Re-learning proper squatting technique

Is squatting a good exercise? Should I squat past 90 degrees?

These are 2 questions I hear over and over as a clinician in the rehab setting. My answer to both questions is almost always “Yes.”

I would like all of my clients and patients to have the ability to squat. It is one of the most primitive and basic motions and all of us should be able to do it. But unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world and many people have not squatted correctly in many years; leading to knee, back, and other injuries. So, why do I wish my patients and clients could squat, and why do I teach it so often?

To answer that question, we need to take a deeper look into the squat (no pun intended). Generally adults in the western world have difficulty squatting, many teenagers can’t do it correctly, and even those who ‘squat’ regularly as part of an exercise routine do so poorly. Many people have never been instructed on correct technique or worse, a ‘professional’ or a friend teaches them what they think is the right technique.

In a rehabilitation setting, we often need to un-teach this and instruct them on proper squatting. One great model to teach proper squatting is a toddler or young child. Next time you see a toddler notice how often they squat. They squat to play and they stay in that position forever. Rarely will they bend at the waist to pick something up from the floor, squatting to pick it up is just natural for them.

Everyone is born with an innate ability to squat correctly. As we age our hips change, but “modern conveniences” such as sitting in chairs for much of the day (at work, driving, at home), toilets that are too high all contribute significantly to losing the ability to squat. In many places around the world, squatting is an essential position and is used for many daily activities. I’m not suggesting we completely change our lives, but I am suggesting that losing the ability to squat is acquired, use it or lose it. If we spent less time sitting in chairs, we would likely benefit ourselves in many ways.

Squatting and deep squatting are excellent exercises, but they must be done correctly. There are techniques for learning good form and if your form is poor (or painful) you should consult a qualified professional to assess your technique. This should include an evaluation of movement dysfunction or asymmetries, such as Postural Restoration Institute, as a poor squat is often an indicator that you have postural asymmetries or muscle imbalances.

The essentials to proper squatting include dropping your hips as close to the floor as possible while sitting back into your glutes (imagine you have a very low stool for sitting.) Your body should be parallel to your lower legs, your knees over your feet, and your heels should remain on the ground with your feet at shoulder width or slightly closer.

Common errors include leaning forward and allowing the knees to move in front of the foot; allowing the knees to buckle in; leaning the trunk forward so it is not parallel to the lower legs; shifting to one side; and arching or extending the back. Lastly, squatting is not a quad exercise (yes your quads will activate), but you must think of it as a glute exercise, emphasize and squeeze your glutes as you return from the squatting position by pushing through your heels. A poorly performed squat, such as overusing your quad or back muscles,will lead to injury. Once weight is used, especially with a bar over one’s shoulder, any imperfection in the squat raises the injury risk to the knees, back, hips, etc.

If you are looking to learn how to squat, this suggestion may help. Try to support yourself by reaching and holding onto a solid object (doorway, columns in basement, etc.) and see how far you can comfortably lower while keeping good form with your back rounded. Use the support to maintain a good squat or sit on a low step. Once you reach your lowest comfortable position, stay there for 3 or 4 deep breaths (expanding your chest and belly outward), then rise up using your glutes, staying back on your heels, and keeping your back rounded, not extended. Repeat 3 or 4 times, until you become more comfortable with the squat and add to your daily routine.

Proper Squatting Technique: Hips are low, back is rounded.

Although I can’t guarantee that you will be able to play by squatting with toddlers for hours on end; with some practice, you may find yourself feeling looser, squatting more often to pick up objects from the floor, and having less stiffness in your back and lower extremity. 

Read more Sports Doc for Sports Medicine and Fitness.