Squat-ology When most people hear the word “squat” in regards to exercise they cringe. Mostly that reaction is because someone, somewhere along the line told them not to because it is bad for you. Well, it would be true if we were not meant to squat. I’m here to tell you that squatting is a perfectly natural movement. We were definitely meant to do it. In fact, our bodies were made to squat. It is essential for us to be able to move into that extreme range of motion for several reasons including digestion, strength, balance, coordination, spine health, and out of pure necessity. According to several studies on the subject of digestion and internal health, the thighs pressing on the abdomen help “massage” the lower intestines and aid in the elimination process. Still to this day, indigenous tribes spend large amounts of time in the full squat position while working. They are able to do this because of our innate ability to do so. They have done it since birth and never stopped. Do you need proof? The next time you are around an infant, pay close attention to how they pick something up off of the floor, or how they use the squat as a rest position while they are playing. They have perfect form! Feet are flat, back is straight and they are perfectly balanced! It’s amazing. How do they do that? No one ever taught them, its pure instinct! We were born to squat. No aches, no pains, no limits in range of motion, just pure instinct. Only as we get older, weaker, lazier, and less confident in our own ability to use our bodies, do we lose the ability to squat. How do we fix that? Well, part of the problem is poor training, and lack of necessity. If our easy, push-button, lazy lifestyle never requires us to get down into a squat, why should we? The other problem is, when we do need to squat, we are uncertain because the medical industry tells us not to, because it is bad for us. How did they come up with that? Perhaps it is because we have squatted improperly, with too much weight, poor form, with weight belts, for too many years. Improper techniques have caused the rise in injuries, leading to an increasing amount of knee and back surgeries. So where does that leave us? As we get older, the natural need to squat decreases. We lose strength in various parts of the body (i.e. hamstrings, gluteus and lower back), and this limits our range of motion until squatting is just flat out uncomfortable. So, most of the lower body exercises and tasks we take on, including most people’s “version” of a squat, become quad dominant. Quad dominant means, your quadriceps do most of the work when we need to use our legs for work or exercise. Examples; going up and down stairs (on the ball of the foot, quads and calves), walking (quads and calves), jogging (quads and calves), most aerobic classes (quads and calves) cycling without clips (quads and calves) leg press machines (quads and calves), most squat machines (quads and calves), smith machine (conventional technique- feet out in front, quads and calves), step ups on a 12” step (quads and calves). I have trained thousands of people over the last 15 years including elite athletes, and I can tell you only 1% of those people knew how to squat correctly, and how to train their hamstrings, gluteus and lower back. In the fitness and physical therapy world, it is common knowledge (well it should be) that lower back issues start due to hamstring weakness. The lower back, hamstrings, and glutes always work together and share the same fate. If one is weak, there is an imbalance and the other two have to take up the slack. Typically they become over-used, stressed, and inflamed. Frequently either the hamstrings and/or the gluteus, are weak, resulting in a lower back that becomes inflamed. This happens because most people are rarely required to fully use either hamstring or glute muscles in their daily activity. The only time these muscles are needed is when we are sprinting and jumping at a high intensity. The main functions of these muscle groups are hip extension and knee flexion. Both are present when sprinting and jumping. Since most of our lives don’t require us to do this, these muscles are the first (of the three) to atrophy as we age. Since the glutes are primarily muscles which contract on demand, they become flaccid as they atrophy. The hamstrings are a very important component of posture. They must maintain a certain amount tone, so as they atrophy, they become tight to help the pelvis hold us upright and fight the forces of gravity. As the lower back is over-used, it becomes more inflamed limiting the amount of movement allowed (decreased range of motion). As this happens, the hamstrings become extremely tight causing added stress on the back. It is a vicious cycle that can only be stopped by properly strengthening the hamstring and glutei complex. The best way to strengthen all of these muscles together, and the way GOD intended, is to SQUAT! Obviously, in the extreme environment I mentioned above, micro- progression is required. You must isolate the hamstrings first to relieve tension on the lower back. This can be done with any of several knee flexion and hip extension exercises. Next, isolate the glute complex with hip abduction (at all angles) and hip extension exercises, in order to increase hip range of motion and SI (sacroiliac joint) compression. Once this is established, you can be taught the correct way to squat. There are many versions of a squat. I have been extremely successful teaching the proper mechanics of a squat to many people of all ages, sizes, and limitations. Correct form is only achieved when I can assess a person’s ability to maintain balance, center of gravity, and hip mobility. Once I have identified these factors, including the height and length of the femur, I can establish the proper foot placement. Proper foot placement is, the center of heel directly in line, vertically, with the center of the shoulder joint. After proper foot placement is acquired, and the arms are fully extended straight out in front, I coach them on three basic points; 1) Completely flat feet at all times, 2) Completely rigid neutral spine, and 3) Stay balanced over your center of gravity. As someone reaches the bottom of a full squat, the lower spine tucks under and flexes the lower five vertebrae. This is how the extreme lower back and SI complex is strengthened, naturally. Most trainers, physical therapists and coaches will try to restrict knee movement by telling clients to keep their knees from going over their toes. This is wrong! Everyone is built differently. It is impossible for some people, just based on the length of their femur. As long as the feet stay flat, with 90-100% of their body weight between their heels and ball of the foot, they will be in perfect balance. This allows the HIP to do the work of the squat, as intended. In most cases, the knees will be lined directly above or in front of the toes, which places the force in the hip, not the knee. Based on force angles and body geometry, if you restrict knee movement you will send most of the force thru the knee joint and lower back. The squat is a HIP exercise. If done correctly, you will allow the hamstrings and gluteus to dominate this movement, gaining incredible results. One of the best tools I have used is a picture of an infant squatting while playing. It is an excellent visual tool for me to show clients. Teaching someone how to use their legs the way they were intended is a very rewarding experienced. I have helped many people completely eliminate all back, hip, and hamstring pain with these techniques. After earning a bachelor degree in exercise science, 15 years of experience, continuing education in kinesiology, biomechanics, neurology, muscle anatomy, human physiology, and sport specific strength and conditioning, I completely understand human mechanics. If each client is prepared correctly, weaknesses identified, and micro-progression is used, the results are amazing. Regardless of what you were taught, heard, or read, the leg press and squat machines are NOT good substitutions for a properly executed squat. As a matter of fact, it is a mistake to put anyone on a leg press machine unless you are targeting the quads. The risk of hurting the back and knees is significantly increased on these machines. This is because you are not in control of your body or the force angles with the assistance of a machine. There is no replacement for a Squat, or a pull up, or a push up. All of these movements require the body to function at its fullest potential, requiring high amounts of nervous activity and coordination within the muscle system. That is unmatched by any machine of any kind. Do not fear the squat! It is one of the single most important exercises one can learn and master for lower back and leg health. Invest the time building the proper foundation and the results will astonish you. Your lower back will feel awesome, and your knees will be strong. Your hamstring injuries will disappear, you will feel like you can jump through the roof and run through walls. Now let’s SQUAT!