Today I am writing to extol the virtues of the deep squat, and to convince all you Salty Readers to try it and maybe even spend some time in it every day.
Squatting isn’t easy for a lot of us in this country. We don’t do it much once we leave our childhood years, and when we try as adults we either barely get down, or fall over while we’re trying. Then in the gym we load our squat exercises with heavy weight while our knees cave in, our feet pronate and turn out, and our torsos pitch forward – sounds like an injury waiting to happen, right? Or maybe we just avoid it entirely, and use the leg press machine instead, isolating our quad muscles but completely neglecting the contribution of our core or our glutes.
But how helpful is that to our functional movement as runners?
Arguments exist that some people just aren’t built to squat. It’s true, squatting is harder for some more than others and it’s important to respect your own anatomic limitations and perform any exercise within a safe range of motion for you. See this interesting post by Tony Gentilcore, a strength coach at Cressey Performance, for a discussion of anatomic variations that can affect your ability to squat.
That all being said, do not let this important skill elude you – you’ll be majorly missing out! Squatting has so many benefits. To name a few: it’s a phenomenal hip opener, it stretches and strengthens our pelvic floor, and if done correctly it forces us to use all the muscles in our abdominal wall to stabilize. And all these things translate well to our running!
So, from one squat-in-progress recruit to (hopefully) another, here are some tips to get you going.
Mobilize the key joints. You’ve got to roll, stretch and mobilize those hips, and the ankles and shoulders are important too. Whatever your favorites for loosening up those key areas, use them and do them every day, especially before you try to squat. For some great ideas for your hips, here is an excellent article by my strength coach, Kevin Carr, with some helpful video links. If you follow soft-tissue and mobility work with a functional movement like the deep squat, you will reinforce the work you did and it will stick around longer and take less time to get through the next time.
Build it from the ground up. Have you ever seen a toddler learning to stand and then walk? They start out on all fours, then push back into a deep squat, and THEN they stand. Not the other way around –bend down into a squat from standing – like we’re all always trying to do. So get your squat back in the way you first learned to do it.
To start, place a stability ball against a wall and get on all fours in front of it, then scoot back until your butt is pushing against it and your legs are on either side (a “prone” squat). Keeping your spine neutral, rock back, pushing your butt more firmly against it until you feel your abdominal wall engage, then hold for 20-30 seconds. Repeat this a few times to teach your core to stabilize you in this position, which will be needed once you are vertical. When you’ve gotten the hang of this, proceed to a toe-touch squat progression, demonstrated here. You will be amazed at how difficult this is at first, but you’ll get better and it will help you improve the pattern so when you go to do your squat exercises your form is cleaner and more effective.
Give yourself assistance. In my opinion, there’s nothing wrong with using some external aids to help you learn a movement pattern so you can train more effectively. For the squat, there are a few simple tricks you can try to improve your form so you can execute the pattern successfully. You can employ the goblet squat method, described here by the renowned strength and conditioning coach Mike Boyle. Or, you can block up your heels on flat weight plates or 1-2 inch thick books, which corrects inadequate ankle mobility, a common limiting factor for the squat. Finally, using a miniband or other resistance tubing around your knees while doing the squat forces you to engage your gluteus muscles, key players in your ability to get down below parallel. With some practice and work, you will rely less and less on these forms of assistance, and you’ll be squatting with the best of them before you know it.
So, Salty readers, are you among the squat-challenged legion? Do you dread the squat or love it?