The Deep Squat – Why we should do more of them!

The deep squat – one of the human body’s most primal movements.    Traditionally,  this was our sitting position until we routinely started to sit on chairs.

Traditionally a deep squat was the position we used when going to the toilet, until we routinely started to use upright WCs (as opposed to latrines).

Madame Récamier reclining not doing a deep squat!
Madame Recamier, by Jacques-Louis David, circa 1800

We may have adapted psychologically to the comforts of chairs & tables, sofas, toilets, cars , buses, even a chaise longue,  but our bodies have not entirely followed suit

Our body benefits from regular deep squats.

What happens when you deep squat?

  • you take the hip, knee and ankle through a full range of motion.  To maintain joint health, working safely through a full range of motion is the ideal to aim for
  • provides a good “antidote” to sitting for long periods, waking up the muscles in the legs and bottom and stimulting the nerve supply to the joints, muscles and connective tissue
  • Strengthens the bottom and legs.  The hamstrings at the back of the legs and gluteals in the bottom have to stretch to accommodate a prolonged sitting position but the squat gives much needed dynamic work.   The muscles have to contract and relax during the movement and importantly, they have to work (thereby getting stronger) to send the body upwards against gravity
  • the pelvic floor muscles have to contract and relax, providing vital, dynamic action and work for these crucial muscles. The pelvic floor is the base of support for the internal organs, provider of continence and synergist of the main muscle of breathing (the diaphragm).  However, just like other muscles the pelvic floor muscles move bones : the coccyx, sit bones and the front of the pelvis.   These movement are subtle and slight but they are there, they matter and they happen during deep squats
  • can give a much needed lower back stretch if the hips are tight at the front.  Tightness in the quads can cause the lower back to arch outwards at the back, compressing the lumbar spine muscles.   A deep squat will lengthen the lower back and stretch it.

What happens when you don’t deep squat?

  • loss of range of mobility in the hip, knee and ankle joints
  • loss of strength in the hip extensors (the collective name for the back of the thigh and buttock muscles). This might manifest itself as a loss of pertness in the bottom, but more seriously, it can cause the muscles at the front of the hip to become dominant, overworked and tight.  Ultimately loss of strength in the hip extensors can become more profound and leaves us less able to climb stairs or with less stamina for walking.
  • loss of tone in the pelvic floor muscles.  Like any muscle, they are designed to move bones, although not quite  in the conventional way, like for example, the bicep contracting and bending the forearm towards the shoulder.  But they do, move bones that is, and they contribute to pelvic movement in squatting.  No amount of squeezing and releasing the pelvic floor will substitute for this kind of dynamic pelvic floor work.
  • reduced ability to do tasks which require you to get down to the floor:   Gardening, picking stuff up, lying down to exercise .
  • potential disruption to good bowel habit that arises from no longer squatting to use the toilet.  When you sit on a typical European toilet,the pelvis, and rectum are not at their optimum angle for good function resulting (potentially) in a lot of straining and pushing when using the toilet.  I’m not advocating a return to squatting to use the toilet but  if we all did experts believe that Diverticular Disease, a very European and North American problem, would be lessened.

How d’you do them?

Like this : let Madamoiselle La Plante show you

The breathing is important.   Breathe.  Don’t hold your breath.  Ideally breathe in as you go down and breathe out as you come up.

When you go down, think “ass to grass”or on a more dignified note “bottom back and down”.

Make sure that your knees don’t travel forwards over your toes.

To get as low as possible you need a wide leg stance with the legs turned out at the hip: that will give the pelvis and body more freedom to move.

Keep the back pretty straight.  If you tend to round the back when squatting,  it can be helpful to bend slightly at the hips  whilst keeping the back straight,  before then going into the true squat with ankles, hips and knees

Initially, if it is possible, use a mirror.  Check that you are aligned left to right, that is, not favouring one side over the other.  If you don’t have a mirror then feel that you’re equally in both feet and legs.

How often?

Ideally every day

Do you sit down at work? Do one every so often

Quality is more important than quantity.  Alignment matters as much, if not more than range of movement

And what modifications help if can’t quite manage them?

Ankle restrictions or tight calves?  Raise up your heels slightly – yoga bricks work brilliantly. Failing that, a sturdy hard backed book.

Start from a chair and sit-to-stand-to-sit.

Knee pain? Be careful but don’t necessarily give up.  This is still a functional move, after all, we all have to sit down and stair climb. First of all, are you sure that your technique is correct? With knee pain it is  vitally important that you  go backwards into the pelvis not forwards into the knee so that the weight shifts away from the knees and into the big muscles at the back of the legs and buttocks.  Sometimes it’s worth asking somebody to watch you.   Experience of my own exercise and observing others has taught me that we aren’t necessarily doing what we think we are.  Our mind’s eye and actual reality are close but don’t always match.   So, if you have good technique but still are in discomfort, it would be ok to carry on if you can achieve pain free movement with modifications:  Reduce your range of movement.  Use a chair.  Use Yoga bricks.   If no matter what you do then you experience knee pain then maybe this isn’t the exercise for you.  There are plenty of exercises that can mobilise the hips and knees and /or work the back of the legs.  One of my favourites is the supine lying (on your back) trunk lift

Balance issues? Sit to stand into a chair or squat beside a wall

Knees collapsing in?  As you squat keep  your knees in-line with your little toe.  Reduce the range of movement to suit.  Sometimes, raising the ankles helps.  Sometimes it may be because the buttock muscles  are weak.  Really emphasise the up phase to strengthen them.

Knees collapsing out? Keep knees in-line with the big toe.  Be aware of sensing a little work in the inner thigh. Reduce the range of movement maybe.

Squat Debates

Are they the best exercise for working the pelvic floor?

This one is doing the rounds at the moment.  The question? Squats vs Kegels (that is the progressive squeezing and releasing of the pelvic floor).  I’m reluctant to take sides on this one.  The World Health Organisation recommends Kegels for pelvic floor health and I routinely meet people who want to work their pelvic floor but cannot squat at all so it is Kegels or nothing for them.  My concerns with Kegel exercises are two fold.  One is a teaching issue.  If done incorrectly then people  either simply contract their buttock muscles or the anal sphincter muscles.  If over done then Kegels can cause the Pelvic floor to become too tight – not a good outcome because all muscles need to be flexible, supple and move dynamically and a tight pelvic floor will reduce the movement of the pelvis.    So i’m inclined to suggest a bit of both until we have a definitive answer as to which is more effective (although that may be never!)

Deep squat or half squat?

Current thinking is that deep squats are better for you for the reasons that I give above and the issues around half or full/deep seems to be that the deep squat is bad for the knees.  This is not the case.   Bad squatting is bad for the knees not deep squatting!   Form and alignment are really important and a important reason for half squats might be as a staging post leading to full squats, whilst you work on developing sufficient mobility in the joints

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