The Squat

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The Mother Of All Exercises

By Raymond Onyango.

The Squat is often described as the mother of all exercises. In fact some fitness professionals even venture so far as to assert that if you are not already squatting as a regular part of your fitness routine, you are not really training, maybe just fooling around – period.

This may be taking a rather extreme view but in their defense, one can argue that no other exercise works every single muscle group in the human body quite the same way as good old squats do. Though the squat is primarily a lower body exercise targeting the main muscles of the thighs and buttocks – namely the quadriceps, biceps femoris and gluteus muscle groups; it also recruits quite heavily the core stabilizers including the all the major abdominal muscle groups, not to mention the lower back as well as a plethora of other peripheral muscle groups involved in maintaining your balance, range of motion and upright form during the execution of the exercise.


Why Squat.

As a direct result of this enormous muscular integration from head to toe, squats convey a great deal of benefits to those who do them regularly and in good form. Some of these benefits include

1. Muscle tone – Because they are such a huge and compound multi joint exercise, squats have been scientifically proven to cause a spike in the levels of testosterone and human growth hormone (the two main muscle building hormones in the body) in test subjects, making them perhaps the number one muscle building exercise for anyone looking to firm up a bit and improve their overall muscle tone.

2.  Sheer Strength – With improved muscle tone comes greater physical strength, and a direct improvement in your overall posture not to mention a reduced susceptibility to common lower back and knee pains that plague such a huge proportion of the human population especially from our middle age onwards. Activities of daily living, such as hoisting a suitcase into an overhead luggage compartment or carrying your daughter piggy back, become possible without subsequent pain and injury.

3. Flexibility – The level of neuromuscular integration and overall flexibility required to do the squat successfully is staggering.  As you improve your form and increase your range of motion, squats will bring back long lost flexibility to key weight bearing structures including hips and lumber spine, both of which are integral to natural pain free movement, especially after years of sitting behind a desk.

How to Squat

The squat is a highly functional movement which we replicate everyday in real life through actions such as sitting down on a low couch and getting up from the same position or even crouching to pick a fallen object off the floor. The fundamentals of the movement are therefore quite familiar to the great majority of us, but here are a few points to help you fine-tune your form.

1. Initiate the movement by leading from the hips first and then bending the knees almost simultaneously, so that the knees and the hips travel in opposition to each other, there by helping you to maintain the integrity of your posture and spine right through the lower reaches of the movement.

2.  Ideally, you want the hips to drop below the knees, for a full squat, but this may be challenging for the novice and it is perfectly acceptable to drop only up till the point where your femur (thigh bone) is parallel to the floor.

3. On your way down check also that the knees do not travel beyond the toes. An easy way to ensure this happens is to have a gym bench or a stool placed right in front of you. Practice squatting with it, until you can a comfortable depth without bumping your knees against the bench.

4. On your way up and out of the movement, focus on driving though your heels and recruiting the major muscle groups of the thighs and buttocks to get you moving upwards again. Keeping the weight away from your toes and concentrating it in your heels, protects your knees and lower back, while maximizing the workload on the actual prime movers in this exercise, the quads and gluteus muscles as earlier mentioned.

5. The right breathing technique is crucial to the safe execution of the squat. As a general rule of thumb, inhale on your way down and exhale on your way up. Avoid holding your breath for a prolonged period (a technique known as the Vasalva maneuver) as this can increase intra abdominal pressure beyond safe limits especially in the untrained novice.

6. Foot positioning is also crucial and has a huge bearing on the effectiveness and safety of the exercise. Feet should ideally be placed just slightly outside of hip width apart, even though some variations of the squat such as the plie’ or sumo squat have the feet much wider apart in order to shift the emphasis onto the inner thighs, hamstrings and gluteus, as opposed to the quads.

Variations of the squat

1. Swiss Ball Squat

2. Body weight squat

3. Goblet Squat

4. Dumbbell squat

5. Barbell squat

6. Overhead squat

7. Front Squat

8. One legged squat – (Pistol)

9. Sumo Squat

10. Plyometric Squat


If you can perform squats safely and in good form, then I highly recommend that you do. The benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. Having said this however I will hasten to add that squats are not for everyone…in the end it all depends on your goals, abilities and preexisting limitations if any. A history of back or knee pains may necessitate obtaining medical clearance from a doctor before hitting the squat rack.

Have a great week, will you!


Machines Or Free Weights?


By Raymond Onyango.

My own strength-training program consists of just 6 main exercises, Squats, Pull-ups, Dead lifts, Dips, Lunges and Push-ups.  I have stuck with these exercises for years because they share certain common characteristics  which make them time efficient and devastatingly effective all at once.

The 3 common denominators that underlie each one of these exercises start with the fact that, they fall into a category of exercises known as Functional movements. Functional movements are so-called because they are designed to mimic natural real life activities, which make use of our bodies in patterns that are consistent with our natural design and evolution. By their very nature functional movements are multi dimensional, demanding the cooperation of several muscle groups across our bodies, which in turn burns lots of calories and gets us lean quick. Besides helping us to get lean and stay lean, functional movements help us to maintain our quality of life, by preserving strength and range of motion around our joints. These are the two things we lose steadily and progressively with age, beginning in our thirties and beyond.  Lastly functional movements train several aspects of our physical and metal fitness beyond sheer muscle tone; balance, agility, flexibility, coordination, proprioception, muscular endurance and even cardiovascular endurance are all challenges that must be overcome in order to gain mastery of functional training.

This is important because the human body is an architectural masterpiece of astounding complexity. You hardly ever give it a thought, but you will be amazed to learn that it takes the coordinated action of over 200 muscles just to take a single step forward. Against this backdrop it is rather obvious that isolation type training, of the kind that is offered by gym machines has no place in the evolutionary narrative of the human body. According to a registered trademark of the Lance Armstrong foundation, and I quote, “ sometime in the 1950’s body builder Harold Zinkin created the multi station, cable based Universal gym. Within that same time frame, Jack La Lanne invented the Smith Machine, the Lat pull down machine and the Leg extension machine. Fitness equipment gained sophistication in the 1970’s when Arthur Jones created his Nautilus line of equipment. His machine featured a cam, which adjusted the resistance of the machine according to the natural curve within an exercise”.

It is notable that all of the men who inspired modern-day gym machines were body builders themselves. According to the Wikipedia, “Body building is a form of body modification involving intensive muscle hypertrophy. In competitive and professional bodybuilding, body builders display their physiques to a panel of judges who assign points based on their appearance. Body builders prepare for competition through a combination of fat loss, and the application of oils, which combined with lighting make the definition of a muscle group more distinct.” Bodybuilding is actually a sport, which has no direct bearing on health and fitness. In fact one can argue that in the professional ranks body builders do not aspire to be healthy individuals. Extreme dieting, unhealthy weight loss methods and widespread anabolic steroid use are an all to common part of the sport.

On a purely functional level most of our modern-day gym machines were designed for body builders, and because of this they have several inherent and potentially dangerous weaknesses.  For starters, they tend to isolate single muscle groups, which in turn can create serious muscle imbalances that lead to long-term injury. A functional exercise such as the Walking lunge will tone virtually every muscle in your lower body, but your core will also be recruited to maintain your balance, not to mention the coordination it takes to move seamlessly into the next lunge. These are the exact same movement patterns you engage when running, walking, climbing up a flight of stairs and all other such like activities of daily living. The Leg extension, which is the machine equivalent of lunges, has you sitting in a chair (after sitting all day in the office, no less!) lifting a load with your feet. Your hips and the rest of your body are completely divorced from the movement and stand aside as passive observers while the quadriceps alone bear the burden. I cannot think of a single situation in my life where I have had to do this kind of movement except within the gym and so for the majority of us (unless we are in rehab or are engaged in body building) really have absolutely no need for this kind of exercise. It is also instructive to note that gym related injuries have escalated in recent years as many of us pursue well-intentioned but ill-advised fitness regimens.

A further incentive to opt for functional free weight exercises over and above their machine counterparts has much to do with weight loss. Weight loss is the single most frequently stated objective among gym users anywhere in the world.  Indeed many of us only show up at the gym, when we start to have real trouble fitting into our clothes. Free weight functional exercises help you burn fat by encouraging three key things – they elevate your heart rate, increase your rate of breathing and work up a sweat. Your heart rate is a direct indicator of your body’s energy demands, that is why your heart rate soars when you have to run after the bus. Your rate of breathing also increases in order to meet oxygen demand and is a direct indicator of the speed of your body’s metabolic processes. Heat is the by-product of all these metabolic processes and the body gets rid of the excess by inducing sweat from the sweat glands which cools down the body. If you build your self a circuit of functional exercises such as I have done for myself, you will be so out of breath and sweating buckets by the end of just a single circuit, it is no wonder these exercises zap the fat from your waistline faster than you can spell G.O.N.E.  The secret lies in the level of muscular integration; these exercises challenge a wide cross-section of muscles and so demand a lot of energy to execute. The more energy you expend, the more weight you lose, so in just a single workout session you can lose weight, tone up and get a kick-ass cardiovascular workout all at the same time – and that is all you really need!

Have a functional week will you!

Ps. Next week we will examine the mechanics of each of these exercises individually starting with the Squat – stay tuned!


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Are you interested in training as a Zumba Instructor? The AGA KHAN SPORTS CENTER will host a 2 day Zumba basic instructor course on Saturday, the 28th April and Sunday the 29th April 2012. A ZES from the Zumba Academy by the name of Nizaam Khan will be counducting the training. For more details, please contact YASMIN MADHANI on the telephone number – 0723 915 860.

Life Lessons On Fitness


By Raymond Onyango.

I spent my entire afternoon, last Saturday the 3rd of March 2012, attending and participating in a highly inspiring talk session organized by my friend Mercy Mose, a budding and highly talented motivational speaker. The event, dubbed “How to live your dreams” proved to be a highly rousing and exciting opportunity for each and every one of us in attendance, a to re-examine our lives, starting from the way we eat right down to our exercise and nutritional habits.  In fact I was so inspired by the people that I got to meet, connect with and talk to at this event that, that I decided to carry on the conversation on my blog, so this week I am going to share with you some of the most inspiring life lessons I have learned in the course of my career and a fitness leader and activist. It is my sincere hope that you will be similarly inspired and encouraged to keep up the good fight. Living a healthy and consistently active lifestyle does not come easy, even for people like me who do it for a living. It’s a constant struggle to find the time, to keep up the habit and maintain the motivation…I hope these insights help you along your way. Read on,

  • Physical perfection is an illusion no one ever attains. Part of being fit involves loving and learning to understand your body, even as it ages and goes through the transitions of life.  If you are not happy with your body as it is now, you will never be happy with it even if you looked like a supermodel. In the long run it is far more important to have fun and enjoy whatever physical activity you are pursuing, this is the only way you will guarantee lasting results.
  • It is important to have other ways of measuring your progress outside of simply weighing yourself on a scale. Remember that the scale cannot tell the difference between fat and muscle and cannot therefore give you an accurate picture of how much progress you are making. Pay more attention to your body fat percentage and circumferences. As for the scale, you can get onto it every once in a while but do not be obsessed by the numbers. Numbers have their use, but they don’t tell the whole story.
  • If you eat mostly wholesome, unprocessed, natural foods, chances are you will never have to count calories in your life. The human race has fed itself in this exact way for millennia and obesity was never really a problem until the advent of large scale food processing. With the discovery of antibiotics and the enormous improvements in medical care, humanity has brought infectious diseases largely under its control, what is killing us today are lifestyle diseases.
  • The best gift you can ever give your children is to teach them how to cook and eat healthy. Not being able to cook deprives you of the ability to control your food choices and regulate what goes into your own body. Cooking is an essential life skill, one that your kids should not miss out on.
  • Understanding your body type and how it responds to food and exercise is ultimately more important that following any type of complicated fitness routine. I workout most days of
    the week, running, cycling, weight training, yoga and Pilates and provided I keep this up, I have the liberty to eat just about anything I want to. But that is not universal formula that works for everyone.  What works for me might not work for you. In fact the bigger part of getting fit and staying that way, depends on your capacity to make accurate observations of your own body and respond by modifying your lifestyle choices, rather than blindly following some ‘great’ fitness program.
  • Most of the ‘revolutionary fitness gadgets’ being advertised in the mainstream media are nothing but a complete waste of time, deigned to fool you into spending money. Study after study has shown that most individuals who invest in expensive gym gear hardly use it much after less than six months. You don’t need gadgets you need knowledge! The ability to use your own body as prop. Push ups, Pull ups, Lunges, Squats, and abdominal crunches among others are still the most effective exercises you can count on to get you into shape and keep you that way for a lifetime. If you have to buy something, buy a good fitness book that really teaches you the fundamental principles of safe and effective exercise.
  • Spot reduction is a myth. Unless you are a professional body builder, you
    really have no business doing 10 different exercises for your biceps, legs or abdomen. If you are still obsessed with the idea that you can influence individual parts of your body without reference to others…forget it! It never happens! You cannot transform one part of your body to the exclusion of all others. Do yourself a favor and stick with huge compound exercises which involve movement of at least two joints or more and which require some aspect of coordination and balance. These are the real bread and butter of a successful workout plan.
  • There is no such thing as a short cut to weight loss or muscle toning. If you are looking to loose it fast, especially though extreme practices like radical dieting, I can assure you, you will eventually gain it all back with much more on top or otherwise you will suffer malnutrition and all of its consequences. The plain truth is that all diets fail in the long run, only intentional lifestyle changes make a lasting difference. The secret to permanent weight loss is to do it at a sustainable rate. I recommend that you loose no more than 2 kg every month. It might take you a year to do it, but at least you won’t be left with bags of sagging skin, a common consequence of radical food restriction diets.
  •  Prevention is better than cure. Work out to keep healthy and try to prevent lifestyle diseases before you become afflicted by them. Once you develop high blood pressure, diabetes or arthritis…there is simply no turning back. You are mortgaged to a lifetime of pills, lab tests, doctor’s visits and restricted diets. So it is wise to do everything in your power to keep from getting there in the first place – it’s only sensible!
  •  It is never too late to start working out; even in your 50’s you can still build muscle, burn fat and look like a million buck if you do the right things. All you need to do is stop making excuses and start acting in some capacity, however small.
  • It is physically impossible to gain 1 or 2 kilograms of fat over a weekend, even a generous one at that. You don’t need to rush to the gym and horde the treadmill for an hour just to assuage your guilt. That extra weight on the scale is probably water retention. Fluctuations in bodyweight are common especially among women, before and after their monthly cycles. Relax its probably nothing to worry about. The only time you should really be concerned is when you start having trouble fitting into your clothes. Don’t buy a size larger, work out!
  •  Healthy active individuals can enjoy their vices in moderation. There really are no bad or good foods it is a question of habits more than anything. A beer here, a slice of chocolate cake there and such other indulgences are perfectly acceptable – in moderation. Life is simply too short to deny yourself the little pleasures. Balance and moderation are what count.
  • Sugar and alcohol and tobacco are three of the greatest dangers to our health in the modern world. Quit smoking, watch your sugar intake and control you alcohol consumption and you might live to see your great grand children. If you don’t, you are almost certain to pick up a lifestyle disease or two along the way. Diabetes and blood pressure used to be called the diseases of the ‘rich’. But today patients suffering from these two conditions and their related ailments occupy more bed space in hospitals here in Kenya than diseases like malaria.
  • Unless by recommendation from a medical doctor, don’t waste your money on supplements. Many of them are unnecessary and some of them are potential
    dangerous as was evidenced about a some years ago when the substance ephedrine was banned form the United States after increasing alarm following widespread adverse side effects and potential deaths resulting form of health supplements containing ephedrine which often promised rapid weight loss. Virtually everything your body needs to function can be derived from eating a simple, wholesome, balanced diet and that is where you should focus your efforts.
  • In the fitness world, the only time frame that makes any sense is a lifetime. Face it today, that you are going to be doing this for the rest of your life. That is why I always insist that fitness must never be a struggle. Don’t force yourself to jog if you are not a runner, try soccer or cycling. Whatever the case look for an activity that brings you joy and encourages you to move just for the sheer joy of movement. Short-term success is only worthwhile if it can be maintained in the long run …other wise it is just a wasted effort and a waste of life. Have an inspired week, will you!