Strength Training

Squats: How To Do Them And Why

Squats: how to do them and why

When attending the local gym you’ll be met with an array of machines that target different muscle groups.  One of the limiting factors with these machines is that typically there will be less joint activation during use, which means less muscles are being used.  By comparison, there are compound exercises.  These are movements which activate multiple joints and therefore work more muscles.  Examples of compound exercises include the squat, bench press and deadlift.  In this article we will discuss the squat and why you should be doing them.

The squat is a functional compound exercise that involves driving back the hips as though sitting, whilst bending at the knees and ankles.  The movement engages multiple muscle groups throughout the body with an emphasis on the lower body.  

The primary muscles worked during a squat exercise are the quadriceps, the gluteus maximus and the adductor magnus.  During the first 90 degrees of the movement the quads are activated the most.  Once past 90 degrees, it is the glutes that are the dominant muscles.

As well as effectively working large muscle groups in the lower body, the squat will also activate the core muscles (used to help with stability), hip flexors and the lower back.

BENEFITS OF SQUATTING

Without maybe realising, most people squat everyday whether that’s sitting down on a chair, getting in and out of your vehicle or picking things up from the ground.  This makes squatting a fundamental part of everyday life for and learning how to squat properly offers innumerable benefits.

The squat is oftentimes referred to as the king of all exercises, and for good reason.  Below we’ve listed benefits you can enjoy from regular squatting.

  • Improvement to circulation

Squatting engages multiple muscles throughout the body which makes it a whole-body exercise.  Because of this, it increases blood flow to your joints (especially the lower body) and boosts circulation.

  • Improvement to joint health

When done correctly, squatting will build lean muscle which is important for healthy joints and helps to keep bones strong.

  • Improvement to flexibility

Maintaining flexibility is very important to keep your body healthy.  Lifestyle factors can impede flexibility as we age, but by incorporating squats you will keep your joints healthy and help to stave off common ailments such as backache.

  • Help to build core strength which helps with good posture

Regular squats will help to improve strength to the abdominals, obliques and lower back.  Core muscles work together for optimal spinal stability and having a strong core is vital for overall body health and to help alleviate undue stress to the spine and lower back muscles.

  • It can increase testosterone in males

When squatting a moderate amount of weight, studies have found there to be an increase in testosterone post exercise.  Whilst this increase is only temporary, it does boost androgen receptors and protein synthesis which promotes the growth of muscle tissue.

HOW TO SQUAT

Whilst squatting is hugely beneficial, it is one of the most difficult exercises to execute properly with the squat being a commonly cited movement that causes injury.   The location of injury tends to be the lower back, this is because the spine is the most vulnerable joint during a squat.  Correct form is essential and if you have any mobility issues with the hips and ankles, you’ll want to work on those first.

It’s important to remember that a person’s anatomy can affect how they squat.  For example, the femur bone of some individuals could present issues with their range of motion.  You will feel muscles being worked and stretching to some joints where you may encounter tightness, but this is normal.  Aside from those discomforts, the squat should feel natural.

Before undertaking squats, determine what width to place your feet.  Typically, feet are positioned to around shoulder width apart during the squat. This is OK, as long as you can achieve a deep squat without rounding your lower back.   If you cannot maintain a neutral spine, then position your feet slightly wider.

A good test is to get someone to video you from the side, doing a bodyweight squat.  Pay close attention to what happens to your lower back.  If narrow stance squatting results in rounding of the back, position your feet wider (this uses less ankle mobility) or raise your heels on a squat ramp or plate.

  1. Stand upright with feet at a width that allows for a deep squat.
  2. If using a barbell, this is when you would un-rack.
  3. Engage your core muscles to provide stability.
  4. Push your hips back whilst bending the knees and ankles.
  5. Keep your chest and head up throughout.
  6. Once at squat depth, hold for a few seconds.
  7. Push back up through the heels whilst maintaining a neutral spine.

DOES SQUAT DEPTH MATTER

As we’ve mentioned, being able to achieve and maintain a deep squat is a natural human movement.  It’s a commonly held belief that squatting deep can cause pain to knees, lower back and other joints.  This is untrue.  Whilst it can exacerbate issues, squatting correctly will not cause them.

Whilst squatting deep with the aim of getting the glutes as close to the ground as possible won’t necessarily result in additional muscle growth, it will help to improve joint health.  Squat depth should only be based on the person’s anatomy and mobility and varying the width of the feet and raising of the heels can affect how deep a person can squat.

WHY CAN’T I SQUAT

One of the primary reasons for not being able to squat properly is down to poor ankle or hip mobility.  As we age, it’s not uncommon for tightness in the ankles and hips to form, this can prevent you from being able to squat deeply whilst keeping your feet flat on the floor.

A good practice to help with improving mobility before undertaking a squat exercise, is to simply sit in a squat position.  This is referred to as the resting squat which is a natural human resting position and when done on a daily basis can improve hip, ankle and lower back mobility.    This position is often seen in yoga practice.

To get into a resting squat position; do the following.  It’s worth noting that everyone’s resting squat may look slightly different and these variations are likely to be down to the person’s individual body structure.  The most important thing is that it should feel natural to your body type.

  1. Stand with your feet no less than shoulder width apart with toes slightly pointing out.
  2. Bend at the knees and hips whilst dropping down.
  3. Keep your feet flat on the floor throughout.
  4. Keep your pelvis and spine in a neutral position.

If that’s too difficult to begin with, use something such as a squat ramp or even a book and position it under the heels, this means you will squat down without any ankle mobility.  This should allow you to squat deeper.  Rest in that position for a few minutes each day and eventually you should be able to remove the aid and do it again with your feet flat on the ground.

HOW OFTEN SHOULD I SQUAT

Commonly disseminated information suggests that squatting every day is not beneficial and could actually negatively impact muscle growth.  Squatting daily will not be an issue for most people as long as the intensity of the squat work out is considered.

If someone were to attempt squatting a maximum amount of weight each day there is no benefit to this and no recovery time is likely to result in injury and could cause central nervous system fatigue.  However, if squatting regularly with no weight load (body weight squats), you could improve squat form and increase strength in the lower body.

It’s also a good idea to vary your squat variation.  For example, switching up between bodyweight squats, single leg squats and goblet squats can offer different muscle stimulus so you don’t run the risk of over working the same muscles.

CONCLUSION

If you’re not doing squats, you should be! It’s not just an exercise favoured by powerlifters who squat huge amounts of weight.  By incorporating bodyweight squats or a daily resting squat you will reap the benefits of what the human body should natural and comfortably be able to do.  If you have ever wondered if a Front Squat is better than a Back Squat we have some further reading which can be found here

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