I’m going to start this article with a simple question.
One that creates a lot of debate among exercise professionals, medical professionals, and exercise enthusiasts alike.
The question “Who Should Squat?”
It was eleven year ago, following my discharge from the military, and I’d packed on a few pounds. I began exercising as a way to drop the weight but honestly, I had no idea what I was doing.
I read books and magazines and a lot of them hyped the squat, specifically the back squat as the king of all exercises. So, I followed the advice of Men’s Health, and other fitness magazines and I began squatting.
For me that meant walking into the gym, loading the bar with weight I had no business lifting, and getting after it. I can remember being approached by a trainer at a gym who gave me some pointers.
You know the ones: keep your chest up, don’t let your knees move past your toes, and brace your abs. Pretty typical stuff but these well-intentioned cues didn’t do much to keep my body from hurting.
What was missing? I felt as if I was doing things correctly. Maybe this is part of it I thought. You know the old mantra “No Pain, No Gain.
After training this way for close to a year my body had finally had enough. My knee ached daily and my back always felt tight. My knee pain began to affect my daily activities. Walking up and down stairs hurt.
To find out what I should do I sought the advice of an orthopedic doctor who examined my knee. His diagnonsis, “stop squatting”. Pretty straight forward advice, advice that I hear over and over again from clients.
Still I knew that I needed to do some form of training so I began to look for books that took a different approach.
I found two book that changed my life and my outlook on all things training. The first book “Core Performance” by Mark Verstegen was the first time I realized there was more to training than picking up weights. He talked a lot about prepping the body things like foam rolling and proper warm-ups.
The other book “Athletic Body in Balance” by Gray Cook was the first book that taught me about movement patterns. This book showed me how to assess the way my body was moving and why certain exercises might not be appropriate for me at the time.
What I found after reading these books was that it wasn’t the squat that was bad. It was more about my body not being prepared to handle the squat specifically the back squat. (seen below)
I began to understand that my knee trouble wasn’t related to the squat at all. It was about me and my lack of mobility/stability.
I decided that if I wanted to get back to squatting specifically back squatting I had to fix some of my issues. After all the Squat is the king of all exercises.
But why the squat specifically what is so special about this exercise? What makes it King?
First, squatting whether or not we realize it is something we do over and over again as part of our daily routine. We get up and down numerous times a day for all sorts of reasons.
Squatting also trains all the muscles of the legs in a coordinated fashion. Sitting on a leg extension or leg curl machine doesn't replicate real world activity like the squat does.
The squat also burns a large amount of calories compared to other exercises because it recruits all of the major muscles in the legs.
Hell, If you would ask me what's the best exercise to get a six pack I would probably say the squat.
It doesn’t give you abs directly but abs are more about getting lean and since the squat burns a ton of calories it’s a necessary exercise to include in your workout program.
For me, the squat is also a great assessment tool.
Examining someone’s squat pattern alone can tell you a lot about how that person is going to move in other areas of their life.
In Gray Cook's book "Athletic Body in Balance" he offers a great way to assess the squat pattern. At the time the book was written people didn't carry around cell phones with recording capabilities.
So before you squat again I recommend assessing your squat much like I did here. (below).
This is the first place that you should start. This is the step I missed 11 years ago. I didn’t take the time to understand how my body was moving. I jumped right into squatting with an external load. It was something my body wasn’t prepared to handle and I suffered the consequences.
If you’re interested in assessing your OH Squat pattern yourself I’ve provided a video of what the OH Deep Squat should look like as well as the points of emphasis you should be looking for.
1. The upper torso should be parallel to the lower leg
2. The femur is below or at parallel
3. Knees are aligned over feet
4. Dowel is aligned over feet
5. No pain
If pain is felt in either version then you should have it looked at by a medical professional. Now there are things we can do to work around that pain but knowing from the beginning that a pattern produces pain is something you'll want to know.
In order to perform the test you're going to start with your feet shoulder width apart and your toes pointing straight forward.
This is not the typical squat stance but for assessment purposes we want to have the feet straight.
Secondly, you're going to grab a dowel or PVC and place it on top of your head.
From there set your elbows to ninety degrees and press the stick straight up over head.
Once in position you will squat as deeply as you can, hold it for approximately one second and return to the start.
Using your phone or other recording device record yourself doing 3 attempts.
Once you've attempted 3 times you can position yourself so that the camera is shooting from a side angle. Again, 3 attempts from this view.
Review the video and look for the 5 points of emphasis outlined above. Do you meet the criteria? If not, don't worry.
The next step is to place a 1/2 inch board or plate under your heels. Set up in the same manner as outlined above and perform the test exactly the same.
Again record and view yourself from the front and back. You're looking for the same criteria that was outlined above.
What you'll notice in the video on the left is I'm unable to hit all the points of emphasis however, with the heel lift I'm able to do so.
Based on this assessment I can conclude that squatting is something I'm okay to do. Is my pattern perfect? No, but it is acceptable. There are a few things I might work on to address this pattern but at this point I'm able to squat relatively safely.
Now, let's say you were unable to hit all 5 points of emphasis with your feet elevated. We would call your squat pattern dysfunctional. Does that make you a bad person? NO!!
It simply means your body is not ready to handle a heavy or externally loaded squat. This is where I started 11 years ago. I was moving in a dysfunctional manner while attempting to add an external load. This is what lead to my injury.
Based on the results of your assessment we can determine which squat variation is going to be right for you at the time.
There are a number of squat variations we can look at to begin perfecting your squat. Sometimes one works better than another and it takes some time to figure out which is best for you.
I've outlined the order in which I start with my clients. This is a basic order that I start almost everyone with just to see how they respond.
Unable to hit all 5 points of emphasis start here:
1. TRX Squat
2. Counterbalanced Box Squat
Able to squat with heels elevated or untrained in the squat:
3. Goblet Squat
4. 2 KB Front Squat
Check out the squat variations here:
Depending on your individual circumstances you may need to work on a single squat variation for several weeks or months. This isn't a bad thing.
I actually prefer someone to spend as long as possible in the regressed versions to ensure squat technique and form is near perfect.
There are also several squat variations that fit into this picture but these are some basic versions to use as you progress.
In short, I can say with confidence, barring a pain score during the OH squat assessment that everyone should squat as part of their exercise program because of its effectiveness in burning calories, training all of the musculature in the legs, and its requirement in our daily lives.
If you’d like to have your squat assessed by one of our trainers as well as other movement patterns please schedule an assessment as we focus our efforts on improving our squat technique through the month of October.
Also check our Instagram and YouTube for more squat variations throughout the month of October.