Know More than Squat about Squats

Photo credit: Casey Mullens, babble.com
Somewhere between childhood and adulthood we stop naturally squatting. Photo credit: Casey Mullens, babble.com

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.

English: Squat lifing
If you’re new to squatting you probably don’t want to start here. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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? 

This post was originally published on July 1, 2014.

Mom of three kiddos and a black lab, running enthusiast, sports-med-doctor-in-training. I love the science and sport of running and all things related.

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18 comments

  1. One of my many PT insisted I learn to squat correctly. Difficult for me with such tight hammies/quads/glutes/hip flexors. I’d use a long bar, like a broom handle, between sides of open door to give me leverage as I slowly lowered my butt to the floor. Without it I was hopeless. I have very tight hips these days so thank you for the additional suggestions to get them open and continue work on the squat.

  2. YES! I learned the hard way just how important PROPER squats are in preventing injury and aiding in flexibility. Thank you for the reminder.

  3. Thanks for this! I have always been terrible at squats (and they tend to hurt my knees) but the toe-touch squat is amazing. It’s the first time I’ve been able to get so low- and no knee pain.

  4. I have to admit–I am terrible at a true, heels-to-the-ground squat and I covet the ability to do it! I really do think it’s a great tool for runners. Thanks for the really thorough primer!

    1. Most of us don’t do the true deep squat well – but you can still get benefits even if you need to use some of the “cheats” I mentioned. Let me know how it goes if you try some of them!

      1. Give the goblet squat method a try – I have tight calves too, and either holding a kettle bell to your chest, or holding a dumbbell or med ball out in front of you, forces you to sit back a bit more so you can usually get below parallel with your heels down even if you don’t have the best ankle range of motion. Let me know what you think!

  5. Love me some squats (I blogged about squat love here: http://thesethingshappentootherpeople.blogspot.com/2014/02/things-i-learned-while-weight-training.html), and I love them even more after reading that they were one of the secrets of Pam Smith’s success when she won Western States last year (read this: http://www.irunfar.com/2013/08/how-the-western-was-won.html). A few of our local runners also swear by 100 air squats a day as part of their training for hilly trail races.

    The first time I did them regularly as an adult was while pregnant. Squatting is one of several traditional positions for pushing during labor! It was nice to develop that hip flexibility and to work on a new skill at a time when my body was changing to much.

    I like that I do them both in yoga (Hindi squats, very deep and stretchy) and when lifting weights. I focus on keeping my feet flat on the floor and my back a bit arched. They’re fun and I think they make me a stronger runner!

    1. I agree! I have had 3 children so lots of hip/pelvic changes (not for the better!), and doing squats has absolutely helped correct some of the problems there I have as a result of my pregnancies. I wish I had known about the benefits of squatting WHILE pregnant – very cool that you did them then, and I’m sure they helped your body recover.

    2. I did them when pregnant too! Did you manage to deliver that way? I did a lot of hem during labor to help labor progress but was too tired/in pain to deliver that way for the one I didn’t get the epi with.

      1. For baby #1, I think I tried pushing in every position that existed, including (I think?) squatting. But he was ultimately a vacuum-assisted delivery. For baby #2, two pushes (kneeling on the bed) was all it took! I think being in good shape in general definitely helped with labor and recovering from labor. It’s like a marathon, except that you don’t know the distance when you start the race!

  6. I love this post! I’m definitely among the squat-challenged. I have freakishly long femurs, and have read that this can interfere with proper squat form. I’ve tried the toe touch version, but it hurts my knees so bad that I can only do a few. I tried the stability ball thing you suggested, but apparently I’m not visualizing your description correctly because what I was doing didn’t look like a prone squat. Lol!

    1. Thanks Allspice! For the toe touch, prop up your heels on some books, weight plates, etc, and hold either a 6-8 lb med ball or a heavy book in your hands. Bend at the waist and touch the med ball to the floor, and keeping it on the floor bend your knees and go down into your squat making sure your knees are on the outside of your arms. Imagine your pelvis is slung between your legs. Then, while you’re in that deep squat position, hold the med ball horizontally out in front of you to further sink down, then press it up over your head while you stand. The med ball held out in front of you will force you to sit back into the squat better, which might be more comfortable for your knees. Hopefully that’s clear – let me know if not. (maybe we can FaceTime, and I can show you!). I will try to find a video of the prone squat on ball for you and I’ll email it to you if I do (or post it here, in case others are having trouble visualizing it).

  7. I had to completely relearn how to do squats when starting CrossFit. I’m so glad I did! Awesome article!