“Flexibility wasn’t my thing”
In high school, I couldn’t even touch my toes. I thought it was just my genetics, and at the ripe old age of 14 I decided that flexibility wasn’t my thing. If I reached my arms backward, my fingers couldn’t touch. My body was growing, and I didn’t know that flexibility would become an all-around important aspect of my health.
Stretching was girly, useless, and downright embarrassing to do. My perspective has since changed over the last decade, thanks in large part to Tae Kwon Do (leg-power-based Korean martial art form), and luckily for my clients I value flexibility as much as any good trainer should.
Today, I can do full splits (without hands!) and bring my forehead to my knees. I can box jump up to my bra-line (due to full flexion and extension of my hips and knees), and can proudly bring both hands behind my back for my fingers to touch.
Flexibility, what determines it, and reasons people don’t have much of it.
Flexibility is the ability of a joint to move through a range of motion. Being flexible has some great benefits:
- Lots, and lots, and lots of daily life activities could be accomplished by being flexible!
- Better posture and circulation in the joins
- Ability to achieve greater strength gains
- Less tension/stress in the muscle
- Better sport performance in every single sport, ranging from gymnastics to golf to PADDLING!
Main determinants of flexibility:
- The way your bones grow can create freedom or restrictions in the joints.
- The properties of your muscles and tendons (such as elasticity) contributes to flexibility
- An active person uses their joints far more often than a sedentary person
- Regular stretching will help keep the body flexible even with age or after injury
- Muscle mass in certain areas could also determine flexibility. Large bodies of muscle may literally get in the way of some joints, such as the shoulder joint.
- In general, the older we get, the stiffer our soft tissue becomes.
- Females are generally more flexible than males.
- Time of day
- People tend to be less flexible in the morning and at night, and peak in flexibility in the middle/late afternoon.
- Temperature, inside and out
- Warmer muscles are more flexible than colder muscles.
- Likewise, warmer climates facilitate flexibility better than colder climates.
Reasons people aren’t flexible nowadays (the ones you can help, anyway):
- The Office Job. All capitalized. It consumes a large portion of our industry-driven world and it is also consuming large portions of our hamstring flexibility. Humans were not meant to sit with our knees at perfect 90 degree angles for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week.
- Fear. Irrational fear that we will hurt ourselves. But by not doing anything, we are hurting ourselves… every hour, every day we are sitting on our asses.
- Lack of trying. Seriously. “I’ve never been flexible” shouldn’t even be an issue. We don’t hear “I’ve never been rich” and see someone not try to make some money, do we?
- Sedentary habits.If you don’t move your joints, your joints won’t move you.
- Perceived lack of necessity. I’d never have to do a full squat… why should I train?
- Other priorities. Athletes are often forgetful of the importance of stretching before and after each workout. Priorities (and this goes for you, fellow paddlers): get warm, get a change of clothes, eat something… etc. etc.
What does flexibility have to do with squats?
Now, the reason I mentioned flexibility in a blog post about squats is simple. We, as North American adults of the 21st century, are fat, stiff, and inactive. Alright, that was a bit of an overstatement, but unfortunately for many of our population today it is true. When we were kids, most of us could put our feet over our head. I know more than a few childhood friends who dislocated their shoulder, then popped it back in to continue the soccer game. Every single one of us is born with enough flexibility to perform the simple tasks that our ancient ancestors needed to survive. As we age, especially in puberty (bones grow faster than muscles), we start to lose that ability and then forget that we had that ability in the first place.
The principle of “use it or lose it” applies to everything exercise physiology. What we do daily determines what we will become later in life. We as humans are constantly evolving – muscle can grow and shrink, ligaments will loosen where appropriate, bones will form, deform, and reform, skin will build up in certain places (callouses) and blood cells become numerous with cardio training.
Can you touch your toes? Can both hands meet above your head when your arms are straight? Can you perform a perfect lunge? How about this: Can you do a full squat?
The importance of the squat
Squats are the single best exercise to strengthen the lower body and its three joints: the hips, the knees, and the ankles. Squats are also an extremely important structural exercise which loads the axial skeleton. This means that it is weight bearing and stimulates bone growth and mineral deposition. Full squats maximize the muscle gains around the knee joint, making it stronger and healthier. The very movement of the squat helps lubricate the knee joint and improves circulation.
Of the three powerlifts (bench press, squat, deadlift), the squat is the only one that we do naturally as soon as we are able to walk. If you put a toy on the ground in front of a toddler, what does he do?
Now drop a $20 bill on the floor in front of your sedentary office colleague.
Personal trainers hear every excuse under the sun.
- “I was born with bad knees”
- “My hamstrings are so tight”
- “I was in an accident 3 years ago and never quite healed”
- ” There’s no cartilage in this knee”
- “I never was able to bend this one properly”
- “My doctor told me not to do full squats”
- “I can’t do this”
The problem isn’t that you aren’t able to – sure, there are millions and millions of people who do not have the strength or flexibility (yet!) to perform a squat perfectly. And that’s alright. Life happens and we forget. But it’s the lack of willingness to change that, that is the problem. Some people are perfectly content with lacking strength in half of their body. This part isn’t alright.
Aren’t squats hard on the knees? Aren’t full squats unnatural and dangerous?
In recent days I’ve been fortunate enough to not have clients rebel against doing any type of squat I throw at them. So far I’ve been quite good about not going past their own personal limits, but at the same time, I’ve committed to them and I expect them to commit to themselves too. I have an elderly client right now who has close to zero cartilage in both knees but insists we include squats (and sometimes lunges!) in every workout so that she doesn’t lose what she has left. This is a smart lady.
Squats are technically hard on the knees. But lifting a bag of groceries onto the table is hard on the back. And sitting on the couch is hard on the butt. Squats aren’t unnatural. You know what is unnatural? Air conditioning, hair dye, and high heels. Nobody complains about those. Well, except maybe the heels at the end of a long day.
My point is this: starting to do squats from a life of sedentary habits will be difficult. It will be a path that few people dare to take, but the rewards will be endless. If you train smart and stay consistent, squats will help protect you and your body from injury, help you play better, and contribute to better quality of life way down the road.
Why does this all matter?
Flexibility in the calves, quads, butt, and hamstrings are important for performing squats safely. Performing squats safely will help strengthen muscles, tendons, and ligaments surrounding the hips, knees, and ankles. And when everyday life happens (hobbies, sports, random son-of-a-b**** pothole that you didn’t see)… you’ll be ready.
As a personal trainer, I don’t want to be rehabing my clients. Sure it gives my physiotherapist friends some business, but life is meant to be enjoyed. Life is meant to be full of play, not sitting in a hospital bed with a cracked hip because your legs weren’t strong enough to hold you up when you slipped.
Accidents happen, no doubt about that. But an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, in my opinion.
Full Squats vs Partial Squats… the big question.
There are two schools of thought here and it’s rare to find someone who will use both types of squat in their workouts. Admittedly, I’m not one to use partials in my own workouts or for paddlers. On the other hand, I would use partials if I were training hockey players or football players.
Typically you get the Partial Squat advice from older athletes, older physiotherapists, and doctors. Not to blame them – it was a huge trending way back when going past parallel was considered dangerous for the knee joint. It is in fact the opposite – the amount of muscle force it takes to slow a descending weight down to a velocity of zero, in the dead middle of the hardest part of the whole range of motion, is greater… making it more difficult and less efficient than allowing the muscle mass of your calves to stop the motion.
I want to stop anyone from thinking that partials are better for you than fulls. If you tried to swing a baseball bat and you actively stopped in the middle of the swing right after you made contact with the ball, you would need to get a whole new set of shoulders because those ligaments would be gone. Every swing-type motion in sport has a follow through – baseball throw, hockey slapshot, golf swing… it does not make sense biomechanically to stop in the middle of the movement, nor is it at all safer than the full movement.
However, partial squats DO have their place in the weight room, which I will explain below.
Full squats are, well, the “squat”. They are powerlifting competition standard squats, and the ones that I favor for my clients if they can do them technically sound. More on that below.
Partial Squats in a Nutshell
Partial Squats are typically back squats that involve the athlete going down to no more than “parallel” – knees are at the same height above the ground compared to the hips.
Partials as part of a training regime has been around for a while. Trainees would stack on the big plates and go at it, dipping their bums ever so slightly – up, down, up, down, ahhhh set’s done *rack* and repeat. But what do they really do?
Partial Squats are helpful when:
- You are training for a sport that involves getting/staying low – eg. hockey, football, speedskating.
- You are training for the set-up portion of the Olympic lifts – ie. power clean, power snatch
- You are training decelerative movements (because your muscles need to slow the weight down from a standing position, otherwise you’d be lying on the floor pinned under your bar)
- You are trying to train through a “sticking point” – the most difficult joint angle in the movement.
- You want to impress other gym-goers who don’t know any better and are amazed you can squat so much weight.
Partial Squats are not as helpful when:
- Like anything else, if they are performed poorly
- The knees are not strong enough to decelerate the weight, therefore they buckle
- They are the only type of squat being performed in a workout regime.
- The only reason you are doing them is to impress other gym-goers (last point above was a joke, by the way)
Full Squats in a Nutshell
Full Squats involve the athlete going down past “parallel” to full flexion, so much so that the athlete cannot go down further. This is also called ATG squats (ass-to-grass). Very scientific terminology, I know.
Full squats have also been around for a very long time. Olympic lifters use them to get under the bar so that they are able to drive up more weight with less effort. As a trainer, I personally think that a full squat is one of the most beautiful movements because it is so natural. We were born to do full squats – that’s why there is no locking mechanism in our anatomy that prevents us from doing them.
Full Squats are helpful when:
- You are training your lower body strength within its full range of motion
- You are training in a sport that involves plyometrics/explosive movements, eg. sprinting, basketball, volleyball
- You are training in a sport that involves full body movement, eg. rowing, sprinting, gymnastics
- You are training the “catch” portion of the Olympic lifts
- You live in a hilly city like Vancouver and want to walk up the street without getting winded
- You don’t want to be that 60 year old skeleton who needs hip surgery every few months. Strengthen NOW!
- You want to impress other gym goers with your Herculean strength (not even joking).
Full Squats are not helpful when:
- You are injured in a way that impedes your ability to do them safely
- You are untrained… see below for ways to train toward full squats
While it is true that unfavorable lever length, such as long femurs, make it more difficult to perform squats, genetics should not be a limiting factor. This applies to all movements in sport and life. Take the Olympics – genetics play a huge part in selection for the National Team, but keep in mind that hundreds of athletes were able to flip the switch and make Gold their own… even when their skeleton shape tells experts otherwise.
I can’t do squats, but want to!
Then you’ve come to the right place.
Good trainers know and use progressions, all day, every day. Progressions are another way of saying “level of difficulty”. Smaller range of motions are easier than big ones, short levers are more efficient than long ones, and slow movements are safer to start with than fast ones. Here is a list of progressions for the basic squat – anyone can do these, because assuming you can stand for more than 30 seconds at a time, you have enough leg strength to be able to do a squat.
1) Stretch your calves, quadriceps, and hamstrings every day.
Click here for a collection of lower body stretches.
2) Stand up off your computer chair, without using the help of your hands.
Excellent. *Gold Star!*
3) Do this lots of times.
Try doing them more frequently without stopping. Start with 10x in a row, followed by rest. Move up to 30x. Then 50x. This builds muscular endurance. Do 2-5 sets of these. Feel the burn!
Doing this lots of times also helps lubricate the joints, especially in the knees.
4) Lower your starting point.
Do you have an office chair that swivels and goes up and down? Great! Move your office chair lower and lower. Repeat #2. Progress down to a small ottoman, then a little stack of books, then a phonebook. Whoa, you’re doing a full squat!
5) Do squats without assistance.
Goal accomplished! But what if you want more?
6) Start with a medicine ball, or something you can hold in front of you with both hands.
This will break the monotony and help stimulate more muscle growth. You’re now well on your way.
7) Progress to a barbell or Olympic bar. Then progress to adding weight.
8) Try variations!
Other types of squat include:
- Hack squat
- Front squat
- Overhead squat (wooden stick, barbell, one-handed dumbbell)
- Ask Dr. Google for more inspiration. There are tons out there!
So now that you know how to squat, what next?
Squats give you some basic strength so that you can go about doing your daily activities better and more efficiently. Now you can start to build some power by doing jumping and sprinting. Leg strength also helps runners last longer during an endurance race, as well as more speed during the finish. Lower body fitness is essential for paddlers in terms of leg drive, bracing, and rotation.
All in all, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
What are your thoughts? Do you prefer partial or full squats? Why?