(photo credit: Sam Ser )
Most people have never done them properly, many doctors warn against them and few people actually enjoy them - but squats are so important that they need to be one of the cornerstones of your fitness regimen. Some would even say that, if you don't know how to squat, then you don't know squat.
Unfortunately, an entire generation raised on the pulley-guided selectorized leg extension machine and mistaken medical advice has made the squat anathema to the average gym-goer and something of a lost art, in general. But it is an extraordinary exercise, as versatile as it is effective, and absolutely worth the time it takes to learn.
The squat develops the muscles of the hip, the thigh, the lower leg and the core, primarily, but also, in its weighted permutations, develops the muscles of the shoulders and the upper back as well. Like the dead lift, the squat is a primal movement that works practically the entire body at once. By involving several joints and large muscle groups, both exercises allow you to do more work in less time than almost all other exercises. This is beneficial whether your interest is in moving hundreds of kilos or in doing a highly rewarding calisthenics workout.
A lot of guys first try to squat by settling haphazardly under a heavy barbell (it's almost always guys, as women are usually too scared to try their hand at heavy weights, much to their detriment) without first taking the time to learn the basic movement correctly. Their egos only trip them up in the end, though: While they may get away with improper mechanics and excessive loads for a while, before long they are bound to suffer an injury either to their lower back or to their knee. In that case, the tendency of many doctors to warn against squatting is understandable.
However, done properly, the squat - even with massive amounts of weight - is a safe exercise. Certainly it's safer than the aforementioned leg extension, a kind of movement known as "open chain" that puts far more pressure on the knee joint than does the very natural movement in a squat.
The squat is not only safe, it's also instinctive. If you watch toddlers as they learn to stand and walk, you'll see them frequently bend down into a very deep squat. It's the same squatting stance that many Asians take up while waiting around and, not coincidentally, the same squatting stance that strength-obsessed athletes assume with a heavily laden barbell across their backs. The squat is part of our nature; it's the full range of motion that our hips and knees were designed to be able to perform.
You can do it as well, with a little practice. You can even stop the motion much higher up from the ground and still derive a tremendous amount of benefit. In fact, if you get up out of a chair by yourself, or rise from your bed or even from the bathroom, then you are already performing a kind of squat every day. All you have to do is to fix the movement a little to make your thighs, butt, lower back and lower legs stronger and leaner.
Everything begins with good posture. Start out by standing with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, with your toes pointed out about 15-20 degrees. Your chest should be up and out, with you shoulders held back. (A good posture drill is to stand with your heels against a wall, and to make sure that your butt, the flat part of your shoulder blades and the back of your head also touch the wall.)
Rather than begin the squat by sending your knees forward, instead send your butt back and down. Your knees will bend naturally, and when they do, make sure they travel in alignment with the toes; your knees should not face inward, nor outward, but "over" the toes. You do NOT want, however, to let your shins lean forward so that your kneecaps actually extend far beyond your toes. Instead try to keep your shins practically upright. You'll need to keep your butt back and down, your chest up and your shoulders back. The natural curve of your lower back should be maintained; you should feel those muscles tightening.
Your weight should be balanced on the middle of your foot, such that you are "driving" through your heels rather than your toes. Keeping your weight on your toes will put undue stress on your knees and reduce the effectiveness of the exercise, so try wiggling your toes while you're squatting to remind yourself to keep your weight back.
If squatting like this is new to you, it will be difficult at first to maintain your balance as you sink deeper into the squat. You can keep a chair behind you for safety, and as a target as well (when your butt hits the chair, stand up nice and straight). As you get stronger, you can choose shorter and shorter targets - a low coffee table, for instance - until you are able to squat quite low. Be sure, though, to keep your lower back nice and tight, in that natural curve. It will be sufficient to go low enough that your thighs, at the hip, drop below an imaginary line parallel to the ground before you stand to rise out of the squat. When you finish you should be standing up straight again, chest held out and shoulders held back, as if you were striking a superhero pose.
Once you have mastered the body-weight squat you can really begin to develop superior strength, tone and flexibility with variations of the movement, including weighted squats with dumbbells, or with a barbell (held in front of your neck, behind your neck or overhead) or with unevenly balanced objects like sandbags. You can even make the body-weight version of the exercise more challenging by adding a jump at the top of the movement, or by doing squats with only one leg at a time (this is very difficult, and requires not only a great deal of strength but a tremendous amount of balance as well). There are also separate exercises that require competency in the squat, such as the squat clean and the snatch.
If alcohol, nicotine and marijuana are "gateway drugs" to more powerful narcotics, then the simple body-weight squat is a "gateway exercise" to many other more powerful and more complex exercises. Even in its simplest version, though, the squat can take quite a toll on you. Just use the Tabata protocol I discussed previously for some body-weight squats and see how sore you get! Squats are dreaded for the same reason that they are so revered: They really work. Put in the necessary effort, and squats will reward you handsomely.
The author, an editor at The Jerusalem Post, runs Personal Best Fitness. www.personalbest.co.il