Over the coming weeks as part of the ‘Exercise That Matter’ series we’re going to look at a number of the basic exercises that people can do in a gym or at home in order to help them to build healthy body.
The first one we’re going to look at is the squat.
Now I’ll have to put my cards on the table and say that the squat is an absolute personal favourite of mine, something I really enjoy doing, benefit hugely from and I know that my body responds well to. But notwithstanding my own personal favouritism towards this, it is an extremely important movement for human beings to do. As Paul Chek describes it, it is one of our key primal movement patterns, one of the key movements that we do on a day-to-day basis and it happens all the time.
If you start to look around your day, the first thing you do in the morning to get out of bed is perform a squat, unless you sleep on a bed that’s about four foot tall. Every time you get out of a car you’re performing a squat. Getting up from the dinner table, or your desk at work, you’re performing a squat. So they’re everywhere and you are performing this movement all the time.
Additionally, one of the beautiful things to watch is how a baby moves from the crawling phase into the standing phase, because what a baby will actually do as it’s pulling itself up off a table, nine times out of ten, it will fall over because the balance isn’t there to help it stand up. If it doesn’t fall over, but stays on it’s feet, what it actually does is drop down into the most beautifully balanced and deepest of squats that you’re probably ever going to see. It’s a really wonderful thing and certainly as my kids were growing up it was just fantastic to witness how easily they drop down into that squat, but then equally how easily they came up against it.
As my kids were at that age, it was also at a time when there was a bit of a clamour from physiotherapists primarily, to tell you that squatting past 90 degrees was not a good thing for your knees. Well, I’m sorry, but in the instance of two babies who have grown up with perfectly healthy knees, squatting does not damage the knees. Bad squatting may damage the knees but good squatting most definitely doesn’t.
Well, apart from being hugely beneficial in terms of joint mobility for the lower body, so to squat well you need good movement of the hips, the knees and the ankles. But what it also does, unlike any other exercise, it strengthens and works out the muscles that are involved in the squat. Now, the muscles that are involved in the squat are pretty much almost every muscle in the body, which is why we describe it as a big bang exercise.
With one exercise you’re getting a huge workout for many, many different parts of the body. So all the muscles of the legs are involved, either as big movers, or prime movers as we call them, or simply through stabilisers. So the muscles that take the leg away to one side and pull it back in are called the abductors, and the abductors are involved in squatting, but more from a stability point of view to help hold the legs in the correct position.
But not just muscles of the legs get a work out. Muscles of the core get a workout and more than that, the organs in the torso get a nice, good workout because, as part of the squat, we also have what’s called a bend, and the bend pattern is a key part of a human’s movement. One of these primal movement patterns that Paul Chek talks about.
By involving a bend in the squat, it’s actually physically impossible to not bend when you squat, what you therefore get is a benefit in terms of massaging the internal organs through the compaction of the torso. Now as your torso bends, the internal organs get a nice massage and it helps to keep all the blood pumping, all the fluid pumping through your internal organs.
Adding onto that, we can also then start to use the core muscles to stabilise, particularly this is absolutely essential when we’re adding weight into a squat, core stability with weighted squats is an absolutely essential part of the movement.
And then another part that people don’t really often understand is how a squat, particularly through the bend, helps to pump the cerebral spinal fluid. Now this is the fluid that surrounds the spinal column and helps to nourish and feed the spinal cord, which again is a very, very important part of staying a healthy human being.
So those are just some of the benefits of squatting. I’d like to take a moment, and with the aid of some of the pictures, to help me describe how to squat well.
How to squat properly and safely
Now, one of the things obviously, the squat starts in the full standing position. We don’t start from the bottom ordinarily. So from the standing position, one of the key things to understand is the first movement should be a backwards movement of the hips. I think this is really, really important to understand this point. It’s not a big point in terms of the overall squat, but get this part right and the rest of it starts to look correct and goes naturally into the position we would want it to.
Too many people start squatting by moving their knees forwards and what that then does is that opens up a whole load of other habits, which actually make the squat look and perform completely against what we’re trying to achieve.
So to start the movement, the hips move backwards. Your torso is obviously going to have to bend a little bit for the reasons that we’ve spoken about, but if it remains upright and the hips start the movement by going backwards, then the actual movement puts itself together relatively well, because there are two key aspects to a squat (from a technical point of view), which are really, really important.
Keep feet flat on the floor
The first one is that the feet must remain flat on the floor at all times. Squatting onto your toes is not a good natural squat. It’s also extremely unstable and anybody that is trying to squat onto their toes with weight is simply asking for a disaster and is being extremely dangerous.
Keep knees in line with your toes
The second key essential to the squat is that the knees must remain in line and no further forward than the toes, and ideally the second tow, which is generally for most people the longest toe.
So as you’re performing the squat we start hips going backwards, chest remains relatively upright. I always encourage my clients to keep the chest panel, which is the sternum or the breastbone, looking up towards the ceiling, or certainly towards the top part of the wall in front of them. And then as the hips drop down, somewhere towards the bottom half of the squat, the time then comes for the knees to move slightly forward. As I said before the knees should never be moving further forward than the toes and you can then continue to drop down into the squat.
Essentially, you can drop as far as your flexibility will take you. If I’m doing body weight squats then I will drop right down until I’m in the full squat position, as I noticed and saw my children doing all those years ago. And then it’s very simply a question of lifting back up and coming back up into the fully stood position.
Now, there will be a couple of other things to understand and to watch out for as you’re squatting. A simple squat is actually quite an effective way of seeing how stiff you are, or whether there’s an imbalance, or a joint stiffness problem in the lower part of the body. If you have the benefit of squatting in front of a mirror, another thing to look out for is whether the hips do not move sideways to the left or the right, and essentially the crease that’s in the middle of most people’s trousers, or shorts, or leggings actually stay slap bang in the middle of the feet. If that happens and the knees stay over the toes and the feet stay flat on the floor, you’re looking good. If they don’t, then it’s time to look a little bit deeper and find out why, and for that I would generally advise you to find the services of a good exercise professional. This should be a relatively straightforward thing for them to find out, identify what’s going wrong and help you put it right.
If we start to see the knees moving too far forward, if we start to see the toes coming off the floor, if we start to see the hips moving backwards, or that chest panel dropping down so it’s looking down towards the ground rather than further up, then we know your body is not quite ready for a squat and it’s really, really important that the technique you use is as strong as it possibly can be so that you don’t incur any injuries.
If you’re seeing either of those four things that I’ve previously mentioned and you continue to squat without correcting that, then you are going to going to be putting your body in a position where it’s more likely to get injured, and that’s obviously not the name of the game.
Take it up a notch
Now the squat I’ve been talking about so far is an unweighted squat and it’s a really good place to start and you can gain huge benefits just from doing unweighted squats. You can challenge yourself more by doing more of course. One way would be to do the squats more slowly. You can change the position of your hands, move them up to your ears, or to move them across your shoulders, or even right up in the air above you and all of this will change your squat slightly so that you get a different challenge to your workout.
You can of course add weights to the squat, but adding weights to a squat does increase the technical side of the squat as it places a much bigger demand on the core and therefore opens up the spine to more injury. So I would advise you to get some professional coaching to make sure that you’re doing it properly. You shouldn’t need a lot, but enough to make sure that you’re safe and sound and that you have good, tight core muscles that can help support your spine to bear the loads.
Obviously then there are different places that you can put the weight. It can go on your back, it can go on the front of your shoulders, you can hold some dumbbells down in front of you, which then makes it more of a dead lift, which is another exercise we’ll come onto in the ‘Movement That Matters’ series, and the variations just continue to open up.
But the basis and the foundation of it all is a good, simple squat technique and this is something that I do recommend everybody has a really good go at. It’s a movement that, if you want to get a nice healthy body, it’s something that you need to master.