The Squat: What You Need To Know: Pandemic Edition

Without the gym, those of us who exercise on a regular basis or are so bored at home that we want to start exercising are now forced to rely on body weight movements and cardio to fill these needs. If you happen to have an awesome home gym, good for you. I’ll try to hide my jealousy! (The good news for Virginia is that gyms are allowed to provide outdoor classes potentially starting this Friday!)

Of all the body weight exercises, the squat is my favorite. As a physical therapist specializing in geriatrics, the one functional movement that determines someone’s ability to live independently the most, in my opinion, is their ability to transfer. And if you look at a squat, it’s really just standing up and sitting down without a chair. If you lose your ability to stand up and sit down independently, you typically have to rely on a caregiver for help. This is what our elders fear the most… losing their independence. So this is a perfect exercise for healthy adults who want to get a lot of bang for their buck with an activity. And if your grandma has a lift chair in her house and uses it to help her stand up but doesn’t need to, you have my permission to lecture her on not using it this way. Use it or lose it!

All of my patients do some version of a squat as part of their treatment or home program if they are able. Their squat may look different than the ones younger adults do, but the activity is scaled to their capabilities. More on that later. First, let’s look at the basic squat for a healthy adult.

The squat works on building your quads, hamstrings, and glutes primarily, but you will also need help from your hip adductors (inner thigh muscles) and abs for stability. Start in standing, feet just wider than shoulder width apart, toes pointing slightly out. While keeping your head and chest up, drop your butt down past parallel, keeping your knees tracking in line with your toes. (If you drop to the bottom and feel your heels rising, you need to work on your ankle mobility. Stretch those calves!) From here, simply return to standing.

This is me in the bottom of a squat. Notice that my heels are on the floor. My knees are in line with my toes. My chest and head are up.

You’ve got the basic idea now. And you can do this movement anywhere. You don’t need the gym.

Do you want to make it more challenging? Although I can tell you from experience, you will feel it if you do enough reps of the basic air squat, especially, and perhaps surprisingly, in those hip adductors. (The most common form error I make is when performing back squats at heavier weights; I will let my knees turn in. It’s the hip adductors that prevent this). But to up the difficulty, you can hold a weight in your hands near your chest or on your shoulders to focus on strengthening. This can be a kettlebell, dumbbells, a full detergent bottle, bag filled with cans, backpack filled with books, whatever you have. Of course, once you get back to the gym, you can try working on back or front squats with a barbell.

Would you rather focus on stability? This is especially important for runners since we encounter variable terrain on a regular basis and must make split second reactions to accommodate. To do this, simply change your surface to one that is less stable. This can be a pillow, sofa cushion, or, if you’re lucky to have one, a Bosu ball, either standing on the dome or on the platform with the Bosu ball turned dome side down (my favorite stability variation and in my regular rotation of accessory work in the gym.) Everything, but especially your feet and ankles, must work more to help you complete the movement.

Bosu ball

Want to focus on turnover with running? Make it a jump squat to incorporate plyometrics. (Plyometrics is another topic that deserves its own discussion.)

With any of these variations, try performing sets of ten mixed with two or three other body weight movements.

So, what do you do if you have limitations in performing a squat? This could be restricted range of motion at your hips, knees, or ankles, maybe from tight muscles or other limitations like arthritis, or could be muscle weakness. There are multiple ways to scale a squat.

I mentioned before that if you drop to the bottom of your squat and your heels rise, you lack ankle range of motion in dorsiflexion. Focus on some calf stretching to try to improve your flexibility here. Or, a favorite weightlifting cheat, wear shoes with a higher rise. Most standard running shoes have a 10-12 mm drop from heel to toes. For some people, this is enough to compensate for the range of motion limitations and are fine for basic air squats. (Look at powerlifting shoes. They have a “heel” for a reason! But if you are back in the gym and using weights, it’s better to use a shoe with a firmer sole. I lift in Reebok Nano’s).

If your movement is limited at your hips or knees, you can accommodate for this by not dropping below parallel. Use a chair for a guide, touching your glutes to the surface as the bottom of your squat. Do you get to that point and then drop to the chair, unable to control the movement? You also lack strength. Now what do you do? Your squat can simply be a sit to stand. Try to do this without using your arms. If you can’t, use your hands to help. I would suggest sets of 5. This is a great “commercial break” activity! As another option, you can perform a mini squat, merely performing the first part of sitting down and the last part of standing up, holding onto the back of a chair or the counter for support if needed. I have given my parents and my in-laws home programs with both mini squats AND sit to stands. That’s how much I love them!

Everyone needs squats as part of their workout rotation, from seasoned runners to grandmas. It’s an essential exercise that helps maintain flexibility and functional strength. I can’t tell you how much I miss doing back squats with a barbell and using the Bosu ball in the gym, but in the meantime, I will stick to working on variations of the air squat at home!

As with any exercise program, make sure you are healthy enough to begin per your doctor’s guidelines. I am giving you this information without assumption of risk if you become injured. As always, I hope you all are safe and healthy!

Published by annecreates

I am a physical therapist, wife, mom, runner, artist, and vegan. I'm passionate about helping others find wellness, speaking about the human experience, and in fighting for social justice. Assistant Coach for the Sports Backers Marathon Training Team. Current ambassador for: Boco Gear, SaltStick, SPIbelt, Goodr, Noxgear, and Switch4Good.

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