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By: Joe Senate, MSS
In November 1994, my daughter Rachel graduated from infant to toddler with one well-executed step. Few moments elicit the pride evoked by a child's first couple of steps. Society as a whole applauds this accomplishment, often calling for at least a small celebration. That same year, my grandmother took a liking to a walker, and soon after grew dependent on a wheelchair. It seems logical and vital to protect the lower-body musculature, which "Mother Nature" has given the shortest life of activity. Although naysayers with no scientific basis have riddled it with myths, there is one exercise which is not done justice when simply describing it as effective; the squat!
Between the age of 30 to 70 years, muscle mass decreases on average about 30%; the loss of strength is about the same (Komi, 1991). Much of that loss of mass and strength is in the lower body. According to Dr. Sal Arria, Executive Director, ISSA, more often than disease, the debilitating effects attributed to aging can arise from disuse. The muscles primarily innervated in a squat are the quadriceps, hamstrings, and gluteals; all essential in healthy, daily function. Whether you compete in triathalons, play golf on the weekends, or just get off the couch to change the T.V. station, you're going to need your legs.
Before explaining how to perform a squat or an exercise derived from a squat, let's dispel some myths and misconceptions. First of all - "squats are bad for your knees and back." Repetitive tension on a muscle, joint, or connective tissue will accumulate trauma which will culminate in an injury if periods of recuperation are not implemented into the plan; therefore, squatting is not bad for your knees and back, improper frequency is. The other fallacy that has permeated every health club in the country is "squats are for athletes." Although athletes indeed squat, the variations they use usually resemble a position they are likely to find themselves in during the duration of a game or event that they participate in. Much like an athlete, your goal should be to squat in a fashion that will enhance your abilities to meet the requirements of your day to day life and meet them with ease.
Teaching the squat is not too complicated, it's one of the most natural things we do. Beside a few postural points and safety tips, it's a matter of sitting and standing. The real key is finding a progression that will allow us to improve strength and range of motion in stages. Regardless of which stage of progression you have achieved, there are a few universal rules when performing a squat; Maintain a straight back and natural lordotic curve (rear curvature of lumbar spine). Keep the head in a neutral position, focusing your eyes on an object at head level in front of you. Avoid allowing the knees to move far ahead of the feet. Point your toes slightly outward and make sure your knees remain aligned with the feet throughout the exercise. Do not repeat this exercise for five to seven days, or until you sense that you are fully recovered.
Here is a progressive system you can use to condition yourself to squat properly. If you can already perform a stage of this progression with ease, move on to the next until you can perform the last squat described below.
Eccentric Squat on Chair - Stand in front of a sturdy chair. Slowly lower yourself down to the chair (3 or 4 second duration) until you contact the chair. Ease into the chair as if you were lowering yourself onto a carton of eggs. Have a partner or trainer assist you out of the chair, returning to a standing position through the same plane of movement as the descent. Perform this movement as long as you can maintain proper form; at the first sign of form deterioration stop and rest. Form deterioration can be recognized by knees tending to bow inward, loss of balance, or loss of tempo control. When you can achieve five repetitions for a couple of sets, try eliminating the assistance from the training partner.
Squat on Chair - Apply the same principals to this variation; however, with as little momentum as possible, rise from the chair without assistance. Once you feel you have mastered this and can complete four or five sets of five repetitions, see if you can dispense with the chair.
Squat - Athletes call this the King of Exercises. Unfortunately, they can complicate it so much that you would believe you have no place trying it. No doubt, there are little intricacies and tricks that competitive powerlifters implement when muscling hundreds of pounds up. However, you may never identify with these "tricks" when simply improving your functional health. Even after progressing from eccentric squats on the chair, to squats on a chair, you may be surprised how awkward this most common variation feels at first. Lower yourself to a point that your range of motion comfortably allows, never rounding your back, then without ever relaxing, return to an upright, standing position. From this point, as you see a need for greater resistance, you can rest a barbell behind your neck, adding weight to the bar as necessary.
The effects of exercise and disuse are well documented. The deterioration of the lower body is cyclical. Immobilization leads to obvious inactivity. People who cannot use their lower bodies infrequently find ways to exercise any portion of their body. Squatting may be more than a means to maintain a strong lower body, it may be a means to maintaining a healthy, active lifestyle.
Joe Senate, MSS
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