The forgotten practise of squatting and why we should learn it again
Updated: Apr 29, 2021
written by Natacha Marianne Hüfken
Have you ever stood still to the practise of resting? Whenever I feel tired, I sit down. Chairs and benches are omnipresent and if there are no to be found, I will find myself a comfortable spot on the floor. Sounds familiar? Definitely not for everyone. When you observe toddlers playing, you will see them taking small breaks by squatting down. A position very healthy and natural to the body. Why then am I not able to squat down, if I was able to do it when I was at the age of 4? I recently stood still this practice, that I had forgotten how to perform. During a workshop in February 2021, I was confronted with the fact that I’m not able to squat, by which I mean the deep squat. In a deep squat you lower your body down to your ankles, hovering with your butt over the floor. As someone who likes to analyse movement, I started a little investigation. Why am I not able to squat and can I learn it?
Try it for yourself! Spread your feet a bit wider than your hips, with your toes and knees in line. Bend your knees front and calmly lower your body below the 90 degrees angle. The back of your thighs should be able to rest on your calf muscles and the soles of your feet should constantly have full contact with the floor.
For some of you, this might have been a piece of cake. I was not one of them. Being in a deep squat position it was very challenging to keep my balance and prevent myself from rolling onto my back. During the workshop, more participants faced difficulties in this position. In my research I discovered that there are anatomical, sex-related, age-related and cultural reasons why someone is or isn’t able to deep squat. On top of that, there is also good news. With practise, you will be able to perform a deep squat with ease. To relieve tension from your ankles or to prevent yourself from falling backwards, you can place a thin book or other platform under your heels. This trick definitely helped me a lot, to be able to sit comfortably.
We were all able to squat. Little children squat all the time. If you ask an adult to squat, a lot more seem to struggle. There is a simple anatomical explanation. When we lower our body into a deep squat, there needs to be an equal weight distribution on both sides of the vertical axes. As Bryan Ausinheiler – physical therapist and personal trainer – explains in a series of blog posts:
“As one squats down lower with the heels down, the weight of the upper thighs, hips and lower back shifts towards the back of the foot. Eventually this weight will cause you to fall over backwards unless:
1) Your ankles bend (dorsiflex) to allow your body to move forward
2) The weight of your head and shoulder is sufficient to counterbalance the weight of your hips.”
[Ausinheiler B., 2013] (1)
For toddlers point two is the case. Toddlers have relatively short legs, big heads and long torso’s. With their heavy upper body, they can easily compensate the weight behind the heels and use almost no ankle-dorsiflexion. Adults, on the contrary, will have to bend their ankles, which makes their knees move forward, to compensate for the heavy weight of the thighs, hips and lower back.
Then why is it, that certain adults can perform a squat and others can’t? The main part is practise, but also the biological sex of an individual has a little influence in the matter. (When I refer to female/male in the next section, I refer to the sex of the individual and not the gender one identifies oneself with.) Both Plagenhoef and Leva (2) researched the weight of individual body parts compared to the total body weight. From their data, one can conclude that the weight distribution in a male body is not the same as in a female body. In an average female body a lot of the total body weight is located behind the heels. Due to a lighter trunk, a heavier pelvis and heavier thighs, it is harder for them to balance in a squat position. The average male body has a heavier trunk, a lighter pelvis and lighter thighs, which makes it easier for them to squat, as they can better counterbalance the weight of the pelvis with their heavy torso. To conclude: On average, squatting is more difficult for an individual of the female sex than an individual of the male sex.
As explained earlier, it is not just an anatomical matter. Dr. Bahram Jam (3) explains that joints are being lubricated by synovial fluid, which provides the cartilage with nutrition and makes the joint easier to move. To produce synovial fluid, movement and compression are required. If a joint is never used to its full range, the synovial fluid will not be produced, which is in many Western countries the reason why we can’t squat in adulthood. Whenever we rest, we sit or lay down and even our toilets have seats. In other parts of the world, squatting is still an important position for resting, cooking, eating, waiting or giving birth and is not looked down upon. For good reason, because squatting is a healthier resting position than sitting. A study led by the University of Southern California (4,5) discovered that while ‘resting’ in a squat position, the muscles are much more active and engaged, which leads to a more consistent muscle activity throughout the day and reduced health risks associated with sitting.
After discovering the benefits of squatting as a resting position, I felt highly motivated to practise it more regularly. I have tried to write this blog post while squatting, which I gave up after the introduction, but I do notice a difference compared to February. My advice to you would be: Stay healthy and squat!
(1) Ausinheiler, B. (2013, December 17). Latitude, Limb Length, Squatting and Sex. Posture Movement Pain. Retrieved February 23, 2021 from https://posturemovementpain.com/2013/12/17/latitude-limb-length-squatting-and-sex/
(2) ExRx.net : Body Segment Data. (n.d.). ExRx.Net. Retrieved February 25, 2021 from https://exrx.net/Kinesiology/Segments
(3) Spinks, R. (2017, November 9). The forgotten art of squatting is a revelation for bodies ruined by sitting. Qz.Com. Retrieved on February 21, 2021, from https://qz.com/quartzy/1121077/to-solve-problems-caused-by-sittinglearn-to-squat/
(4) Gersema, E. (2020, March 9). Squatting and kneeling may be better for your health than sitting. USC News. Retrieved on February 26, 2021 from https://news.usc.edu/166572/squatting-kneeling-health-sitting-uscresearch/
(5) Raichlen, D. A., Pontzer, H., Zderic, T. W., Harris, J. A., Mabulla, A. Z. P., Hamilton, M. T., & Wood, B. M. (2020, March 9). Sitting, squatting, and the evolutionary biology of human inactivity. PNAS. Retrieved on February 27, 2021 from https://www.pnas.org/content/117/13/7115
Figure 1: Davis, R. (n.d.). [A toddler squatting down]. www.crossfitignitesydney.com . Retrieved on February 23, 2021 from https://posturemovementpain.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/front-squatbaby.jpg