Get your ass to grass: Squats and functional fitness

My first weight training efforts were in the late 1980s when I took a university PE class as a graduate student. We had tuition waivers, gym memberships were pricey, and so we philosophy PhD students went wild. I also took sailing but skipped riflery. The class, Fundamentals of Weight Training, was taught by a kinesiology graduate student who was also Illinois’ college level drug free, deadlifting champion. And it was from him I first learned to squat and to bench press. At the time though we were told to not go beyond a ninety degree angle when squatting and to keep our thighs parallel with the floor. Things have changed since then.

The squat is one of those weightlifting  exercises your typical gym goer doesn’t do and that serious weightlifters like powerlifters do do. The former thinks these moves are hard, exotic, and for advanced weightlifting pros. But these exotic moves are actually weightlifting basics and they aren’t so exotic after all. They are key to full body strength and functional fitness. I’ve written about deadlifting here, Why deadlift? I mean, besides for the cool socks. Today though I want to talk about the squat. Along with deadlifting and kettlebell swings, I love the squat in its many variations. I like the overheard squat the best and I can’t manage a pistol squat at all so it would be my least favourite variation. The front squat is somewhere in the middle.

This morning at CrossFit I managed a new I rep max on the front squat though it’s not particularly impressive. (A one rep maximum, or 1RM, in weight training is the maximum amount of weight one can lift in a single repetition. You don’t just go for it. You work up to it gradually in a session.) I eked out 61 kg, just 1 kg over my previous 1 rep max. I can back squat a lot more and I can squat more if I don’t meet the CrossFit measure of how low you ought to go for the squat, ass to the grass, as CrossFitters say. The days of ‘no more than 90 degrees’ are over.

I’ve always liked whole body exercises, such as the squat, partly for how functional they are. It’s not good having super strong arms and legs, exercised in isolation, if you don’t have the whole body strength to support it.  People worry about squats and deadlifts hurting their backs but I think what really hurts your back is having significant strength imbalances that come from working just specific body parts. The seated bicep curl is a good example of this. How often do you sit down and lift heavy things from your waist to your shoulder? You’ll end up with good looking biceps but that’s not why I lift weights.

In a nutshell when lifting weights you can train for looks or for strength. Lots of isolation exercises are the mainstay of body building where the goal is to have a certain physique. I’m not criticizing that but it’s not my approach. In training for strength you want whole body movements because that’s how we actually move things around in the world, with our whole bodies.

In a great article Everything You Know About Fitness is a Lie (it’s a great rant if a bit over the top in its hyper masculinity, be warned) Daniel Duance passes on the following description of the problem with isolation exercises:

“Every big joint in your body, Brown explained, has what are called prime movers, meaning big muscles that govern the main action, like the biceps and triceps. But every joint also has a bunch of little stabilizer muscles. Sedentary lives, camped out in office chairs, allow those stabilizers to atrophy, raising two problems: First, if you have powerful prime movers from doing muscle-isolation machines at the gym but weak stabilizers because you rarely get to play a sport, you can’t access all your strength when you, say, bang off a mogul on a ski hill. “It’s like trying to fire a cannon from a canoe,” Brown told me. The prime movers fire big, but the strength dissipates en route to the core. Second, and worse still, the strength of the prime movers can shred your unstable joints.”

Okay, so let’s stop with the isolation exercises. But why squat? Here’s a description of the purpose of the squat from What is CrossFit?

“For example, the squat is the single most important exercise one can do, it is a functional movement. Anyone who cannot squat cannot engage in normal daily activity, and must have some sort of care provider, whether a hospital, nursing home, assisted living facility, or being a shut-in. CrossFit insists on working to perfect the squat and other foundational, functional movements. It doesn’t matter whether you can squat while holding a load overhead that is twice your body weight, or just do a few “air” squats—doing squats properly and frequently builds overall fitness in a way that is ignored by most people, and ignored by many other fitness programs.”

The squat’s functionality is nicely described here in 8 Reasons to Do This Misunderstood Exercise:

“Functional exercises are those that help your body to perform real-life activities, as opposed to simply being able to operate pieces of gym equipment. Squats are one of the best functional exercises out there, as humans have been squatting since the hunter-gatherer days. When you perform squats, you build muscle and help your muscles work more efficiently, as well as promote mobility and balance. All of these benefits translate into your body moving more efficiently in the real world too.”

And here’s my fave person in the weight room, Krista Scott Dixon, from Dork to Diva, on the squat.

“The squat (sometimes referred to as the back squat) is one of the queens of exercises. It hits your entire body, particularly your legs, butt, hips, and lower back. Learn to do it well and your body will reward you with a fabulous (and strong) set of gams.

Don’t believe the heathens who tell you that the leg press is a substitute for the squat. The leg press is but a pale and petty imitation. Not only does the squat demand (and teach) strength, but also balance, coordination, endurance, and power.

The simple act of standing up under a weight is intensely demanding for your whole body. After a set of squats, even light squats, you may feel dizzy, nauseated, temporarily deaf, light-headed, or simply a powerful need to sit down. This is normal, and means that you are challenging your body in a way that few other exercises can. This effect should diminish over time. Beginners often find squats very demanding until they are well conditioned. Be patient and persistent.

If you ever want to see a real pro squat, watch a toddler. If they find something on the floor that they want, they just squat right down with perfect form to get at it. As we get older and do more sitting instead of squatting (at least in North America), we forget this very natural movement.”

Toddlers squat perfectly!


Precision Nutrition All About the Squat

13 thoughts on “Get your ass to grass: Squats and functional fitness

  1. Hooray for the squat! The toddler squat is often also called the “Hindi Squat” in yoga classes; this is where I learned it. The advanced move is also stunningly good for overall strength training: it’s the crow pose. Squat down just like the child in the image, place your arms inside your knees, palms flat on the ground. Then, begin to tip your inner thighs and inner shins onto your tricep area/back of your upper arms. Pushing and resting is fine; the idea is to get as much weight as possible off your fee. Ideally you want to get your feet off the ground, so that you are balancing on your hands and your upper arms are carrying the whole weight of your body. I first tried this pose in January and have been working on my balance with it since; I fear falling forward so I often practice near a wall. If you are super advanced (hi, Tracy!) you can go from crow into a headstand, tipping your head down and then pushing your legs up. I am nowhere near that yet, but I live in hope.

  2. I may be able to stand on my head, but I call crow the “face plant” asana. How do you use the wall for that?

  3. Sam, be careful what you tell people regarding atg squats. People with existing knee or even ankle problems often cannot do such squats with risk of serious injury. Likewise, if you don’t use almost perfect form (which is hard to do without alot of training, mirrors, partners, etc.) the risk of injury increases greatly. Lastly, the stronger you get and the more weight you use, the risk of injury increases. So while I agree with you that strength improves the lower you go, you have to be VERY careful – especially if you train alone. Also, yes, powerlifters are stronger than bodybuilders in 1 rep moves- agreed, often they are alot stronger. But don’t think for one second that bodybuilders are not strong, and don’t think that bodybuilders don’t: (1) use free weights, and therefore have strong stabilizer muscles; and (2) perform composite exercises like deadlifts, squats and pull-ups. You are mistaken if you believe that bodybuilders only perform isolation exercises. By your definition, even performing regular old standing dumbell curls don’t really help you to gain functional strength – so the NFL football players who perform curls should really be told to stop it. And now go tell that to the guy in the gym curling 70 pound dumbells who can do 20 proper unassisted pull-ups and 35 proper unassisted chin-ups – tell him he’s not strong, that he should be doing crossfit if he really wants to be strong.

    1. I meant for people who don’t play sports and only do isolation exercises. And I don’t think any sort of heavy weight lifting should be done alone. I like my Crossfit community but others might prefer to join a power lifting club. As for injuries, bad joints etc, see a good physiotherapist first. Thanks for the reminders!

      1. Sorry. Thought you were implying that bodybuilders only do isolation exercises, and even then, only on machines. I really don’t know anyone, or anyone I’ve seen at the gym that only does isolation exercises – but that said, I don’t monitor everyone obviously. And I agree with you completely – if you’re seriously powerlifting, and especially if doing so and incorporating exercises like atg squats, you should always be doing so with a very knowledgeable partner, at a minmum.

      2. This is simply an aside. I was advised this weekend that powerlifters actually do alot of bicep isolation training and the reason for this is that bicep tears are among the most common injuries experienced by powerlifters when performing deadlifts. In other words, given the massive amount of weight powerlifters pick up when performing deadlifts, they need exceptionally strong biceps. So if you are getting seriously into powerlifting, Sam, perhaps you should speak with powerlifters about such matters for yourself, in order to avoid possible injury down the road, especially as you get stronger.

  4. Pursuant to the previous comment, what do folks like me with arthritis in both knees (misspent youth milking cows and playing sports) do around squats, which make my knees hurt. I have used ball squats (fit ball between my back and wall then move up and down with hand weights to increase resistance) with some success but am interested in other variations, esp as I start forward on my sabbatical project (me).

    1. Have a read through Krista Scott Dixon and the precision nutrition links. Lots of variants there. Try them out and see what works. I’ve also had great fun with the physio people at Fowler Kennedy. They’d know what to do and I don’t find them too conservative.

  5. Great article!! Hit me right at the perfect time. I also loved the link to the Daniel Duane article. That got me thinking as well!

  6. Have you noticed, squatting as a position…of rest is also cultural. Think in some parts of Asia, where people just squat to rest….at the market, doing tasks close to the ground.

    If my back is tired but I don’t want to sit on a dirty ground, squat.

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