Squatting – Is it Important and What to Do

Squatting | Studio shot of a woman working out against a dark backgroundThe squat, considered by many professionals to be the king of total body exercises and one of the most important movement patterns for a human being to conquer. While squatting is very popular both at gyms, rehab settings, and everyday life; many misconceptions exist around this dynamic movement pattern. People may often be intimidated by the squat due to the stress this movement can put on your joints or simply because it can cause many to lose their balance. While squatting is a difficult movement that can sometimes strain the joints of the body, if done properly it can benefit anyone from weightlifters to post-surgical patients to a geriatrics trying to improve their health and daily life. Everyone squats, regardless of whether or not they place a weight on their back. People may often ask a therapist “well why do I need to learn how to squat?”. The answer is simply because you squat everyday, whether it is getting in and out of a chair or getting off of the toilet, everyone squats, because they need to. A person will squat on a daily basis regardless of whether or not they can do this properly; doing a squat properly or improperly can the difference between hurting your joints or being healthy and strong.

Improper squatting does not only strain the knees, but since this movement involves so many different joints, squatting with poor technique can strain the hips, ankles, feet, lower back, and even shoulders and the neck. The squat is a fundamental movement pattern that is “hardwired” into our brain when we are developing as a baby. If one looks at a toddler squat, they will most likely see perfect form. The problem is as we grow up and sit for long periods and become sedentary, we lose range of motion that is important to squatting pattern, and we compensate for what we lack in other ways that end up hurting the body. Squatting requires a great deal of range of motion at the ankle, knee, and hip; specifically flexion. The ankle requires adequate dorsiflexion (foot going up) in order to allow the shin bone to come forward while the person maintains a stable foot on the ground, this allows bending at the knee without putting stress and pressure in the actual knee joint itself. Adequate hip flexion (leg going up) is also important, a person lacking in hip flexion will borrow motion from their spine in order to perform a squat; this will lead to severe strain that is extremely dangerous to the lower back. If a person lacks range of motion at any one joint, they will be forced to “borrow” that motion from another joint, putting excess strain and force into that joint.

A person must also have good strength and motor control of core musculature in order to perform a squat. This will allow the muscles to do the work as they are meant to instead of the joint structures working (which they are not meant to do). The abdominal musculature must be strong in order for the person to maintain a “stiff” and neutral spine while squatting down; meaning the spine must not round out or excessively curve inward. Glute and hamstring strength is also important, as these are the main muscles used in a squat. Weakness in the glutes or hamstrings will result in a patient overusing their quad muscles to squat and give them significant knee pain or excessively curve their back inwards. Adequate hip abductor strength is important in making sure your knees do not valgus or “cave in” during a squat.

Having muscle strength is important but it is nothing without know how to use and recruit these muscles during an actual squat. This is where motor control comes into play; a person can have very strong glutes and hamstrings and not use them during a squat at all. The best way to learn how to do this is perform actual squats, starting from simple squats like a box squat or sit to stand and progress to deep squats if deemed necessary. Squatting should be done with a licensed professional such as a physical therapist because a trained eye is required to spot out small imbalances and asymmetries that most people cannot feel themselves. These small imbalances can turn into large global problems for the body after enough time.

Squatting is best initiated by sitting into a seat; a person must slightly lean forward by stretching their glute and hamstring muscles while maintaining a straight and neutral spine. You must make sure that you are equally distributing your body-weight throughout your feet; many people make the mistake of rolling out to the inside or outside of their feet as well as letting the toes or heels come up. All these structures must remain pressed into the ground as a person squats down. Turning the knees out (R knee clockwise, left knee counterclockwise) while keeping the feet pointed forward is a great way to make sure the knees do not cave in.
Remember, if you have knee pain or are new to squatting consider being evaluated by a therapist before initiating a squat program. A trained eye can spot many small flaws that others cannot and prevent you from wreaking havoc on your body.

Posted in: Fitness, Health & Wellness

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