There’s something we’re forgetting about squats

The squat is, unquestionably, an excellent exercise – but before overwhelming clients with complex weighted squats, it can pay to go back to bodyweight basics and take it naturally, says Tony Podpera.

Squatting – it’s child’s play

We all know how great squats are for our clients. There are few people, no matter what their fitness objective, that won’t benefit from having squats in their routine. However, it seems like too many trainers are viewing squats first and foremost as a weight training exercise and forgetting the very important fact that they are a natural human movement. This distinction can make a big difference in how much, and how quickly, a client benefits from doing squats in their routine.

As infants and toddlers, we all squat. In many parts of the world, people continue adopting a squat position every day, often for long periods at a time, well into their old age. Yet in countries like Australia, we often stop squatting quite early in life. Instead we become expert at sitting in chairs, at home, at work and even in between.

Back to basics

This means that, when a client comes to us to improve their fitness and wellbeing, and we think that squats might be a good exercise for them to do, it may be appropriate for us to reintroduce them to the ‘natural squat’ before we complicate things with the many rules we’ve applied to the gym-based version of the movement.

Too often, new clients are taken into a squat rack – an empty bar or broomstick placed on their back – and overwhelmed with instructions about knee, hip and eye positions, breathing, speed and depth. A shaky, nervous, half-squat is often the result. It’s not particularly effective and it’s not a pleasant introduction to what should be a very productive exercise. Yet this is precisely what can happen when squats are primarily treated as a weight training movement with new clients.

A better introduction to squatting would be for the client to grab a shoulder-height support and simply squat down. They can lower themselves slowly if necessary and pull themselves up again, developing a deeper squat over time. The objective is to gradually do a full assisted squat. The next step would be to do a full, unassisted, unweighted squat and then increase repetitions.

At this stage, it doesn’t matter if the client’s heels come off the floor at the bottom of the squat or if their back bends. The human body is able to stabilise itself in a squat position with heels off the ground and, believe it or not, the human spine is designed to bend and straighten again. Let the client squat as their body directs them to. The resistance involved – bodyweight – will not cause an issue, and the joints will coordinate themselves naturally. If a client finds it a little disconcerting when their heels raise off the floor as their squat deepens, you can simply chock (wedge) their heels up with a small mat or piece of wood. There will still be enough stability work for their body to do and they can eventually work on reducing the heel support if necessary.

It may be enough for your client to simply keep doing bodyweight squats like this. They are surprisingly effective, especially in clients who haven’t squatted much in years. However, if you think your client can benefit from weighted squats then you will have to consider some minor changes to the natural squat movement. (For a more comprehensive scientific examination of what is safe and effective in weighted squats, check out the research of regular Network contributor Mark McKean at the University of the Sunshine Coast.)

Not every culture loses the ability to squat

Adding weight

The key to keeping squats effective, yet making them safe when they are weighted, is to minimise the changes we make to the natural squat movement. So, the overall concept is not to introduce a client to a weighted squat with all the rules it involves and then try to improve that, but rather to introduce the client to a natural bodyweight squat and then add weight, with as few changes as possible to the squat movement.

Once your client can do a natural squat and is ready to add weights, there are two main changes to consider.

Heel stability

Firstly, if a client’s heels come off the ground in a natural squat, the work the body does to stabilise the squat is usually a beneficial outcome. However, with a weighted squat, the instability is increased and the body may find it too difficult to compensate for this. Injury or accidents can more easily occur. As with the natural squat, it is acceptable to place a small platform under the client’s heels as they squat. Remember, with a weighted squat the feet don’t need to be flat – they need to be stable. They will be sufficiently stable with a small lift under the heel and still allow a full range squat (weightlifting shoes often have a built-in heel raise for this very reason.) It’s understandable that people shorten their weighted squats so that their heels don’t lift, but this removes the most effective part of the squat (the bit down at the bottom) from the movement, when it’s not necessary to do so.

Spine considerations

Secondly, where a natural squat may involve a bent spine, the spine will need to be kept straight during a weighted squat. Each vertebrae can straighten individually against a certain amount of weight, but we don’t know how much that is in our clients, and half way through a squat in a crowded gym is not the place to find out. The back needs to remain not only straight, but also relatively upright. A straight back which is tipped too far forward places excessive strain on the back and neck. This often occurs when clients are advised not to let their knees come forward past their toes. This forces them to push their hips back in order to get more depth in their squat, and their torso flattens, reducing the effectiveness and safety of the movement. If the knees can come forward in a natural unweighted squat, they should be able to handle the weighted squat as well, if they go gently. (It may be easier for the squatter to hold dumbbells or a plate against the chest as the first weighted squat, before progressing to a bar across the back, which can take some getting used to.)

But it’s not just about stability with weighted squats. When we add weight to squats, we are seeking an outcome for certain muscles, in particular the glutes and thighs. By stabilising heels and keeping a straight back, we can minimise superfluous movement and channel the weight to the muscles it is designed for.

Other considerations for new squatters

There are a few other points to consider when introducing clients to the squat:

  • The most effective part of a squat, for most people, happens at the bottom of the squat when the legs are at a biomechanical disadvantage and a lot of muscles have to work very hard in order to push the body up. The easiest part of a squat, for pretty much everyone, happens at the top. It’s relatively easy to straighten your legs 10 centimetres even with a big weight on your shoulders. There is a continuum of effectiveness from top to bottom and almost all clients, no matter what their motivation, should strive for a deep, controlled squat.
  • A half-squat will tend to give you give you half-results. Doing a half squat onto a bench is even less effective and possibly a little dangerous (although doing limited-range squats may be more appropriate in some sports-specific and rehab contexts).
  • Squat technique in barbell classes is completely different to squat technique in a gym – don’t mix them up.
  • The average person will not need much additional equipment as they add weights to their squats. Even experienced squatters who observe proper technique will use a belt and not much else.

If a client is struggling with their barbell squats, or needs to be introduced to the squat, it may be worth taking a step back and revisiting the natural squat. Even clients who are doing good leg exercises and doing their deep stretches may be missing out on the benefits of the combination of full range of motion and muscle contraction. Combine these factors with muscles working over several joints and the stimulation of deep breathing through the torso and you are looking at pretty much the best exercise you can do standing in the one spot. And the effects of good deep squats on muscle size and shape cannot be matched by any other movement.

But let’s not rush things. Let’s relax, breathe deeply, take some time to get the basic squat right, and go from there.

Tony Podpera is a Canberra-based fitness instructor. He began bodybuilding in the early 1980s and has advised clients on weight training and strength and conditioning issues for over 20 years. Tony prides himself on mashing together the best bits of old-style gym philosophy with the latest scientific research and training.