In last week’s blog, I wrote about the importance of focusing on the feet and legs in your yoga practice. This week, we’ll learn how to do weighted squats in order to build a strong foundation for your exercise regimen.
Many yoga teachers shun weight lifting, and many weight lifters scoff at the idea of incorporating yoga into their exercise routine. I say everybody needs to relax and consider how different modalities can be beneficial regardless of their origins. If your goal is to hold Warrior II longer, then incorporate the squat to build leg strength. If you want to perform a full squat, then incorporate Warrior II to increase groin flexibility.
The weighted squat is the most important element of a strong foundation for exercise. Developing your legs will make exercise and general movement through life easier. Practicing squats consistently and properly will increase your body’s full range of motion, decrease muscle and joint stiffness, correct structural imbalances, and increase your total body strength and control. As a result, you will be able to move with less effort, increasing your overall health and well-being.
Squatting also has powerful effects on your hormonal system by increasing the release of testosterone, growth hormone, and insulin-like growth factor 1. The positive hormonal release from weighted squats is especially important for men’s health. Decreased testosterone in men diminishes energy, immune system function, sex drive and vitality.
If you cannot perform a full squat, your health and body are not experiencing optimal levels of performance. Now that we know why to squat, let’s learn how to squat.
Foot placement:The width of your stance will vary based on your height and femur length. I have long femurs, which requires I take a wider stance. Inversely, if you are short and/or have shorter femurs, take a narrower stance.
Place your feet hips-width distance apart and do 10 air squats. If you cannot get your butt parallel with your knees, widen your stance. Next, angle your toes out 30 to 45 degrees to open your hip joints and increase their range of motion. Do 10 more air squats and notice whether you can now get lower. Eventually, you want “ATG” or “ass to grass.”
Knee placement:Forget the myth that your knees should not pass your toes. This is incorrect. Proper squat form will almost always bring your knees past your toes. This is natural and healthy – when you squat correctly.
Align the center of your thigh bones with the middle of your toes. Your femurs will naturally angle out from your hips as you descend. Think: Knees out!
The first movement of your hips should never be down. This will place undue stress on your knees, which is the source of the knee-over-toes myth, and will limit your range of motion. Instead, move your hips back first. Then, take them down. This will maintain your center of balance and protect your knees. Tipping your weight forward is unsafe for your knees, your lower back and, of course, your face. Think: Butt back!
Keep your chest lifted and your posture upright. Letting your chest fall forward will place additional stress on your lower back, increase the risk of knee injury and limit your downward mobility. Think: Chest up!
Many of us have tight and weak thoracic spines (mid-backs) due to sitting and poor posture. Warm up your back before you begin your workout by doing cat and cow poses, shoulder openers and foam rolling.
Put it all together:
Practice three sets of 10 air squats while repeating this mantra: “Knees out, butt back, chest up.”
After you have mastered the air squat, place a stick or PVC pipe behind your neck, interlace your fingers behind your head, and squat low while keeping your chest upright.
After mastering proper form, get underneath a barbell and incorporate all you have learned. Find a weight you struggle to complete 10 reps at. Rest for a minute. Then, repeat for three more rounds.
Nothing compares to doing free-weight squats with a barbell, as it puts your central nervous system on high alert. Barbell squats place intense stress on your mind and body. Exercise stress and the resulting soreness are what tell your whole system that it needs to get stronger and/or more flexible. For this reason, exercises such as leg presses, Smith machine squats and even dumbbell squats are inferior to the effects and intensity of barbell squats.
Barbell squats will make your legs sorer than you likely have ever experienced in your life. This is good. It means you have pushed your legs and body beyond their comfort zones. As a result, you will grow stronger, more flexible and increase your overall well-being.
Proper squat form, while difficult to achieve, is worth the effort. It will increase the benefits of this foundational exercise and minimize the risk of injury.
I prefer doing squats on Mondays as a way to set myself up for the week. It grounds me by connecting my legs to the world while improving my mind-body communication and coordination. It also burns off those extra calories from the weekend. Try it, and share your results below.