Fear The Squat No More Part II by Paul Chek

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In Part I of this article, you learned that squatting is a very important Primal Movement pattern™. I shared my view that, initially, the squat movement need not be performed under greater load than afforded by your body weight as well as reasons why body weight squats offer the following benefits:

  • Improved respiration of all working tissues used in the squat. The squat uses almost all the muscles in your body

  • Improved pumping of body fluids, aiding in removal of waste and delivery of nutrition to all tissues, including organs and glands

  • Beneficial physiological stress to your hormonal system; properly performed breathing squats actually shift the body away from sympathetic nervous system dominance and encourage parasympathetic activity. This aids in tissue repair and cultivation of Chi, or life-force energy

  • Improved movement of feces through the colon and more regular bowel movements

  • Breathing squats and functional squatting can be performed anywhere, anytime. No equipment needed

  • Body weight squatting prepares your body for more advanced training

In this article, we will take you out from underneath your favorite backyard shade tree or the privacy of your own living room and into the gym, which in my living philosophy, is the church of fitness. In this well illustrated article, I will teach you how to perform one of the most important and effective exercises ever.

It's safe to say that the squat exercise can benefit anyone from the athletic gladiator to the woman who simply wants to look and feel her best. In fact, I've helped thousands and thousands achieve the look, feel and performance they always wanted with this important exercise. The squat is one of the primary exercises I use to increase metabolic rate and add muscle mass to my patients and clients.

While some people fear the squat because they hurt themselves doing it, those who got hurt squatting with proper technique are few and far between! Follow my simple directives and you too can safely reap the many benefits of squatting.

Squat Basics

There are some general features to all squats that should be considered before we delve into squat varieties. Assuming the use of a squat rack, I will explain these basics in the order that you would execute the squat exercise. If you are using body weight, dumbbells or medicine balls, apply only the points applicable to your situation.

Stance Width: To determine the right stance width for your body, simply manipulate your stance width and the amount your toes point outward (up to 30 degrees) until you find a width that allows you to comfortably squat and touch your fingertips to the ground. Squat like you were going to take a dump in the woods. When you are comfortable in that position, you will have the correct squat width.

When using loads heavier than you could lift at least 20 times, you will want to find a comfortable stance with and foot position that you can perform without rounding your low back. Those with a history of lumbar disc, or back injury of any type should always keep from rounding their back in the squat until told otherwise by a skilled professional.

If you can't find a stance that allows you to get this low without rounding your back, you'll likely need to spend some time stretching your legs, focusing on the tightest muscles first. For effective flexibility testing and stretching techniques, please see my books entitled "The Golf Biomechanic's Manual" and "How to Eat, Move and Be Healthy!"

If your comfortable stance seems unusually wide, that should be fine as long as you can squat while keeping the center of your knee in line of your second toe (see Figure 1). As your body loosens up and you get more squatting experience, you will find that you can squat comfortably with a narrower stance. Beginners often need a wider stance until they develop adequate flexibility in the hip joints.

Rack Height: The rack height should always be set such that you never have to go onto your toes to get to get the bar in and out of the rack (see Figure 2). The heavier the load, the more it will compress your spine, hip and knee joints as you perform your reps. Therefore, if your rack height is close to being too high at the beginning of the set, you will struggle to put the bar away at the end.

Always get directly under the bar and position yourself exactly as you would to perform the squat in preparation for liftoff (see Figure 3). Many make the mistake of leaving their feet behind the body and must bend forward, in what looks like a small "Good Morning" (forward bend at hips) to produce liftoff (see Figure 4). This is both unnecessarily fatiguing and potentially harmful to the back, considering that there is a massive difference between what you can squat and perform a "Good Morning" with and you don't want to get tired before your first rep.

Lift Off: Center yourself on the bar and place the bar through the meaty portion of your upper trapezius muscles, just above the spine of the scapula but never above the first thoracic spinous process (T1) (see Figure 5). Allowing the bar to ride on your neck can cause many problems down the road.

Now, draw your hands as close to your shoulders as possible, activating the muscles that pull your shoulder blades together and help hold your spine straight. Positioned properly under the bar, take a deep diaphragmatic breath, hold it and draw your belly button toward your spine to activate the deep abdominal wall, which will increase spinal stability.

With your breath being held and your belly button in, keep the chest up as you use your legs to un-rack the bar. Take no more than one step back from the rack. You only need to step just far enough back to be sure the bar clears the hooks by a couple inches.

Descent: You should take a fresh diaphragmatic breath prior to initiating your descent, repeating the whole process of activating the abdominal wall. This will allow you to be fresh for the rep. Keeping your chest up, your shoulder blades consciously pulled toward each other and belly button pulled in enough to activate the abdominal wall, initiate the squat by bending from the knees first.

This minimizes unwanted premature forward lean as you descend. As you lower the load, focus on keeping the weight balanced between the balls of the feet and heels. The greater the intensity of the lift, the more the load should move toward the heels, yet never so far that you compromise your balance.

Go as deeply into the squat as you can without rounding the low back. If you are using a weight you can squat over 20 times comfortably and you have no orthopedic restriction, you can go rock bottom and allow the back to round naturally, providing that at no time you allow the bar to move forward of the toes (see Figure 6).

As you are lowering yourself into the squat, it is important to allow the hips and butt to drop back slightly, counterbalancing the trunk. The path of the hips is demonstrated in Figure 7. People who are use to squatting on Smith machines or using leg presses often fall backwards when trying to use an Olympic bar because a machine squat is a supported squat and doesn't require you to use your own balance mechanisms.

Not only do you not have to balance the load with machine squats, but any supported squat produces a linear path of the hip and trunk, which is unnatural and impossible to do in any functional environment (see Figure 8). Thus, if you learned to squat on a Smith Machine, hack squat machine, or have been using a leg press to condition your legs, you didn't really learn how to squat!

Watch the Crack: In my gym, I position the squat cages and mirrors so that two mirrors always about dead center on a squat cage or hang a plumb line on the mirror in front of the squat cage. This allows the athlete to use the crack created by the two mirrors as a functional plumb line or the plumb line itself.

Whenever you are squatting, you should always keep your nose and umbilicus centered on the crack between the mirrors as you perform the squat. An imaginary plumb line hung from between your butt cheeks should always fall halfway between your feet (see Figure 9). If you have restricted ankle, knee or hip range of motion, you will always deviate away from the restricted side as you descend into the squat.

Such lateral shifts in the squat can cause tremendous stress on the lumbar spine and sacroiliac joints, leading to pain and dysfunction. Unfortunately, this is a very common problem in the gym today. Should you find that you are deviating laterally, compare the tension in your calves, hamstrings, quads and butt from left to right. Normally, you will find that the side you are moving toward is looser than the opposite side in one or more of these areas.

Stretch the tight muscles and try again. If you still deviate laterally, you should find a qualified C.H.E.K. Practitioner or skilled rehabilitation professional to assess you. Until you have corrected the problem, squat only as deeply as you can with perfect form, or avoid the squat until you are rehabilitated.

While at the bottom of the squat, you can pause, coming to a complete dead stop.This will kill the kinetic energy saved in your joints, tendons and fascia, making it much harder on your muscles, which is ideal if building mass is your goal. If you are training for athletic endeavors, such as to jump higher, you will be best off by changing direction at a natural tempo, avoiding the dead stop.

This is because converting the eccentric (lowering) movement into the concentric (raising) movement is a skill and stimulates neuromuscular development, teaching the body to better store and release the energy provided by gravity and the load on your back! By the way, while you are down there, get someone to check your spinal alignment. Your neck should not look like a crane and your eyes should be looking about 10-15 degrees above the horizon; elevating the eyes facilitates recruitment of the extensor muscles.

Ascent: As you rise, be conscious of the weight distribution in your feet, never allowing the load to come forward to the balls of the feet relative to the heel. As you ascend, always release your air through pursed lips, like a trumpet player blowing a horn. This keeps the deep abdominal wall and related spinal stabilizers active. Your hips should retrace the same pathway forward as they made in the descent (see Figure 7).

As you ascend, keep your back tight and your umbilicus drawn inward, the effort to do so being proportional to the load on your body. A key, yet commonly overlooked point of ascent is that as you rise, your knees should NOT drop inward toward each other.

If you place a line down the center of your kneecap, at no time during the descent or ascent should the knee drop inside your second toe (see Figure 1). If it does, it indicates that your abdominal wall is not stabilizing the pelvis correctly, allowing excessive anterior pelvic tilt (forward rotation), which is mechanically coupled with internal rotation of the legs (pronation), or you are too week in the external hip rotators. Weak external hip rotators can be corrected with "Belt Squats" (see part III for more details).

The Next Rep: To begin your next rep, simply inhale and start the whole process over again. Try to stay consistent with each rep. The better you become at squatting, the less visible difference their will be between reps.

Racking the Bar: After your set is completed, walk forward until the bar hits the rack. Then and only then, when you can feel both ends of the bar against the rack should you lower the load to the hooks. Make sure you bend your legs, not your back to lower the load.

Follow this link to learn more about some useful variations you can use to provide some variety to your squatting program.

<< Previous [ Part I, Part II, Part III ]

Submitted by DMorgan on Sat, 09/15/2007 - 5:42pm.

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