My friend Robbie’s legs hold a special status in our social circle. Like many who live in Toronto, Robbie bikes everywhere. His daily commute totals 15 kilometres, the morning portion ending with a 100-metre uphill grind. When the weather’s warm, he adds an extra 5K for kicks. All of this is to say, Robbie’s got a strong set of legs (not to mention lungs) and we like to bust his chops by feigning awe at all they can accomplish.
Look at the legs of Tour de France competitors and you’ll see compelling evidence that a heavy dose of cycling can indeed build impressive wheels. But of course, there’s more to the legs than quads and calves.
Consider the hips and all the movement that comes from that area alone. Then there are the hamstrings and the glutes, two powerful muscle groups that don’t get enough of the right attention when you’re stuck in a seated position. As I explained to Robbie when he asked for training advice last summer, in order to develop a truly powerful lower body, you’ve got to squat.
A proper squat starts from the ground up. Plant your feet shoulder-width apart, toes turned out anywhere from 15 to 20 degrees. Grip the floor with your big toes, baby toes and heels. Now, imagine that you’re screwing your feet into place, channelling the force of your left foot counterclockwise, your right foot clockwise. Your feet shouldn’t move at all, but you should feel tension shooting up your legs and into your hips.
Next, take a deep breath and as you exhale, flatten your rib cage and brace your abs as if you were about to deflect a blow to the belly. From here, push your butt back and down, in a diagonal path, all the while “spreading the floor” with your screwed-in feet. Once you’ve reached an appropriate depth (more on that soon), push through the floor and bring yourself to a standing position. Remember to keep your chest high and your knees in line with your toes throughout the movement.
That’s how you squat.
One of the reasons squats are so valuable is the effect they have on the hip muscles, specifically adductor magnus, tensor fasciae latae, gluteus medius and gluteus minimus. These silent heroes work to balance and stabilize the hips and facilitate efficient lower limb movement. How much attention do you think they get when you’re sitting in a leg press or leg extension machine?
There are all sorts of squats for every body type, every level of experience, every goal. I have a client who’s in his 80s; we do sit-to-stand squats from a high chair, artificial hip and all. From the body weight squat and the goblet squat, to the classic barbell back squat, there are variations suitable for pretty much everyone.
Troubleshooting the squat
As long as there are no physical ailments or limitations, anyone can learn to squat safely. That said, there are a handful of common issues that are easy to fix.
How low do I go?
Famed strength coach Michael Boyle offers a succinct answer in his excellent book New Functional Training for Sports: “We define a full squat as the tops of the thighs being parallel to the floor." To that I add: If you can drop a little deeper without any pain and without compromising form, go for it.
What do I do with my arms during a body weight squat?
Use your arms as a counterweight to your hips – reach them forward as your butt pushes back. Or, grab a kettlebell and give goblet squats a shot.
Why can’t I keep my feet flat on the floor?
The first suspect is your shoes. Unless you’re wearing flat-soled shoes with low heels, squat in your socks. Or, maybe you have limited mobility in your ankles? Try placing a 10-pound plate under each heel.
How many should I do?
This one depends largely on your goals. For building strength, heavy sets of six to eight reps work well. If you want to add serious size to your thighs, go with slightly less-heavy sets of 12-15 reps. And here’s a helpful fat-loss tip: High-volume sets of 25-50 rep squats burn more calories than any cardio machine.
Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator in Toronto.
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