with a neutral spine and your knees are forward with less than ideal hamstring/glute/calf function, if this is the way you are able to protect your mid-line stability, great. Just understand that you will be limited in your absolute force production and work capacity in the long run.

One question is: Are we responsible enough as athletes and coaches to have many different squat set ups and squat movement strategies? We should.
Air squatting is under insignificant loading. Is it possible to use less than ideal backsquatting technique to accomplish this task? You bet. And you should. Back squatting my way through tabata air squats would be a waste of time and greatly minimize my work output. The problem remains that most people fail to understand why their trusty air squat fails them under peak backsquatting load. As an athlete it is possible to take positional liberties in less than significant loading situations. The 75lb push press illustrates this. The movement strategy employed by the best crossfitters working to move the weight as fast as possible typically looks different than when they are moving weights that negate the possibility of less than perfect mechanics.

We want our athletes to understand the nuance of these set up/functional differences and the implications of their physical realities.

As for cuing a tight set up for work done overhead, it is the same as the squat.
We see athletes with horrific, excessive back arch when working overhead all the time. In fact, it is a much greater problem when overhead as the work tends to me far more dynamic with greater force velocities applied to the "hinged spine".
Again, if turning the pelvis over cue gets you into a rigid, ideal set up, go for it. If you have are just reinforcing a bad motor pattern because you aren't sure what a good, action ready hip/spine relationship looks and feels like, you are in for some additional training.

Turning the pelvis over as a cue when working overhead often leads to a rib-cage up position. We cue our athletes to keep their rib cages pinned to their stomach. It is vital to create a rigid platform for the muscles that rotate the shoulder blades into good overhead positioning. This is probably a topic for another article, but bad mechanics lead to more bad mechanics. A loose, overly turned pelvis limits an athletes ability to put more weight overhead and will, guaranteed, lead to some serious low back achy-ness.

So, it's not as simple as turning your pelvis over. It's about turning your pelvis over enough to enter a rigid, stable, low back arched, best fit position from which you can generate the most work, safely.

And, keep lengthening those performance stealing vampire hamstrings.



wrote …

thanks Kelly,all makes sense and will be concentrating hard on this the day with the wod ,b/s 5-5-5-5-5,.when i was warming up last night with 60k squats ,realised that i've been squatting with a natural lordotic curve without knowing,putting my lower back under strain right away.but iv'e always had lower back probs as iv'e got some scolyosis problems there,chiropractor helped for a while but have seen far more improvement from crossfit to the point i don't even think about it and am 95% of the time pain free,which i put down to the proper training methods iv'e re-learned and implemented from crossfit,plus the advice of all the contributors like yourself,Coach,Ripp,Nicole,Tony, coach Burgener,so many and each time it's like a light getting switched on and i go "ah i get it"


wrote …

Thanks Kstar, great read, I love the learning, it's directly applicable to training my wife who has concerns about excessive lordotic flex, and not coincidentally is really struggling to make the connection with the 'corset' muscles necessary for abdominal contribution to the rigid, tight structure necessary for optimal weight bearing. Paul


wrote …


Any chance you would be willing to put together a video on this topic. Maybe utilize different athletes with different levels of flexibility in order to demonstrate which cues should be used when.

Personally, I always try and get my athletes to turn their pelvises over to initiate the air squat, and I feel like that has been transferring over into their back squats. I'm beginning to understand that this should not be a universal rule.

I'm just hoping that a few different scenarios on video will help to clear up any misunderstanding.



wrote …

Solid video and I really enjoyed all the comments. Great info.


Dane Thomas wrote …

As a cue to help beginners understand how to maintain a neutral spine while squatting I hold a broomstick so that it is on the midline of the client's spine, making contact at the sacrum/tailbone, thoracic spine and back of the head when they are in a neutral position. Have them slowly go through an airsquat while holding the stick against them. Maintaining a neutral spine will keep the stick in contact with those three points. The client will feel the change in contact if they lose their lumbar curve. They will also feel it if they exaggerate their cervical curve (tilt their head back). Start them off by holding the stick against them, then have them learn to hold it themselves with one hand at the top and the other down low. Have them switch hands every few squats to keep things symmetrical.

By giving them this tactile cue early on to help them find and maintain neutral both statically and dynamically it sets the stage for all future squat and deadlift action. Once they have it on their own it only takes a few reps of holding the broomstick on their back during a new type of movement (with or without load) to help cue correct mechanics.


wrote …

I'm new at CrossFit. I couldnt even do 3 pull ups when I started. After watching a video on pull up mechanics with Kelly all of a sudden I can do 12-15 in a row without hurting my lower back. Ive just subscribed and will download all these videos.
Thanks Kelly.
South Africa


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