“I f&#$ing love squats,” snarled the bald, 6-foot-3-inch, 240lb-plus, weight-belt wearing U.S. Army soldier, who resembled Shrek minus the green hue. I watched as he then proceeded to balance about 100lbs less than his bodyweight on his big shoulders and … “squat.” Only it wasn’t a squat.
It was what I see about 99 percent of the guys in the gym do when they think they are “squatting.” Instead of lowering himself until his hips descended just below his knees, he maybe came down about 12 inches, making about a 20-degree bend in his knee, before returning to an upright position. Sorry folks, that’s not a squat.
The common reason people like to give for not squatting all the way down—to parallel or below—is that it’s “bad for your knees.” These might be the same people who will likely tell you that drinking Guinness is like “drinking a meal.” The facts are that (a) squatting properly all the way down isn't bad for your knees and (b) Guinness is one of the lighter beers one can drink, with fewer calories than regular Budweiser, Heineken, or Miller Genuine Draft.
I have a theory about the typical American and European aversion to deep squats and the related lack of hip mobility from which they suffer. It has to do with cultural norms that drive lifestyle habits. Those habits, over time, change how our bodies tend to operate. But it has nothing to do with the natural construction of our bodies.
In Afghanistan, local people squat all the time. And these are deep squats—with their buttocks suspended near their heels about an inch above the ground. In this respect, they've retained an ability that comes naturally to small children.
Afghans squat while hanging out on the side of the road.
They squat while heating water for tea.
They squat while selling sunglasses.
They squat while cooking on the sidewalk.
And they squat while fixing bicycles.
Afghans can hold a squat that would make most Americans wince with pain and sweat with effort after just a few moments. I've heard the same is true across many Asian cultures. It could have something to do with their lack of furniture. Or it could have something to do with their toilets.
This is an Afghan toilet. It’s similar to those you might find in other parts of Asia. If you’re looking for a seat, you can keep searching until your eyes fall out. There isn't one.
Using such a toilet, as you can imagine, requires one to hold a deep squat for a few minutes. And using such a toilet from a very young age would almost guarantee a sustained level of hip mobility into adulthood that many fitness gurus would envy. The good news for the rest of us who use toilets that have seats is that we can regain that mobility and learn to squat properly.
Afghans and others who squat naturally aren't born with some freaky musculoskeletal properties that allow them to squat in such a manner. All children do this, so the common lack of hip mobility in adults must be an acquired disability. Learning to perform deep squats properly is good for your joints and your overall ability to move your body in useful ways.
So getting back to our “squat”-loving soldier, what should he do? Well, the first thing he should do is stop spreading his nonsensical bro-science to the smaller guys who follow him around the gym mopping up the “wisdom” he spills ad nauseam about “getting huge.” The second thing he should do is focus on practicing the movement the right way, not “working out” to failure.
What would that practice look like? Here’s a great outline of a series of drills from strength coach Dan John. Following a similar philosophy, here’s what’s worked for me:
- Face-the-wall squats (more info)
- Goblet squats with a kettlebell (a dumbbell would work too)
- Single front squats with a kettlebell
- Double front squats with kettlebells
- Back squats with a barbell, starting with very light weight and using my iPhone to take video selfies for immediate feedback on my form
So get motivated to regain your childhood mobility and start squatting the right way. It’ll take time and practice, but it’s worth it for your overall strength and physical well-being. And by following some of the ideas mentioned and linked to above, you won’t even need to switch to an Afghan toilet.
That’s unless you want to, of course—your call.
Safety disclaimer: Although I went to graduate school for a long time and some people call me “doctor,” I’m not a medical doctor. Always check with your physician prior to starting any kind of physical fitness regimen. That just makes good sense.