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How you can use the squat to assess your muscular health

The way you squat speaks volumes about how strong you are, and how stiff or mobile your hips and knees are

This is why you need to d a squat assessment.
This is why you need to d a squat assessment. (Istockphoto)

A squat assessment is something you should go through as soon as you feel a niggle in your knee, hip or any joint or muscle, while performing the exercise. Doing a free overhead squat without any weights, can tell you a lot about your body even without the pain. Many fitness experts and trainers might take pictures of you doing the squat, or ask you to record yourself doing a few at different angles to understand where the underlying issue is. 

While it is advisable to go to a professional for such an assessment, curiosity always gets the better of me, making me check my squat time and again. The one thing I can instantly spot is the right foot clearly pointed more outwards compared to the left one. The placement of the foot is very important in a squat. “Muscular recruitment notwithstanding, the position of the feet also play a direct role in whether the body is outputting force in equal measure. Having an uneven stance can cause one side of the body to bear more weight or output more force than the other, leading to muscular imbalances and injuries,” states an article on the fitness portal Inspire Us, titled Foot Positioning For Squats: Cues, Angle, Width, And More.

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It’s good to keep an eye on your other active pursuits when you notice an anomaly in your squat. I play football with my left-foot, so the right one takes a lot of weight. My right hip-flexor is usually tighter and the foot has suffered the occasional plantar fasciitis as well. Clearly, the foot position during the squat suggests a slight imbalance. I have to constantly remind myself to tuck the angle back in, which should be, according to experts, approximately 15-45 degrees outwards. This is so that the knees can track in the same path as the foot’s angle. The angle itself may not always be an indication of something serious, but make sure you dig the whole foot into the ground for better overall form. 

During an assessment, you start at the bottom and move up, so next is the heel. If your heel comes off the ground, that could be a sign of lack of dorsiflexion, which is the raising of the foot towards the shin—basically, the movement you make when you walk. You could try the knee-to-wall test to confirm this. Just stand with your foot against a wall, with the heel rooted to the floor, and try to touch your knee to the wall. 

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“If your knee can touch the wall, slide your foot back a few centimetres at a time to see how far back your foot is able to slide with your knee touching the wall whilst keeping your heel on the floor. As a general guide—to be able to perform a deep squat, roughly 10 centimetres is a good number to aim for,” states a Lift Physio article titled Three Reasons Why Your Squat May Be Causing Your Hip Pain, And How To Fix It.

The most obvious problem is when the knees caving in, or moving inwards while squatting. “This is typically the result of strong hip adductor muscles (located on the inner thigh) overpowering the weak hip abductors (gluteus minimus and gluteus medius). One way to improve this deviation is by incorporating corrective exercises that target the hip abductor muscles,” says an article on the US-based fitness non profit Cooper Institute titled Correcting The Squat With Knee Valgus. Exercises targeting the glutes and even the IT bands will help in this.

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Some modern research has questioned whether lumbar flexion (bending the spine) during a squat is injurious or not, but one should err on the side of caution and adopt safe squatting techniques. “Spinal flexion in the lumbar region—such as when letting your lower back round over during squats or deadlifts—exponentially increases shearing stress on the spine, and this significantly reduces the load required to injure a disc. The greater the spinal flexion, the fewer spinal extension repetitions are required to injure a disc,” writes fitness expert Menno Henselmans in his blog in an article titled Is Spinal Flexion Actually Dangerous When Squatting Or Deadlifting? This issue is also called the butt wink. If your spine is flexing during a squat, it could be a sign of a lack of stability. Once again, if this is the case, you will need to work on the hips and ankles and even the hamstrings. 

One of the other things to check is whether your chest faces out when you squat, and if you can’t do that, then work needs to be done on your scapular strength. If your head position cannot drop too far forward, that could be a sign of a weak neck and shoulders. It is the little things that matter during a squat. But one thing’s for sure: the squat isn’t just an exercise to build strong legs. It is also an excellent marker of your overall muscular health.

Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator, podcaster and writer.

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