Doing Body Weight Squats Intelligently
Why are body weight squats better than Kegels? I wanna know! (I've been reading some Katy Bowman!)
This is my attempt to understand squatting with some of my own tips on how to do it.
First of all, if you haven't read mula bandha, that might be a place to start. It goes into the details of the muscles of the pelvic floor. But if you can't be bothered, the essence of it is that the pelvic floor muscles can be used to pull the tail bone forwards with respect to the pubic bone. This causes the top of the sacrum, the part that supports the spine, to tilt back. I'm guessing that this action may alleviate pressure on the back of the disc between L5 and S1. And maybe it helps to activate the spinal muscles in such a way that they work to flatten the back of the lumbar spine.
It depends on the overall action that you are doing at the time.
This relationship between sacrum, pelvis and spine is important because in a squat your spinal column tilts forwards. Well it does if you reach your hips back and at the same time reach you chest forwards to stay balanced. (If you lift your heels and move your knees way forwards, you can get your spine vertical. But that's not what I am talking about.)
While leaning forwards your pelvis could tilt forwards (and by this I mean that your sitting bones move back and your pubic bone moves down) so that the curvature of your lumbar spine is maintained. Or it'll tilt back so that your lumbar spine straightens or it can tilt back even further causing your lumbar spine to round.
Most exercise authorities seem to be suggesting that you want to tilt your pelvis forwards when squatting. Katy Bowman seems to (I say seem to because that is what I remember reading but now I can't go back and check) but I've also seen articles talking about squatting with weight that suggest keeping your lumbar spine arched.
You could imagine that if squatting to go to the bathroom, then tilting your pelvis forwards is done so as to avoid getting your shorts, pants or skirt wet. It could also be to project turtle heads backwards. And it may also be the cause of the brown stain at the back of the toilet bowl. I do hope you cleaned the bowl after use.
The opposite movement can cause you to wet your pants as I found out while supporting my 2 year old daughter when a washroom was not near to hand. (She wet her pants, not me. I was holding her body to far back behind her feet causing a backward tilt of her pelvis which resulted in the jet stream of her pee hitting her pants. So much for diaper training. On that particular day I didn't have a spare set of clothes for her and as a result she thought it was alright to have wet under clothes. Dagnabit.)
Apart from peeing on your clothes, why might a backward tilt be bad? Becuase it can cause your lumbar spine to bend forwards. If it bends forwards to far, in particular if holding weight (but this is a body weight squat... ) then the stress may cause you to pop a disc or two.
In a squat without weight, I don't think this is actually a problem.
Your lumbar spine is designed to bend forwards. Believe it or not, that's what your abs help you to do. In a squat without weight, with just the weight of your body, you should be able to allow your spine to bend forwards at the bottom of the squat without causing damage. If in doubt do consult your doctor (especially if he or she is fat or overweight and hardly has time to go to the gym!) Or try it for yourself.
How can you experiment with your body safely? By moving slowly and smoothly. And if you can't do that then find a trainer, someone who knows what they are doing. In either case you are putting your body in someone else's hands.
Anway, with this position, sitting at the bottom of a squat with your butt on your heels, your feet flat on the floor and your spine bent forwards, you can actually relax. But I was talking about how squatting with your spine tilting forwards can affect your SI joint!
With your pelvis tilted forwards and your spine leaning forwards, guess what? The downwards force of your spine acting on the top of your sacrum is going to cause your the bottom of your sacrum, the tail bone, to move backwards.
Since your rectum is positioned directly in front of your sacrum, this is probably a "design feature" of our bodies that somehow makes it easier to
get rid of shit evacuate our bowels.
Not that you'd want to do that while squatting and exercising.
Enter the pelvic floor.
To prevent the accidental eggress of digested and processed food stuffs, you can tighten your pelvic floor muscles while in a squat. Why might this be better while doing a squat? Room to move baby!
Our muscles have an optimal operating length. If the ends of a muscle are too close together it's harder to contract that muscle. Likewise, if the ends of that muscle are too far apart it can also be harder to contract. Find the right distance, a balance between not too close and not too far and Goldilocks is one happy little girl. She's got room to use her elbows when she'd digging into tasty bear's porridge.
What you looking at!
Yous eating my porridge.
I think you are mistaken. It's my porridege, and its mighty tasty.
Wow, you just made your eyes wider when you said that!
Did it look good?
Yeah, now I'm gonna do it too!
Hey, enough you too, I'm supposed to be writing about squats!
It just may be that with the weight of your spine causing your tailbone to move back, your pelvic floor muscles are at optimal length for contracting.
(Movement of the sacrum at the pelvis is quite small, would the pelvic floor muscles notice the difference in distance? I don't know.)
Another reason for them activating is to help suport the SI Joint.
Leaning forwards while squatting may put a fair amount of downwards and forwards pressure on the front of the top of the sacrum (the part that actually supports the base of the spine) and that force will be transmitted via the sarcum to the front and back of the SI joint.
At the front of the SI joint the Sacrum presses down while at the back it presses upwards. (Think of the sacrum as tilting forwards around an axis that runs through the centers of the two SI Joints.) The Pelvic floor muscles may help to reduce these twisting forces, reducing the forces acting on the SI Joint and the ligaments that bind it together.
But wait there's more.
If you go down far enough and if your reach your butt back, and if you consciously squeeze your buttocks, guess what muscle activates? Your butt, otherwise known as gluteus maximus or (booteus to the max).
This muscle has fibers that attach to the back of the sacrum and guess what?
When actived, it acts on the sacrum too.
To be honest I'm reluctant to say that gluteus maximus pulls back on the sacrum. If it does it is because these fibers are towards the back of the mass of the muscle so that when this muscle tenses, these sacral fibers are pushed back so that then they can pull back on the sacrum. Or maybe they pull down. One way or another, there is an effect.
Are there other muscles that pull "back" or even upwards on the sacrum and the tail bone? Yes, the spinal erectors.
If you bend your spine backwards you may be able to pull your tail bone back by using your spine erectors.
I find it works best if I focus on the very tip of the tail bone. And also if I focus on the back surface of the tail bone since thats where the fascia attaches.
That's a fair amount of information. What can you do with it apart from regurgitate it to others so that you look smart? Experience it so that you can feel it for yourself. Then when you tell others you'll know what you are talking about.
Once you've done some squats, details to follow, practice putting your attention on your sacrum. See if you feel any changes as you squat and then stand.
How can you protect your knees while squatting? Give them a stable foundation! You do that by activating your feet, shins and ankles.
Do this foot exercise while standing with your feet hip width and your knees slightly bent. Keep them bent. Position your feet so that they are parallel. (Use a line connecting center of heel to space between second and third toes.)
For more detailed instrucntions read "foot exercises." I've included a summary below:
Keep this foot activation while doing squats. It uses muscles that attach from tibia and fibula to the bons of your feet giving "shape" to your feet and stabilizing your ankles and shins so that your knees a stable foundation.
If you do it with your feet facing forwards, spin your shins outwards enough that your knees point straight ahead, in the same direction as your toes (towards your second or third to or the space between them. See which aiming point feels best.) Memorize the feeling of activating your feet so that you can do the same action with feet together or apart and even with your feet turned out slightly. You can then experiment with a variety of foot positions while doing squats.
This next exercise is to help activate and then relax your spinal erectors. You can use your spinal erectors to straighten your spine and to bend it backwards. These muscles run up the body (and down) along either side of the spine and when active feel create a squeezing sensation at the back of your body. If you learn to activate them at will you can more easily bend your spine backwards or keep it bent backwards, even while doing squats (and even at the very bottom of the squat where keeping the spine bent backwards can be quite difficult.)
As an added bonus, you can do this while kneeling.
If your knees are so tight that you can't fully close them then kneeling can help aleviate this problem. At first stick a few blocks or books between your butt and your heels, enough that your feel comfortable. As you get more comfortable, gradually reduce the height of the blocks.
Do this over the course of days, weeks or even months.
If you want to get there faster, stay longer. You can also try to slowly lean forwards to take weight off of your heels, then slowly sitt upright to stack weight on top of your pelvis. Move slowly and smoothly. Let the sensation in your knees guide how far you lean back. Stop when your knees tell you they've had enough.
While kneeling, slowly tilt your pelvis forwards so that your back arches. Then tilt your pelvis back so that your spine rounds.
Do this slowly and smoothly and feel your pelvis.
From there move the focus of your awareness to your lumbar spine (the part of the vertebral column that joints your pelvis to your ribcage). As you tilt your pelvis forwards feel your lumbar spine bending backwards. Then feel it bend forwards as you roll your pelvis back.
Once you've got the feeling start to "muscle it."
Your spinal erectors run up the back of your torso on either side of your spine. To activate your lumbar spinal erectors focus on squeezing the back of your lumbar spine as you bend backwards. Relax as you bend forwards. You should be able to feel your spinal erectors activating as you squeeze. Actually, the purpose of "squeezing" is to activate them. Once you've got the feeling carry it up into your thoracic spine. As you tilt your pelvis forwards bend your lumbar and thoracic spine backwards and activate (by squeezing) the spinal erectors in both regions of the body.
If after doing this exercise you need to stretch your spinal erectors then tilt your pelvis backwards and bend your spine forwards. Sink your chest down. Hold this pose and focus on bending your spine forwards. You might also want to reach your arms forwards and spread your shoulder blades.
Lean forwards and tuck your toes under, then kneel for a few breathes with your toes tucked under. You can do the spinal erector activation exercise in this position too if you wish.
From here stand up. (If your knees allow, lift your knees and lean back so that your heels press down. You can either go into a squat straight away or stand up.
You can start your squats from a squatting position or you can start from standing.
I like to use both positions.
Generally when I teach squats and do them, I like to do them slowly. I also like to hold the middle position (below) for a few breaths or more.
In the middle position, thighs are parallel to the floor. The nice thing about holding the middle position is that it gives you time to feel your muscles and to adjust your position so that you can consicously activate (or deactivate) specific muscles. Moving slowly gives you the same option. Plus, if makes you stronger and if you are using squats as part of a yoga practice or as part of an exercise routine, moving slowly can quicly generate heat.
While standing with your knees very slightly bent focus on pulling your ribs up, away from your pelvis. Focus on feeling the sides of your ribs. Pull them upwards slowly. Feel your ribcage expand as you do so. Then slowly relax your ribs.
While doing slow squats and while holding the middle position you'll use your pelvis as a reference for moving your ribs. While holding the squat focus on moving your ribs away from your pelvis to inhale, then relax your ribs to exhale. If you are not holding your squats, but are moving slowly, try to first inhale before you squat. Then as you get more comfortable with this action try to slowly move your ribs away from your pelvis as you squat.
Don't worry about actually breathing. Focus instead on moving your ribs slowly and smoothly. Your inhales will happen naturally as a result. (And likewise your exhales.
Start with your feet about hip width apart and parallel. Activate your feet.
With feet active reach your pelvis back and bend your knees. (Imagine you are trying to kiss the wall behind your with your butt!) Tilt your pelvis forwards and bend your spine backwards at the same time. Reach your arms forwards. Bend your knees enough that your hips are the same heig as your knees. Hold for a few breaths and then stand.
Take a brief rest and then repeat. Focus on reaching your pelvis and knees back so that your shins stay as close to vertical as possible. At the same time your weight even on the fronts and backs of your feet. If anything, to stop your knees from going to far forwards, shift your weight towards the front of your heels. (If you shift your weight to far back, say towards the middle of your heels, then the fronts of your feet will lift off of the floor. Shift to the front of your heels so that the fronts of your feet stay in contact with the floor.)
Once comfortable (familiar might be a better word) with this action, hold the squat and then instead of going up see if you can go down. If your knees are suspect, do this in front of a couch so that you can fall out of it safely or can use your hands to help.
Another option is to straddle a door jam. Grab the door if you go too far down or your knees feel like they are about to give in.
Once your thighs pass horizontal, keep your pelvis tilted forwards and keep your spinal erectors active.
If your heels want to lift up then use a slightly wider foot position and widen your knees as you squat down. Reach your chest and arms forwards between your knees and reach your butt backwards, far enough that your heels stay on the floor.
If you can fully close your knees while kneeling (i.e. touch you can touch your butt to your heels while kneeling) then sit all the way down so that your butt rests on the back of your ankles. Relax in this pose. Slowly release your spinal erectors and allow your spine to bend forwards. You can even relax your feet and ankles. Or keep them active if that feels better to you.
To lift back up, re-activate your feet. Slowly tilt your pelvis forwards and activate your glutes.
Start to lift your pelvis at the same time. Reach it backwards. Activate your spinal erectors and bend your lumbar spine backwards.
Then slowly lift your hips higher. When your thighs are horizontal pause for a few breaths. Either stand all the way up (try doing it slowly) or sit back down again.
Once you are used to the exercise you can start paying attention to your body. Notice what happens at the bottom of the squat. If you like give your glutes an extra squeeze. You may find that squeezing them helps to tilt your pelvis further forwards. Do your sitting bones feel like they are spreading? What about your tail bone, does it feel like it is moving back?
What you may find that you can do is pull your tail bone back further. Use your spinal erectors and focus on the back of your tailbone (at the very bottom of your sacrum) moving back. Your pelvic floor muscles may simultaneously activate to resist this pull. Try to keep these activations and do a half squat, i.e. go up half way, then come back down.
Squats aren't just for your gluteus maximus. They do also use your quadriceps. And so while lifting up, to activate your quads think of pulling your knees back towards your pelvis. You know you are doing it right if the front of your thighs tense up even more.
To develop even greater control try to focus on activating your outer quads (vastus lateralis) by pulling more on the outer knee. Activate inner quads (vastus medialis) by pulling on the inside edge of knee. Work at the center line by pulling back on the top of the knee. Then try to make all three pulls even.
Once you've played around with "feeling your body" during squats, another variable that you can play with is foot position.
As mentioned, first try squatting with feet about hip width (sitting bone width) toes and knees straight ahead. Use this to get used to keeping feet and toes aligned. Use it to get used to using your feet to control your shins and knees.
When the knees are bent the shins have some ability to turn relative to the thighs. In yoga poses like Lotus Pose and Janu Sirsasana C the foot moves to the inside of the top of the thigh while the knee is bent and the thigh externally rotated. In a pose like Hero Pose the foot moves to the outside of the the top of the thigh while the thigh is neutral or internally rotated.
While doing squats you can simulate these positions by having the feet closer together or wider apart. Having the feet close together, at the bottom of the squat the feet come to the inside of the sitting bones and thighs simulating the lotus pose and janu sirsasana c position. Having the feet slightly wider then at the bottom, the foot position is closer to that of hero pose.
Another option is to turn your feet out.
To experiment with these postions start at the bottom of the squat. Have chairs at your side or blocks, something you can put your hands on so that you can support yourself if need be while repositioning your feet.
Try first with feet hip width. Try a relaxed squat, allow your feet to fall in and allow your back to round. Then activate your feet and then engage your buttocks (squeeze them to the point of just being about to lift. It may be helpful if your move your pelvis back) and then activate spinal erectors to resume a straight or "backwards bending" lumbar curvature.
Lift a little and then lower, lift and lower, but going slowly. Move slowly so that you can stop if you feel knee pain. Try a different foot position. Try your feet wider than your sitting bones and then closer together. In both instance have the feet parallel. Then try a foot turned out position.
When making adjustments, do all actions slowly and smoothly so that you can feel changes and so that you can develop control at the same time.