Let’s talk about one of our main functional movements: the Squat. In our humble opinion, this exercise is overrated in its ability to “grow your peach”. However, it’s rather underrated in its ability to help you build real strength through your whole body.
This exercise primarily uses the muscles of the legs and the hips so is usually considered a lower-body exercise, although here at RGF we like to think of pretty much every exercise as a full-body exercise.
The Glutes and Hamstrings will help stabilise the lower body as the hips flex and the knees bend. The powerful Quadricep muscle will then help you drive the leg straight whilst the glutes also aid the hips back into their extended position.
When teaching the squat to our members we also like to remember the importance of using a group of muscles in the hip, called the External Rotators. These muscles help create external rotation at the hip which is essential for a good squat and proper glute engagement. We also like to teach people how keeping tension throughout the upper and core helps build a neutral spine.
Everybody is different and the anatomy of our bodies varies. Some people have hip sockets that are angled backwards (retroversion) or forwards (anteversion), or somewhere in between. People with retroverted hips will mean that you find it more comfortable to turn the feet out, while people with anteverted hips finding it more comfortable to keep the feet straight. You will be somewhere along this spectrum. An individual’s ankle, hip and T-spine mobility will also affect the form of a squat, though this is something that can be worked on.
In spite of this, there are still some basic points to be aware of when squatting so that your form is functional and effective.
The first of these is making sure that the knees don’t cave inwards. This is known as knee valgus and is often affected by the hips and the feet. This can lead to knee pain from the pressure being put on the knee joint and causing the foot to collapse. This is not a very powerful position to move from and will often cause the back to round forward.
If you find that your knees cave inwards then it is important to focus on driving your hips out (externally rotating and slightly abducting) by thinking about pushing into where your pockets usually sit. This movement will then help to drive the knees outwards, so long as you also focus on gripping through the ground with your feet and driving the feet out slightly. This should allow you to get more depth and to keep the power in the movement.
The second point we tend to pick up on, which is often affected by an individual’s limited ankle mobility (reduced dorsiflexion), is making sure the knees drive over the toes. You may have heard the rumour that it’s dangerous for your knees to move over the toes during a squat, but this is absolute BS. a rumour that no one is really sure where it came from.
Biomechanically speaking, to perform a good squat we need to keep our centre of mass over the midfoot to do this our knees must track over our toes. Does this create extra stress in the knee? Yes but you perform this same movement every day. Sitting on the toilet, walking down stairs or kneeling on the ground all require the knees tracking past the toes. If you have ‘sensitive knees or reduced ankle mobility then this movement is going to take practice, but it is vital for the squat.
Our third teaching point is creating and maintaining a neutral spine. A lot of people have a tendency to round their back and shoulders during squat movement. Not too much of an issue when doing bodyweight squats, but as soon as you introduce load then this will put undue stress through the spine. This can often be caused by a lack of thoracic mobility (upper back) or a lack of core strength.
Properly bracing the core during the squat will allow you to maintain good lumbar support, whilst bringing tension into the shoulderblades will spot the thoracic spine from rounding. Think about trying to lift your spine as tall as possible during the whole movement. As you drive up from the bottom position be sure that the chest and shoulders are first to rise as you maintain that neutral spine.
The Everyday Movment
The Squat is a movement that can easily be experienced in your everyday life. You may be petting a dog, picking up your child or even just sitting down on the sofa, squatting will appear in all shapes and sizes.
The more you notice how the squat naturally blends into your daily life, the more opportunities you then get to practise it. If you start seeing these movements as daily ‘reps’ of the exercise, instead of just things in your day, you can start to create a more functional version of yourself without breaking a sweat.
For example, if you were sat on the sofa and decided you wanted a snack. Rather than just place your hands on your knees or on the side of the sofa to push yourself up, think about setting your weight into your feet and stand up using your legs. There you have turned getting off the sofa into a mini exercise without really changing much, you were going to get up anyway right?
If you’re unloading the washing machine, don’t just bend over and grab stuff out. Think about controlling your descent as you squat down and holding a good squat position whilst you place it all in the basket. Now you’ve just performed a pause squat whilst doing some of your chores.
Next time you pick your child up, think about building tension through your whole body as you drive up from that squat position. You’ve just done a weighted squat… its as easy as that.
If you start becoming aware of how you perform these ‘everyday reps’ not only will these movements become more efficient and pain free but your progress in the gym will be sure to improve too.
There are hundreds and hundreds of squat variations you can perform, from assisted to body weight, weighted to single-leg squats. You can make them easier or harder depending on your ability, range of motion and desired goal.
If you’re just starting out with squats the most obvious option would be a bodyweight squat, this will help you get used to movement as adding weight can easily make your technique break down. Banded squats are also a great variation for beginners, they can help teach correct engagement through the glutes.
Another solid option for a beginner might be a supported squat. Using a suspension trainer or even a door frame to help support your body weight can allow you to really get comfortable in the bottom position, you can also use your arms to help pull you back up if your legs aren’t strong enough yet. Banded squats are a great variation for beginners, they can help teach correct engagement through the glutes.
Once you’re comfortable with the squat movement you can easily make it harder by simply adding weight. You could try using Dumbbells, Kettlebells or even a Barbell, but with so many options how do you know what works for you? Dumbbells and Kettlebells are usually the first point of call, often seen as the less daunting option.
The most common squat you’ll see performed with these is a Goblet Squat, where the weight is held with both hands in front of the chest. This version is great at forcing you to maintain good core engagement and a flat back throughout the movement. With the weight held in front of the body, you will be forced to maintain a neutral spine and strong core, or you run the risk of falling face first!
Using a Barbell, first and foremost allows you to load more weight in the squat. Holding the bar in front of the body, much like a goblet squat, allows for a greater core engagement. Whilst the more common back squat, having the bar sit on the back of the shoulder blades, will recruit more glute and adductor strength.
Unilateral squat movements (using only one side) are great variations for fixing imbalances as well as adding an extra challenge due to a decrease in stability.
All in all there are tons of squat variations to choose from. Each one has its place in functional training and including a wide variety is a good idea. Always start with easier versions and lighter weights and slowly progress yourself up once you feel comfortable.
Should You Be Doing Squats?
In essence, Yes! But pick the right variation for you!
The squat is a great functional movement that when trained properly can help build strength, stability and mobility. It is predominantly a lower-body exercise but creating full-body tension is essential for mastering this movement.
If you want any more information on the squat or some of our other functional movement patterns, be sure to check out our social media or even pop along to our classes!