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Revisiting the squat

Below is a bit of an edit (with pictures added!) of a post that I wrote two years ago. Since the original posting I’ve developed much more love for the squat.

I have a love/hate relationship with squats. I struggled with squats during a good part of my fitness career.

The Hate

Anatomy (short torso, long femur bones), lack of flexibility and years of faulty technique doomed my squatting capabilities – thus the hate.

During my early training with Kettlebells I felt like I was constantly, frustratingly, working the squat. My trainers assigned “squat therapy” (variations and corrections) to help me fix my form: face the wall squats, doorway squats, pole squats, box squats, squats with my heels elevated, fall on your ass and cry in frustration squats. OK, that last one isn’t really a squat correction, but basically what happened for months as I tried to correct my squat form. Doomed with poor hip and ankle flexibility and lack of balance I fell on my ass – A LOT.

My Kettlebell trainer, Phil, assigned squats as my daily homework. I of course was the perfect student, doing my homework as assigned.

Right.

Every session Phil would ask me if I had practiced my squats and I would sheepishly mumble “Um, yeah. A few times.” Seriously?! Who would want to practice a movement that caused you to fall flat on your ass each and every time you attempted it?

But somewhere frustration and laziness gave way to logic and determination and I started practicing my squats literally every day, and working in some mobility and flexibility work to address my tight hips and ankles (I hate stretching more than I hate squatting).

The work paid off. At my RKC certification this past September I volunteered to be the example of a poor squat, but upon observation my squats were pronounced “quite good.” What a difference from a certification that I had done just a year before in which I was literally called out to the middle of our circle as an example of particularly bad squat technique.

Me and my not too bad squat at the 2010 Philly RKC

Me and my not too bad squat at the 2010 Philly RKC

In spite of this improvement, my squats are still my weakest movement. My first few squats are never pretty and I need quite a bit a time to warm-up to the movement. [UPDATE: As you can see in the photo below, this is still an issue]

Not a "perfect" squat but a decent enough example. Dog and UGG slippers not required.

Not a “perfect” squat but a decent enough example. Dog and UGG slippers not required.


I’m still a work in progress.

The Love

In spite of “The Hate” squats are good. They are an effective full body movement that work multiple joint and muscle groups (quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteus maximus, calves and spine). A combination of hip flexion and extension, knee flexion and extension and trunk extension – make squats a useful, functional movement.

We squat throughout our day – sitting down and standing up from a chair, picking your 19 pound baby* up from his play mat, getting in and out of your car. Squats are your ticket to independence as you age. Want to avoid those embarrassing “go help grandma or off the toilet” moments years from now? Start squatting now to develop strong leg and hip muscles.

We’ve got outer strength, function, and independence – now let’s add that feeling of inner strength and the aesthetic benefits of squatting (sculpted legs and glutes sound good?) and we’ve go two more reasons to show the squat some love.

Unfortunately, squats get a bad rap. They have a reputation for being bad for your knees and back, and done improperly they can be, but with proper form or appropriate modifications (like wall, doorway, TRX or ball squats) they are a safe and essential movement. Of course you should always follow the direction of your healthcare provider if you’ve been told not to squat, but you may want to challenge the idea of never, ever doing a squat (remember the toilet).

The Technique

    1. Your feet should be at shoulder width or slightly wider, turned out 30 – 45 degrees. Keeping your feet parallel locks up the hips and ankles for most people and will cause deviations in form like excessive trunk flexion (rounding of the lumbar spine thoracic spine/shoulders) and excess forward movement of the knees and shoulders. In addition squatting that way can decrease range of motion and adversely affect balance. However if you have the mobility to squat with your feet in parallel and the rest of your form is perfect, go for it!
    2. Stand of tall with your chest open (rounding the shoulders “closes” the chest) and your eyes looking straight ahead (not at the ground our ceiling)

squat-1

    1. Start the movement at your hips and not your knees. Push your hips back as if sitting in a chair. Bend your knees as you continue to move your hips back and down towards the floor. Think of dropping your hips straight down as you get lower. Continue to lower until your hip creases are just below your knees (tops of the thighs will be below parallel to the floor).

squat-2

    1. Beginners or those needing modification should stop when the top of your thighs are parallel to the floor. Some forward movement at the knees may occur but this is OK as long as your tibia (shinbones) don’t shift forward. In addition, your tibia and torso should be parallel with each other from a side view.
    2. Your heels should be “glued” to the floor throughout the movement.
    3. Make sure to keep your back flat and your chest and shoulders open at the bottom of the squat as well

squat-3

    1. Press through your feet and heels to start the upward phase of the movement. Do not initiate the up phase by lifting your buttocks up first, instead imagine standing up through your shoulders. Pretend your the base of a cheer leading pyramid. Move the hips and torso together to return to standing.

squat-4

If you have poor flexibility at the ankle, Achilles, hip or knee you might find squatting to or below parallel difficult. These flexibility issues may also cause you to round throughout your torso. Don’t abandon squatting to below parallel though (medical issues aside). Squat as low as you can with perfect form (see above) and practice some of the aforementioned modifications to help you groove the form. Think of these modifications as your training wheels. They’re not a cheat just a tool to help you on your squat journey. Adding mobility work and corrective movement exercises will also help improve and correct your form.

Now – squat it like it’s hot!

squatitlikeitshot

*The 19 pound baby is now a 38 pound toddler who’s weight now requires deadlifting not squatting in order for floor pick ups. These pick ups frequently occur when he is tantruming or yelling “Pick it [me] up!”

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