Normal Accident Theory and Your Air Squat

By Colin Farrell

In 1984, a book titled “Normal Accidents” was published. In it, author Charles Perrow outlined his theory for the use of potentially dangerous technologies as not being worth the risk given all of the things that could potentially go wrong.  For example, there are too many ways for things to come off the rails when using nuclear power, therefore an accident is likely and to be considered a normal occurrence. With so many moving parts, catastrophe is bound to happen (think Three Mile Island, Fukushima Daiichi, Chernobyl… they were bound to happen, according to Perrow). The topic was and is pretty controversial, and we certainly haven’t given up on all forms high risk technology.  

Dr. Kelly Starrett often refers to the human body as a system of systems.  In the world of fitness, there is a trade-off between intensity and safety.  In order to achieve positive adaptation, we have to push our bodies a little bit.  If we do nothing but go for the occasional light jog (a really low intensity activity), your fitness and health will suffer. To get healthier, we have to put our bodies under load and stress. Given such levels of intensity, an injury or accident certainly can occur.  

Since 1984, scientists and engineers have taken Perrow’s work and decided there needs to be ways to mitigate how “normal” these accidents are: redundant pathways, backup systems, work-arounds, etc.

How do we make these technologies disaster proof?  

Though they are possible, as CrossFitters we cannot accept injury or accidents as normal.  What systems do we have in place to keep these in check? How do we mitigate catastrophe?

I’ll offer this one, and this one only (for now): Fix your air squat. Do so, and you’ll become a little more disaster proof.

Though they are often viewed as boring, and they are very easy to think little of, the Air Squat is not something to dismiss.  Some of us have a bodyweight squat clean, but can’t squat our bodyweight with much virtuosity. The air squat is the foundation of everything, if it is broken, that is a massive system failure waiting to happen. A future injury during a clean, back squat, deadlift, jerk, picking up your kids, or standing up off the toilet will be a “normal accident” due to the system failure.

Get your chest up, your heels down, keep your back flat, make sure your knees track out.  The two biggest faults I see are the chest dropping and the knees caving in (even if it’s only a little bit). The valgus knee, as it is called, is often associated with toes flaring out and the arch of the foot caving down (this is called navicular collapse).

When looking at an athlete head-on in the air squat, your knee caps should be outside of your big toe. You will have to fight and push, and keep your core tight, and maybe do some added mobility work… whatever it takes, get your damn knees out. Valgus knee is a mechanism for ACL injuries. The chest drop, sometimes called an immature squat, can be caused by a variety of factors but it is likely a lack of awareness, tight posterior chain (probably your achilles, or hamstrings, or both). Loosen up everything from your glutes to your hamstrings all the way to your heel cord.  Keeping your chest up in the air squat is a necessity before moving onto the squat’s loaded variants, especially the front squat and overhead squat.

For some more detailed instruction, see a coach, or check out “Squat Therapy” by Coach Glassman.  If your air squat isn’t quite on point, don’t worry.  In Mike G Learns to Squat, CrossFit L1 Seminar Staff Flowmaster Mike Giardina -- a guy whose job it is involves moving nearly flawlessly in front of large crowds -- gets his air squat picked to shreds. A perfect squat is elusive, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pursue it.

The pursuit of becoming disaster proof is a noble one, indeed.

Photo: CrossFit, Inc.


Andrew Killion