Using the outtakes from an exercise shoot we did in our corporate gym, one of my colleagues put together an entertaining video of me performing random lifts to the tune of rapper Mims’s hit song “This is Why I’m Hot.” Talk about great blackmail material—it’s not something I’m likely to live down for the remainder of my working career. But now that I think about it, we should totally redo that video; I could see “This is Why I Squat” going viral.
At a recent convention, I had the opportunity to watch as 15,000+ people performed basic yoga poses, completely in unison. It was a sight to behold, and a happy moment for this exercise scientist, but I was the odd duck in the back row working on my squat progressions. To understand why I was squatting while the rest of the audience was following the movements of world-renowned yoga instructor Elena Brower, hop into your TARDIS and travel back a few more months to when I experienced one of the scariest moments of my life. Without going into too much detail, I began having stroke-like symptoms shortly after a workout and one of the contributing factors was overuse of the muscles in my neck and upper back, associated with reciprocal inhibition caused by my lack of squatting. I’m perfectly content with admitting that I was a hypocrite. A few injuries that inhibited my comfort level with placing loads on my spine combined with years of sitting at a desk, and squatting had taken a back seat to other movements in my training regimen. After that experience, I decided it was time to put my ego and comfort levels aside and relearn how to move. Otherwise, I may be unable to move before my kids are old enough for all the awesome family adventures we have planned. Learn from my mistakes.
The human musculoskeletal system was designed to squat. Think about the biomechanics of a squat: knees flexed, hips in flexion, neutral spine—exactly the same anthropometry of sitting comfortably in a sofa recliner. Toddlers do it all day, just because, and the position is so common in areas of the world where most adults don’t spend most of their waking day at a desk that it has its very own, very un-politically correct name (the “3rd world squat”). We have adapted our modern lifestyle around doing it as much as possible: at work, while commuting, and even at home while enjoying our favorite activities. It’s comfy and natural. But if you are a normal, somewhat sedentary individual, it is also likely the single greatest reason why your body hurts. All. The. Time. The solution is every bit as simple as the problem: replicate that same position – over and over again, as deep as you can.
Outside of the evidence-based facts that regularly squatting can make you stronger, faster, more explosive, improve movement economy, and is one of the single best ways to increase bone mineral density, it is also one of the single best indicators of proper movement patterns. If you can perform an unloaded deep squat, below parallel with your feet flat on the floor and a neutral spine, without inhibition, there is a strong likelihood that you have the mobility necessary to counteract all the sitting that comes with modern life. For your health, I suggest you all drop into a deep squat and ponder a few things:
- Squatting doesn’t have to be “exercise.” In fact, I recommend that it isn’t. Most of my squatting comes first thing in the morning (along with some movement prep) and at work, as an intermittent break from sedentarily sitting in my very expensive office chair that promotes terrible posture and the progressive tightening of my hips. Every day as I wait for my daughter at the bus stop, I awkwardly drop down into a deep squat and do some hip loosening drills. Although it is best that you limit the heavy loaded squats to a single training session per week, you can (and should) squat every single day.
- Squat how you feel comfortable. One of the integral parts of my graduate courses in human biomechanics and of several different exercise industry professional certifications is learning to evaluate how people squat to identify movement pattern dysfunction. You can tell a lot by how someone squats: which muscles are not correctly firing, if they’ve had past injuries (or are likely to experience significant ones in the future), if they run or cycle a lot (if they are quad or glute dominated), if they have a desk job, etc. Yes, there is a proper way to squat, but every musculoskeletal system is different and the correct way for you to squat may be different than the guy you see on the cover of the National Academy of Sports Medicine’s Corrective Exercise textbook. No matter what your 7th grade PE teacher told you, feet shoulder-width apart and feet pointed directly ahead may not work for you. My best squatting comes with a wider stance and my feet slightly externally rotated. Don’t force your body into positions it isn’t built or prepared for and please (please) do not squat on a Smith machine. The Smith machine is a useful tool for many things exercise-related, but squatting is not one of those things. If you have only 10 minutes a week to work on movement, I recommend that time be used going through deep squat progressions (Gray Cook may be the most knowledgeable person on the planet on this topic) with the understanding that how you move is unique.
- Think range of motion, not load. While heavy back squats are one of the best ways to develop posterior chain strength, they can result in diminishing returns (and increased injury risk) as form is compromised. Furthermore, there is some research that suggests trading off increased loads for increased depth is superior for muscular and connective tissue adaptations. In order to induce positive adaptations, you always want to follow the principle of progressive overload and constantly subject your body to increased demands, but (especially when squatting) it is better to have that progression come from improved form and greater depth. And yes, while everybody moves differently and has distinct flexibility and joint mobility thresholds, I have yet to work with a single individual without significant movement dysfunction who is incapable of squatting with good form below parallel.
You were born to squat. It is how you properly pick something up from the ground, use the “facilities,” and nestle into a theater seat to watch Thor in a gladiatorial contest against the Hulk (I haven’t seen Thor: Ragnarok yet, but the wife has hinted that it might be an acceptable activity for our next date night). You shouldn’t need a scary injury or an embarrassing outtake video to remind you about the importance of hinging at the hips and flexing those knees. Make sure you have a lifetime of being able to get into one of human nature’s most comfortable positions by popping a squat every day.
Dr. Damian Rodriguez is the health and exercise scientist for doTERRA International, LLC. He holds a doctorate in health science, a master’s degree in exercise physiology, and countless professional certifications. He has spent most of his life researching nutrition, exercise, and the lifestyle behaviors associated with optimal health. Along with his passion for health, as someone who lives with Asperger’s Syndrome, he is also involved in bringing awareness to autism spectrum disorders. There are varying opinions about many health and fitness topics. His opinions are his own and not necessarily that of doTERRA International, LLC. Consult your healthcare provider before making any changes to diet and exercise.