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Human beings like to overcomplicate things.
We take this idea into many different aspects of our lives — relationships, care, nutrition, fitness, etc.
We seem to live by the philosophy described in one of my favorite TV shows.
Yes, I’m referring to How I Met Your Mother.
In one particular episode, the character Barney Stinson is talking to his friend Ted about rules to live by, and he provides us with this little gem…
“New is always better!”
It’s a simple concept, but boy, have we taken it and ran.
The problem is that new isn’t always better, and sometimes simple is ideal.
With this in mind, when you think of a squat and squat biomechanics — muscles, motions, and form — what do you picture?
An enormously buff bodybuilder with bulging muscles straining under a bar with five plates on each side?
Or a CrossFit athlete, repping out as many squats with 165lbs as she can in one minute?
Maybe a YouTube video you saw a couple of months ago of a guy trying to do a squat on top of two medicine balls (probably entitled, “Weight Room Fails”)?
These are severely overcomplicated versions of an incredibly versatile and valuable exercise.
And not just for “athletes,” but for anyone who wants to enjoy the full range of motion, balance, and stability in their lower body and core.
The squat is the perfect exercise for someone trying to gain more fitness and strength, improve their mobility, or who simply wants to get moving.
The breadth of ways to implement squats into your daily wellness habits is as far-reaching as the benefits that this simple exercise provides… but what exactly does a squat do for you?
Why should you even bother trying to understand squat biomechanics?
Well, first, let’s look at the benefits of squats across a wide range of individuals.
The Many Benefits of the Humble “Squat”
So, what kinds of benefits can someone receive from something as simple and “rudimentary” as a body squat?
Well, the first and most apparent benefit is gained in strength.
Even just body-weight squats can begin the process of gaining strength in individuals who either have a low level of activity or a low physical tolerance for vigorous exercise.
In addition, a sedentary or elderly population can benefit significantly in adding a squat to their daily activity.
A study from 2005 by DiBrezzo et al. showed significant improvements in dynamic balance, agility, and strength from a 10-week exercise class in community-living elderly individuals.
This class included squats in conjunction with strength, other strengthening activities, and balance training.
Yoshiko & Watanabe found in 2021 that a “shallow” body squat (one that does not go all the way down to 90º) provided significant improvement to functional strength measured by the number of sit-to-stand repetitions completed in 30 seconds and a 1-RM leg press in an elderly population.
These benefits are not limited to the elderly and sedentary, however.
Bell et al. found in 2013 that a lower-body intervention including body squats decreased medial knee displacement and knee valgus and increased the range of motion in ankle dorsiflexion.
Full Body Benefits
The necessary activation of the lateral knee and ankle, core, and back in performing a body squat properly all create subtle benefits that can significantly improve an individual’s balance, stability, strength, and even tendon elasticity.
The range of motion in a squat can help with leg, hip, and back flexibility.
And the cardiovascular benefits of this exercise can improve blood flow, reduce the risk of heart disease, and improve the overall quality of life.
So now that we know the benefits of the squat, where do we start?
How do we perform this exercise?
Do we need a barbell? A squat rack?
Let’s start with “simple” instead of “new”…
Step-by-Step Squat Biomechanics
It requires only one thing… you!
The repetitions and sets may change depending on your goals or abilities, but the basic functionality remains the same.
The Body Squat is the entry point for many people looking to get the benefits of lower-body and core mobility and strength, without the higher risk or cost of adding equipment such as barbells, dumbbells, or squat racks.
So how does one properly perform a body squat?
Let’s break down some standard squat biomechanics step by step.
Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder width apart.
This position will allow easier access to the full range of motion at your hips while providing a solid and stable foundation.
This is just a fancy way of describing that feeling that you are prepared to squat without falling forward or backward.
Different people can do other things to find this equilibrium.
Some may put their arm outstretched in front of them, some may put their hands behind their head, and some may find it easier to keep their hands to their sides simply.
I find it easiest to put my hands in almost a “prayer” position just slightly in front of my chest.
This allows me to keep my hands close to my body, but I can quickly move them if I start to lose my balance.
The more you perform a squat, the better you will be at finding and keeping your balance.
Often the most challenging part of the squat for people just beginning is not the actual “muscle activation” stage where one pushes back up to the standing position.
It is the downward movement of the squat itself.
This is because there are many more things that can be incorrect during the squat exercise.
Bending too much at the hips.
One of the most common mistakes in form during a squat is leaning too far forward when bending at the knees.
It is challenging to have no forward lean whatsoever, but excessive forward lean can cause significant strain on the lower back, especially if one begins to add weight.
The cues to follow here are to keep your shoulders back and maintain an upright position, and try not to bend any farther than 45º.
If you do not have the flexibility or strength to do this initially, do not get discouraged!
This is something that many people struggle with, and it will get better as you continue to perform the exercise!
Knee Valgus (aka knock-knees).
Another common problem when learning to perform a squat correctly is the knees moving towards each other when we squat down.
The good news is that this is often due to a lack of strength in the leg stabilizing muscles, so this should see improvement quickly!
However, it comes with a caveat…
The improvement only comes when we focus on keeping those knees in the proper line.
Often in a weight room, I will see athletes put significant weight on a bar, but they will squat with various degrees of knee valgus.
These individuals do not “lack the strength” per se, but our body adapts to exercise the way we train it too.
If we are lazy or lackadaisical in maintaining proper form, then our body will learn to do the exercise incorrectly.
A good squat keeps the knees directly over the toes.
This will generally keep the knees in the proper line.
There are various suggestions for the proper squat depth, but research, coaches, and trainers generally accept that squatting to a 90º angle at the knee allows for the full range of motion without putting undue stress on the knee joint.
Finally, in a controlled manner, considering that we still want to keep our knees in line with our toes and not let them collapse, we push with our legs back up to a standing position.
Do not “lockout” the knee once you return to the standing position, nor hyperextend your back (lean back and push your hips out), as this will put stress on your knees and lower back.
Stay relaxed and upright before beginning the entire process over again.
Practice Makes Perfect
As with every type of activity, proper practice over time will lead to improvement.
A lot of the strength gains that we receive early in beginning a new exercise are considered neuromuscular.
This means that our body and brain are simply learning the most effective way of doing something new.
Our brain knows which muscles need to be activated, when they need to be activated, and how much strength needs to be used or not used to complete the task.
If some of these steps are difficult at first, don’t stress too much!
As you continue to build up your understanding of squat biomechanics and continue to dedicate the time and effort to performing squats properly, you will find the activity easier to do, and you will find that some of the mistakes that you make early on will become less and less until you can do a proper squat without having to focus on those cues!