The first time you attempt a squat in a gym, there is going to be a whole lot of confusion happening with body mechanics. The most basic requirements of a proper squat are a proper distance between your feet, a neutral spine, knees pushing away from the body and not inwards, chest raised, and the hips going down as the knees push out. This is the basic checklist. And it sounds quite daunting. Not just because it forces your body to learn a new compound muscle movement, but also because of the fear associated with developing knee or lower back pain by executing a squat.
“Squatting with the right technique will give you a healthy soreness but even too many of those can lead to negative tension on your tendons and joints. Unless you want to be a bodybuilder, you don’t need to overload on squats. Squatting wrong will obviously also give you pain, but this will be the kind that hinders your movement,” says Azar Umal, a fitness trainer based in Pune.
Adding a bar (with or without weights) to the squat is the next step, and that means more technical additions. Here your checklist will also contain how to unrack and rack the bar, how to hold it with elbows driven low and behind you, and how to activate your glutes and hamstrings when driving back up from the weighted squat.
But none of that matters if you’re having difficulty in executing a basic bodyweight squat. Most people who have never done a proper squat make nearly the same errors at their first attempt. Umal tends to assess his client’s squat technique in the first session. That gives him an idea of how tight the glutes are, how deep they can sit and whether they have tightness in the lower body.
“The better your mobility, the deeper you can go in a squat. The most common issues are tight hamstrings and calves. That means they excessively bend forward and their knees are out of position,” he says.
There are ways to progress towards a proper squat though. The first lesson is, unsurprisingly, that you need to warm-up with a focus on glute and hamstring mobility. Use bands for this if you have them. Don’t forget ankle rotations and quad activation. These will help you feel the muscles you need to use while squatting.
Particular moves like the kettlebell squat with moderate weights allows you to lower the weight with both hands which helps in easier alignment. “Hold a moderate-weight kettlebell in both hands between your legs and sink your hips down and back, making sure that your weight is focused in your heels. Go as low as you feel comfortable, and squeeze the glutes and drive through your heels as you come up,” Eliza Nelson says in an Elite Daily article titled Why Are Squats So Hard? Here's Why You Might Be Struggling, According To Experts. Nelson is a certified personal trainer and orthopedic exercise specialist.
Umal usually starts with easier variations of the squat, like squatting down onto a box (or a bench) and driving up as soon as there is contact between the butt and the box. He says that for the right amount of arch in the back, it is important to keep your chest up. “Never forget to focus on breathing. Inhale when you’re going down, exhale when you’re fighting gravity on the way back up,” he adds.
It may be possible that despite following a suggested progression routine, you are still not able to do a squat. And this is one exercise where you won’t be judged for not knowing how to execute it. That’s because there are a whole range of reasons which make it difficult to squat. These could be issues with ankle flexibility, hip mobility, knee stability, or flat feet. Any one of these problems could lead to the other ones, and eventually resulting in a poor squat. You can still get to achieve your goals by strengthening the problem areas and then working on the squat.
Also Read: The truth about squats
“Step ups are a good workout alternative as a fat burner. If you’re at an advanced or intermediate level, then Bulgarian split squats and lunges can make up for a good leg day. Mountain climbers with ankle weights are great for a cardio replacement. For the posterior chain, try glute bridges with bands and hip thrusts with weights. For bulk, the leg press is your machine at the gym,” Umal suggests when asked about alternatives to squats.
But unless it is impossible, and if you’re giving up on squats out of impatience or frustration, know that you are missing out on a brilliant exercise with multiple benefits. This is the reason why the squat enjoys such a legendary status in the fitness world, probably only matched by the deadlift and pushups. Squats can help in fat burning, strength gaining, and muscle building. It increases your flexibility, balance and endurance. It makes your bones and joints healthier. And for those who are into running, squatting will work wonders on your explosive strength.
A 2016 study in the Journal Of Sports Science And Medicine on the effects of jump squats in athletic performance stated that “eight weeks of jump squat training resulted in significant improvements in countermovement jump, squat jump, maximum isometric squat force and average force over 100 ms, as well as 50 m sprint time.” Another study, called Comparison Of Core Muscle Activation Between A Prone Bridge And 6-RM Back Squats, states that squats help core activation more than planks. It was published in the Journal Of Human Kinetics.
The other unique thing about squatting is that it is one of the most functional movements that we need to execute in everyday life. Getting into a car, sitting down to pet a cat, taking vegetables out of the refrigerator, or even fielding in cricket: you have to squat for the most mundane tasks. What’s more, you don’t need any equipment to do it. What more motivation do you need? Happy squatting.
Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.