When you squat, with your heels firmly on the ground and your back nice and straight, you will feel your hamstrings, quads, achilles tendons, lower back, and groin gently release all the tension of being a member of today’s chair-sitting, heel-wearing society.
Prepare to Squat
If you haven’t squatted in a seriously long time, it is likely going to take some time to prepare your joints for the movement. I urge you to be patient. I promise you, it is worth your time and effort.
First, you are going to need to loosen up your calves. The tighter the calves, the more your heels will refuse to stay down on the ground. The tendon changes that we all experience in response to wearing shoes with heels (or “heel-drop,” to use running shoe terminology) has left our calf muscles short and tight. So we need to spend some time working on undoing that.
There are many good calf stretches and if you have spent many years in heeled shoes and sitting in a chair, you should probably do them all. Check out the article called How to Build Strong and Define Calves for some help with that.
You’ll also need to get some mobility in your hamstrings as well. For that, place a rolled-up yoga mat under your toes and bend forward from the waist as far as you can with a flat back (you may know this as forward-fold). As soon as your back starts to round, stop folding and start holding that position. Hang out here for 30-60 seconds and remember to breathe.
Now, get down on your hands and knees in a crawling position and drop your hips back as far as you can, without letting your feet inch closer together or letting your tailbone to tuck under. This is similar to what's call Child’s Pose in yoga. Hold this one for 60-90 seconds and don’t forget to keep breathing.
Next, tuck your toes under, flex your feet, and work on getting your feet completely perpendicular to the floor. This will help with your shin alignment when you get yourself into a real squat, which we will talk about shortly.
After you have spent 90-120 seconds stretching your feet out, it is time to put some of your body weight on your legs. Maintaining that same body position and alignment, push your body up off the ground and get into a squat position. At this point, it is ok to have your heels off the ground if it helps you maintain the position. That will come with time if you keep at it.
If your heels are quite far off the ground, take that rolled up yoga mat from earlier and put it under your heels to give yourself some support. You can slowly unroll the mat each time you practice this as your heels get closer and closer to the ground over the next days and weeks.
After practicing this for a while (some of you will only need to do it for a few days but for others, it will likely take a few weeks), you will be able to maintain a neutral spine and plant your heels on the ground. Until that day, continue to use this progression.
Your own personal squat depth is based on how well you can keep your shins and pelvis in the correct position.
Some pro tips:
The more vertical that your shins are during the squat (with your knees stacked above your ankles) and the more untucked your pelvis is, the more glutes you will use. The more your knees are in front of your ankles and the more tucked your pelvis is, the fewer glutes you will use. We want to use our glutes, so keep those shins vertical and that pelvis aligned.
How long you can or should hold a squat depends on a few things. Your glutes fire primarily on the way up and out of the squat but they also get involved while you are in the squat. Once you get to the point where you can relax in the squat, instead of staying in the position through sheer act of glutes, you will be able to hang out there for longer and longer.
How deep you can get into the squat also depends on a few things. Your own personal depth is based on how well you can keep your shin and pelvis in the correct position (see above). Most of us westerners (who didn’t grow up having to squat to use the washroom) will find our range of motion to be quite limited. That’s cool. Start with what you’ve got and work to improve it.
Why You Should Squat
1. Squatting improves core stability.
When you do a squat, your extensor muscles, lateral and straight abdominal muscles, as well as many of your lower back muscles, provide the stability to keep your body in a straight position. Squats not only increase the strength in your legs and glutes, but they also give your core a workout too. Using a functional movement like squats is an important part of developing a strong and stable core and torso.
2. Squatting improves your running.
There are a ton of studies that confirm the stronger your squat is, the faster you can run. Research shows that by increasing the weight of an athlete’s squat during the season directly translates to faster sprint speeds. It is likely that the increased force production that we see in the increased squat performance contributes to the improved sprint performance as well.
3. Squatting improves your jumping.
No surprise here that training your body to quickly and adeptly do the simple movement of standing up from a squatting position can also improve your ability to jump. Even if you wouldn’t take the time to jump from a deep squat during something like a basketball game, training the deep squat (and using your full range of motion) has been shown to improve your vertical leap more than even just regular squatting.