Back to Basics: Squats

Blitz Calgary Fundamentals First

We’ll be running a series of Blogs that discuss the foundations of most (if not all) exercises. I want to emphazise the importance of learning basic functional movements, before moving into more complication moves that involve balance, jumping, etc. So many trainers take for granted how long they’ve been doing particular exercises – to the detriment of those they are training. My goal is to ensure I never train you into an injury, instead use the movements to increase strength and stability in your body to prevent injuries. It is so important to focus on proper technique and form in exercise to:

  • prevent injuries to the joints (due to movement at improper joint angles),
  • to prevent injuries to soft tissues (muscles, tendons and ligaments can be strained from improper form and range of motion), and
  • to ensure we are working the muscles we intend to work.

The first of this series is about Squats: one of the most common functional movements. We squat every day while doing things you don’t even think about doing:  sitting down, standing up, picking something up, lifting something from the ground, you get the picture.

We can train ourselves to perform a movement near-perfectly every time without thinking about it if we do it properly, and repeatedly. This is due to an incredible phenomenom we call muscle-memory. Thats right – our brain makes tiny interconnections between itself and the muscle fibres when we do movements repetitively, which then allows that movement to become automatic (riding a bicycle, for example). For important functional exercises, we want to create proper muscle memory so that we can then perform the movement automatically and avoid injury and reap all the benefits!

So let’s break down a squat:

1. Standing to start, feet shoulder width apart, bend your knees and flex at the hips, and lower your body downwards. See the first half of the photo below. Focus on keeping your:

  • butt and hips moving backwards and down (like you are pushing a door shut with your butt)
  • abdominals engaged strong so that your spine remains neutral
  • chest up, and shoulders back and down (squeeze your shoulder blades together to keep the chest open) – this helps to keep your spine neutral
  • chin up, so that you are looking forwards, or slightly upwards (30 degrees) – this helps to prevent rounding in the upper spine
  • knees behind the toes – or at least in line with them. This will prevent pain and damage to the knee joint
Leigh demonstrates the proper squat technique.

Leigh demonstrates the proper squat technique.

The primary muscles at work moving downwards are:

  • Quadriceps (front of thighs) – controlling the hip flexion as you move down. They are working against gravity to ensure you don’t fall down. 
  • Hamstrings (back of thighs) – controlling the bending of the knee as you move down. Again, they are working against gravity.
  • Gluteus Maximus (butt cheeks) – controls the hip flexion as you descend, to resist gravity from pulling you down too quickly.

2. Once you’re in the squat position, you will hold for 1 second, and then press through the heels of your feet to stand tall again. Focus on:

  • Keeping your back neutral (straight)
  • Engaging your abdominals so your torso remains still
  • Pressing through the heels so that most of your weight is in the backs of the feet
  • Squeezing your hamstrings and glutes (butt cheeks) together as you stand to fire those muscle groups

The Primary muscles working as you come up to the starting position are:

  • Gluteus maximus – hip extension
  • Hamstrings – works with the gluteals to extend the hips
  • Quadriceps – works to straighten the knee (extend the knee)

Secondary Muscles (Stabilizers or Synergists) in the Squat are:

  • Transverse Abdominus – Holding your body upright to prevent rounding of your back and tipping forwards
  • Gastrocnemius and Soleus (Calves) – Plantar Flexion (as you stand)
  • Gluteus Medius and Minimum (Abductors) – Keep proper alignment of the hip to prevent internal rotation of the hip joint.
  • Adductors – prevent external rotation of the hip joint.
  • Erector Spinae  (lower back) – Extends your back as you stand
  • Tibialis Anterior (front of shin) – As you descend, the ankle dorsi-flexes and this muscle controls the movement against gravity.

As you can see there are so many muscles at work in the Squat, which is why it is such a functional and important exercise for strength. Some common mistakes to avoid in the squat are (See photos below):

  • Rounding the upper back, or bending forward too much – both of these are strenuous on the back muscles, and can cause stresses in the spine that could lead to back injuries.
  • Allowing the knees to come too far past the toes – causing strain in the knee joint
  • Allowing the hips to come forwards, which transfers the weight into the toes. This leads to knee pain or injury, and takes power away from the glutes and hamstrings – defeating the purpose of the exercise
What NOT to do when Squatting. Rounding back and weight in toes.

What NOT to do when Squatting. Rounding back and weight in toes.

Now that you are an expert – we’ll see you at the gym!

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