In short yes! If you want continue to be able to sit in a chair, sofa or bed and stand back up without hurting yourself then you definitely need to be squatting. Now This does not have to mean barbell back squatting with 200lbs on your back. A squat is a movement pattern, how you set-up or add load are different ways to vary that pattern. Regardless of variation it’s all still a squat. So we’re going to talk about what exactly a squat is. The different types of squats, ways to incorporate and the question so many people are asking. How to avoid or eliminate ankle, back or knee pain from squats!
What is a Squat?
The first thing to understand is what a squat actually is. Technically a squat is a compound bilateral knee-dominant movement. So let’s break down exactly what that means
Bilateral – While there are exercises that borrow the word ‘squat’ (pistol squat) for a true squat you’re planted on 2 feet
Knee dominant – The flexion/extension of your knees is a primary driver moving you from point A to point B. This does not mean that you should be grinding on you knees as you move. Which brings us to the next component
Compound – Compound movement means there are multiple joints and muscle groups working simultaneously to achieve proper form. While the main joint action happens at your knees, your hips and ankles are pretty damn active as well.
So why is all that technical jargon necessary. No not because I’m trying to prove to you that I know big words. It’s important because it gives you clarity. Clarity on what this movement should look like and how the mechanics of it actually work. If one of these pieces is missing you end up with squats that looks like this:
Now if just looking ridiculous isn’t enough reason to perfect your form let’s really dive into the purpose of a proper squat
3 reasons You Should be Squatting
Avoid back pain
That’s right, one of the many reasons people choose not to squat is the very reason you should make it a regular part of your routine. Maintaining proper posture during a squat is not an easy task and is not to be taken lightly. Think about what your posture looks like when you sit and stand, you know when you’re not thinking about exercising. Most of us curl our spines forward and twist or shift our weight in all kinds of directions so gravity does most of the work for us. A proper squat doesn’t look like that, you’re focused and controlled your spine is neutral and your core is working pretty hard to make all of that happen. Training your core to brace in this manner against any amount of load whether that’s your body weight, dumbbells, kettlebells or a barbell ensures that it has the capacity to do it’s real job. Protect your spine. The stronger your core, that better your posture and the healthier your spine.
And to be clear core does not mean abs. Core mean abs, obliques, lats, pecs, erectors, rhomboids and everything else that encompasses your trunk
Daily life without pain
No one wants to look like they’re 100yrs old getting up & down from a chair when they’re in their 30s, 40s, 50s or ever if they can avoid it. Simply put what you train for translates to daily life. Think about athletes, boxers, dancers, basketball players, etc. How do they carry themselves day to day? What does their posture look like? And what kind of movement or posture is required in their sport? Chances are you’ve never seen a professional dancer that walks or sits hunched over and you’ve never seen a serious fighter that’s stiff or rigid all the time. That’s because the more you practice something the more it translates and becomes involuntary. This does not mean you need to brace and breathe like you’re in the gym every time you sit at your desk. Just take notice and practice the fundamentals of your squats when possible. Eventually the better you get the less you’ll need to think about it.
How to Squat Properly
Squatting properly isn’t just a matter of correct form, but also choosing the correct type of squat based on your current fitness level (both experience & any relevant pain or injuries) and your goals. As I mentioned, the barbell back squat isn’t the only type of squat that matters and it’s also not the pinnacle movement to work toward for everyone. If you specifically want to build traditional powerlifting strength then yes the barbell back squat is important. However if you’re an olympic lifter or a gymnast front squats and/or Zercher squats are likely a better fit for you.
Lets say you’re simply focused on moving better and building muscle/strength or your performance goals focus more on a specific sport of activity such as running, basketball, volleyball etc. Unless you just love them, barbell squats really aren’t necessary for you. Instead consider goblet squats or unilaterally loaded squats. If you’re a runner using unilateral load should be a vital part of your program. This ensures your body can handle the repetitive shifting of weight that occurs as you run. However, if you simply want to feel a bit better and prevent the physical signs of aging then bodyweight or lightly loaded squats and box squats are plenty for your purposes. Refer to my ‘Functional Training‘ post to get a better understanding of how to match activity to goals & lifestyle
Now that you’ve chosen which variation best suits you there’s the matter of perfecting form when you squat. This diagram from Pheasyque is by far one of my favorite ways to demonstrate proper form. Though the image is specifically demonstrating a barbell squat these mechanics are applicable to all variations. Even when considering deep squats and the yoga squat. The mechanics as you move into position are the same the goal and point of depth is simply different.
In addition to adjusting leverage during a squat another vital component is proper distribution of force through your feet. Simply put this means ensuring that you’re applying pressuring not evenly but proportionate to the muscle groups that should be most active during the movement. This all sounds more complicated than it needs to be. The easiest way to achieve correct force distribution is through a visual. Stand up. Now imagine that you’re standing on a large piece of paper. Without lifting your feet try to rip that piece of paper evenly in half with your feet. You should feel pressure along the heel and outside of both feet. This is the exact same force distribution that should occur during your squat.
Now what about the initial set up? There is a LOT of variance here. Should your feet be narrow at hip width? Should they be shoulder width? Or maybe setting your feet wide in sumo is best. And what about toe position? Straight ahead, slightly turned out or turned out toward the corners of the room. I’ll delve into this more in a later post but for now just focus on proper weight distribution in your feet & equal leverage at the hips an knees. Adjust your set up until you find a sweet spot that allows your to easily achieve both and reach or very nearly reach a point of depth with your thighs parallel with the floor. Deeper squat depth than this is entirely dependent on personal goals.
Prevent Knee Pain From Squats
Now that we’ve discussed proper form I would just like to point out the most common causes of knee pain from squats & how to prevent them.
Lack of ankle mobility As you can see in this image, a proper squat requires less than a 90 degree angle at the ankles. If your ankles don’t allow for this degree of flexion you won’t be able to achieve proper form an d your body will compensate be either folding forward in your torso or by thrusting your weight into your toes toward the bottom of the squat. This will result in either back or knee pain.
What to do: Begin every workout whether you’re squatting or not with ankle mobility. Specifically drills that mimic the motion of a squat. Remove the weight from your squats and focus on form in either a box squat or a bodyweight squat (air squat). Diligently stick to this routine for 4-6 weeks and then slowly reintroduce weight
Lack of core control: This will have a similar outcome Either your torso will collapse forward resulting in either a round back or your chest will be resting on your knees/thighs as you descend. This distribution of weight toward the front of your body puts a great deal of pressure on your knees. It can also results in back pain while squatting due to the excessive flexion of your spine.
What to do: The most obvious adjustment to your routine is strengthening your core. This does not mean crunches and sit-ups, those exercises only encourage a rounder spine. Instead incorporate core stabilization exercises such as hollow holds, planks, pallof press, deadbugs, plank pull throughs, etc. Proper breathing is also a major component in preventing a lazy core during your squat. Many people swear my the Valsalva maneuver, however that doesn’t work for everyone. Try taking a deep holding tightly as you descend and then rather than blocking your airway as your stand up forcefully exhale all the air in your body as you ascend. Hissing as you do this helps. The goals should be to go from full lungs & diaphragm to empty as quickly as physically possible. Doing this naturally creates more inter-abdominal pressure which produces more force to control the movement.
Improper leverage or force distribution: See previous section.
“Strength doesn’t come from what you can do. It comes from overcoming the things you once thought you couldn’t.” – Rikki Rogers
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