Squatting is the one movement people can perform even before they can walk. Yet it is also the one exercise that they get progressively worse at, as they grow older. The reason for this is a loss of mobility and flexibility. And since everybody has differing levels of mobility, their squats techniques too are different. And no matter what your coach may have told you, there is no one correct way to do a squat.
In the real world, how you squat is decided by your skeletal structure, explains Abraar Khan Waryah, head coach and co-founder, Gridiron Fitness Studio in Kolkata. “For example, a person with long limbs and a short torso will squat completely differently as compared to a person with short limbs and a long torso. Both squats are perfectly fine. Some people might squat with toes oriented outwards while some do so with their toes pointing straight ahead purely because of the way their hip sockets are. So, essentially, there is no one size fits all approach to squatting,” he says.
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Another factor in deciding one’s squat technique is how sedentary their normal lives are. Most people don’t flex their ankles, knees or hips as much as they should and that makes the muscles around the joints weak or stiff, notes Vinit Mathew Baptist, coach and founder of Zest gym in Kolkata. “That makes squat an extremely challenging exercise for newbies and they struggle to go through the full range of motion. And that is another reason why people do the squat in their own unique ways.”
By definition, the squat is a primal movement that requires one to simultaneously bend at the hip, knee and ankle joints; descending down into a deep seated position while maintaining a relatively upright torso. Squats activate the largest, most powerful muscles (the quadriceps, hamstrings, gastrocnemius, and the gluteus maximus) in the body and also recruit the knee, hip and ankle joints as well as the abdominals and spinal erectors.
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It is a fundamental and foundational movement for anyone who desires to adopt an active lifestyle full of exercise and sports. Our leg muscles, the ones that are primarily worked in squats, are the most used muscle group in the body, and we need them in almost everything we do, says Gautam Dagar, former Indian rugby skipper and a fitness coach. “Almost all sports and exercise involve leg muscles. And that makes squats very important in the exercise world.”
No matter how you perform the squat, there is a basic checklist you need to bear in mind: your knees should not go beyond your toes; the torso should remain upright and spine straight; core should be engaged and heels and glutes must be loaded.
There are plenty of variations of squats that you could perform based on what suits your flexibility, mobility and goals the best. The two most popular variations of the squats are Sumo squats and Bulgarian split squats.
“Sumo squats are a popular variation which requires a wider-than-shoulders-width stance. This variation targets the glutes and adductor muscles more than regular squats. The Bulgarian split squat is a single leg variation which focuses on development of leg muscles as well as on balance and stability. It is also good for balancing out any imbalances between the left and right sides of the body,” explains Waryah.
When done correctly, the benefits of squats are many. The movement strengthens the majority of your lower body muscles, tendons and other connective tissues and improves strength in the core muscles. When you do high repetitions of squats, it improves your cardiovascular endurance and also aids in better balance and proprioception, says Waryah.
Despite the benefits, there is a risk involved when you don’t perform the movement properly. Even without external load, when done incorrectly, the most common problems associated with squats are knee and back pain. “Knee pain usually occurs when the knee caves in excessively while ascending or descending during the squat movement. Back pain is usually experienced when the spine is in an excessively flexed or extended position while squatting,” warns Waryah. While the squat is hugely beneficial and there is more than one way to perform it, you must be careful because poor form and technique could lead to back and knee issues.
Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and the co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.