Squatting is a foundational movement of life. Unfortunately, somewhere along the road it’s lost. Compensations of bending through our spine over rides squatting. The term squatting generally results in an eye roll, conjuring ideas of damaged, arthritic knees. True, once the damage is done, squatting can be a dreadful activity, but for those of us who are capable, squatting can be an effective exercise to strengthen your hips and protect your spine.
For those who choose to squat, technique will be the utmost importance. How you squat directly determines muscle activation and the stress you apply to the knees. Like any exercise squats can be performed improperly with endless combinations of poor form. Squats are often performed one of three ways: free standing, at the wall, or on one leg. Too often a wall squat is used to substitute for a free standing squat. Gym goers justify the change to account for poor balance or simply being unaware. Could such a seemingly insignificant change (from free standing to the wall) make that much of a difference? Does it matter? The simple answer? Yes.
Performing wall squats has been shown to diminish muscle recruitment in our gluteal muscles (back of the leg).1 Our gluteal muscles are some of the biggest and most powerful muscles in the body. They push you up stairs, fire you out of your chair, and help you lift. Without strength in our hips our low back and knees pick up the slack. Glute weakness has been shown to increase our risk for low back pain, lower extremity pain, and even distal injuries at the ankle. Weak gluteal muscles are also related to poor physical performance.2,3 Ask any clinician about the glutes and they’ll likely stress their importance. Engaging your glutes is often a challenge, so why intentionally turn them off?
Now you may be wondering, why do wall squats deactivate our gluteal muscles? The answer lies within your body’s amazing ability to conserve energy. If your muscles don’t have to work they will purposely turn off. When performing wall squats with or without a ball you’re adding external stability. There is zero need for the glutes to engage. Second, your tendency will be to push from the front of your thigh (knee extensors), essentially negating your glutes from activating. The act of pushing yourself into the wall is almost exclusively a quadricep, or knee extensor, activity.
Let’s compare the two a little more, but this time putting the actual movement under the microscope. Which movement do you actually perform throughout the day: sliding up and down a wall or a squatting?. Easy, a squat. You squat to lift, get in/out of your car or when getting up from a chair. Regular squats will carry over to life.
Now, I understand performing a squat is not for everyone. Creaking and cracking joints can prevent you from squatting altogether, but that’s an extreme. Many of us can perform squats safely and pain free if done properly or with a few simple modifications. Don’t let joint crackles deter you. If pain isn’t associated with clicking or cracking you’re ok to proceed cautiously. There are are multiple ways to modify squats based on depth and foot placement. A simple hand touching wall can off load body weight while providing a small amount of external support. Staggering a weaker or painful knee six inches forward can also be the ticket to performing a squat pain free. Doing so decompresses the knee, making the task easier. As you improve plan to slide the feet back to even stance.
The prior two examples only a few of the countless ways to modify your squats for success. As the old saying goes, “If you’re going to do something, then do it right.” So, if you’re going to perform squats as part of your exercise routine, then take the time and do it right. Your body will thank you for it.