Bipedalism has afforded us many opportunities for dominance and variety. The added height offered our ancestors the ability to create better communication skills and an opportunity to travel long distances more quickly and easily than other animals. And the various ways we can move through a full range of motion with all of these joints is astounding. Yet so few people take advantage of them.
Let’s begin with the four primary movements: pushing, pulling, jumping, squatting. A well-rounded movement diet includes all of these. Resistance training takes care of pushing and pulling, though one of the most important aspects of the latter is hanging—our primate ancestors knew something important about tree branches.
Every runner jumps when on the road or a trail; journalist Christopher McDougall calls running a form of controlled jumping. Box jumps are great as well. The emphasis is on impact force, which is essential for good bone density. Squatting, however, is the one motion that seems most troubling, to the point where many Americans cannot even perform a simple version.
This is problematic. We are a culture of ninety-degree angles. The grid mentality of metropolises has translated into our bodies. We sit in chairs that don’t allow our knees to bend past this angle—ergonomic chairs might address some spinal issues, but do nothing for your hip flexors, hamstrings, knees, or ankle joints. We eat our meals at the same angle. Forget about television. Add to this the added spinal flexion from hours of staring at screens and phones and, well, you have the biomechanical nightmare of the technological age.
That’s the thing about our tech: we’ve become so heady that we ignore the body, to great peril. Squatting was likely abandoned for cultural reasons. Lower classes squat. Tables and chairs were perceived to be a sign of social dominance; only those people still squat. The biggest example, however, is toilets. Nature did not design our bodies for toilet training. We did that to ourselves.
Defecating and urinating were long done in squat positions, as was preparing meals—my Thai mother-in-law squats when preparing Som Tam Thai in our giant mortar and pestle—and virtually every other endeavor that required hand-eye coordination. Eschewing this position has created numerous health problems, says physical therapist Dr Bahram Jam:
Every joint in our body has synovial fluid in it. This is the oil in our body that provides nutrition to the cartilage. Two things are required to produce that fluid: movement and compression. So if a joint doesn’t go through its full range—if the hips and knees never go past 90 degrees—the body says ‘I’m not being used’ and starts to degenerate and stops the production of synovial fluid.
Then there’s constipation. More than 700,000 Americans visit the emergency room every year thanks to an inability to go to the bathroom. Chronic constipation affects 16 percent of Americans over age sixty. We spent over $1.3 billion in 2016 on laxatives instead of looking for healthier alternatives. Yet research shows that squatting greatly reduces strain while going to the bathroom, which makes sense given that that’s how our intestinal tract was designed.
In my fourteen years of teaching yoga and fitness at Equinox, the two top pieces of advice I’ve offered are squatting and hanging. Squatting is part of my warm-up in every ViPR and kettlebell class I lead, and it’s always included during yoga. I even throw in squats in my cool-down in studio cycling to make sure students are moving through a broad range of motion after forty-five minutes on a bicycle.
After a lifetime of not squatting, immediately rushing into them is not an ideal response. Yet as biomechanist Katy Bowman notes, even people with artificial joints can increase their range of motion through variations she posted on her site. For those with a larger range of motion, movement expert Ido Portal’s squat clinic offers valuable techniques for rehab and maintenance.
Anatomy expert and yoga teacher Jenni Rawlings writes often about biomechanical problems related to yoga and other disciplines. In one post she cites tight soleus muscles as a main driver behind problems with squatting. Inflexible calf muscles restrict our ability to dorsiflex our feet, which means that when we squat our heels will not touch the ground. (Bowman’s post above offers a fix with a rolled-up mat or towel.)
Rawlings says basic calf stretches, which address the gastrocnemius, won’t cut it if you’re attempting to squat:
To squat well requires that we have adequate flexibility in both gastrocnemius and soleus. But in order to stretch soleus, we need to dorsiflex our ankle while the knee is flexed, not extended. This is because if we try to stretch soleus with an extended knee, the more superficial muscle tissue of gastrocnemius will stretch first, preventing the stretch from layering down to the deeper soleus. In order to truly stretch our soleus, we must first slacken the overlying gastrocnemius by flexing the knee.
More people have been addressing this problem with interventions like the Squatty Potty, which raises the ground to bring your knees past ninety degrees while defecating. Exercise routines like Crossfit have made squatting a focal point, often by loading it with weights. Both of these are important means for getting people to squat again.
But I prefer Katy Bowman’s advice: Make squatting part of your day. If you need to pick something up from the ground, squat, don’t bend over. Read in a squat instead of sitting on your couch (if new to this, stick a yoga block under you to allow your pelvic floor to relax). I spend all of my reading time on the floor, switching from seated to squatting positions for variety. Pick up and put down your children in a squat, or squat down to let them crawl all over you.
Many of our limitations are self-imposed. When cultural norms usurp basic anatomy we have to question the value of their wisdom. This one is obvious: we’re built to squat. Since I incorporated squatting into my daily route, my entire posterior kinetic chain strengthened and became more flexible. My range of motion dramatically increased while old aches and pains vanished.
Squatting isn’t a cure-all—I still have one knee surgery to thank for limiting the amount of time I spend there—but the opposite is certainly a big problem. Fortunately you can being to correct the problems associated with not squatting immediately. Avoidances leads to nothing good.
Derek Beres is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles, he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.