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

How to Squat Properly

squatJudging 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. excellent video! :D

    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
  2. 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
  3. I have a great physio, so I will defenitly talk with her about that!

    Thnx :)

    Louise wrote on July 6th, 2011
  4. 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
  5. 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
  6. 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
  7. 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
  8. 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
  9. Mark, that video was funny! A great way to present the material!!

    Nick wrote on September 25th, 2011
  10. 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
  11. Well I just fell over backwards everytime I tried to place my feet flat.

    deborah345 wrote on December 7th, 2011
  12. 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
  13. I broke my left ankle as a child. I can’t squat.

    My left leg simply cannot reach that position and it hurts my ankle to try.

    Thanks for making me feel stupid, though.

    Steve wrote on February 7th, 2012
  14. I’m half black and half Korean – we call this the kimchi squat. LOL. And I do it regularly when I’m standing in long lines. Stares be damned.

    Tres wrote on February 9th, 2012
  15. This is exactly how my 2.5 year old squats. I have also noticed him run with proper barefoot technique. He has only instinct at this point. I have learned much from observing him

    zack wrote on April 11th, 2012
  16. It’s also a great position for labor and birth. Be advised ladies: a good squat can give you 2-3cm more room in your pelvis. Plus, you’re working *with* gravity. My youngest 2 kids were born this way.

    mntnmom wrote on May 9th, 2012
  17. Most people who didn’t grow up with this posture have too tight hamstrings and calves and are unable to squat properly. I love this stretch sequence, which can help people attain a proper squat over time: http://www.alignedandwell.com/?p=1310&option=com_wordpress&Itemid=223

    Katie H wrote on May 15th, 2012
  18. do you think taller people should widen their stance like an inch beyond their shoulders to gain speed on the squat, keeping their back straight, and butte back? I’m curious on the foot width/stance.

    SW wrote on May 25th, 2012
  19. I’m sure you realize this already, but just throwing it out there. In birthing classes (the REAL ones that encourage drug free traditional births) they encourage you to squat as much as possible through out your pregnancy to encourage the baby to be in the proper place as it grows. Squatting also helps your leg strength so you can have a healthy labor with out getting worn out. ALSO squatting is the best position to labor in because it encourages the babies head to slide naturally down the birth canal instead of ramming in to your tail bone. So, in terms of pregnancy, it’s where it’s at for sure!

    sarah wrote on May 29th, 2012
  20. I’ve been squatting like this for as long as I can remember, it’s just the most comfortable position to get low to the ground. I am actually really surprised there is so much “trouble” with people trying to squat, holy cow! I had no idea people had to “learn” to do it, it’s always been so natural to me!

    Cari wrote on June 12th, 2012
  21. Lots of evidence-based contemporary material on your site(s) AND great for people truly allergic to SOY, WHEAT, and DAIRY (like me, since 1955). HOWEVER, people are NOT THE ONLY animal that engages in adult-age play with or without young, and having nothing to do with sexual reproduction. Where are the data for that claim? I have nothing to sell you either.
    Cheers,
    Sophie

    Sophie wrote on August 7th, 2012
  22. Very clear and concise info, thanks!

    Chris wrote on August 28th, 2012
  23. I love squatting like this. When I was pregnant I did it even more often b/c it relieved back soreness and other pregnancy discomforts. I will have to get back to squatting more often! Not sure about the toilet bowl squatting though, I’ll leave that to the professionals. ;-)

    Meredith wrote on November 7th, 2012
  24. Hey!!!!!!!!!!!how come no indians were shown in this video :(

    byom wrote on March 7th, 2013
  25. I’ve been trying this for a while now and while I’ve finally mastered keeping my feet flat I cannot for the life of me get my back straight! I do slouch when I sit in chairs (which isn’t even all that often, I prefer sitting cross legged on the floor or curled up in bed) Also I get pins and needles really easily especially in my legs and that happens pretty quickly when I’m squatting. I have a long back in proportion to my body is this the problem? Also I did spend my school days sitting in chairs slouched over a desk… I’m only 17 so I thought I could adapt easily!! This is really frustrating haha!

    Erin wrote on March 12th, 2013
    • Mark’s advice to keep your back straight is nonsense. Look at any person who’s grown up squatting and you’ll see a rounded back. Just be comfortable.

      Jonathan wrote on March 12th, 2013
  26. I tried the “potty squat” and wound up peeing on my cat who was in the bathroom with me. It was just a teeny sprinkle, but it happened. It was hilarious!! He never noticed, and I cleaned him up right away.

    Gina BonBon wrote on May 7th, 2013
  27. I just tried the Asian Squat and I can do it quite easily. I’ve always done a lot of squatting for WO’s, but always with weight. My question is can the Asian Squat be done as a WO? For example, would it be beneficial to do say 100 per day? It seems that it would. TIA.

    Justin wrote on May 22nd, 2013
  28. What’s fascinating is that my 2 year old daughter lives in this position. It is totally natural for her!

    Jeff wrote on August 28th, 2013
  29. I can easily squat with heels flat on the floor. However, my back seems to either get c-curved or, at best, when i straighten it, even though it looks beautiful, it is still not the natural curvature of the spine– do you know what i mean? I am trying to keep my spine most of the day aligned to its natural arches, and it seems to me that a squat never allows that to happen. It looks pretty, but the lumbar spine is not sufficiently arched and the thoracic spine is exceedingly arched. Do you find this to be true for most others who squat also?

    Thank you, and the video made me laugh lots!

    Grace wrote on October 19th, 2013
    • Grace, you’re analyzing too much. Just be comfortable. Mark’s advice to “keep your back straight” is completely wrong. In cultures where people squat from infancy they round their backs. That’s natural and healthy.

      Jonathan108 wrote on October 19th, 2013
  30. Virtually impossible to do after a full knee replacement when you physically can’t bend your knee that far. About 145 degrees is all I can bend my right knee. Just sayin’.

    Kathy from Maine wrote on December 11th, 2013
  31. Thanks so much for this! I’m generally poorly coordinated and nonathletic and I’ve never really squatted before. I plan to move to China and the need to use a squat toilet is truely daunting. I’ve tried to squat but I keep falling on my butt! It’s awful. This article showed me how to get started to train my body for this position.

    It’s amazing that billions of people relax in that position. For me it is literally a work-out.

    Any advice on which muscles of mine are out of whack and need to be stretched and strengthened to make getting into and out of this position easier?

    jon wrote on February 10th, 2014
  32. “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.”

    I’ve never been so scared to scroll down to the comments section here!

    Harrison Bergeron wrote on February 12th, 2014
  33. Come to Adelaide, Australia!

    Jacquie De Casto wrote on February 25th, 2014
  34. I have the hardest time squatting to rest. I feel like I don’t have the hip flexion to get down and stay down. I fall backward, and my quads get tired. Anyone have any suggestions on how to practice squatting to rest? I am in the USAF, but I had a really hard time when asked to duckwalk when I joined. I also haven’t ever been able to use the hip adductor in the gym. I’m not sure what this stiffness is a result of. I can put my legs behind my head, but I can’t find the flexibility to simply squat down comfortably. AM I BROKEN?! :(

    Erin wrote on March 20th, 2014
    • If you tend to fall backward, compensate by putting something under your heels. This moves the center of gravity forward. A block of wood can be used if you’re wearing shoes, or a folded blanket if you’re barefoot. Everyone is flexible in some areas of their body and stiffer in other areas. So be patient with yourself. One way to increase your flexibility in general is by Earthing. It thins the blood, so it can penetrate all the nooks and crannies where the bending is being impeded. Here’s Mark’s article about making a DIY earthing device: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/forum/thread79823.html
      Good luck!

      Jonathan wrote on March 20th, 2014
      • THANK YOU!

        Erin wrote on March 20th, 2014

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