Exercise 101 – The Squat – Fact from Fiction!
Over the past couple of weeks I have been thinking over and over how I would ever cover all the bases to do with the squat! The amount of contrasting information out there is incredible. So, in order to really look at what information and advice is truly sound, I had to consult both mine and others’ personal experience with overcoming problems with the squat. Combining bio-mechanics, physiology and experience provides the best guidance on this fundamental exercise. First I will introduce you to the basics. Be prepared though as this is a long article, but it will prove very useful.
How to squat?
Firstly the length of your legs and torso influences the knee position during your squats. So, your knees may or may not come over your toes depending on your build. Knee position is therefore irrelevant. What matters is knee stability and the following teaching points:
- Stand with the feet shoulder width apart, knees and feet turned outward – allowing the knees to open, means you can greater utilise hip mobility (Remember hips should be mobile, knees should be stable).
- Bend FIRST at the hips, then the knees, and use your hamstrings to pull your body downward (aiming for below parallel). Controlling this movement, prevents “bouncing” on the knees and also effectively works the muscles during the eccentric phase of the exercise.
- Keep the back straight and the head up throughout.
- To stand up, FIRST squeeze the glutes, then the quads (pushing them down and outward to stabilise the knees). Power the hips up then forward, NOT forward then up (this prevents the body leaning forward).
- Squeeze the glutes all the way to the top until the hips “snap” forward and the body is stable – keeping the glutes active throughout helps prevent lower back and knee injuries (explained later).
What’s the big deal about squats?
The squat is an amazingly beneficial exercise that not only targets the legs, but core and upper body too. It is great for gaining muscle, strength, flexibility and stability. Because it is a functional exercise we can benefit from the movement and the strength gained from it in every day life. Also, because it uses so many muscles together, it’s a super calorie burner!
What’s the Problem then?
Modern life is the problem, when it comes to performing a proper squat. It is the disfunctions that we develop through lack of activity that are responsible for the problems that are associated with squatting! Not the squat itself. All exercises, if done incorrectly or more accurately, without correct awareness, will cause all sorts of problems. If we become more aware of where the problems actually lie, then we can work towards correcting them, without the need to avoid an excellent exercise which has so many benefits!
Where do the problems lie?
It is clear through my research that the problems lie in 6 main areas:
- Weak, dormant and/or tight posterior chain muscles (hamstrings, lower back, calves and the glutes)
- Over dominant hip flexors
- Poor hip mobility
- Weak, unstable knees
- Poor core activation
- Being mentally disconnected to your body – lack of co-ordination and awareness of movements.
So what now?
- First warm up WELL! This increases synovial fluid in the joints, which protects them, and increases flexibility of the muscles. It also starts connecting your mind to you muscles, so FOCUS. If you are going to be doing weighted squats, warm up by including some body weight squats to your routine, this will help warm up the correct squatting muscles, or at least prepare you for the squat. Then follow the drills below.
- Firstly, below is a videos of a few select exercises to help “re-activate” the glutes and mobilise the hips:
- Now, below is a video with demonstrations of a hip flexor and hamstring stretch routine. In addition to the hamstring warm up here, I would recommend one hamstring stretch in between sets of squats, just to keep lengthening them, but only do one. At the end of your workout, you can then add a longer stretch in:
It is ONLY when we squat below parallel that the posterior chain is truly activated. Therefore squatting no deeper than that will only benefit the quads and likely contribute to tightening the hamstrings and lower back. If you only ever move within one plane of movement, you will never gain full range. However, the depth of the squat can impact on the lower back.
Lower back “rounding”
If your flexibility only allows you to squat to parallel before your lower back rounds, then you need more work on hamstring flexibility. This “rounding” effect can potentially put too much strain on the spinal discs and cause pain. The lower back may allow for deeper squats in the future though, as flexibility improves.
What does this lower back “rounding” look like? Below are 2 videos of lower back “rounding” on these random YouTubers. I couldn’t get an obvious enough video of mine rounding, so here is a typical example (men generally get it worse than women, but women are build to be more supple – sorry guys!):
This one is body weight only:
Here, the rounding issue is not his only one. This is also an example of leading with the knees and not “pulling” yourself down into the squat, he just drops – and especially with weights involved, this is potentially very dangerous for his back and knees:
Personally, I always squatted deeper than parallel, despite the “rounding”, as I was unaware. However now this has greatly improved. I put this down to glute activation, and overall strength gain. My hamstrings now do their job and not the glutes’ so they function properly thus preventing this rounding. If I have not fully warmed up, I do still get more rounding.
What about knees?
Knee pain can come from many things, but ironically what strengthens and stabilises them, are strong and flexible hamstrings and glutes (which squats help build). If your knees have been over-compensating for the lack of hamstring strength/flexibility then they will be more prone to injury. Also, with lack of glute activation, the squat will be quad dominant on the upward phase, leaning the body forward and placing more pressure on the knees.
If your knees bow inwards, you may also have weak abductor muscles (this includes the glute medius), so concentrate on pushing down and outward with your quads and feet on the upward phase of the squat. The “Jane Fonda’s” will help here too.
With regards to squatting deeper, this should not injure your knees, it does however help in strengthening them, because you are activating the posterior chain more.
What else will help my squats?
- Do Box Squats – having a bench behind you to sit on will help you visualise the correct movement, in that a squat is pulling the hips downwards, not the knees. The knees just support. It will also help take the pressure off the lower back and allow you to focus on squeezing the correct muscles on the upward phase.
- Swing! The Kettlebell Swing is one of the best hamstring, glute, and hip exercises, so use it! This is when you really notice if the glutes are active, as the swing is so much harder without the hip “snap”. The hip snap should allow the Kettlebell to travel to shoulder height without the shoulder rolling forward, or the arms helping. The swing is also a great dynamic warm up exercise for the posterior chain. Only difference for a warm up is lighten the load.
- Pose! I’m not being funny here, but posing is one of the best ways to become aware of your body and link what you want to happen, to what actually happens. Get yourself in front of a mirror and practice Activating the Core for example, or tensing certain target muscles and gain control of your body. It is well known that fitness models and bodybuilders have a hard time mastering this “art”, and it may be more about showing off and a little vain, but it is a pretty useful exercise – and I use the word “exercise” on purpose, because it’s hard work!
How will I ever master the squat (to sum up)?
- Keep focused, keep practicing.
- Body weight first.
- Add in split squats for “balance” between leg strength, as we all have a dominant side.
- Think glutes glutes glutes! I swear this is the best thing I ever did, was activate my glutes!
Let me share a story about my glutes LOL. When my arthritis was really bad I could not clench my butt on one side, it was so sore and nothing seemed to happen. When I did squats, the knee on that side bowed inward and my whole body swayed one way. What I know now is the synergist muscles were compensating for lack of glute action and my glute medius, lower back and even my groin would be tight and sore – all these muscles were in spasm and pretty useless for squatting.
Now, since the pain has gone, the glutes can tighten and balance has been returned (after a long road). Now, my body is spasm free and my flexibility is returning I knew my butt was my best feature, but I never really knew why until now.
Make your butts your best feature and waken them up!
I REALLY hope I have covered enough LOL to help you get the most from your squats. Proper form is one thing, but you need to first be aware of which muscles need to work and how.
Please leave feedback and let me know if this was useful. If I have missed anything, point it out and I’ll try to help.
Enjoy the drills and happy squatting