One of the most effective exercises you can do is a simple squat. It engages the entire lower half of the body, including the hips, glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves, while also hitting the shoulders, back, and core. Performing a correct squat takes a lot of muscular coordination throughout the whole body, which serves to build muscle and burn fat simultaneously thanks to its high metabolic demand (which simply means it burns a lot of calories because it works a lot of muscles). Does it really matter how far down you go?
In a word, yes! The perfect squat is a deep squat, where the hip crease goes all the way past the knees. Deep squats recruit more muscles, burn more calories, and are particularly effective for sculpting a nice, strong butt. But there’s way more to this exercise than you might think. It’s not just important to stretch–without a strong core, loose shoulders, an engaged back, and high mobility, the risk of injury multiplies.
But I heard that deep squats were bad for you…
Wrong! Contrary to popular belief, performing a deep squat is not bad for the knees. Studies have shown that there is no difference between partial, parallel, and deep squats in terms of the impact on the front knee joint. In fact, deep squats might actually increase knee stability. There are two strong ligaments that add stability to the knee–the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and the posterior cruciate ligament (PCL). Research has shown that the forces inside the ACL and PCL decrease the more the knee is bent, meaning the deeper you squat, the less pressure there is inside the knees. It’s also a better way to get stronger. In fact, studies have shown that parallel squats with heavy weights are less effective at increasing strength than deep squats with a lighter weight.
Not only is performing a deep squat safe and effective, but it leads to a nice, strong butt. Studies show that the gluteus maximus is over 25% more engaged during deep squats than when squatting parallel. So, as long as there is no history of injuries, deep squats are the way to go. However, if you do have knee issues (and sitting at a desk all day certainly does not help), there’s nothing inherently wrong with sticking to parallel squats.
So how do I perform a deep squat?
The simple answer? Very carefully! A deep squat is more complicated and can potentially be a little riskier than a standard squat. Since there are many joints and muscles that work together in a very broad range of motion to perform this movement, special attention must be paid to mobility, flexibility, and coordination. If you never squat deep, chances are you don’t have enough control, flexibility, or strength to do so with heavy weights…yet! Take a step back (literally), eliminate the weight, and study the basics first.
1) Focus on mobility—Mobility is something we hear quite often, but what does it really mean in the context of lifting weights? Well, from a Physical Therapy standpoint, it is really the body’s ability to perform a task without compensation. Think about doing a biceps curl with a dumbbell that is too heavy–most likely your hips and back would be bending and swinging. That is the body’s way of compensating for lack of biceps strength. However, when form is compromised in an attempt to lift a heavier weight, the body is at greater risk for injury. This is especially true when it comes to squats.
There is a multitude of issues that might contribute to poor mobility, such as the importance of flexible hip flexors, knees, and ankles. If any part of the squatting motion feels tight, but is not painful, then there’s nothing wrong with trying to improve mobility on your own. Try lying on your back, bending your legs, and going through a squatting motion. If you get tightness in a muscle group that keeps the movement from being executed perfectly, then that can often be resolved with the right stretches, massage, or a self-myofascial release technique such as a foam roller or trigger point ball. And the more frequent the better, meaning a few minutes per day is better than an hour once a week.
2) Engage your muscles–Don’t forget to warm up before exercising by performing dynamic stretches. If you need a refresher on dynamic stretching, check out my previous blog post here. After properly warming up, it’s important to remember to engage your muscles as the squat is performed. The heavier the weight, the more critical it is that your abs, shoulders, and upper back stay engaged, creating a stable base for the weight. Flex the thighs, squeeze the butt, and tighten the stomach. This helps to stabilize the body and keep it from compensating by ensuring that all the right muscles are doing their part.
3) Go back to basics–There are, unfortunately, a lot of ways to squat incorrectly. Even if you can lift heavier weights doing a parallel squat, you should really begin your deep squat routine using only your bodyweight, then gradually increase the load. Starting from the beginning is the best way to fill any lingering gaps in your strength, stability, and form. This is where a Physical Therapist can really be beneficial when starting a new weight training regimen.
Many people think that the only time you see a Physical Therapist is when you have an injury. This could not be furthest from the truth. Physical Therapists are movement specialists. If you truly want to increase your flexibility and strength in the safest way possible, especially if you’re having difficulty making progress, then find a Physical Therapist with a good background in movement quality. They’ll look at the whole body and properly assess the best way to move forward.
The bottom line…
Some individuals will no doubt have better mobility and stability than others. That’s why there is no “one size fits all” approach to strength training, and why for some of you deep squats aren’t in your exercise regime. Nevertheless, they are absolutely worth striving for. Deep squats are an incredibly valuable tool to build strength and lose body fat, which leads to better mobility, posture, strength, and flexibility, benefitting every aspect of your fitness.
And as always, if you or someone you know needs some guidance in how to start an exercise program, progress one to stay active, or just where to begin to get physical activity into your daily routine, call me at (302)691-9055 or visit my website at www.wildermanphysicaltherapy.com to schedule your FREE 30 minute Discovery Visit to see how Physical Therapy can help. Don’t delay–schedule now!