Just as we should eat the foods our bodies were designed to eat, we should move our bodies the way they were meant to move and impose the stressors they were meant to bear. That means squatting, and squatting often. Our hips flex, knees bend, and ankles dorsiflex so that we can rest comfortably in a squat position.
Okay, but isn’t the squat a bit outdated? Why not just use a chair?
You’ve probably heard how modern processed foods use refined sugar, salt, and seed oils to hijack our natural desires for fruits, animal fat, and animal meat. They exploit our wiring and provide hyper-stimulation to our senses, prompting massive overconsumption; some refer to this as “Food Reward.” In a similar vein, chairs hijack our anthropometry, which was designed for squatting. Just look at yourself in a chair:
Chair sitting is attractive and easy because it doesn’t challenge the way our joints work. It doesn’t place us in unnatural positions. It’s easy to slip into. It hews to our anthropometry. It provides support, so we don’t even have to do or lift anything or worry about engaging our glutes.
I call it “Repose Reward,” and it’s obviously a concerted effort by the chair industry (Big Sit) to keep us dependent on their evil, addictive products! (Please understand I’m mostly kidding.)
The good side of all this is that if you can sit in a chair with your feet flat on the ground, you can (with some work) squat. It might be hard, because your muscles will actually have to work to maintain the load, and it might take some finagling since some of your joints will feel a little tight, but the position is possible. You just have to learn to support the load.
That’s one big reason to squat – it helps counteract all that sitting we do and lets us tap into a very Primal, very essential mode of repose. But there are many other reasons to squat, too. Let’s explore:
Pound for pound, squatting is the best bang for your buck strength exercise, hitting many different muscle groups along the way. The obvious ones targeted are the prime movers – the quads, hamstrings, and glutes – but the trunk musculature must stabilize the torso and maintain a neutral spine, all while supporting the load and acting as a fleshy lever. All in all, the squat is a complicated movement that forces the body’s parts to work and grow stronger together as a single unit.
Tons of studies confirm that the stronger your squat, the faster you can run. It’s probably not just a “people who are strong and can squat a lot tend to also be faster” kind of thing because research shows that adding weight to an athlete’s squat during the season directly translates to faster sprint speeds.
It’s no surprise that training your body to stand up tall from a squatting position with extra weight on your back would also improve your ability to keep going past merely standing, also known as jumping. And even though you wouldn’t jump from a deep squat position in real life, training the deep squat (full range of motion) position improves the vertical leap more than regular squatting.
A recent study found that supervised (by an experienced trainer) weighted squats can help postmenopausal women with osteoporosis or osteopenia improve their bone mineral density in the spine and neck by 2.9% and 4.9%, respectively (in addition to boosting their strength levels by over 150%). That’s huge. Now, imagine the strength of a lifetime squatter’s bones.
Many endurance enthusiasts have the idea that squatting and other forms of resistance training will make them “bulky” and slow them down, but this simply isn’t the case. When they include resistance training in their regimen, marathoners improve their running economy. And even though their quads do plenty of work on the bike already, endurance cyclists improve their efficiency on the bike when they include heavy “hip flexion” strength training in their program. Reviews of resistance training in endurance runners and road cyclists confirm these results. Another benefit: every endurance athlete benefits from a stronger core.
Things to think about when squatting:
Squat however’s comfortable for you. You should definitely try to improve your positioning, but you shouldn’t force your body into positions it simply isn’t prepared to reach just so you can attain the “ideal squat.” That might mean you squat with a narrow stance. Or a wider stance. Or maybe your toes are pointing straight forward. Maybe they’re externally rotated a bit. However, if your feet are rotated outward, make sure your arches don’t collapse.
Focus on range of motion, rather than load. Provided you can maintain good technique (don’t sacrifice your form just to get low), squatting deeper with a lighter load is better for the knees, producing greater muscular and tendon adaptations, than squatting more shallowly with a heavier load. In fact, squatting deep with good technique can actually protect your lower extremities from injury.
Avoid knee wraps to boost the amount of weight you can handle, unless you’re a competing powerlifter for whom every extra pound on the bar counts. A recent study suggests that wearing them changes the mechanics of the back squat, alters the targeted musculature, and compromises the integrity of the knee joint.
Single leg squat variations work well. Even though online lifting message boards make it sound impossible to get strong without squatting, single leg squat variations like split squats and lunges are effective replacements that target the same lower body muscles and even result in similarly systemic hormonal responses. One of my employees with a history of knee issues can do fairly heavy lunges of all sorts without any problem, but weighted squats are iffy. I on the other hand never really had an issue with squats, while lunges sometimes gave me problems. It all varies. Do what works.
Body weight squats are good enough, too. Weighted squats will get you strong, no doubt, but it’s not the only way. A recent study out of Japan found that an eight-week program of 100 body weight squats (or “body mass squats,” as they say in the study) each day increased lean mass, vertical jump, and knee muscle strength while lowering body fat in teenage boys. Body weight squats are also incredibly energy intensive, far more than previously assumed, making them a great tool for metabolic conditioning.
Squatting doesn’t have to be exercise. These days, I think of the squat as more of a mobility promoter than anything. In fact, if you can relax in the squat position and use it as a position of repose on a daily basis, your weighted squat performance will improve. Most of the research cited in this post refers to squat exercises, but that’s about all there is in the literature.
Remember that squatting can take many forms. It’s not just young ripped dudes lifting heavy and leaving chalky slap prints on each other’s backs. Squatting is:
It all counts. It all helps. It’s all (variations on) a squat.
At this point in my life, I don’t even do weighted free weight squats, except for some air squats with a weight vest on. I don’t back squat or front squat. I sit in the Grok squat as much as I can, just to stay loose and mobile, but for lower body strength work with the minimum amount of risk I like the leg press and the hack squat machine. So don’t think this post is about squatting a lot of weight. Or any weight. For the vast majority of the squatting world, squatting is a way to pick stuff off the floor, wait for the train, go to the bathroom, or catch up with their friends. For them – and for you, should you choose to pursue the squat – squatting is a basic act of humanity, of movement, of utility. To squat is to be.
Thanks for reading, everyone. Now go squat!