The most absolutely basic definition of a squat? Bending the knees and pushing the hips back to “sit” down, and usually standing right back up afterwards. There may or may not be additional weight riding somewhere on the upper part of the body. And of course, bonus points for no pain in the knees and low back in particular.
First Things First: Me, Myself, and I
If you’re getting over an osteoporotic fracture, for example, a “sit to stand” may be as far as you take your squat for the moment. Osteoporosis Canada demonstrates how to use one of my favourite tools, a dowel (a broom handle will do just fine), to keep a neutral spine as you hip hinge .
The now-behemoth fitness icon that is CrossFit calls the squat a “beautiful, natural movement”… to which I would add: hopefully! My personal experience is that they can be the nemesis of many people, at least initially — especially the more years that have passed since they were toddlers. But seriously, they actually have a great demo/tutorial for an air squat, or one that is unweighted.
Knee and Toes, Knees and Toes
One oft-repeated piece of advice is to keep knees behind the toes. While it’s true we don’t want to “sink” into the knees, that advice has actually spawned a host of other problems. I look more for initiating from the hips and maintaining a relatively parallel angle between the spine and the shins, with the knee (actually, the femur / thigh bone) tracking the second toe.
Then Throw On a Little Weight Somehow
Here’s where it gets more fun! To develop strength (not endurance) and muscle mass, you need some external weight on your squats.
Here, I demo a few more home-based ways to do it, including racked and the “zombie” version of a front squats.
Key points to watch for, and even more so once we are loading the squat, include:
- Get solid before squatting: tripod foot, good body lines, solid “breathe and brace” sequence (exhale and draw up pelvic floor; strong horizontal diaphragmatic inhale)
- Pull down actively to “load the spring”
- The body’s centre of mass is just above the midfoot, right where you would tie your shoelaces. You want to make sure that any additional weight travels vertically along this same line.
Of course, you must have good mechanics without the weight already. If you’re new to it, ease your way sensibly into weighted squats. It’s seriously worth investing with a reputable coach at the outset.
At the very least, film yourself and direct a highly critical eye at it, and perhaps even post a video or two on strength forums, such as Starting Powerlifting for feedback.
Sky’s the Limit
Once you have your basics down pat, it gets goal-focused. Do you just want to be generally healthy and be able to get off the toilet on your own once you’re older? Awesome. Basic programming and a healthy dose of attention to technique will do you just fine.
If you have more lofty and/or specific goals, this is when the programming needs to get more sophisticated in terms of periodization and specialized variants. Again, a good coach is really worth their weight in gold.
Please stay in touch!