Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
1 Oct

How to Squat Properly

Judging from the reader response to last week’s post on that certain type of squatting, I’d bet that a number of you guys gave it a shot and left footprints on the toilet bowl. C’mon, don’t be shy. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, I gave what amounted to a sterling endorsement of the position in question, with the expectation that a fair amount of readers would actually take me up on it. So – did you? And if so, how did it go (into the bowl, I hope)? Any amazing stories, experiences, or pratfalls to relay? Share your experiences in the comment board.

But this post isn’t just about squatting to poop. It’s a primer on squatting in general. Whether it’s heavy barbell squats, the Indigenous People’s Stretch, the bodyweight squat, the resting Grok squat, or the evacuation squat, squatting is a fundamental movement that everyone (barring injury) needs to get right. We all have the intrinsic physical tools to squat the right way, and if it weren’t for those pesky creature comforts of civilization (chairs, toilets, heeled shoes, Smith machines) softening us up and messing with our joint mobility, Grandma might be darning you a sweater from the Grok squat pose instead of the rocking chair. Most of the MDA readership hails from the West, so I think it’s safe to assume that a quick primer on squatting is long overdue – especially for those of you who accepted last week’s squatting “challenge.”

You may have found it a bit harder than expected (in which case, eat more greens), even if you’re an accomplished squatter in the weight room. That may even be the problem – treating it like a workout. See, squatting to poop and squatting under a bar are totally different experiences. The intent of the latter is to push ever more weight up; the former seeks to relinquish it. I was almost tempted to make the easy pun – “push weight out” – until I realized the poop squat is about letting go and allowing gravity to handle the rest. Minimal effort. When you squat with a barbell, your entire body is necessarily tense and tight, especially the torso (which acts like a rigid lever to support the weight and transfer force safely and securely), but when you squat to evacuate your bowels, you’re supposed to relax. You’re not so much forcing it out as you are opening the floodgates. It wants to leave; it’s waste. The squat position is simply an enabler. Straining while squatting defeats the entire purpose of squatting in the first place.

As for the squatting movement itself, it’s important to keep a few things in mind.

First, ease into it. With tight hips, quads and Achilles, and little experience in the proper squatting position achieving this stance right out of the gate may prove challenging. My suggestion? Take your time. There is no rush here, so there is no need to force anything. Of utmost priority is avoiding injury, and this means taking baby steps over days or even weeks before you reach your goal (keep this in mind for all fitness goals).

Hint: Perform the squat in front of a sturdy rail or pole. Hold onto the rail for support as you descend and sit back. Once you’re comfortable with the rail, try squatting without it.

Hint: Attempt your first squats on a slanted surface. For example, go out to a declined driveway and face down the slope. The ground raised beneath your heels will help you from falling backward – a common issue for beginners.

Keep your heels grounded. This holds true for heavy squats, bodyweight squats, casual Grok squats, poop squats, and Indigenous People’s Stretches: resting all that weight on your toes, as opposed to your heels, places far too much stress on your knees, and the resultant shearing forces will tear your knee apart, given sufficient time. Of course, if you’re playing a sport like volleyball, staying on your toes allows better reactions and quicker movements, but that’s a totally different situation. In all other cases, keep your heels firmly on the ground.

Hint: If you find yourself unable to keep the weight off your toes, curl them upward; you’ll force yourself to maintain heel-floor contact.

Keep your back straight. I don’t mean vertical; I mean you should avoid rounding your back, whether you’re bent at the hips or upright. With heavy weights a rounded back can be disastrous, and with no weights a rounded back just reinforces bad habits. Both are to be avoided.

Hint: Keeping your chest up and your shoulders back will lead to a straight back.

Your knees should follow your feet. Your feet should be about shoulder width apart (maybe a bit wider for stability; basically, whatever allows you to comfortably reach a deep position), at about a 30 degree angle (as opposed to pointing straight forward). Make sure your knees are aligned with your feet and toes. It’s usually not an issue without a barbell and weights involved, but it’s good to get in the habit.

It’s not a workout. You shouldn’t be holding yourself up with your quads. You should be resting. This is supposed to be a sustainable pose, so you’ll be doing a full, deep squat. How deep? Clasp your hands together in front of you. As you squat, let them hang between your legs. When they reach the ground, you should be in your deep squat position. Sit down and back, let your hamstrings touch your calves, and stay there.

Sit back. I’ll say it again because it’s so crucial. Squatting isn’t just sitting down; it’s sitting back, which spreads the load and creates a more manageable center of gravity. If you were to “squat” down and not back, your knees jutting way out, all your weight would be borne by your quads, and you’d probably topple over onto your face. At the same time, an inexperienced squatter attempting to sit back for the first time might topple over onto his or her ass. In a casual, weight-less squat, these issues become less likely to manifest, of course, but sitting back creates a more stable base and promotes good habits for when you do pile on the weight.

Hint: Imagine there’s a short chair just behind you and sit back in search of it. Or, better yet, use an actual tiny chair, stool, or anything that will allow you to reach the proper depth.

Squatting may seem completely natural (because it is!), thus rendering a “How to…” guide unnecessary, but you’d be surprised at how easily unnatural bad habits can disrupt our natural tendencies and instincts. Read through the tips and hints, make sure you can perform them correctly, and practice your weak points. Even if you’re confident and comfortable with a few hundred pounds on your back, give it a quick run-through. The squat movement figures into our lives on a daily basis, and it would be a damn shame to do it incorrectly.

In the future, you can expect a more thorough explanation and examination of the barbell squat, but in the meantime this brief primer should do the trick nicely. Oh, and check this video (thanks, Peter Andrews!) for a humorous comparison/contrast of the Asian/Western squats. It’s funny because it’s true (seriously – there’s great stuff in there)!


You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. To follow up on my own comment above re. taking vitamin D3 and finding my calves started to relax…

    Well, they’ve got more and more relaxed over the last nine or so months and at the weekend I realised that I could drop into a proper squat for the first time that I can ever recall!

    And although I did try to stretch them deliberately for part of this year – I fell out of the habit. And the last time I tried around June – I couldn’t do a proper squat.

    So, unless I’m missing something, the vitamin D3 seems to have been responsible for allowing me to flex my calves further and further.

    RedYeti wrote on November 15th, 2010
  2. I was in Thailand (with my Thai wife) sitting at a roadside cafe. A Thai guy came down the road on his motorbike and was knocked off it by a stray dog (many in Thailand). He hit the deck pretty hard and was bruised and shaken but not badly injured. People came out to help him and someone bought him a stool to sit on. He waived it away and sank into a squat in the road while he recovered from his ordeal. It made a big impression on me at the time.

    Adrian Pearson wrote on November 16th, 2010
  3. It’s also quite amusing to see footprints on the seat of a Western toilet when you are in Thailand.

    Adrian Pearson wrote on November 16th, 2010
    • It’s quite amusing to have to wipe footprints off Western toilets too – and better for your innards (but that’s a whole other MDA post that Mark started this one with…)

      RedYeti wrote on November 16th, 2010
  4. I can’t say I have ever seen a video on this topic before. It was amusing and made sense at teh same time. While in Beijing in 2008, i saw old men squatting like this all over the place, usually smoking and sometimes drinking. At least they weren’t straining their knees. haha

    Darcy Fauteux wrote on November 16th, 2010
  5. This is hilarious!

    Bea Binag wrote on March 9th, 2011
  6. Success doing this with my computer desk. I make platforms to hold the table 2 or 3 feet from the ground. It’s painful at first, but I think I’ll get it over time. Feels GREAT on my lower back.

    http://img34.imageshack.us/img34/6312/20110406101308365.jpg

    Nathan P wrote on April 6th, 2011
    • That’s a great idea! The opposite of a standing desk.

      RedYeti wrote on April 6th, 2011
  7. Baha! Love the video. I will definitely be trying this out today!

    Kate wrote on June 30th, 2011
  8. excellent video! 😀

    I have always been able to squat properly until i broke my leg 5 years ago. I squated today, “the asian way” as far as i could, but I can’t get all the way down.. Instead I end up in a 90° leg-position. After that I seem to rise the heels, so I never go further than that. Any advice someone?

    Louise wrote on July 6th, 2011
  9. Yes – see a good physio 😉

    Seriously, they can work wonders by giving you the correct exercises.

    I’d also try Vit D3 (I know – sounds totally wacky but seem my earlier comment above!).

    RedYeti wrote on July 6th, 2011
  10. I have a great physio, so I will defenitly talk with her about that!

    Thnx :)

    Louise wrote on July 6th, 2011
  11. As an Indian, I’ve regretted all my 72 yrs my inability to squat properly with heels on the ground. various PT trainers gave up on me, saying my ankle joints were too stiff, and I’d convinced myself of it. Now I feel tempted to give it another go, but would u say the ankle joints CANNOT be a limitation and I should be able to work it out if I try hard enough.

    K.Gopal Rao wrote on July 20th, 2011
    • I broke my left ankle as a child, and I very much believe that is why I cannot squat like this.

      My right leg, with normal range of motion, can do it fine. But my left heel simply cannot reach the ground when I’m squatting.

      When I squat, it’s half-“Asian” and half-“Western”.

      Steve wrote on February 7th, 2012
  12. I’ve NEVER been able to do the “Asian” squat and I’m half Korean! Not that that should automatically make me able to do it, but even when I was a rail thin child, I was never able to. Grrrr
    I’ve always wanted to squat this way. I’ll get there one of these days heh.

    LisaL wrote on August 9th, 2011
  13. I wish I had squatted this way instead of the stupid Western squat. I’ve been working on squatting this way for months, because we do squats as part of our workout in my martial arts class but it’s the western squat, and I absolutely hate it. I’ve gotten better at the form, but I still experience back pain sometimes, and recently slight pain directly above my knee joint (not on the kneecap). I don’t want to go back to the Western squat, but what can I do to improve my stance?

    sj wrote on August 31st, 2011
  14. I am currently getting fit and have involved a lot of squats. I have practiced squatting. I have even gotten on the floor and tried to put myself into the squatting position and my hips do not seem to cooperate. When I am doing lunges and (especially) squats, my knees tend to take most of the pressure. I am as careful as I can be, but I am building up the muscles around my knees and my quads, instead of my glutes and hamstrings. Can anyone advise a book or video that can help me open up my hips and gain the flexibility I need for proper squats? I spend most of my days in a computer chair, and I have just been bending over to pick things up for years. My lower back is very flexible, but I can’t squat for sh*t. (I had to. I hope that joke was appropriate.)

    Eva wrote on September 11th, 2011
  15. Eva, I have bad knees and I learned that if you curl up your toes (think pointy elf shoes) when you do squats, it keeps everything focused on your heels/off your knees. That’s worked wonders for me.
    Also, if you’re trying the Asian squat, try holding onto something like your desk, until you’re comfy solo.

    AustinGirl wrote on September 11th, 2011
  16. Mark, that video was funny! A great way to present the material!!

    Nick wrote on September 25th, 2011
  17. I do this all the time on the countertop next to my stove while I eat or cook and my mother says I’m going to get a “dowager’s hump” because in her yoga class you have to have your back straight when you squat. I pretty much have my shoulders half way down my shin, between my legs. Is there a limit to the angle at which you should position your torso? Does what my mother is saying have any merit? She reckons that all the elderly Asian women have hunchbacks and to be honest I have no idea either way!

    Thank you to anyone who can answer :)

    Also, Hi, I’m new around here (this is my first post). I’ve been primal for about 2 weeks and feel fantastic!! This site is fabulous. Thanks for making it Mark.

    SophieE wrote on November 2nd, 2011
    • Your mother and her yoga teacher are not correct. Squatting should feel comfortable and natural and for most people the back is rounded. Look at animals when they defecate — cows, dogs, chimps, etc and you’ll see a rounded back.

      The biggest danger to posture is osteoporosis, which women (and men) even in squatting cultures can get. An important strategy for avoiding it is “Earthing”. I think Mark posted an article about Earthing somewhere on this site. Wikihow has a good article on making your own earthing device:
      http://www.wikihow.com/Make-an-Earthing-Device

      Cheers!

      Jonathan wrote on November 3rd, 2011
      • Even in the article you linked to they say grounding is scientifically un-proven. This shouldn’t matter much, there is more Primal wisdom that is un-proven, but in this case they don’t even try to explain how this should help… There is no logical reasoning behind it. I don’t believe for one second this grounding will help you with anything beyond a placebo effect.

        paleoScientist wrote on November 3rd, 2011
  18. Well I just fell over backwards everytime I tried to place my feet flat.

    deborah345 wrote on December 7th, 2011
  19. hi i would love to buy a pair of vibrams but i can’t get my $%##%^ toe’s in lol help

    robin choiniere wrote on January 28th, 2012

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