By Tricia Y. Petrinovich
In the fitness world, there are things I despise to do. I mean things I really hate. Burpees. Planks. And anything not named Zumba. I only engage in these fitness activities when enough time has passed that my brain has repressed the prior experience, and, in an episode of stupidity, I attend a personal training class where the coach has evidently been hired due to his certifications in kinesiology and sadism.Of course, after Burpee #1, I have an epiphany, a point where I remember that this, right here, is what I hate about exercise. And I would quit if the Arnold-Schwarzenneger-look-alike at the front of the class would let me, but the look on his face is telegraphing a resounding “no.” The best I can do is vow to retain the memory of the pain and suggest they rebrand the gym as the “Seventh Circle of Hell Fitness Center” so I remember there is something about the place I dislike. Then again, I am well aware that not liking an exercise doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do it. Maybe the benefits outweigh the torture? If you can’t achieve the same benefit doing another activity, like eating ice cream while sitting on the couch, the answer might be “yes.”
Which is why I must confess that there is one oft-hated fitness move that I have come to adore. Meet my friend, the squat. (Insert imaginary handshake here.)
I have worked with more than a thousand women in fitness over the past ten years and yes, I realize there are dozens of punch lines in there, but I can’t decide which to use, so feel free to insert one of your own choosing. My point is that I can vouch for the universal loathing of the squat. If the devil is a piece of exercise equipment, I’m banking on the squat machine. Still, for those with the tenacity to tackle it (whether on a machine or free standing), the rewards are clear: they have the strength to lift things (not in the shoplifting sense of the word), the ability to move things (like dirty dishes from one room to another) and the brawn to manage everyday tasks (like procrastinating and ordering everyone else around). Without the squat, would they be able to do that? I don’t think so. All kidding aside, the truth is that we need the benefit the squat provides. The power it contributes helps with walking up stairs and inclines, getting into and out of chairs and, as we age, it helps us perform what are called Activities of Daily Living or ADL’s. Investing the time now will result in benefits both now and later.
My next goal is to impress you with my knowledge of muscle names (or my ability to use Wikipedia, depending on whether you believe I really knew them without using the Internet). The squat works three primary muscle/tendon groups: the quadriceps which, shockingly, are comprised of four muscles, the hamstrings which, shockingly, are not made of ham or string, and the gluteus maximus, also known as the “derriere” or “backside” and which is more maximized in some of us than others.
Hopefully you know where your derriere is, and you probably know that your quads are the tops of your thighs and your hamstrings are the tendons on the backside of the thighs. You also probably know the basic movement of the squat, which looks a lot like sitting back into a chair, sans the chair.
Here is definitely a preferred technique to doing a squat but there are lots of ways to do one wrong. So let’s get down (literally) to the right way to squat:
- Start with your feet should-width apart, toes slightly pointed out, your posture straight and your abdominal muscles engaged (if they have only been dating, things are about to get a lot more serious).
- Extend your arms straight out in front of you. There are alternate ways to use your hands (including adding weights), but we are starting with a basic squat, and this will also ensure you can accommodate anyone needing an emergency hug.
- Begin squatting backwards, as if you were going to sit in that afore-mentioned chair whether there is one behind you or not. As you go down, it is important that your knees and toes are heading in the same direction (which is why we started with a very slight pointing out of the toes). What is also uber important, perhaps even more than the need for flossing, is to make sure your knees do not go past your toes. If you are not sitting back far enough, this will happen. So watch those knees! You don’t want to add unnecessary strain to your knee joint. Plus, if you disobey me, you get a spanking.
- Continue in a downward motion until your thigh is parallel to the floor. If your thigh is actually laying on the floor, something went awry.
- Once you arrive in that position, claim your baggage and prepare for the return trip by powering back up to a standing position.
Congratulations! You have squatted.
You might notice that I didn’t address one other important aspect of the squat: Breathing. This is because squatting is a lot less painful if you pass out. Still, you may choose to retain consciousness during the movement, in which case I do generally advise breathing. And, you guessed it, there is even a proper breathing technique: Inhale on the way down, exhale on the way back up. In case the basic squat was not quite painful enough, you can choose to intensify the move by holding yourself in the squat position for several seconds. This will increase the strength rewards while also making it feel like someone lit your legs on fire. There is also an important modification to note. If you do not have the strength to do a full squat (where your thigh is parallel to the floor) you can start with a modified or partial squat, which involves going about halfway between standing and full, essentially a 45 degree angle. Over time, work on increasing your range to a full squat.
In the end, there are things we have to do in life that we don’t like to do. Like eating peas and visiting the in-laws. And while nothing good comes from peas and in-laws, you can gain some distinct fitness gains by forcing yourself to do squats. Which in turn allows you to do all the other activities you enjoy: skiing, hiking, climbing the fence to spy on your neighbors, or outrunning the police on foot. There are so many benefits that my message to you should be clear:
Don’t be a dropout when it comes to dropping it low.