To squat or not to squat, that always seems to be the question.
As strength and conditioning coaches, we hear the exact same thing on a regular basis, “My doctor told me not to squat since it is bad for my knees.”
My standard response after hearing this for the umpteenth time is something along the lines of, “Your doctor is right, we don’t recommend squatting either. We don’t recommend using a toilet while sitting down (you have to squat down to get there and come out of a squat to get back up), we don’t recommend getting in and out of your car (you have to squat on one leg for a second to do that), nor should you eat at restaurants that make you sit down — and please don’t let your children squat either; poor things having to start out their precious little lives with ruined knees.”
Although it’s hard to pick up on extreme sarcasm through the written word, I hope that you see it in spades in the above paragraph. Guess what, folks? Human beings have been squatting since the beginning of time. Humans were squatting to give birth, to relieve themselves, to tell stories and, low and behold, to pick up heavy stuff, long before your doctor spoke to you.
Ask any good strength and conditioning coach worth his or her salt and they’ll tell you that squatting is one of the single most important movements that we have for building strength throughout your entire body.
Will squatting incorrectly lead to knee issues? Absolutely. Will driving your car incorrectly lead to accidents? Yes it will, but no one’s telling you to stop doing it all together.
A properly executed squat (hang on, I’ll describe one in a second) will activate your entire posterior chain, including your external obliques, glutes (hello, beach season), hamstrings and calves along with all of the support muscles in your hip. This is a lot of muscle being used in a single movement! These are also the muscles required to do things such as picking up your child or a box around the house, to jump up and block a volleyball or basketball, and all manner of sport-related activities.
So how do you execute a proper squat? Great question, let’s talk about it.
The first thing to do is to plant your feet with your heels firmly on the ground about hip width apart. Point your toes out about 30 to 35 percent, take a deep breath and then pretend that you have a bag full of groceries and you need to close your car door behind you. Send your butt back, not down as if you had to sit in a bucket that was placed a foot and a half behind you. Keeping the proper curve in your low back, lower yourself down until the crease of your hip has gone parallel to the floor or even beyond that point.
Continue to ignore people who don’t actually train anyone or train themselves and have told you never to squat past parallel and keep going lower. At the bottom of the squat, hold yourself in tension, and then, as if you were trying to drive your sacrum back toward the ceiling, drive your backside upward and extend your hips to finish the move.
Throughout that entire process, your knees should have tracked over your toes, meaning that if you drew a straight line from your knee cap to your toe it would line up during the entire squat. If your knees are tracking inward, which is common for beginners to want to do, this can lead to the strains on your ligaments that your doctor was mentioning.
If you keep your heels firmly on the floor; your back active and your knees tracking the right way, the squat will end up being your best friend.
Personally, I have never seen anyone get injured from squatting and actually, low and behold, see people with knee and back issues (I have a torn ACL myself and squat hundreds of times a week) recover from those injuries by doing what you just read about above. Have at it.
— Traver Boehm is co-owner and coach at Crossfit Pacific Coast, has a master’s degree in Chinese medicine, is a licensed acupuncturist at Alki Wellness, and a nutrition specialist. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.