Assessing the Split Squat and It’s Implications for the Hockey Player
By Jon Geller, Asst. Athletic Trainer, Toronto Maple Leafs
As Athletic Therapists/Trainers, Physiotherapists, and Strength Coaches, our goal is to keep our players on the ice, performing at optimum levels. I believe that movement assessments are valuable in order to offer insight into how each athlete moves in a specific context, and to mitigate potential injuries. I agree that it is extremely difficult to replicate the unique movement patterns on the ice, but we can help the athletes build movement competency for pathways that they will require on the ice.
In my experience, one movement that we assess regularly in each of our athletes, which has provided relevant insight into the movement requirements of forwards and defensemen alike, has been the split squat.
The model I use is the In-Line Lunge from the Functional Movement Screen (FMS – see pictured). The athlete stands on the platform with their front heel the length of their tibia away from their toes of the rear foot, in a straight line.
The dowel is held vertically along the spine. The arm that is opposite the front leg holds the dowel at the cervical spine, and the arm opposite the back leg holds the dowel at the lumbar spine. The natural lordosis of these segments allows room for the hands. The athlete is instructed to maintain the points of contact at the head, thoracic spine, and sacrum. They are then directed to squat down, in control, until their back knee touches the platform, and then return to the starting position, three successive times.
The athlete then performs the same movement on the opposite side. I allow for a small forward lean of the trunk (parallel to front tibia) seeing as though they will uptake this posture while skating. Having them perform the split squat on the elevated platform increases the stability requirement in the frontal plane, which is a requirement for efficient edge management.
A critical question we must consider, is what can we extract from this assessment? Essentially, what it represents for me is how does the athlete perform a squatting movement, with one leg in front and the other in back, on a narrow base of support, and how do they manage this with their spine and pelvis. It’s not imperative to have the athlete perform the movement with the dowel, however, I feel that it offers you invaluable insight into the behavior of the spine and pelvis during the movement. It also allows you to examine the relationship of the upper quarter to the split squat. I frequently have the athlete perform the same movement with their hands on their hips to see if there is an improvement. If there is, I know there is dysfunction in upper half that’s complicating the movement.
Why is it important for hockey? Given the nature of the sport, and the repetitive movements/postures involved, lower and upper crossed syndromes are common.
Sometimes there is nothing we can do to completely reverse these, given that our athletes make a living in these postures, however, we can work to have them show the capability of moving out of them, and stay out of them off the ice. In order to be proficient in the narrow base split squat, one must possess the ability to maintain a neutral, centrated spine and pelvis, while eccentrically controlling lower anterior chain (in the back leg), and lower posterior chain (in the front leg). As a whole, the movement should look clean and fluid. Doing it elevated on a board creates an added balance component to which we can evaluate the relationship of stabilizers (local and global) versus prime movers. Often, prime movers are forced to act as stabilizers as well, which will slow the movement down or make it look mechanical. The athlete’s strategy to perform the split squat, will give you a glimpse into how they may be moving on the ice. Unfortunately, sometimes what I see is an athlete who uptakes an anteriorly rotated pelvis, in this posture, and then, as they descend downwards, their pelvis will turn into their front leg. If we imagine the pelvis as a bowl of soup, in this case, the soup would be spilling forward, and towards their front hip. The anterior pelvis decreases the amount of room the hip has to flex, while the ipsilateral rotation of the pelvis brings the hip into further adduction and internal rotation. This will often result in a pinch felt in the anteromedial hip as the femur is coming into excessive contact with the acetabulum. Seeing as the athlete regularly flexes their hip in an athletic stance (quarter squat) while they are skating, this dysfunctional posture can result in coxofemoral pathology. Conversely, if we can address the reason behind these compensations, and then imprint a good movement pattern, we may be able to avoid further ramifications.
Once you’ve identified a dysfunctional split squat, the next, and hardest step is to determine why. A simple scan of each segment will help you determine if there are hardware and/ or software issues that are playing into the dysfunctional movement pattern. A hardware restriction would be a joint mobility restriction, or a soft-tissue restriction, while a software issue would be a stability restriction. Any hardware or software restrictions that you can address will help open up pathways that the athlete can utilize while they are performing a particular movement. If we take the anteriorly rotated pelvis, for example, this may be occurring because the hip is lacking range of motion, and is moving excessively as a result. If the hip is lacking in stability, the pelvis might be rotating towards the hip during the split squat, so that there is more congruency between the femur and the acetabulum as a false stability mechanism. I have noticed, though, that the split squat can look clean, but when you break it out, you may find that the hips are lacking range of motion in a certain plane, for example. Every athlete’s hips will be morphologically different. During your evaluation, if you find symmetry in one plane, and as long as the hip is asymptomatic, assess your ability to affect change in another plane, as the range that they do possess, may be functional for them. Continuous work to improve range of motion in a certain plane on a joint that is already close to it’s maximum, sometimes has the opposite of the desired effect. This is a good opportunity to use your sports medicine staff, and delegate to a colleague who may have more expertise than you in a certain area.
When the hardware and/or software restrictions have been addressed, and the proper movement pattern needs to be re-imprinted, I usually start on the ground. The ground provides a point of reference for the body, while the spine and pelvis is supported.
Swiss ball roll-in’s (pictured) may seem remedial, however, they will provide a neurological challenge that your athlete might struggle with at first. From the ground, I then have my athletes move to the quadruped position. This is the first position where the hips and shoulder girdles are loaded, but the spine is still supported. Quadruped diagonal slides (pictured) performed with a foam roller placed vertically along the spine will force the athlete to create a fixed axis through their stationary hand, knee, and toe while working on dynamic stability of the moving shoulder and hip. This exercise is self-limiting in the sense that, done properly, the foam roller will stay on their back, however, if it is not, the foam roller will fall. I especially like this one for those whose pelvis rotates into their hips during split squat, as it forces them to keep their pelvis
square to the ground. In between quadruped and half kneeling, I have the athlete work to demonstrate competency in the plank position. These positions (front, side, or supine) challenge the trunk in different planes by having the athlete create a stiff axis of rotation, while allowing the opposite hip to move about that axis. Half kneeling is the first position where the spine is fully loaded.
Sometimes the bulk of my work here is on ensuring the athlete can get their pelvis into a neutral position before we start anything else. I have found that will exhibit a certain posture (usually an ipsilateral pelvis hike to the side of the flexed hip) in order to work around any soft-tissue or joint restriction they may have in their extended hip. Once we have created more awareness, I then ask them to lift their front leg (see pictured) into more flexion, and hold it. This position allows the athlete to take advantage of active insufficiency in the extended hip, and passive insufficiency of the flexed hip, while forcing the psoas to work as a prime mover. This, of course, is only possible with the help of the lumbo-pelvic stabilizers. If they’re having trouble with this exercise, I usually stack up more airex pads so that their front hip starts in less flexion. I usually have found isometric split squat holds (in a low position) to be helpful, as they are working on the movement from the bottom, up. Once they’ve mastered this position, and before they’re handed off to the strength coaches to begin re-loading the pattern, I make sure they are proficient in standing first. I’m not looking for perfection, but I’m looking to have made an improvement of what I initially saw.
In conclusion, I have found that assessing the split squat is an easy and effective way of gathering information, and gaining insight into movement strategies that the athletes may be utilizing on the ice. The split squat has numerous applications for hockey, and making sure the athletes are proficient with it may be a good way to mitigate potential injuries.