Digging Deeper into the Squat

Posted: July 19, 2012 in Uncategorized

Ahh, summer.  There aren’t many things in life that can beat a great summer day.  If you’re lucky like me, you live close to some great outdoor activities.  But if you’re lucky, you also don’t live too close to said outdoor activities.  Nothing compliments a fun day outdoors like a little bit of a drive.  Not like an ice road trucker end of the road kind of drive, but just enough to get a few good tunes in and some wind in your hair.  With the windows down and music blasting, you get to soak up the growing anticipation of an awesome day.  Thousands of thoughts fly through your mind faster than the foliage whizzing by the car windows.

…wow what a nice day… I hope we brought enough beer… There better be some cute girls there… damn, we shoulda brought a dog… Those Cobra Kai guys better not be there with their dirt bikes and stuff… I hate those guys, always… troublemaking and beating up 15 year old looking 25 year olds… but they’re just so cool…

As you’re about to channel your inner Ralph Macchio into a crane kick upside the head of the annoying voice on the radio asking you to call her maybe… it happens.

You get a flat.  Damn.

It’s okay though.  You just gotta get it fixed real quick and you’ll still have an awesome day waiting for you!  So you get out the tire jack and the spare and get ready to change the flat.  Unlike the thousands of thoughts racing through your mind a few minutes ago, there should be only one thought in your mind as you lower yourself to start changing that tire:

Good thing I don’t suck at squats.

And if that’s not the only thing going through your mind at that point?  Well, we’ll change that.  Right now.

First off, try this.  Find a place where you can squat down.  Oh. You’re at work?  Well… just pretend you dropped a pen on the ground and you’re squatting down to pick it up.  Better yet.  Just throw an actual pen on the ground.  Go and stand over it, then squat down and pick the thing up.

Now.  While you’re down there, make sure your feet stay flat on the ground.  When you get as low as you can, go ahead and push your knees out with your elbows.  And remember to puff your chest up nice and big in case you know, someone of consequence walks by.  No, but seriously, keeping your chest nice and big will help keep your spine in good position through the movement.  Also, try to keep your toes pointed slightly out.  This isn’t ballet class so you aren’t shooting for first position (east and west), but you do want a little toe-out action.

What you should have felt when you pushed your knees out is the sensation of  “sitting between your legs.”  Your hips are actually “slung” between your legs instead of sitting on them like stilts.  So when you push your knees out as you squat down, it creates room for your hips to simply sink between them.  The sumo squat stretch from a few posts ago is a great way to feel this.

Once you get this feeling down, you should be able to grease the movement pattern with an exercise called the goblet squat.  Take a kettlebell, grab it by the horns and hold it against your chest.  If you only have dumbbells, hold one vertically and cradle the top end like you’re holding… well, a goblet.  Get it?  Goblet.  Squat.

Notice how in both images above, the elbows are inside the knees.  There may be some hesitation to get into this position, as even I was originally taught to keep my feet facing straight forward and just push my hips back as far as I can.  The problem here is you don’t take advantage of the way the body was designed to move and you’re creating a somewhat unnatural movement pattern.

And if you’re really not convinced this is how you should naturally squat, just look at an infant.  They get into this position flawlessly with no coaching or cueing.  If nature had intended for this movement pattern to mess up your knees and lower back, there’s no reason an infant should be able to learn it on their own as it would serve them no purpose later on in life.

The problem we encounter as we age is that we find ways to help our body forget this very basic pattern.  Whether it’s sitting for countless hours, playing sports and activities that lead to muscular imbalance, or just never working through a full range of motion; people do more to derail their basic movement patterns than they realize.

That being said, simply getting into the position I described may be more difficult for some people than others.  If this is the case and you find it hard to get your butt down to a point where your thighs are parallel with the ground, give the following drills a try.

Ankle Mobilization:  Set up about 2 to 3 inches from a wall and make sure your heel stays flat on the ground.  Drive your knee into the wall at 3 different angles, inside the big toe, over your middle toe and outside your little toe.  The goal here is range of motion and not an actual stretch.

Wall Hip Flexor Mobilization:  Kneel in front of a wall and rock back and forth.  Make sure you squeeze your butt on the side that you’re kneeling on.

No Money Drill:  Stand against the corner of a wall or a pole of some sort with your elbows at your sides.  Pull your thumbs out away from your body while keeping your elbows bent and shoulder blades down.  Make your lower back doesn’t come off the wall/pole.

These drills combined with the squat stretch should leave you pretty well prepared to squat to a decent depth.

It is important to note that while I recommend squatting as low as your body will let you, not everyone can achieve the coveted ‘ass to grass’ depth or even just to parallel.  This is dependent on posture and mobility deficits as well as a person’s levers and genetics.  But we should always be working to achieve the biggest range of motion we can, safely.

But why do I harp on range of motion so much?

I’ll leave you with this, and it might be a bit difficult to wrap your head around so just give it some thought.  Hopefully it clicks for you at some point in time, but I’ll understand if its a bit too out there at the moment.

Consider a person who is about to enter into the world of  Jiu Jitsu with no previous knowledge.  If this person has never seen a match or even a sparring session before, they will have no idea of what’s in store for them.

This is akin your body with a very limited range of motion.  Your brain essentially has no idea of what your body can do, and even worse, no idea of what harm can come to it.  So your nervous system keeps you rather stiff and rigid when you move because it feels like that’s the only way to keep you safe.

Now consider an arm bar.  It’s a maneuver in which you take your opponent’s arm and lock it in a position that is basically putting pressure on the elbow or shoulder.  (It should be noted that I have zero Jiu Jitsu and submission wrestling experience so I apologize to those who actually roll if that description doesn’t do the technique justice)  If you have no knowledge that this can happen to you while on the mat, you have no way to protect against it.*  You’ll just leave your arm haphazardly out there for your opponent to try and rip off.

Now consider what happens if you never explore fuller ranges of motion with your body.  Your brain will have no idea of how to react or protect itself should it happen to come close to a range of motion that it’s not familiar with.  But as you continue to reach new ranges of motion, your body will adjust and learn how to protect itself in those new ranges.  Similarly, having your arm almost snapped off a few times will teach you to protect it when it becomes exposed.

This is just a theory of mine, so there could be some debate to it.  And neurologically speaking, it could also be flat out wrong.  But this is the way it makes sense to me through all my education, studying and experience.  I promise the more I learn, the more you will too.

That’s it for now with the squat.  I’ll be back later with more specific squat issues and ways you can try to fix them.  So if you have any specific issues, leave them in the comments below and I’ll do my best to come up with a solution.

*this is assuming your mestre just throws you on the mat without any instruction on how to defend yourself, which of course would probably never happen, but you get the point.

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