The squat should be a compulsory exercise for everyone.
Squats help build your leg muscles but they also create an anabolic environment, which promotes body-wide muscle building. They engage the legs to handle the weight and the core to stabilise the trunk.
Athletes from all sporting disciplines use some version of the squat to tone and strengthen leg muscles.
For functionality, the squat is hard to beat since it essentially mimics the movement we perform each time we sit down and stand up.
A fortnight ago, I went for a beach vacation and took a Pilates class at the resort. The young instructor, from South Africa had a lilting voice that was soothing to the ears. Her warm-up comprised 100 parallel squats where the feet are placed hip-width apart with toes facing forward. In her version, every squat required you to touch the side of your ankles with your fingers.
As a Pilates instructor myself, my warm-ups are never that intensive. Perhaps times have changed and I haven’t kept abreast with the latest warm-up trends in Pilates but I always cringe at the sight of students doing exercises with improper or faulty alignment.
Here, as fatigue set in, the roomful of mostly mature students were performing the squat with rounded backs, caved in knees and tucked chins. As I expected, a few walked out of the class midway because the instructor carried on with a series of gruelling 100 arm circles in both directions, 100 arm pulses, and 100 of various other exercises before finally starting on the Pilates 100, the traditional warm-up exercise and my preferred choice. It’s designed to strengthen the core by using gentle but powerful, controlled movements.
After repeatedly doing 70 of these parallel squats, my quadriceps (thigh) muscles began to scream for mercy and since it was only the second day of my holiday, I didn’t want to be aching for the rest of the duration. So, I switched to doing sumo squats to activate some different muscles.
Keep ‘em joints happy
If you want to strengthen your knees and keep them happy, sumo squats is my answer. The positioning of the knees can change the amount of stress throughout the knee joint. The narrower your stance, the more focus you put on your quadriceps muscles.
Also known as duck or wide-stance squats, this is a variation of the traditional parallel squat and works the same muscle groups (the gluteals, quadriceps, hamstrings, hip flexors and calves) but engages the inner thighs (adductor muscles) as well.
Sumo squats are similar to second position plies in ballet.
To perform an effective sumo squat, your stance should be wider than your hips, Keep the toes turned out but don’t turn the toes out further than the knees can track. Finding a wide position where the knees properly track with the toes is important. Ground the feet to the floor and rotate your gluteal (backside) muscles.
In dance, we call this turn-out or an outward rotation of the hip socket, which causes the feet (and knees) to turn outwards. When your knees get stronger and you want to work the quadriceps muscles harder, lift one heel off the floor as you sumo squat. Then incorporate some pulses at the bottom of the squat position.
Another harder variation is to lift both heels off the floor while you do the squat. You’ll be gritting your teeth in no time.
Remember to engage your core muscles at all times and squeeze your gluteal muscles when you straighten your legs.
How low should you go? Keeping the thighs parallel to the floor is adequate to recruit the muscles you want to work.
In some women, parallel squats do make the butt firmer and appear bigger because it targets the gluteus maximus, which is the largest, strongest and most superficial of the three gluteal muscles. I fall into this category.
But other experts believe squats don’t enhance the butt size. The natural tilt of a woman’s pelvis is more likely to be slightly anterior than in men, thus creating an increased lordosis (arched or curved lower back), which then emphasises the buttocks.
If you don’t want to increase your pelvic tilt or butt size, then opt for the sumo squat, which targets your lower tush. Or, combine both types of squats for variety and a balanced effect.
I’ve always been told that deep or full squats were bad for the knees but latest research is saying otherwise. Dance teachers always tell students with knee issues not to do full plies.
Apparently, a deep or full squat, with the hip crease going all the way past the knees (or butt to floor) recruits more muscles, burns more calories, and is particularly good for building a nice, strong butt. The gluteus maximus is over 25% more engaged during deep squats than when squatting parallel.
However, in this modern era of seated toilets, many people have restricted mobility of the hips. They cannot use squatting toilets because their hip doesn’t have the ability to go through the full range of motion or their weak knees cannot take the strenuous colon-emptying position. So performing deep squats is a challenge.
In terms of impact on the front of the knee, there is no difference between partial, parallel, and deep squats though it is harder to get into the deep squat position.
As with most things in life, a balanced routine works best. Regardless of which squat version you choose to do, make sure your alignment is right and perform the entire movement in a slow, controlled manner for optimal results.
Revathi Murugappan is a certified fitness trainer who tries to battle gravity and continues to dance to express herself artistically and nourish her soul.