This article, originally written June 2010 was updated and expanded a bit in February 2020 to include new resources and commentary. The exercise photos are still 10 years old though, and I think I look like a baby.
Are you ready, world? In the next few years, you are going to be hearing more and more about the health benefits of the squat. Just like the emerging barefoot movement I blogged about yesterday, the "squat movement" is going to happen in a big way, once everyone realizes that pelvic floor, hip, and knee health might actually depend on regular squatting (listen to this podcast episode on squatting).
If you haven't squatted in the last million years (besides the two times you went camping and ended up peeing on your shoes), it can take a while to prepare your joints. Be patient, squat movements are worth it.
1) Squats take many shapes and forms. Because of how much time our culture spends sitting and in heeled shoes, the ability to bend (flex) the hip and knees, and the ability to bend (dorsiflex) at the ankle are commonly an issue. These exercises are to help increase those movements.
2) Squatting is a great movement that can increase your access to many experiences, but there are also benefits to the movements that comprise a squat. If, for whatever reason, you can't perform all the squat-elements at once, you can still reap many benefits of a squat by working on your squat-parts.
To assist you with your squatting movements, I've created a step-by-step "preparing your body to squat" program you can begin right now. All you need is a yoga mat or thick towel or blanket.
If you have joint (knee or hip) replacements, stick to the first few lower-load "squat prep" exercises. Artificial joints range across the board, but many times this equipment is not designed to move with the same ranges of motion as intact joints. If you're trying to stay away from downward pressures (in the case of a hernia or pelvic organ prolapse), spend time with the standing and quadruped moves before progressing to the upright squats. In either case, your health care team can advise you on sound progression.
There are many movements that make up a squat; the exercises in this article are focused on increasing movement at the hip joint and the lower leg.
Squat Prep: Calf Stretch
Place one foot up on a rolled yoga mat (or towel or blanket), keeping your heel on the ground. Step forward with the opposite foot to stretch the back calf, working to keep the stretching leg straight.
Squat Prep: Double Calf Stretch
Now step up with both feet and try to lift your tailbone until it looks less like this picture:
And more like this one:
See the little curve at my low back? This indicates an untucked pelvis, and that your hamstring and calf length allow you to bend at the hips. If your tailbone slopes down, as in the first picture, your too-tight hamstrings could be preventing natural pelvic floor and glute strength from developing as you walk.
If you sit a lot, you can easily spend 5-10 minutes running through the first two exercises every day. The Calf Stretch and Double Calf Stretch are great for preparing your joints for full flexion (bending all the way).
After you've warmed up the back of the calves and hamstrings with a little stretching, it's time to get down onto your hands and knees, with your knees a little wider than your pelvis. If you cannot get onto your hands and knees on the floor, try out this series on your bed.
When on your knees, check that your lower legs and feet track straight back, and are parallel to each other. If your ankles come together or your feet point in toward each other, straighten those parts.
From the hands-and-knees position, drop the hips back as far as you can, without allowing the feet to move closer to each other or allowing the tailbone to tuck under.
In the picture below, see how I went too far! My pelvis tucked and instead of bending at the hips, I'm now bending at the spine. If you're using squats to improve the strength of your backside, then the longer you can keep your pelvis untucked the better. If your hips are far from your heels, and you're already tucking, come forward, re-lift your bum, and hang out, going only as far back as you can staying untucked. Do this a few times a day until you can deepen your untucked sit-back.
You may also see how the body is starting to look like it's in a deeper squat, only this squat is without the loads. I have found it's better to improve the range of motion of your squat parts before adding all your body weight onto tight joints.
Once your knees and hips are more used to flexing, you can start moving your feet into their (unloaded) squatting position. Tuck your toes under and watch that your heels don't drop towards each other.
Spend some time stretching your feet while sitting back (aaaaand lifting your tailbone!).
Increasing your squat loads
Now it's time to start bearing your body weight. The strength needed in a squat is not only in the getting down and back up; you also need strength in the lower legs, as your body weight is being controlled at the ankles. I find it's often the lower leg muscles that fatigue first!
To keep squats safer for your knees and hips, work on maintaining the alignment of the lower leg and feet. For these squats, the feet are positioned just wider than the pelvis, feet forward (you can align them to your thighs), and the knees should not be wider or more narrow than the feet.
When you first squat, super tight quads and psoai can increase the pressure in the knees. In addition to regularly working those squat-prep exercises above, decrease that tension and give yourself additional joint space by placing the rolled yoga mat behind the knees.
Try to both untuck the pelvis as well as lower the heels toward the ground. Hold onto something when you first start, if you're feeling wobbly!
Use a mirror
Try this in front of a mirror to check that your feet and knees are still aligned well,
and they haven't twisted (see how my right thigh and foot poke out?) and your weight hasn't shifted to favor one side. If you are doing this, you might have to decrease the depth of your squat (see at what depth you're losing your alignment; this lets you know from where to work).
After the ankles and lower legs have had a chance to stretch and strengthen, prop your feet up with the rolled yoga mat to give them a break. Once you're not pulling so much on your lower legs, you will likely find your knees can bend closer their full range. Always check that you're working to move your pelvis into an untucked position (even if it doesn't go anywhere).
Can you move between tucked and untucked?
Eventually you will be able to deepen your hip flexion and and get your heels closer to the ground. Or maybe you won't, but still you'll be moving parts that often go unmoved. Use this program as a leg and healthy pelvis workout. Progress through these exercises as you feel comfortable, giving yourself plenty of time (which can mean weeks, months, or years) to strengthen your body.
Want more squatting exercises? Read You (Still) Don't Know Squat and check out my 2017 squat-themed exercise advent for 24 squat moves. Read Move Your DNA for more information on squatting and natural movement. If you like to listen to learn, Podcast Episode #91 is all about the squat. If you're wanting more simple exercises to make your hips, pelvis, and lower back more supple, check out Nutritious Movement for a Healthy Pelvis.