This week I was interviewed by The Times to discuss one of the all time staples of many a gym routine, the squat…
Article is out now in print and online – and my full answers to the questions below here…
Would you say the squat is the single best exercise people can do (ie general public)?
I would be hesitant to say there is a one size fits all ‘best’ exercise. As each of us have different strengths, weaknesses, goals and starting points that will all determine how we should prioritise different movements.
However, it is fair to say that a squat in its various forms is applicable to almost every health and fitness goal and will be beneficial for the vast majority of people.
Often when we hear squat we think of being in a gym with a barbell on our backs, however, the squat movement pattern exists in numerous other aspects of life. Sitting up and down from a dining chair (or even the toilet!) is a form of squat, whilst at the other end of the spectrum a jump is really just a squat performed fast…
Why is it so good? Is it a whole body exercise?
A squat is what we call a closed chain compound exercise. Closed chain means our feet are in contact with the floor, and compound means we are working multiple joints at the same time.
Closed chain compound exercises tend to give us the best ‘bang for your buck’ when it comes to exercise selection.
Keeping the feet on the floor is a stable position which should feel ‘safe’ for most people, and working through the knee, hip, and ankle joints simultaneously means we can work a large proportion of our body at once.
When choosing exercises we should go through a risk vs reward process – and often the greater the reward of an exercise the higher relative risk. However, the squat – with its stable two footed environment – and its high level of relatability to ‘every day’ activities (such as sitting or jumping) means it is relatively easy to learn and to perform. – therefore low risk
The multiple joints and high proportion of muscle mass used when squatting means that it is most definitely high reward.
What mistakes do most people make when doing it?
– Most common mistake is assuming everyone should be squatting to the same depth, and that lower is better. Lower certainly means more mechanical ‘work’ is being performed (that is a simple formula of force x distance).
However, limb length, pelvic anatomy, tissue extensibility, and joint mobility all play a role in determining to what depth someone can (or should) squat.
For example someone with deeper hip sockets will run out of anatomy at a shallower range than someone with very shallow sockets – this is a skeletal issue, and not something that can be stretched through or forced – in fact attempting to force that range could cause quite serious injury
– Assuming foot position should be the same for everyone. A fitness industry myth from the 1980s was that everyone should squat with feet hip width apart and feet parallel. However, depending on the anthropometric of the previous and the thigh bones, for some people this may be comfortable, and for others impossible. No anatomical structure is ‘wrong’ it is just different, and when it comes to squat technique we need to be respectful of individual anatomical differences.
Is it bad for knees or will it strengthen muscles around them?
In general squatting should be beneficial for joint health, provided that you are squatting within the limitations of your own anatomy and with a load thats is manageable.
many of the knee issues and discomforts that people have felt from squatting can really be attributed to attempting to force a movement that isn’t suitable to an individuals anatomy. – attempting to fit a square peg in around role if you like!
When we squat with good form – by which I mean moving simultaneously through all three of the hip, knee and ankle joints and keeping the centre of gravity between the feet , then the majority of load will be carried by the hip joint. The hip joint has significantly more muscle that surrounds it than the knee – and is ‘designed’ to bear more load and produce more force.
Should knees be over feet – or is that a myth?
Much more than a myth thats actually defying the laws of physics…
One of the first principles of biomechanics is keeping centre of gravity (usually our navel) within our base of support (the space between our two feet), of we dont do this we will fall over.
In order to keep the centre of gravity within our base of support the knees have to come forward over the toes. If this didn’t happen we would either fall over backwards, or we would have to lean very far forwards to keep our balance.
Most people would choose not to fall over and instead lean far forwards – however – this creates a shear force on the lower back, and also across the knee joint.
If we move simultaneously through the hips knees and ankles, then the lower back, and knees bear much less of the load
How do you progress? Start by sitting in and out of a chair for example? then what?
Sitting in and out of a chair is a great way to start, a progression continuum may looms something like
1 – sitting down into a chair, but standing up with assistance
2 – sitting down and up unassisted
3 – Sitting down and up without the chair but assisted (hands resting on chair back or suing equipment like a TRX or even having someone hold your hands)
4 – body weight squat unassisted
5 – Goblet squat (holding a load in front of you with 2 hands)
6 – front squat (resting a barbell on the front of your shoulders)
7 – Back squat (resting a barbell on the back of your shoulders)
8 – jump
In general having a load in front of you is less risky (much lower shear force) than having it behind you, and the jump is the most advanced. In general we should learn how to do any movement slowly before thinking about doing it quickly.
Where most exercise classes fall down is giving everyone option 7 and / or option 8 in their first class. – which when we break things down are at the more advanced end of an exercise continuum.
many peoples fear of exercise, injury history, and bad gymn experiences can be put down to not being given the most suitable form of exercise for either their own anatymym, or their own exercise history.