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The everyday benefits of squats

MagazineJune 2010 (Vol. 21 Issue 3)The everyday benefits of squats

The squat is one of the seven important Primal Pattern(R) move-ments, which are the keys to optimal human function

The squat is one of the seven important Primal Pattern(R) move-ments, which are the keys to optimal human function. Many people are told by their doctors, physical therapists and trainers that squats are dangerous and to be avoided. Yet, there will be physiological consequences if you follow such short-sighted advice.
First, when it comes to squats, if you can't, you must. It's an activity that most of us do several times a day. Just sitting down is a squatting movement. With more than 20 years in orthopaedic rehabilitation and sports condi-tioning, I can assure you that anyone injured doing a squat movement who does not learn how to squat correctly, with adequate strength, is simply a re-injury waiting to happen.

How to squat
Many gyms have Smith machines, leg presses and hack squat machines that attempt to deliver the benefits of the real thing. But, there's no replacement for the free squat performed with body weight or a weighted bar. Neither a Smith machine nor leg press requires you to balance your centre of gravity over your base of support, as you have to in a free squat.
1. Stand in a comfortable stance with your legs about a hip-width's apart, with toes turned outwards up to 30 degrees.
2. Deeply inhale and draw your belly button in towards your spine to activate the muscles of the deep abdominal wall that help to stabilize the spine.
3. Keep your eyes level with the horizon, your chest high and your lower back in a normal curve (lordosis) throughout the exercise; do not lean forward or round your back.
4. Initiate the squat from the knees (not the hips, which accentuates any forward tilt), then bend the knees, hips and ankles all at the same time.
5. Knees should be in line with the second toe on each foot, and take care not to let the knees drop inwards.
6. Keep your heels on the floor and go as low
as is comfortable while maintaining the form described above.
7. Ascend smoothly, pushing the earth away from you, while releasing your breath through slightly pursed lips.
8. Repeat for the required number of repetitions: 8-12 is a good starting point.
If you struggle to keep your trunk upright, try lifting your toes in your shoes while squatting.

Descending the Primal Squat
If it's too challenging to perform a free squat as described, you can make the exercise easier by holding on to a support such as a door frame or walking stick with one or both your hands. This should provide enough additional stability to improve your squat form.
Also, to reduce the fear that some people may have of falling over, simply squat over a bench so that, if you do lose your balance, you simply sit down on the bench (Fig. 1).
The next level of descent is to do the squat with the support of a Swiss ball carefully placed between your back and the wall (Fig. 2). Only if you cannot perform a squat in this way should you even consider using a fixed-axis device such as a Smith machine.

Ascending the Primal Squat
To make the squat more challenging, use a weighted bar or ball (Fig. 3). Step under the bar and stand straight up with the bar on your shoulders (front or back, your choice) rather than bending forward and picking it up. To rack the bar, step forward until the bar hits the
rack, then bend your knees, not your back. Alternatively, hold a weighted medicine ball high up on your chest. Squatting in this way-with the weight in front of you-has more functional carryover to everyday activities, as this is how we generally carry things.

Squatting is good for your insides
The squat is beneficial for digestion and elimination. Humans are the only animal that has to push faeces uphill, given the anatomy
of the colon. In native people who squat to work, socialize or defecate, it is natural to squat down until their hands reach the ground or the torso is fully relaxed and supported by the thighs (Fig. 4). Such a full squat compresses the lower abdomen: the right thigh compresses the cecum (where the colon begins), thereby pushing the faeces uphill into the transverse colon; the left thigh compresses the descending colon, moving faeces into the sigmoid colon and, ultimately, the rectum.
With this in mind, it is not surprising that many early naturopathic physicians attributed the massive increase in constipation in the late 1800s and early 1900s to Thomas Crapper, the plumber who popular-ized toilets (but did not invent them). The modern toilet doesn't require a full squat and, therefore, does not facilitate evacuation of the colon. In those with chronic constipation, the entire system becomes literally backed up-from anus to stomach. The stomach is forced to hold on to its contents, often leading to reflux, heartburn and poor digestion. To combat this, colon hygienists recommend placing a footstool (6-14 inches high) on the floor in front of the toilet (Webster D. Achieve Maximum Health. Nutri Books Corp, 1995). Adding a full squat to your exercise programme along with a footstool will dramatically improve your digestion and elimination.
The full squat also helps digestion and elimination by causing pressure changes in the abdominal and thoracic cavities, and improving organ motility. Repeatedly performing the full squat causes a pressure wave, which is created by the thighs compressing the abdominal organs and by the movement of the diaphragm as you breathe. This pressure wave, coupled with the mechanical action of the thighs, mobilizes the viscera, and helps to pump blood and lymphatic fluids around as well as mechanically aiding the intestinal system.

Breathing Squats for good digestion
Breathing Squats facilitate the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS)-also called the 'anabolic' or 'digestive' nervous system, as it regulates these activities. PNS-stimulating activities such as Breathing Squats are more important now than ever before, as modern life is not only stressful, but we are also eating a tremendous amount of processed foods that contain sym-pathetic nervous system (SNS) stimulants, such as caffeine and sugar. Caffeinated foods, bever-ages and processed foods in general are functional antagonists of the PNS. Too much SNS activity results in poor recovery from exercise, poor digestion and poor elimination. To perform breathing squats:
1. Standing in a good upright posture, take a deep belly breath and begin the squat from the hip, lowering yourself as far as possible (no load on the body) or until your torso rests on your thighs.
2. As you lower your body, slowly breathe out through your nose, taking four seconds to do the full squat.
3. At the bottom of the squat (torso resting on thighs if you can), pause for a second and begin inhaling through your nose.
4. Rise for a count of four seconds while breathing out through your nose, pause briefly at the top, then breathe in as you lower yourself for the next four counts.
5. As you become more efficient, slow the squat down to six or even eight seconds. Slower squats are even more energizing, as slow movements allow chi (prana or life-force energy) to move faster through the body.
6. Try starting your day with a few minutes of Breathing Squats and build up to as many as 100 in a row. Progress slowly so you don't get muscle soreness, and do them in a quiet area where you can relax and focus on your breathing. In just a few days, you will notice improved vitality-and better bowel habits, too.

Everyday benefits
The squat is a movement pattern that has enormous functional carryover into everyday work and sports activities. In addition, it can improve digestion and elimination, which is a definite benefit nowadays-given the increased antacid consumption by so many of us. If you don't currently squat regularly, start with the Breathing Squats to develop proficiency in the squat movement pattern. You can then try squats with an added load to develop strength and stamina. But whatever you do, don't ignore the squat just because it's uncomfortable. Find a qualified physical trainer to coach you in the correct technique to avoid future injury when you absolutely have to squat.
Paul Chek
Adapted from How to Eat, Move and Be Healthy! by Paul Chek, founder of the C.H.E.K Institute in Encinitas, CA, and an internationally recognized lecturer and educator in the fields of orthopaedic rehabilitation, and corrective and performance exercise. For more information, call 01924 566 091 (UK) or visit his website at www. chekinstitute.com.

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