Thursday, March 10, 2016

Squats – THE Best Exercise?

I was talking with one of my clients this morning and he said he had read an article online describing the benefits of the squat and that they are one of the best exercises you could do, particularly as you age.

When it comes to strength exercises, I’ve always been partial to the deadlift-but there is nothing that says you can only train one or the other-right?!?! 

In hardcore gyms the barbell back squat is THE cornerstone exercise.  It separates the men from the boys.  Many gym-goers try to claim that Bulgarian split-squats or leg presses are as good as, or better than, the glorious barbell back squat; but those that claim this typically have toothpicks for legs or are just trying to get a new book published-or usually, BOTH.
Ivan Chakarov with a perfect back squat - this legendary photo is of his famous no-no-no (no belt, no wraps, no spotter) 270kg triple.  Photo courtesy of Iron Mind.
The barbell back squat rules hands down.  Please save your “oh my back hurts”, or “squats are bad for your knees” arguments for someone who cares.

The back squat contributes to massive amounts of muscular development in the legs-read the book “Super Squats”- the exercise in the program is the barbell back squat, not the Bulgarian wobble board blindfolded super corrective non-contraindicated iso-lunge.

What if we get outside of the hard core gym?  Is the squat still king, even if it is performed without a barbell on the back?

As we age I believe the squat is a great choice to maintain leg strength and hip, knee and ankle joint mobility.  In fact, a full-range-of-motion body-weight squat is an incredibly healthy exercise.  If you can sit on your calves with your feet completely flat (this is imperative-heels DOWN!) you are working your hips and knees through their greatest possible range of motion while providing for a tremendous stretch to the low back and Achilles tendons.

We are born with the ability to squat all the way down with flat feet-just look at any toddler they will often squat down and sit on their calves as they play.  Unfortunately due to a combination of sitting in desks from pre-school on, and the lack of developmental physical education programs, this ability is lost over the years. 
A popular picture of a toddler with details of a perfect squat that circulated the internet and social media sites a while back.
I was talking with one of my instructors, Chen Zhe, at the Shaolin Institue where I study Taiji and he told me that growing up in China he often ate while sitting in a full squat position and that it was a position of rest as well.
Snake Creeps Down, this is one of my favorite Taiji movements. This beautiful posture is a fantastic display of  hip, ankle and knee mobility as well as strong legs.  Photo of Dong Zeng Chen courteousy of
This makes a lot of sense to me.  Typically when we rest we sit on a chair, when we do this we can increase the compressive loading on our spines by up to 40% (according to an article I read a while back)!  This coupled with the typically weak core musculature most American adults display is a recipe for major low back pain.  Gee, can you think of anyone you know who suffers from low back pain?  However, if we possessed the ability to rest in a full squat position not only would we contribute to exceptional mobility in the hip, knee and ankles; we would also stretch out the lower back and Achilles tendons.  Say goodbye to back pain!

Granted the barbell version may not be advisable for everyone, but deep, full range of motion, flat-foot body-weight squats would be a good idea to do on a regular basis.  If you can’t perform this movement, then practice.  Strong, healthy legs are a good idea for everyone, particularly as we age.

Stay Strong AND Healthy!


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