His palms are sweaty, knees weak, quads are heavy. There’s vomit on his shirt already, Cellucor funfetti.
He’s nervous, but on the surface he looks calm and ready to drop low, but he keeps on forgetting what his coach said, the whole gym seems so loud.
He squats down, but the weight won’t let up. He’s stuck, how, everybody’s looking now.
The set’s over, time’s up, over, blaow!
Shout out to Eminem for the intro; now that I have your attention, let’s talk about buttwink - what is, what it isn’t, and how to screen for it.
The Basics of Buttwink
Buttwink is the equivalent of cancer, everyone claims they’ve never had it but odds are at some point during your lifting career, you’ve encountered it even if you didn’t realize it.
Most bros describe it as “that point where your back tightens up at the bottom of a squat”. It’s essentially where your spine enters into a position of moderate flexion during the descent in a squat. However, your body being the wonderful homeostatic regulator that it is, contracts your spinal erectors in order to protect you from injury (hello pars articularis fracture).
Despite what you may have heard, buttwink isn’t fixed by stretching your hamstrings, quite the opposite actually. I know, I know, your friend took a 2-day course on the squat and is a certified “movement specialist” according to a generic certificate hanging in their
parent’s basement office.
Consider this for a moment though, during the course of the squat, the overall length of the hamstrings doesn’t change much. As I mentioned in another article:
“Your hamstrings are known as a biarticular muscle group, meaning they cross two joints (the hip and the knee). As such, they assist with opposing movements at two separate joints - hip extension and knee flexion.”
Now, knowing that, let’s consider what’s actually occurring during the squat - knee and hip flexion. Thus, the hamstrings are shortening at the knee and lengthening at the hip. -1+1=0, no? Better tell your friend to ask for a refund…
Well, if that’s the case, then why do your hamstrings still feel tight?
If you remember nothing else from this article, remember this: your muscles are dumb. They won’t do anything until they receive input from your central nervous system. However, that input can become excessive if your nervous system perceives a threat.
For example, think about the last time you watched a scary movie - you were deeply involved in the plot, the protaganist was about to do something dumb which nearly got them killed, and you were on the edge of your seat.
Did you notice how tense your entire body felt? Every muscle seemed to contract as your heart raced and your mind was overwhelmed with fear and anxiety.
Environment can be a strong driver of neurological threat but so can the perception of damage (as mentioned above) or instability. Your hamstrings appear tight because of a positioning issue, not a length issue. Tissues won’t adaptively shorten unless they are placed into a cast for an extended period of time.1
As such, it’s important that you understand that tone (i.e. tightness) isn’t merely a mechanical sensation, it’s a neurological controlled phenomenon.
In the case of the hamstrings (and often the hip flexors as well), tightness is often the result of poor pelvic positioning from a lack of anterior core control and posterior chain activation.
Due to the attachment site of the hamstrings, they will become stretched if the pelvis tilts forward. This is known as an anterior pelvic tilt (APT) and is very common amongst recreational and experienced trainees.
Fun Fact: Your muscles will involuntarily contract when stretched due to some handy dandy sensory receptors known as muscle spindles. So, if you catch a gnarly case of APT and your hamstrings get put on stretch, they respond by contracting to protect themselves.
Your body isn’t dumb, you just don’t always know how to read the signals it’s trying to send you. As Eric Cressey once put it:
"Stretching out of alignment causes instability, strengthening out of alignment reinforces dysfunction and leads to injury."
Stability governs mobility - if something feels “tight", figure out what’s generating tension, and then ask “why?” Protective tension exists for reason; if you continue to stretch the tight muscle group, you will only feed into the dysfunction further.
Factors Affecting Buttwink
As we discussed in part 1, buttwink can be heavily related to pelvic positioning along with intrinsic core stability. If you can’t control the position of your pelvis, your hamstrings with reflexively contract in order to offer an acute form of protection.
However, something else we should consider is genetics. Yes, they not only affect your ability to resemble Arnold in his prime, they also determine whether or not you’re able to drop it like it’s hot. You see, like most things in life, everyone’s build is slightly different - the angle of the femoral head, the depth of the acetabulum, the width of the pelvis, etc.
Does this mean you’re destined to live a lonely, boring life of half squats? No, more than likely you’ll still be able to achieve a position at parallel or close to it. But at the same time, you need to realize that everyone isn’t designed to squat butt to ankles so you may need to check your ego at the door and accept the cards your parents dealt you.
Interestingly enough, if you look at some of research that Stu McGill references, there seems to be a causal link between one’s ancestry and their distinct individual anthropometric.
For example, the highest rate of hip dysplasia (also known as “Dalmatian hip” due to its high predominance within the breed) is typically within those from Polish descent due to their shallow hip sockets.2
So, from a squat perspective, they would likely move exceptionally well within the sagittal place due to the shallow sockets and increased potential for higher ranges of hip flexion.
But, if we look at those from Celtic populations, we see that they have very deep hip sockets thus allowing for high force production through rotational movements. Have you ever wondered why there are so many competitive Highland Games athletes from Celtic regions? Makes sense now, huh?
So, both hip sockets have a purpose - one moves exceptionally well within the sagittal plane (sprinting, skating, jumping, etc.) whereas the other excels within the transverse plane (throwing, rotating, spinning, etc.).
You may not fit either mold exactly, so if you end up in the middle, enjoy the benefits of both. But, always know your limits, there’s no point in squatting through pain. Your Instagram PRs will be meaningless when you’re 38 and going in for your second lumbar discectomy.
One final point of discussion - you may have been dealt the genetic “ace in the hole” (i.e. shallow sockets, long femoral necks, short femur, etc.) when it comes to squatting potential but yet you still deal with pain and the occasional buttwink - what gives?
You may be dealing with a patterning issue. As we discussed above, positioning of the lumbo-pelvic hip complex is huge when it comes to natural, pain free movement of the lower body. Isometric control of a specific range of motion is specific to the movement. Thus, if you don’t use it, you lose it.
You see, there are these fancy little things in your brain called motor engrams. They’re essentially memorized motor patterns that are stored within your motor cortex. As you practice any pattern, the connections within the engram become stronger and your nervous system figures out how to become more efficient at the specific movement. Pretty nifty, eh?
So, practicing a movement in a poor position results in strengthened dysfunctional patterns. If you’re only used to half squats but your buddy forces you to get deep, you may lack the active control over that range of motion.
Similarly, maybe you’re used to relying upon the stretch shortening cycle (SSC) in the bottom of the movement and you need to work on pausing at various points to engrain control.
Whatever the case, all hope is not lost as positioning issues are the easiest to fix. For starters, make sure you’re not utilizing crappy cues.
“Blah, blah, blah…Alright, I’m jacked up. I get it. How do I fix it?”
Read on my friend, read on.
Screening the Squat
The easiest way to determine the shape of your hip sockets is to get an MRI. But, given most folks aren’t going to drop $2,600 out of pocket to see if they’re born with the genetic propensity to squat ATG, it’s likely easier to just run a few screens and move on with your life.
Rather than give you a detailed explanation of each drill, I’ll give you the “squat screen cheat sheet” so to speak. If you want to delve deeper into the assessment, check out the video above which has all the nitty-gritty details.
Quadruped (Hand & Knees w/Toes Tucked)
- Flex and extend until you find neutral.
- Record yourself to ensure that your subjective perception of “neutral” matches an objective assessment of the movement.
- Push your butt back towards your heels while keeping your spine neutral.
- Alter knee position (wider/narrower) if uncomfortable or you sense “pinching” in the front of the hips.
- Setup a fist widths away from wall (2-3”).
- Rock forward and see if your knee can touch the wall.
- Watch for compensation via a loss of the medial longitudinal arch within the foot.
- Watch for compensation via a rotation at the hips and knee valgus (inward movement).
- Setup as you would for a normal squat but hold a 25lb plate in front of your chest.
- Squat down to a comfortable position and stand back up.
- Record yourself but don’t make any conscious effort to try and correct the movement, let it happen naturally.
If you get to Counteredbalanced Squats and your squat looks and feels fantastic (i.e. no buttwink, hip pinch, or lack of ankle mobility) then odds are, you’re likely dealing with a positioning issue.
By placing the weight in front of your body, you’ve provided a stimulus to increase anterior core activation. This typically puts your pelvis in a better position and thus allows for proper expression of joint mobility.
So, what exactly does that tell us? It means that you need to hammer anterior core stability and stick with more anterior loaded squat variations.
Anterior Core Variations
- Front Squat
- Safety Bar Squat
- Belt Squat
- Goblet Squat
- Double KB Front Squat
What if you only got to screen #2 (Quadruped Rockback) and you felt a pinch in the front of your hips? Well, that could be something as simple as a bit of posterior hip capsule tightness.
You see, in order to get into positions of flexion and internal rotation (i.e. deep squatting), your femur needs to be able to glide posteriorly as it rolls inferiorly. If you get lost in all of the anatomical jargon, don’t sweat it. This can help to clean things up fairly quickly, try implementing it in between your squat warm up sets.
If the pain intensifies during or after squatting and you find no relief from this posterior hip capsule mobilization, then it may be time to pay a visit to your friendly neighborhood physical therapist.
You could be dealing with something known as FAI (femoral acetabular impingement) in which there is a bony overgrowth of the acetabular rim or femoral neck. In that case, you may have to look into other alternative solutions, as there isn’t an immediate, quick fix.
Now, if you’ve gone through the entire screen and the correctives and you find that you’re still buttwinking, then you may need to just limit depth to parallel. No, you may never be a successful Olympic lifter but if you can squat pain free for the rest of your life, it’s worth it, no?