5 Reasons To Full Squat

Squat FormThe full squat is one of the most basic and fundamental human postures. Due to industrialized society’s heavy reliance on chairs and modern footwear however, it has become a position that many people have difficulty achieving.

Born to Squat

The full or deep squat refers to a position where the knees are flexed to the point that the back of the thighs rest against the calves with the heels remaining flat on the floor. Young children under the age of four will instinctively go into a deep squat when they want to reach for something low, and often hold themselves in a stable squatting position to engage in play.

Among Asian adults, squatting often replaces sitting.1 So what happens to Westerners, as we grow into adults, that causes us to lose this ability? This is primarily a case of use it or lose it. Many cultures throughout history would rely on the squatting posture as a means of performing work, eating meals, or resting. Modern society has all but eliminated the need to squat in our daily lives.

Child SquattingA second reason relates to the design of modern footwear that often features an elevated or raised heel. Habitual shoe wearing causes a shortening of the calf muscles and Achilles tendon, and a gradual loss of the ankle mobility required to properly do a squat. This often leads people to perform a variation called the Western squat, where the heels remain propped up in the air.

Fortunately, many of the adverse effects brought on from frequent sitting, improper footwear, and squat avoidance are reversible. When performed correctly, the full squat carries many benefits for physical health. Squatting can be performed as a body weight exercise, to reach something on the ground, or simply as a rest position.

5 Health Benefits of the Full Squat

1. Ankle Mobility

Limited ankle dorsiflexion range of motion is a common problem linked to a number of other issues in the body, including overpronation, bad posture, and runner’s knee. A loss of ankle mobility is caused by both inflexibility in the calf muscles and Achilles tendon, and stiffness in the joint. A proper squat, with the heels flat on the floor, requires good flexibility at the ankle. Getting into and maintaining a full squat is a great way to improve ankle mobility and restore full range of motion.

2. Back Pain Relief

Many people have an excessive curvature in their low back as a result of the pelvis being pulled down in the front by tight hip flexor muscles. During a full depth squat the pelvis rotates backward, allowing the spine to elongate. This stretches the tight or shortened muscles in the low back. The body’s position in a deep squat also produces a traction effect that decompresses the spine by creating space between the individual segments of the back.

3. Hip Strengthening

In a person whose hip muscles are weak, you’ll often see their legs move inward (adduct) and internally rotate when they perform closed-chain movements, like jumping or going down stairs. This adducted, internally rotated position puts the knee at an awkward angle and can lead to injuries. A full squat moves the hips in the opposite position, abduction and external rotation. The squat strengthens the muscle groups responsible for performing these actions, allowing them to better control the position of the entire leg.

4. Glute Strengthening

The gluteus maximus is one of the largest muscles in the body, and with good reason. The muscle comprises the bulk of the buttock region and is integral to performing many activities we do on a daily basis like walking, lifting, and running. The glute max is also an important stabilizer muscle of the trunk and leg. EMG studies have shown that during a squat the glute muscles become targeted only after descending past the half way point.2 This means the same strengthening benefit cannot be achieved from only squatting in a partial range of motion. Coming in and out of a deep squat is by far one of the most effective ways to strengthen the glutes. Not many people are going to complain about having a firmer backside.

5. Posture Correction

The cumulative effect of working on the areas listed above is an overall improvement in both static and dynamic posture. When joint mobility and lower body strength are restored the entire musculo-skeletal system will naturally be able to assume better alignment, which has a tremendous impact on the way we look, feel, and move. The full squat is a way to reverse some of the bad habits the body has assembled from our modern lifestyle.

The Modern Squat

When a person not used to performing a full squat attempts to squat down, often times their heels will lift off the floor, or they will fall backwards. These are two signs of a loss of ankle flexibility. Here is a picture demonstrating the difference between a full depth squat and the Westernized squat that occurs when the ankles are stiff.

Western squatNotice how in the Western squat the ankle remains at about a 90 degree angle. Without adequate ankle mobility, attempting to go any lower would move the center of gravity behind the base of support, and the person would lose their balance and tip over backward. The disadvantages of remaining up on the toes include:

  • a higher center of gravity and smaller base of support (the toes), making this a less stable position.
  • an overuse of the calf muscles to stay in the position, making it unsuitable for resting
  • increased compression of the soft tissue between the upper and lower leg
Many adults instinctively go into the Western squat because it has become physically impossible for them to get their heels down. Correctly performing a full depth squat is a sign of good mobility and strength and can be a reasonable goal for anyone looking to improve their fitness.

Preparing to Squat

Since the squat is such a basic and functional movement, simply practicing getting into the position is often all that is needed to achieve proper form. For anyone unfamiliar with the squatting movement it would be wise to work on the smaller components first, to build up the necessary strength and motor control needed to get in and out of the position. Here is an article and video showing the fundamentals of good squatting technique and providing some recommendation on ways to progress for beginners.

For someone who finds they have the strength to squat down but then have difficulty getting their heels flat without losing their balance it might be necessary to do some extra calf and ankle stretching to gain flexibility. Here is an article that goes over some helpful ways to increase ankle dorsiflexion

Are Squats Bad for Your Knees?

Some people may have heard advice that performing a full squat is dangerous or bad for the knees. Squatting like most exercises carries a certain degree of risk, but the notion that squats hurt the knees is largely a myth.

When performed properly the risks are greatly reduced and usually outweighed by the benefits that can be gained from regular squatting.

Based on current evidence, full range of motion squatting using your own body weight is not only a safe activity, but one that can have a great influence on overall physical health. Still, it is important to be aware of the risks to lower any potential for injury before performing any movement the body is not accustomed to doing. The two major concerns usually voiced over squatting are the potential for joint wear leading to arthritis and ligament injuries.

Squats may actually decrease the risk of arthritis

During a squat there are increased comprehensiveness forces on the joints of the knee. Very few studies however have shown that squatting can cause damage to the joint. One retrospective study on a group of elderly subjects in Beijing found that those who reported squatting several hours a day in their youth were more likely to demonstrate osteoarthritis of the tibiofemoral (TF) joint.3 A later study however found that squatting actually decreased the risk of TF arthritis when performed at least 30 minutes a day.4

The reason for these contradictory findings is not clear. The important thing to remember is that, as is true for most activities, moderation is key. The body is certainly capable of adapting to a natural squatting position, and almost all of us were able to do it at some point in our lives.

Full squat

The other joint in the knee subject to increased loads during squatting is the patellofemoral (PF) articulation, between the underside of the knee cap and the femur. The compressive forces at the PF joint increase as the knee moves into flexion (depth of squat). However, during that time the contact surface of the joint also increases.5 The increase in contact area distributes the joint forces over a larger surface area, which maintains, or even reduces, joint stress as you get deeper in your squat. Patellofemoral compression force should still be a consideration though for anyone with a history of anterior knee problems or cartilage damage of the patellofemoral joint.

In regards to ligament injuries, the idea the deep squatting when performed as a weightlifting exercise causes ligament laxity in the knee can be traced back to an older study performed in the 1960s. Later studies have refuting these results and actually found that squatting enhances knee stability.6,7

The same principles that apply to other forms of exercise also apply for squats. Squatting too often, holding the position for hours on end, or not allowing your body to recover between squatting session can place you at risk for injury.

Summary

The full squat is a natural human posture often used as an alternative to sitting in Asian cultures and among young children, but rarely performed by adults in Westernized countries. Spending time in a squat position offers many health benefits and can serve as way to correct postural imbalances. Squatting is a safe activity when performed properly. Someone who is healthy and in relatively good physical shape without a history of knee injuries should be able to squat safely with minimal risk. Individuals with a history of knee injury need to give consideration to the increased forces placed on the structures of the knee when squatting. A lack of ankle mobility is usually the limiting factor that would prevent an individual from reaching full depth. The ability to do a full depth squat is a sign of good physical health.

References

1. Dobrzynski J. “An Eye on China’s Not So Rich and Famous”. The New York Times. Retrieved Sep 23 2012.

2. Caterisano A, Moss RF, Pellinger TK, Woodruff K, Lewis VC, Booth W, Khadra T. The effect of back squat depth on the EMG activity of 4 superficial hip and thigh muscles. J Strength Cond Res. 2002 Aug;16(3):428-32.

3. Liu CM, Xu L. Retrospective study of squatting with prevalence of knee osteoarthritis. Zhonghua Liu Xing Bing Xue Za Zhi. 2007 Feb;28(2):177-9.

4. Lin J, Li R, Kang X, Li H. Risk factors for radiographic tibiofemoral knee osteoarthritis: the wuchuan osteoarthritis study. Int J Rheumatol. 2010;2010:385826.

5. Besier TF, Draper CE, Gold GE, Beaupré GS, Delp SL. Patellofemoral joint contact area increases with knee flexion and weight-bearing. J Orthop Res. 2005 Mar;23(2):345-50.

6. Chandler T, Wilson G, Stone M. The effect of the squat exercise on knee stability. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 21(3). Pp 299-303. 1989.

7. Escamilla RF. Knee biomechanics of the dynamic squat exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2001 Jan;33(1):127-41.

 

Comments

  1. Sandy Shepard says

    I don’t think someone with one or two hip replacements can attempt this. I have had both replaced and my husband has had one. Any recommendations for increasing leg strength and also lower back muscle strength for us?

    • says

      You are right, you do need to limit hip motion after hip replacement, to avoid dislocation. I’m sure your doctor gave you some guidelines. There are many exercises you can do, but one simple one that pops into my mind, for both glute/hamstring muscles, and lower back, is the bridge exercise. Just google “pilates bridge” or “glute bridge” and you’ll find many pictures. (it’s really simple)

      • says

        I had a total hip replacement just over a year ago (Dec. 24, 2012), and even though I agree that it might not be best to get into a full squat, I’ve been doing them low enough to get my hips below my knees. The main thing is to get those glutes strong again way before you attempt squats, by doing the normal rehab exercises that the PT gives you that are “hip safe”.

        • Rup says

          Try half squats where you do the same motion but stop halfway. Box squats are also good. On the downward motion, you stop halfway and sit on a box, rest, then squat back up. You will have to find the point where you can’t go any further set the box to that height. hope that helps!

        • says

          Your hip replacements require a certain amount of caution for the 1st few months but after they have healed then getting the power back is vital. You have gone through this operation to improve your quality of life and squat based exercises are a great way to load the joint well. Your body won’t be able to do a full deep squat but you can certainly do a chair based sit to stand squat. The loading through weight bearing has other very useful aspects that you will not get if exercising the legs on all 4’s or your back.
          Just listen to your body as it will let you know if your going too low or seek out a good Physio for advice.

    • says

      Dear Sandy, thanks for your comment. I have recently had my second hip replaced…only a few months ago. I strongly suggest to you and my students in general that they specifically DO attempt to get into a full squat. Once the 1 – 3 month waiting period is over for getting the artificial hip to reattach properly, doing a full squat or at least moving in that general direction of movement, doesn’t create a problem. That’s not the type of movement that creates a problem for hips at all. In fact, I would strongly suggest that people actually attempt this exercise on a daily basis: carefully of course, at the level that their body able to do safely. What is probably more dangerous for your body over time is NOT to try this. Basically this follows the truism that if you don’t use it, you’ll definitely lose it – permanently. I was doing very slow full squats on the third month after my operation in order to rehabilitate my hip, not hurt it. I don’t care how, but move in this direction mindfully, if need be, use assistance: a chair, the wall, a support partner person. After 4 months I do a full squat a few times a day by myself. And it feels great! Granted I started out in good condition before the operation (I teach martial arts and take yoga), I’m not over weight and I eat well. If you’re not like me, you can still gain lots of benefit from doing modified squats. You don’t have to go all the way down. just keep moving peoples! :)

  2. says

    Great article! I love how you provided the information. I think the common client gets so used to avoiding pain, the reflex action is to limit range of motion. This explains why that is not the answer.

    Sandy, I actually have a client that had both hips replaced at the same time who can perform a near full squat and is only limited by his ankle mobility. It is a move that can progress on an individual basis with the right guidance.

  3. says

    I know it’s been about a year and a half since this article was posted, but I’m glad it’s gaining traction on Facebook. Well researched. Thank you for getting this good information out there to the public. Everyone needs to know this.

  4. Sarah says

    Are there any dangers associated with working on full squatting while pregnant? I am experiencing back pain and was hoping to do some squatting everyday to help alleviate that. I am currently 15 weeks pregnant.

    • says

      Quite the opposite. In yoga terms, a full squat is called malasana and it’s highly recommended during the last trimester. It strengthens the pelvic floor while at the same time allowing it to remain pliable, both of which can make delivery easier.

        • Vince says

          Yes I’ve heard over and over that squatting is a far more natural and easier way to give birth than lying on your back in stirrups. The only reason lying on your back is what you see so often in hospitals is for the benefit of the doctors being able to see what’s going on.

      • Boaz says

        However she did say she’s 15 weeks pregnant. At this point, it’s probably no longer a concern, but deep squats are a risk factor in the first trimester. In yoga (and ayurveda) terms, squats as well as forward bends direct the body’s energy down, so they might cause abortion in the sensitive 1st trimester. For the same reason, they help with delivery and should be practiced during the 3rd trimester.

    • says

      I agree with Mike and Holly. We have several women at my gym that workout up until about 8 1/2 months of their term. However, if your body isn’t used to working out, I suggest easing into it and working with a good personal trainer in your area that has experience with pregnancy.

  5. says

    This is wonderful, James! I study yoga with Denise Kaufman at Exhale in Venice, Ca. who feels a
    life’s mission to bring back squatting. Have you seen the fun and upbeat, Squat Song, that she produced and co-wrote that has become a viral hit and is being used in yoga classes around the world? Check it out at http://www.squateverywhere.com (which has squatting tips on video, photos, etc) or http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sGXP_FH5TF4 I will share your site with my circle as well!

  6. says

    Excellent article James. I didn’t know about the activation of the g.max only maximizing after the 1/2 way point. But I’ve experienced it any time I’ve tried pistol squats. You definitely feel the g,max a whole lot more during a pistol squat!

  7. John Abram says

    Good information, the exercise squat is one of the best exercises you can do for leg strength and mobility. I will work on this; thanks for this information.

  8. Nikki says

    Hi, This sounds very interesting but I have a question. When you’re talking about the full squat do you mean for people to keep their knees together, like the child pictured, or to keep them apart like the bottom image? I find the second one much easier, especially balance wise. Should I be aiming for the closed knee version as well, or do you think there would be no increased benefits from that?

    Thanks

    • says

      Hi Nikki – The child and the bottom picture are actually about the same. The difference is just the position of the arms. The child has her arms outside the knees giving the impression that the knees are caved in. But if you look closely, the shins remain nearly vertical and the knees are in line or slightly wider than the toes.

      • Nikki says

        Thanks for the reply. I’m not sure thats what i meant. i meant the difference between keeping the knees in front, square in line with the hips compared with opening the hips so your feet are not parallel. i found it much easier if you open the hips. I cant see how i can get my centre of balance central the other way. on all the pictures the shins are almost vertical, but if i put my shins vertical my weight is always too far backwards to balance.

  9. Janis says

    How strange — I never knew this WASN’T done by most people. I always figured I did it just because I was strung loosely, and it’s a very comfortable way to work with my laptop on my coffee table. Lots easier than sitting on my couch; if I do that while using the laptop, reading, or working with my hands, my neck hurts from looking down into my lap.

    If you’re strung more tightly or carrying too much weight though, I don’t know if you could do it.

  10. Brittany L says

    Some people actually don’t have the proper hip anatomy to do deep squats without exposing yourself to a higher risk of injuring yourself. Everyone is different and the key is to know your body and what you are safely able to perform before trying everything out there. Deep squatting isn’t for everyone unlike some people may believe.

  11. Julie says

    What about those who were born with limited ankle mobility? I have never been able to do a full squat — not even as a kid. (I noticed in ballet class I could never plie as well as the other kids.) I rarely wear high heels and I’m always stretching this area but can’t seem to get anywhere. It’s very frustrating as it limits me in so many things. Really, is there nothing at all I can do?

  12. George Sands says

    Saw this on facebook. I was really, really hoping it would be about pooping. Instead, I learned a lot. Thanks, dude.

    • Susy says

      Actually, squatting does have all those benefits that are mentioned as a yoga position. I find most importantly how it strengthens the feet ankles and shins. However, it has been done since caveman time and throughout the world currently as the position for squatting, or the method for elimination which places the pelvis in its neutral position aligning the intestinal and eliminatory systems in their correct position for easy elimination without effort. It is also widely done throughout the world, such as Indonesia, Fiji, many many other foreign countries as a seated position.

  13. Adam Evenson says

    I’d be glad to testify you are correct on this, James. I’m a 74 year old male that’s been doing Hatha Yoga asana fairly regularly since 1967. I credit it with my astounding health thus far and holding. Full squat is good, as described, but the other kind of squat, which is a kneeling action, is equally vital, in which one places the shins against a pad on the floor with feet pointing to the rear so as to bend, or rotate the ankle and toes in the opposite direction of what is natural and normal for walking. These squatting positions are most vital with respect to the knee, although all the joints are important to stretch in this way. Most people do not bend the knee enough in day to day life and as one grows older, the knee tends toward atrophic stiffness, causing all manner of serious problems down the line toward the toes. The feet usually go numb first, which is usually ascribed to gout and/or diabetes. However, lacking only the minority that have organic knee damage of some kind due to disease, every individual could recondition the knees and save all manner of problems to the legs below, if one squats in either the position you describe or the one I mention here for a while each day, such as when one is going to be sitting, anyway, one will enjoy great lower leg and feet health all the years of one’s life into and beyond the oldest age. If it hurts the knees or is even uncomfortable when one squats this way, this is an indication of poor knee condition that will be intractable one day and help kill one earlier than otherwise necessary. A gauge of what shape one is in is whether it hurts one’s
    knee(s) to squat. If it hurts AT ALL, then one needs to begin squatting regularly until the pain entirely subsides, which it will unless one is afflicted with disease of the knee.

  14. Michael says

    Very well written article. Thank you.

    I just want to add that I used squatting a few years ago to eliminate the awful shin splints that I was getting from soccer.

    I squatted regularly for a week and they have been gone every since.

    Good luck everyone.

  15. Terry says

    Oh I’m glad I came across this article. I thought something was wrong with me for squatting in the full squat position. It’s just always felt so natural to me as an adult but the thought always popped into my head that I must look like a child squatting in this manner. It just felt right. Thanks!

  16. Sunita Shukla says

    Well the full squat is the most common sitting posture in rural India with villagers squatting comfortably for a range of tasks that includes leisurely lolling in circles to chat. Unfortunately urban Indians have forgotten this relaxing bodily position and the use of footwear and chairs has put an end to the posture.

  17. Venkat says

    Growing up in India this is the position to use in the toilet. After I moved to the US I never squatted. On a trip back while using the Indian toilet I realized how much flexibility I had lost. I was determined to get the flexibility back and squatted a few minutes everday. Knee pain that I used to get because of running went away. I had theorized that this is because of the stretch it provides to the knee ligaments. There is a constant downward pressure on the knee while we stand, walk and run. Coming down stairs and kicking and squatting are the times when the knee gets a stretch.

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