There are few topics that make me vomit in my mouth more than people discussing butt wink. If you are unfamiliar with the topic, Google butt wink (understand some of the sites that come up may not be safe for work or humans to view in any way). The term became popular because it is a little clever (I am not even sure the first time I heard the term but it was at least ten years ago). The term continues to persist and I am positive there are a lot of people who say it and don’t even really know what it is or what it truly represents.
Just to beat a dead horse, the term refers to a spinal flexion moment at the end range of a deep squat combined with a posterior pelvic tilt. It is not necessarily bad, you just have to apply context. That is an important concept to remember about anything as it applies to human movement and strength and conditioning. Context is key to determining where something fits into the grand scheme of things and if it is appropriate or not at a particular moment. The issue we run into in the time of the internet and short attention spans and the everyone is an expert mentality is no one bothers to actually watch a full video or read an entire article or contact someone who they don’t agree with to have a meaningful discussion.
The actual act of spinal flexion and posterior pelvic tilt at the very end range of a squat is totally normal. Your body is designed to squat all the way down, relax, and poop. While this is a natural event, what we don’t want is for you to end up in this pooping position when you have a big load on you and you need to have the appropriate tension to bring the weight down, decelerate it, and reverse direction to stand up (any kind of loaded squatting for example). So let’s compare the two situations, pooping in the woods, butt wink is the right thing to do. Squatting heavy and not wanting to poop your pants, butt wink should be a thing we concern ourselves with.
I am not even going to tell you that you will suffer a severe and debilitating injury to your lower back if you butt wink while squatting with some load. I am not going to tell you your discs will rupture all over the place and you will degenerate your spine and end up in a wheel chair after several back surgeries. Are these possible outcomes? Maybe. Maybe not. You may do it for your entire lifting career and never once have a single back injury or any noticeable changes to the structure of your spine. What a butt wink does represent is a loss in appropriate tension while loaded. This means a change in trunk position and a potential leak in energy and force transfer between you, the floor, and the bar. It means a potential performance limiter that can be keeping you from that big PR you have been chasing. That is how you need to think about it. If someone has pain in the lower back while squatting, it could be a contributing factor, but it isn’t the only piece of the puzzle.
What does all of this mean? Let me break it down for you. How deep do you need to squat to poop in the woods? Deep. How deep do you need to squat if you have a heavy bar on your back? You need to squat as deep as you can control and maintain a stiff and stable trunk to create the most efficient transfer of force. Do not chase depth you don’t ever need to squat with load. If you are competing in a sport where they measure the depth of the squat, it just has to be hip crease below the knee. It does not have to be butt cheeks on the platform. There is nothing better about squatting that deep and if you can under total control, more power to you. Much of that kind of depth is an expression of anatomy. I have never come across a person I could not get to squat hip crease below the knee, under load, without butt winking.
So when do I really get concerned? I worry a lot more about the person who starts to round their back and tilt their pelvis posteriorly before they get to parallel. When I see that, it is typically a pattern problem and something I see in a person who has not squatted for a very long time. These people may need some mobilizations, but first and foremost, they need quality coaching and lots of time. If someone asks me what they need to do when they have a butt wink, the first thing I say is get coached. It isn’t your hamstrings. It isn’t your ankles. Those two things could be part of the bigger picture, but the biggest issue is they don’t understand how to squat with the appropriate tension and pattern. If you do find a coach and they do also find you have an issue with the ankle that is keeping you from performing a squat, make sure you are practicing squatting in various forms between mobilizations.
To wrap this up, many times I find that what an athlete or coach perceives as a butt wink is really just a set up error. A typical situation is with an athlete that does not have a lot of muscular coordination and development. The athlete will overextend the lumbar spine out of the squat rack to find passive tension in their trunk. As they descend, the femurs will push the pelvis in to a more neutral position as the person gets close to parallel. This is because for the femurs to continue to flex, the pelvis will have to rotate. This looks like a butt wink, but it is really a slight shift back to neutral after the person started with an anterior pelvic tilt. This person will also typically complain of hip impingement type pain. In this instance, the person really needs to learn a better set up and bracing and tension to initiate the squat. You may chase the wrong rabbit for a long time if you don’t understand this. You can find a lot of this information in my book Unf*ck Your Squat.
This is where experience as a coach (or clinician) becomes so important. Sure, there was a time in my career where I couldn’t see the forest from the trees and was always chasing pieces of the puzzle instead of stepping back and understanding how it all fit together and where to start. Most questions I get about butt wink come from novice athletes and coaches who have heard from way too many different people what they should and shouldn’t do. My goal with not only this post, but also with this website, is to help the clinician and coach cut through the BS and learn to start from a better place when they try to solve a problem.