Thursday, August 22, 2013

Squats Part 1

This idea of a functional fitness and performance blog is to deal with functional exercises and movements. There are many definitions of functional exercise.  See Wikipedia Functional Training. What I mean by functional movements are generally closed chain exercise wherein one extremity, typically the hands or the feet remain in constant contact with a surface (ground, bar, etc).  This is in contrast to open chain exercises (such as the leg press, where the extremity (distal end) is free to move against a resistance.

Note: My above partial definition is only a starting component of what I mean by functional fitness and will grow and evolve as I develop my thoughts in this blog.
The idea of open chain v. closed chain exercise is possibly most easily recognized in the Squat versus the Leg Press.  In the squat the feet remain fixed against the ground and the weight moves through a combination of leverage from the hips and knees, as a whole body movement. Conversely in the leg press your butt is seated and your feet move through the air against a platform, the activity occurs from the hips down guided by the machine rails with no full-body stabilization component.

Closed chain movements are typically compound movements using many muscle groups to both lift the load and to stabilized the body.  Most open chain exercises (machines) provide the stabilization for you, eliminating that very functional component of the movement.

Movements that require you to move you body through space(closed chain exercises/movements) involve a higher level of neuromuscular activation, balance and core stabilization than those where you are simple moving your limbs(open chain exercises/movements).

Closed chain exercises typically:
  • use more muscle groups than open chain.
  • require much greater motor control and neural stimulus (To be discussed in much greater detail in a future post)
  • more closely mimic natural movements and those we perform in our everyday lives
  • may be safer for joints as agonist and antagonist muscle group action  (To be discussed in much greater detil in a future post)
  • more closely relate to our activities of daily 
One of the most functional movements you can do is the Squat.

It's something we do every day of our lives when we sit or stand in a chair, get up or down off of the toilet, pick up a load with our arms or shoulders, etc.

Why do so many people think that they cannot do squats?

Right off let me say I was one of them.

At the time I considered myself to be primarily a runner.   I was focused on adding weekly miles 20 miles, 30 miles per week,  that kind of thing.  Some days after a run my knees were so sore I had trouble getting out of the car, getting up and down the stairs. That was no way to live, let alone express my level of fitness.   I mean what was it for if I couldn't get up and down stairs well?

Squats are hard.  There's no comfy bench or chair to sit on. The leverage and stability all has to come from you, there is no machine, cam, or guide rail to take or control some of the load for you.  All the stability must come from you, this makes squats one of the more difficult movements you can do and at the same time one of the best.

Look, for example, at the seated leg press,  there is a comfy chair angled at typically 45 degrees to match the guide rails which are similarly angled.   At 45 degrees the guide rails take HALF of the load off of you.   You are in effect moving 1/2 of the load horizontally not vertically against gravity.   Because of this, people can often leg press(I wouldn't exactly call it lifting) MUCH more weight than they can truly squat. It looks very impressive until they are stuck somewhere without the chair and guide rails and actually have to lift a load with their legs, with their back, hips and core lacking the stability that would have been trained in a propoer squat.

On machines the core stability requirement is handled by the machine, no need to work on that aspect of your development.

Why physically do people(who want to do squats) have trouble with squats?

I mean babies can squat, what happens?

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One BIG reason:  many people today are primarily sedentary.

As we sit chairs at work our hamstrings are in a shortened position and will become tight and weak at their full natural position, our hip flexors become tight, shoulders tend to round forward and arms internally rotate, the back hunches forward and the neck cranes forward.

Sitting leads to many of the mobility problems we see in the gym.  Passive stretching is not enough.  The best way to prove tightness, muscle imbalances, posture and flexibility is to do full range resistance exercises.  It is not enough to stretch a muscle we also want to become strong at the stretched range to avoid injury and build posture control.  

Upcoming Part 2 Squats, General Mechanics and How to do them SAFELY

Recommended Resources:
Starting Strength 3rd ed.: Chapter 1 & 2, Mark Rippetoe
Becoming a Supple Leopard: The Ultimate Guide to Resolving Pain, Preventing Injury, and Optimizing Athletic Performanc

Additional Related Reading
8 Reasons to Do This Misunderstood Exercise
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