Whats the deal with squats, anyways?

I’m sure many of you have heard me say many times before that most machines in a gym were designed for rehabbing injured muscles rather than making a person fit or fitter.

And here’s one more reason why I know this is true (and not just me being a conspiracy theorist): because when muscles are touching something soft and squishy (like the seat of a leg press machine for instance) the brain sends signal to those muscles that it's time to relax so they basically don't work (at least to their fullest capacity) while you're doing the exercise.

Squatting is one of the most important and basic movement patterns the human body can execute...indeed it's actually considered one of The Seven Pillars of Human Movement! And when you think about it you'll realize that you’re utilizing a squatting movement pattern whenever you sit down then get back up from a chair or toilet, get in and out of a car, or pick something important up from the ground. We ALL do these activities EVERY day so in Sports & Physiology terms we call them "Activities of Daily Life" or "ADL's." And to top it all off squatting is a HUGE osteoporosis prevention technique.

The human body is actually meant to squat comfortably A LOT and in many cultures people spend a big chunk of time every day in that position. But in this country we've become "Repose Rewarded," or in other words pretty much addicted to chair-sitting. (FYI some of the circles in which I travel call sitting “the new smoking.")

Think about it, chair-sitting is pretty seductive because it doesn't challenge your joints the way squatting does but it does kind of mimic a squat in that your hips, knees, and ankles are all flexed while your spine has a gentle neutral curve (unless you slouch, but that's a whole other blog!) But here's the part where the chair-sitting becomes so dangerous: remember what I said a moment ago about how the brain sends signals to muscles that are resting against something soft (like a chair seat) that it's time to relax...well some of the most important muscles in your body run from the top of your head down your back all the way to your heels and if those muscles are at rest AND THEREFORE ATROPHYING while you're sitting in a chair, eventually you simply won't be able to do any squat-related activities on your own anymore! And I'm sure you can easily imagine how small your world would suddenly seem if you woke up one day and simply couldn’t rise from your chair. Ever stop to think why 20-30% of people who fracture a hip die within the year? It's partly because of the MASSIVE loss of independence that often accompanies hip fractures.

So now I imagine you're wondering “What’s the BEST way to do a high-quality squat (because the way I see people squatting in a group exercise class at the Y sure doesn't look the same as the way the powerlifters are doing it!)”

Here's a terrific video from Mike Boyle who's arguably one of the most influential experts in the field of Functional Fitness today:


And truth be told this is a subject that's very close to my heart: I've really been working on improving my own squats lately because as I've grown increasingly busy with work the last couple of years I've also spent increasing amounts of time behind the wheel of my car and my squats are starting to look a bit sloppy! So I not only incorporate a number of Mike's tips but also practice something I call a Face-the-Wall Squat* regularly…here's how you do it:

Stand facing a wall with your feet about hip-width apart, toes turned slightly out and touching the baseboard. Place a chair behind you (just in case you have ANY concerns about this exercise…the last thing I ever want to do is freak someone out or cause them to lose their balance!) Place your fingers near your ears then pull your shoulder blades back. Now lower your body as far as you can by placing as much weight as possible in your heels and allowing your hips to shift back as far as possible as the hip “hinges” flex…it’s ok if your nose and knees touch the wall but don’t let your shoulders roll forward. Note that you may feel your back arching a bit but your spine is actually designed to be stronger in this position when you squat.

For more info on squats, The Seven Pillars of Human Movement, and a few more SIMPLE exercises that'll help you keep doing all your favorite activities happily and easily for the rest of your life, check out my next Foundations of Functional Fitness.


Photo courtesy of The Women’s Health Big Book of Exercises

Written by
Jessica Lewis, CPT, CNC
HCC Lifestyle Coach