For years, I shied away from teaching a squat. It was too challenging to get people to do it safely! Without fail, almost everyone seemed to squat in a way that put extra strain on either the knees, the back, or the neck. No matter how many different ways I tried to demonstrate or explain, it just didn't sink in. I'm trying to work on this movement again in my classes now because I'm realizing that a squat- done in a safe and functional manner- is a great foundation for so many other exercises! It's also a fantastic way to strengthen legs, bum and core.
I think the reason I see so much incorrect squatting is because people have a history with squats. If I asked 100 people if they had ever done a squat, how many would say yes? Probably all of them. If I asked how many had done tons and tons of squats at some point in their lives, there would likely still be a large number of yesses! It's a matter of repetitive muscle memory. Your body learned how you want to perform that movement before, and so that's how it does it- whether it is safe or not!
The basic squat involves 3 main fulcrums. Your ankles, your knees and your hips. Each of these joints should move an equal amount and each of these joints should move at the same rate throughout the movment. I have noticed a number of issues with this over the years. I would have to say that from my observations, the ankle joint is the most likely place to cause an issue. Do you ever find yourself lifting your toes when you squat? That's because your ankle joint is too stiff to bend properly. The feet are so important in helping to maintain stability and to "close" the chain of muscles, and yet are often not grounded on the floor properly. The next most common issue I see is the hips. Usually people seem afraid to move their hips backwards... and end up using their knees much more than the hips. So the poor knees are essentially sandwiched between two joints that aren't moving enough and end up overstressed and overworked! I have bad knees myself and I am amazed now at how I am able to squat- even really deeply- without any knee pain. I've still got issues to be sure- I know it's a weak area- but I am functional again. By functional, I can walk, hike, cycle, squat and bend away. I suspect soccer is maybe a bit out my my league at the moment :-( but hey, I used to have horrible knee ache after a long walk. I'd say that's definite progress!
Here are some suggestions for helping to retrain your body for a safer and more functional squat:
1. Use the wall with a ball behind your back
I taught a squat often this way because it helps take the pressure off the knees and gives you better body awareness. Stand with your feet at least a foot away from the wall and place a ball behind your back- just below the shoulders, in the thoracic spine. Lean against it, really putting your weight into it. Using a soft ball will be more comfortable and you can use a big ball such as a gym ball too. Just stand a bit farther away from the wall. Bend the knees and bring the hips down, while rolling the ball up your back. Don't forget to keep pressure against the ball the whole time. When you get as low as you feel comfortable, look at your knees. If they are in front of your feet, move your hips back towards the wall. If they are still in front of your feet move your feet forwards. Practice breathing in to come down, and out to come up.
2. Use a chair as a prop to get those hips to move back naturally
This one's easy- get a chair. Sit in it. Now- the hard part- slowly stand up and be aware of your hip positioning. Try to move as though you are sitting back down but hold yourself slightly out of the chair. I often say "Move your bum out behind you" but maybe I should say "Try to sit down in a chair" ;-) You can use your arms in whatever way feels balanced- hold the arm of the chair or reach your arms forwards, whatever works for you.
3. Try to sit on your haunches as often as possible
I really noticed an improvement in my ankle flexibility once I started sitting on my haunches all the time with my son. Kids do this naturally and easily all the time. I simply mean resting with your bum just off the floor and your feet flat- see the little girl below. If you can't get your feet flat, then raise the heel a little- my left heel still has to lift but my right is ok. This is going to increase both ankle and knee flexibility, and, if you practice standing up from this position it's going to do wonders for your leg and bum strength. I now do a "froggy chase" game with my toddler that is hopping off my haunches like a frog. Real dignified but oh so good for those knees!
Give those a try if you can and please let me know how you get on! Have you struggled with squats in the past? I'd love to hear your story- please share in the comments or send me an email :-) Thanks and happy squatting to you!
Diane Archer, Pilates Instructor from the UK now living back in Canada. Blog of tips, thoughts, home challenges.