A couple of weeks I got pretty raw about the squat exercise on my Facebook page, you can find the posts here, here, and here! The reason I got raw about this exercise is because it has been so abused by the fitness world and does not even replicate what a squat should look like! We have taken this beautiful, natural movement pattern and loaded it when it shouldn’t be loaded – expecting a huge return on investments. As a result of our premature loading, we have settled for anything less than a full squat and if that is a problem because of your knees … then please, feel free to sit over on that chair, lift the weight stack by extending your legs, and that is just as close as doing a squat, right? WRONG! My attempt in this blog is to rightly inform that we need to master the deep squat pattern before ever thinking of loading, and potentially destroying, this pattern.
I’m not sure where these cues started creeping into coaching the squat, but I’ve had a heckuva time trying to correct these wrongs with my clients. The sad part about these erroneous cues, is that at some point I had bought into them. There was the popular question about how low can you take a squat without it hurting your knees; we need to save those knees and tendons and ligaments … the answer – don’t go so deep! In addition, make sure that you keep those knees behind your toes and I bought it – hook, line, and sinker! The dilemma with these coaching cues are that they take away from the natural purpose of the squat pattern! Your squat exercise starts taking the form of a deep knee-bent good morning exericse. The question here is does the squat serve as a weight lifting exercise or a mobility movement?
Let’s first hear from the Functional Movement Screen. Its the first screen exercise in the FMS, the Deep Squat. If you don’t remember the scoring criteria, I suggest you re-read Functional Movement Screen 101 (Part 1); so, if your deep squat pattern is dysfunctional (a score of 1), of if there is pain (a score of 0), then you should not load the squat pattern. Why, you might ask. Well, if your movment pattern is no good, then what good is going to come from throwing weight on top of it? All of those hideous compensations are going to take over and make your squat exercise look like something straight out of an episode from The Walking Dead! If your squat pattern is dysfunctional, the best thing you can do to improve your squat is to stop squatting! Crazy, right?
Now, a lesson from the children – remember that population that has the most authentic and pure movment patterns? When they squat, its not to lift anything off of the ground – its to get a better look at what is on the ground! If ever they squat to lift something up, and its too heavy for them to execute, then they merely shift their hips back, tense their abdomen and back, and lift … we call that a deadlift in my field, by the way. An entirely different movement to lift something off of the ground (more on that next week)! So, if you are unable to squat like a four-year old to look at something on the ground, or squat like someone from an “undeveloped” country while they rest – then you may want to start working on that right now.
I will be honest here and share a confession: I have thrown out my back twice during a barbell back squat. For those of you that aren’t familiar with this particular exercise, its the one where you place a barbell on top of your shoulders behind your head and take that weight from the top and decend down and then back up again for one repitition – repeat as necessary. I’ve always prided myself on having a great squat when it came to form, may not have been the strongest guy in the room, but I could hold my own when it came to the form. So, what happened? The problem for my back issue was the fact that I wasn’t going low enough in my squat. What!?!? How does that even make sense? While I had the load on my shoulders, I would want to make sure that my knees did not go past my toes; well, the only way that I could make that happen was by shifting my hips back and when you do that, you can’t go very far down or you’re going to fall backwards (and you don’t want to do that with a loaded barbell on your shoulders). So, with the placement of the weight spread across my shoulders and my hips back behind the weight in the lowered position – this formula only smells disaster for the way up!
Maybe not in this particular lifting session, but after awhile my body is going to get tired of having to lift improperly by asking every muscle, besides the ones that are suppose to be working here, to make this lift happen and finally the straw is too much for the camel’s back and BANG! My back is messed up – twice!
Now, what happens if I decide to get smart and start getting my Fitness Lying Down?
My squat is not only going to improve in form, but in size, too! I will now tell you the secret to having stronger knee joints and a more efficient low back area – squat deep (and if you cannot do this, then don’t squat right now)! Picture in your mind someone with a bar on their shoulders decending slowly into a squatting movement and keeping those hips directly under the weight of the bar, not letting them move even a quarter inch back. Then, in the hole (the bottom of the squat), they keep integrity in their hips and core and then powerfully bring that bar back up in a standing position … you have just completed a loaded, functional squat. Now, go ahead, get in front of a mirror and get one squat like that in – I’ll wait while you do it. Done? Good. Be honest with yourself: does your squat come low where your hips are lower than your knees and did you maintain tension in your butt throughout the movement and are your shoulders back, chest out? If not, you may want to reconsider squatting until you clean that up because all you’re going to do is build strength on top of a dysfunction (using a quote from Gray Cook) – and no one wants to do that. What does the bible say about building your house on sand? Don’t do it! Build it on rock.
There are countless ways you can improve your squat pattern by not squatting right now (not forever, just not right now). One simple way is to stay close to the ground during your fitness and move. I would suggest reading my last blog, You May Want to Sit Down For This and viewing this Facebook post. Don’t just settle for the ol’ traditional barbell back squat as your go-to squat exercise, either. As much as I have always loved and still love the back squat and all it delievers, there are so many more options in the candy store. Challenge your environment, challenge your toys, and reclaim your movement!