Fit and Fine by Kamal Singh CSCS: Are you ready to squat?

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This is a question that I asked a friend. He had just started training for fitness in a spanking new gym and wanted to know if he could just head over to the squat rack, load a bar and start squatting. I told him that is one way of doing things. The other way would be to get a proper assessment, work on whatever appears in the assessment, then go right ahead and squat.

You could argue that we do lots of squats everyday – sitting and getting up from chairs, using the loo etc. That the assessment obsession of trainers is complete nonsense. Yes, but we do not load when we squat multiple times daily nor do hundreds of bodyweight repetitions in one go. Without assessing we are just guessing!

What is a squat?

A squat or a deep knee bend, is a strength exercise in which a trainee, goes from a standing to lowering his hip till at least his thighs are parallel to the floor and then stands back up. As the trainee goes down, his hips and knees bend or flex while the ankle extends towards the knee, also called dorsiflexion of the ankle. While standing up, the hip and knees straighten or extend while the ankle plantar flexes or the foot and toes move away from the knee.

From the above description, the squat is rightly called a compound exercise as it affects muscles across three joints – hip, knee and ankle. Each muscle and joint has to move in harmony with each other. Then and only then would you be able to reach the required depth and then get strong on it through addition of external load.

I haven’t even mentioned the function of the core in the squat yet. The core has to be strong enough to completely stabilize the spine under load. A lot of people who cannot squat to depth, usually have a weak core. The brain senses instability around the spine and the motion gets limited. This is the reason we need to assess to see whether it is a mobility or a stability issue. I have seen scores of people doing endless mobility exercises to improve their squats but not getting the results! Then they are usually told that they are not built to squat and a leg press is what they should be focusing on.

An assessment also lets us know if the glutes are functioning properly. Glutes are majorly involved in the squat as the person stands up. If for whatever reason, the lower back or the hamstrings have taken over the glutes function of extending the upper body, then jumping into doing squats would be problematic as the lower back and the hamstrings will get overloaded.

A squat or a deep knee bend, is a strength exercise in which a trainee, goes from a standing to lowering his hip till at least his thighs are parallel to the floor and then stands back up (Shutterstock)
A squat or a deep knee bend, is a strength exercise in which a trainee, goes from a standing to lowering his hip till at least his thighs are parallel to the floor and then stands back up (Shutterstock)

Assessing the squat

You can assess your readiness to squat by doing these three tests/exercises:

Single Leg Glute Bridge: Can you hold the single leg glute for at least 15 seconds without shaking, trembling of the limbs. Are both limbs equal to each other in their stability?

Side Plank: Can you hold the side plank for 30 seconds. Is the left side equal to the right side?

Ankle Dorsiflexion: Stand in a lunge position, with the toes of the front leg about 4 inches from a wall. Without letting the heel lift, try and touch the wall with the front knee. If you cannot do that on both sides then your ankles need mobility exercises.

If you cannot clear the above assessment tests, then do not rush to load on the barbell squat. Work on the glutes with glute bridges, hip thrusts and work on the core with planks and side planks. The ankle would need a lot more detailed program. Actually, wait for Part Deux for a full program to clear out your lower body issues before squatting. Till then do the above assessment tests and be ready.

Now go and do it.

Kamal Singh is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist who has been coaching for 15 years

From HT Brunch, August 20, 2022

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