By Dr. Mercola
Squats are known as one of the best functional exercises out there, and for good reason. After all, squatting is a foundational human movement — our ancestors have been squatting since ancient times.
One of the most common squats is eliminating your body wastes. However, the modern toilet has virtually eliminated that movement. Additionally, every time you get in and out of a chair you are doing a squat, but that is radically minimized.
As a result, few people engage in high-quality squats on a regular basis in their daily lives, and loss of functionality can result.
When you perform squats properly, you build muscles that helps improve your mobility and balance. This exercise also helps your muscles work more efficiently, and these benefits translate into your body moving more efficiently in the real world too.
For the last few years, I have avoided squats but I just read a fantastic book an strength training called "Starting Strength" by Mark Rippetoe that changed my mind and I am now committed and excited to doing squats the way Mark describes a few times a week.
The book provides enormously comprehensive descriptions and pictures that make it really easy to understand how to do the exercise properly. The first few chapters on how to properly squat will give you the details you need to avoid injury. If you are interested in strength training with a barbell this is the book to get.
The Many Health Benefits of Squats
Squats help strengthen your quadriceps, hamstrings, calves and ankles, making you more stable on your feet. But they also provide a number of other health-boosting benefits, including:
✓ Building and strengthening muscles throughout your body
When done properly, they can effectively trigger the release of testosterone and human growth hormone (HGH) in your body, which support over all muscle development.
✓ Increasing fat burning
Muscles use more calories even when they're not being worked, and your leg muscles are some of the "bulkiest" muscles in your body.
For every 10 pounds of muscle you gain, you burn about 500 to 700 more calories per day than before.
✓ Improved balance and mobility
By increasing leg and bone strength and stabilizing your core, squats help improve your overall balance and can help prevent falls.
Hence, squats become increasingly beneficial and important with advancing age.
Weak stabilizer muscles, ligaments, and connective tissues can easily lead to athletic injuries.
Performing squats can strengthen all of these and prevent injury by improving your range of motion and flexibility.
✓ Enhancing athletic performance
Doing squats has been shown to help athletes run faster and jump higher.
This is why squats are a part of virtually every professional athlete's fitness program.
✓ Toning your buttocks and abdominals
Besides working your legs, squats also help tone and tighten your buttocks and abs.
Squatting also helps build muscles that participate in the regulation of glucose, lipid metabolism, and insulin sensitivity, which in turn prevents chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease,1 diabetes, and obesity.
✓ Improving bowel movements and waste removal
Your body is actually designed to eliminate by squatting, and doing squats as an exercise can help induce more regular bowel movements by improving fecal movement through your colon.
Basic Squat 101
Many elderly and those with knee problems tend to shy away from squats, thinking they're too destructive on the knees. There's really no need to avoid them. Instead, just make sure you're doing them properly, and avoid using weights.
Research2 shows that when done with proper form, squats actually improve knee stability and strengthen connective tissue. In the video above, personal trainer and coach Darin Steen demonstrates helpful warm-up tips and stretches, followed by safe squat techniques for beginner, intermediate and advanced. Here are some key points to remember:
- Stand with your feet just over shoulder width apart
- Keep your back in a neutral position, and keep your knees centered over your feet
- Slowly bend your knees, hips and ankles, lowering until you reach a 90-degree angle, then return to starting position
- Breathe in as you lower, breathe out as you return to starting position
- Do two to three sets of 15 to 20 repetitions, twice or three times a week
What Does It Mean If You Cannot Perform a Proper Squat?
The inability to perform a proper squat can give you important clues about your current fitness and mobility. For example, the inability to bend your knees and ankles, thereby disallowing your hips to hinge all the way back, will result in a movement in which you end up raising up on your toes.
This suggests tightness in your hip extensors and/or hamstrings, and you'd be wise to start working on improving your hip flexibility. If your knees buckle inward upon lowering or raising yourself up, your hamstrings and glutes are the areas of weakness.
Variation 1: Behind the Neck or Overhead Squats
The key point with squats is the movement. If you are not strong or are elderly, it is perfectly fine to do air squats without any weight. Your body needs to remember how to do the movement pattern correctly.
Once you've mastered the basic squat (with or without hand weights), you can switch things up with a number of different variations. A simple tweak that can help increase your range of motion is to do an overhead squat, using either a broom handle or a weighted bar.
This movement does wonders to improve thoracic extension and shoulder mobility. In the video above, you can see a demonstration of an overhead squat holding a plain stick. As you go down into the squat, make sure you push the bar upwards and back, keeping it directly above your head and not out in front of you.
As you get stronger, you can add weights. The overhead squat is a challenging whole-body exercise that has many benefits, provided it's done right. Lifting a significant amount of weight can be challenging enough; adding a squat can really throw off your form, so take it slow and pay attention to your movements.
Once you add weights, you really need to make sure you have good mobility and strength in your hips, knees and ankles. Stop whenever your lower back starts to arch excessively, or when your knees come past your toes. Squatting deeper past this point will compromise your form, and heighten your risk of shoulder, cervical, thoracic, and/or lumbar injury. Below I demonstrate this movement using a weighted bar behind my neck.
Counteracting Knee Pain
If you find that squatting causes knee pain, consider the following pointers, and watch the video above.
- When holding the bar, make sure you drive your elbows down and in close to your sides. This will help stabilize the kinetic chain through your back and hips.
- When descending, actively pull yourself down into squat position by activating your hip flexor and psoas muscle. This helps stabilize your hips, and disengages other muscles that can contribute to knee pain.
Variation 2: Bulgarian Split-Squat
Another variation on this exercise is the Bulgarian split-squat. To perform this exercise, you need a slightly elevated surface on which to place one foot, while the other leg does the bending. You could use a low chair, or position yourself in front of a couch that reaches a height between mid-calf and knee level.
Place your left foot on top of the elevated surface behind you, and the right foot about two feet in front of it. Your right foot needs to be far enough forward so that at the bottom of the movement, your front knee will be bent at 90-degrees and not go past your toes.
Once you're in position and feel stable, lower your body by bending both knees to the point where your front thighbone is parallel to the floor. Avoid bending forward at the hips. Do about 15 repetitions on each leg. You can perform this exercise without weights, placing your hands on your hips, or holding a set of hand weights.
Squats Are a Great Exercise You Can Do Just About Anywhere, Anytime
Squats are one of those exercises you can do for a few minutes every single day, even without switching into your workout clothes. They can be done just about anywhere, any time. And they're beneficial regardless of your age, although the older you get, the more important they become.