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

Conclusion

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!

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