Squatting is one of our fundamental movement patterns.
We learn to squat early in life, and it never stops being useful.
But many of us become poor squatters as we age. After years of only doing infrequent partial squats (i.e. getting up out of a chair) we lose the ability to do it well.
Learn the importance of squatting and a kettlebell exercise that will help you reclaim your squat (and your youth) below.
It is often said that you have to crawl before you can walk.
But there are other things you have to do in between crawling and walking, namely standing.
And since we all start laying down on the floor, how do we learn to stand?
The first step is learning how to squat.
Then we learn how to pull ourselves up to standing and it is off to the races!
But squatting isn’t just about getting to standing and never doing it again. The squat is also a useful motion for many activities that adults and children need to do.
If you have ever seen a child playing with toys in a squat for minutes on end you will see what they use it for. But it is easy to forget why squatting is so important as we age.
The Benefits of Squatting
Squatting is an expression of how well your core can stabilize you as well as your range of motion of all your lower body joints.
While we can “check” how much your knee, hip, and ankle bend as individual joints, this tells us nothing about how they work together when you have to do a real life task.
Like getting up off the floor, or stepping under a low branch while walking.
Squatting can help keep (or restore) function of the lower body.
What does that means for a lot of people? Less lower back pain.
A major cause of lower back pain is the lower back having to do all the work that your hips are supposed to be doing. If your hips are too tight or weak to do it then the lower back does double (or even triple) duty.
Until it is so overworked that it shuts itself (and you) down.
Squats also make for a great multi-joint exercise which can build muscle and strengthen bones…two of the most important things you need to age gracefully.
They are also great for burning calories if losing weight is one of your goals.
In short, it is an exercise that everyone can (and should) do.
Squatting as Rest
One of the most interesting things about the squat is that while we have found ways to avoid doing it in the western world, in many cultures, such as in the East, people still use it as a resting posture instead of sitting on a chair.
Yes, for some people it is as comfortable as sitting down!
We all used to get lots of practice squatting. One of my favorite examples is that the toilet didn’t become common until the mid 1800’s, which meant that if you wanted to make a kaki (Hebrew for poop) you had to squat!
In many places where squatting is the norm many toilets are still effectively holes in the ground.
Warning about Squatting
Even though we all could get into a deep comfortable squat as children it doesn’t mean that you should expect to get back there today.
A lot has happened since you were 3 years old!
Injuries, tension, poor movement, bone growth, and calcification can all affect the way you squat.
Many people will never get back into a comfortable deep squat.
But many people can.
And just because you won’t get back to “perfect” doesn't mean you can’t benefit from improving your squat.
One of the first drills that I teach people to help improve their squat is the Prying Goblet squat, invented by one of the great coaches of our generation – Dan John.
Here is how you do it.
Start preferably barefoot, but if you have to wear shoes they should be completely flat, such as Chuck Taylors or minimalist zero-drop shoes.
Any heel lift (even if it is only a few millimeters) will make this drill less effective.
Grab a kettlebell in the goblet position (link to article).
Find your squat stance. Feet are shoulder width apart and turned out slightly.
Sit back into your squat (like you are aiming for a chair) and push your knees apart, keeping your feet flat on the floor.
Don’t allow your heels or the balls of the feet to lift, and go as far as you can without pain.
Wedge your elbows inside of your knees against the inside of your thighs. Use your elbows to “pry” your knees even further apart. Again, don’t let the ball of the foot or the heel leave the ground.
Relax into the squat, without letting the spine round. Keep your chest up tall, but don’t tilt your head back. Don’t shrug your shoulders toward your ears.
And remember to breathe; this is about relaxing into the squat.
Keep prying the knees apart and “widen” your hips to make more space.
If you need to adjust your stance, that is allowed, but remember the adjustment so you can start in that position on the next rep.
When you have had enough, park the kettlebell on the ground and stand up (without the kettlebell).
This exercise is very effective for many reasons. The main ones are that the weight provides a counter balance, helping your core function more efficiently, and it helps to stretch the muscles which can make squatting difficult.
I have poor ankle mobility. I had a growth problem with my ankles when I was a pre-teen.
And I did LOTS of running and jumping with poor technique before I learned how to exercise with good technique.
While I do a lot to take care of my ankles, including getting physical therapy, they don’t (and might never) have full range of motion. Luckily I have a functional range for the activities I do.
One of the things that you need full range of motion for is something called a pistol squat which is a squat on one leg. I can’t do it without my heel popping off the ground.
If I am holding a weight in front of me then I can do it just fine. While it might look more impressive holding a weight I am actually using the weight as a counter balance. It shifts my center of balance forward, so I can move my hips back more and use less ankle mobility.
Holding a weight in front of you will help you stay balanced with your hips back and chest up.
Most people think about laying on the ground and doing lots of crunches and other “core” exercises to strengthen their abs.
But the most functional way you use your core is standing up.
Holding a weight and getting into a good posture will turn on your abs. The weight gives your body feedback which helps you keep them engaged in the proper manner
Engaging your abs properly is a key to squatting, and holding the weight goblet style will help your body remember how to stabilize with your core.
A lot of muscles need to lengthen in order to squat properly. Usually people think about how their quads and hamstrings stretch when it comes to squatting.
But you also have muscles on the inside of your leg that need to lengthen to squat properly.
When they are tight they tend to pull your knees inward which makes squatting less efficient.
The name of the general group of muscles on the inside of your leg is the adductor group. The Prying Goblet Squat is an excellent way to stretch them which will allow your knees to go out more when you squat.
Don’t worry this exercise also stretches the quads and hamstrings.
But being able to drive your knees out will give you more stability and space, allowing you to achieve a deeper and safer squat.
While the Prying Goblet Squat isn’t the starting point for all people it is the starting point for many people.
Using the weight will allow you to get into a relaxed position and stretch yourself so you can squat better.
I usually put this exercise either as part of a person’s warm-up or as an accessory exercise right before squatting.
Sometimes I will also use it between sets of squatting.
It can be done for time or reps. When it is time I generally have clients spend 30 seconds to 1 minute in the position. Two or three rounds of that will open you right up. You can also do other exercises between the rounds.
For reps I have people count the elbow “prys” on the knees. I usually prescribe between 5-10 slow reps.
When I notice people are rushing through the reps I make them use the timer instead!
Overall, this truly is a great exercise and one of the best ways to perfect your squat, which itself is a key exercise for maintaining balance and core strength, and staying functionally able as you age.
If you have any additional questions send me an email firstname.lastname@example.org.