I can still hear my parents saying this, when I was helping move a couch across the room as a teenager: “Bend at the knees, not the waist!” This little bit of advice, designed to protect me from back injury, was misleading at best and entirely incorrect at worst.
When I was learning how to squat properly in the gym as an adult, it struck me how awkward and unnatural the movement felt. It required me to bend my knees without letting them cross the end of my toes, and to stick my bum out like I was going to sit in a chair – even though there was no chair there.
At first the movement felt wrong. And then, after practicing it for a while, I realized it wasn’t wrong, but rather that my muscles had forgotten how to do it. Now when I squat the movement feels entirely the opposite to when I first started: it feels natural, it feels comfortable, it feels like:
This is what my body was built to do.
So why did I only learn how to do such a basic movement at a much older age?
Why We Forgot How to Squat
Western society was built on many different things, including the idea of “civilizing” many of the otherwise primal behaviours we perform when we live outside of civilized society. Squatting is precisely one of those behaviours because it is associated with a) more primal populations of people, and b) taking a number two in the wild, where there isn’t civilized plumbing. Why do you think we call people who live in abandoned buildings “squatters”? Because we are classifying them by their need to squat to go number two without a toilet.
For the most part, the need for squatting in our day-to-day lives has largely been omitted from modern civilization. We use chairs for sitting, and design our homes and our work spaces so that we don’t have to squat. Even toilets have been designed to “save” us from squatting – which incidentally is the anatomically correct way to go number two. Have you heard of the “squatty potty”? Have a look at this.
Spending our lives sitting on chairs and toilets means that the muscles we would normally use to squat become weak. These same muscles, in particular the muscles of the mid and lower back, abdominals, hips, butt and legs are integral to maintaining a healthy spine and preventing injury.
When it comes time to lifting heavy things off the ground, or to work in a position that places strain on our spines (e.g., lifting a couch), our core strength is ill-equipped to handle the load and injury happens. We are also hard on our knees because we don’t know how to shift the weight of our upper bodies on to our leg muscles (nature didn’t design the knee to bear heavy weight, which is what happens when we bend our knees across the end of our toes).
Re-learning how to squat can be a frustrating, uncomfortable, and cognitively confusing process. But when you do start squatting again, something really beautiful happens.
You’ll start to feel your muscles working together in a way that they haven’t for years and years, and in a way that they were designed to. You’re awareness of your body will begin to shift slightly, almost like seeing yourself from a different angle. You’ll start to feel a primal connection to your body, one that you didn’t know was possible, but that just makes sense somehow.
It’s as if your body has woken up from a decades-long sleep you didn’t realize it was having.
Here’s me performing a front squat from a couple different angles. While all squat variations are full-body workouts, this variation emphasizes the quad muscles, the rhomboids (middle back muscles), and of course the booty. As an added bonus, this movement targets the lower abs to help you get that amazing Adonis Belt you’re after!
There are so many different ways to squat! Here’s some great variations:
Happy squatting! And always remember to warm up, go slow, be careful, and maintain strict form throughout.