The Squat

My clients and boot campers probably think that I’m obsessed with squats. We do them in some form at every workout.

I have a love/hate relationship with squats and because of the hate I must torture my clients with them.

The Hate

Anatomy, flexibility and years of faulty technique doomed my squat and started the hate part of our relationship, but CrossFit training and later, Kettlebell training changed that.

Both disciplines focus on some “primitive” movement patterns, the squat being one. During my early training with CrossFit and Kettlebells felt like I was constantly, frustratingly, working the squat.

During my training at both gyms I was assigned all sorts of variations and tricks 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. Because of my 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 with the occasional flexibility exercise (I hate stretching more than I hate squatting) worked in.

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 my CrossFit Level 1 certification 18 months prior when I was literally called out to the middle of our group’s circle for having particularly bad squats.

I still hate squats though. My first few bodyweight squats (whether air squats or prisoner squats) are never pretty. My legs and hips are always a little unsteady and tight and I never sit back quite far enough on the first few. As for weighted squats (i.e. goblet, front, overhead or back squats), well they’re just – hard.

The Love

In spite of The Hate squats are good. They are an effective full body movement that work multiple muscle groups (quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteus maximus, calves and spine). A combination of hip flexion (forward hip bending) and extension (backward bend at the hip, knee flexion (bending) and extension (straightening the knee) and trunk extension (straightening the spine), squats are a functional movement, mimicking things that we do in everyday life – 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 your age. Want to avoid those embarrassing “help grandma or grandpop off the toilet moments”? Start squatting now to develop strong leg and hip muscles.

Squats make me feel tough and that’s why l love them. Every time I pick my 19 pound baby up from his play mat without fear or pain I feel strong.

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 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

-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 it will decrease range of motion and adversely affect balance. Some people have the mobility to squat with their feet in parallel but most people lack the flexibility (especially at the ankle) to do a feet parallel squat. However if you have the mobility and the rest of your form is perfect, go for it!

-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)

-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 parallel to the floor (tops of the thighs will be below parallel). 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 should be minimal. Make sure your tibia (shinbones) don’t shift forward. Forward shifting at the knee is OK as long as your tibia and torso are parallel with each other for a side view. Your heels should be “glued” to the floor.

-Make sure that your back is flat throughout the movement and that you continue to look out onto the horizon and keep your chest and shoulders open.

-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. Move the hips and torso together to return to standing.

Squatting beyond parallel – why:

For years the common directive has been “Never squat below parallel”, however never breaking parallel doesn’t give you’re the most bang for your buck.  Earlier I noted that the squat works your quadracips, hamstrings and glutes, however a squat that doesn’t break parallel is a quad dominant (quads do most of the work) movement that doesn’t provide as much benefit to the hamstrings and glutes.

If you have poor flexibility at the ankle, Achilles, hip or knee, squatting to or below parallel will be difficult if not impossible. Adding stretches specific to those areas to your routine will help increase the depth of your squats.  Long femurs (thighbones) also impact the depth of your squat (this along with poor ankle and hip flexibility had the greatest impact on my squatting ability).

Now drop and gimme 20 (squats that is).