What’s the deal with the squat?

It’s been a few weeks since my last blog where I discussed the importance of gluteal activation. Stemming from that, I want to review the squat.  This is the one exercise/movement that we do everyday whether we mean to or not. A mentor of mine once argued that the day we no longer can squat is the day we pretty much decide we don’t want to live anymore and start to decline. Think about it for a second- getting in and out of your car or bed, going to the bathroom, eating dinner etc. all these essential parts of daily living require the ability to squat.  All the more reason as to why we should be doing it properly!

For further insight, and to switch things up a bit, i’ve enlisted my friend Chad Cardoso- Kinesiologist, Certified Strength and Conditioning Coach and Certified Exercise Physiologist extraordinaire to guest blog and give us his personal experience with the squat: its essential component to life, how to do it properly, and how to improve our technique both in the gym and in daily life.

Hi Chad, let’s get right to it- introduce yourself, give us a quick run-down on what you do, where you work and why your chose this avenue…and your perfect Sunday afternoon.

Hello! Thanks for having me for this discussion, i'm excited to geek out about squats!
As you mentioned, I’m a kinesiologist and Strength and Conditioning Coach and I have been working at Balance in Motion since 2012. I work with a variety of clientele related to strength training, conditioning, athletic development, team training, rehabilitation, and general fitness classes. I chose this path because it’s unbelievably rewarding, fun as heck, and I get to meet and work with some amazing people, no joke! I grew up playing almost every sport or activity you can think of (even Kendo), and I’ve always enjoyed teaching. So, when I was able to combine the things that I’m passionate about (coaching and fitness) it really wasn’t a question of “why” because I think it really was meant to be.
Perfect Sunday: Either on the golf course shooting under par (for once), or in the ice rink playing hockey with the lads, followed by a deadlifting or squat session, and ending with a movie with my fiancée, something starring Liam Neeson obviously…

How essential is squatting to any program you create for your clients? why or why not?

Very essential! The squat is a fundamental, multi-joint, full body movement that can benefit practically all training programs. I think people often underestimate how great of an exercise it is, and also how many components need to work synchronously in order to perform the squat correctly. It demands a lot of hip, knee and ankle mobility, core stability, joint coordination body awareness, and more! It’s such an integral part of our daily activities and sports that I include a squat variation in all of my programs unless it’s contraindicated due to injury.

I often have patients who say to me that they “feel the burn” in their quads when squatting in the gym. Is this the correct place to “feel the burn”? Where should they be feeling it?

I hate to say this but…it depends! The squat is a full body exercise so it’s possible to feel it, well… all over! The muscles in your legs (particularly glutes, hamstrings, quads, adductors) and core muscles are always working (or should be) during the squat, but the extent at which they are working may vary with each squat variation, intensity, load, etc. Different squat variations demand more of different muscle groups. For example, barbell back squats demand more of the posterior chain (glutes and hamstrings) because of where the load is placed on the back and the joint angles that load helps create. In contrast, barbell front squats demand more of the quadriceps and core control because of the load being placed on the front of the body. The glutes and quads are prime movers during the squat, but there are a lot of variables that can influence which are working harder such as foot position, depth, phase of the movement, and location of load among others. There are also many other muscles that that help stabilize the pelvis and spine during the movement too. So, while it might seem obvious, having a good warm up focusing on activating the large muscle groups used during the squat, in addition to your core, is pretty important.

Do you have a couple exercises that can be done at home or as a warm-up to help cue proper muscle activation for squatting?

Absolutely! Even before getting to muscle activation, foam rolling most of the muscles in your legs serves as a great way to help release tension in case you have overactive muscles. Here’s a good foam rolling video series to help get people started https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8caF1Keg2XU. Then, working on some dynamic stretching to improve your hip and ankle mobility (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ESozwCqVzX0), followed by core activation exercises (ie. planks, side planks) and a few exercises to get your heart rate up and blood flowing to the muscles in your legs (ie. glute bridges, lunges, jumping jacks, light jogging and cycling). It’s important to prime the muscles and joints you plan on using during your workout in your warm up. That’s why being diligent about these warm up movements is a must if you take squatting seriously and plan on improving your mobility and strength.

Do you have any cues you use for your clients while they squat to insure they maintain proper form and feel the exercises in the right places?

For sure. Foot position is a big one. Set up for the squat with your feet just outside hip width and your toes turned slightly outward. This is generally more of a comfortable and stable position to be in. When descending into your squat keep your weight shifted slightly onto your heels, ensure your chest stays pointing straight ahead, and have your knees track out over top of your toes. When ascending from the bottom of the squat, press down through your heels and squeeze with the glutes and quads all the way to the top. Breathing is also a really important. Before dropping into the squat, take a small sniff of air in and hold that internal pressure until you’re on your way back up where you can exhale slow and controlled. That might seem like a lot to try and put together, but even working on one or two of these cues at a time can help improve the squatting pattern.

I mentioned in my last blog post how gluteal strength and activation can lead to a major decrease in low back, knee and hip pain, have you found that this is the case with your clients? Do you find that some clients are weary of injury from squatting?  What are some progressions or modifications that they can do to help work their way into squatting?

Glute weakness or glute amnesia (when your glutes just don’t want to wake up) is definitely something I encounter frequently and it can definitely influence the health of not only the surrounding joints and muscles but sometimes your entire structure. One of the most fundamental components to any program I’m implementing is making sure I teach my client how to properly fire their glutes. If you’re neglecting glute activation than you’re simply building off of a poor foundation to begin with and setting yourself to take more steps back in the future, and possibly even injury.

If a client is weary of squatting it’s typically because of a previous bad experience that caused injury during the movement. After educating clients on the benefits of the movement and how to complete it safety there’s never usually a lot of hesitation, especially because there are so many ways to modify it for all abilities. The easiest modification to make is the squat depth. If you’ve never tried to squat before it’s best to use a higher, stable surface as the target for your butt. This gives you a reference as to how deep to go each repetition. As your mobility, strength, and confidence improves try lowering the depth of the target to something more challenging.

Are there any other exercises that you recommend for people as essential whole body exercises?

Deadlifts, deadlifts, and deadlifts. Oh and Deadlifts. That’s how much I love them. Ok but really, deadlifts, kettlebell swings, and the Turkish get-up are all awesome full body exercises and are as equally complex in their own way. They all offer a ton of benefits to athletes and non-athletes, demand strict technique that helps reinforce proper movement patterns, and are great for building strength, stability, and power. And who doesn’t want that?!

Anything else you’d like to touch on that I haven’t asked you?

Well, I think if people begin to look at the squat from a practical, lifelong perspective it helps to emphasize how important the movement and exercise is. There are some direct and indirect correlations between lower body strength, longevity, and independence in older adults. That alone should be enough motivation needed to start being more proactive about your health, strength, and fitness goals. Albeit, a lot of the time lack of awareness is an issue. So for those looking to start benefiting from exercises like the squat, it’s time to start educating yourself or become educated by a professional to help kick-start your progress. At the end of the day we all want the same thing, to live long and prosper!


Thanks Chad! As always, if you have any questions, concerns or comments, please post them below or stop by Satori or the Richmond Olympic Oval and we can grab a tea and chat about it all. 

Chad, is also available at Balance in Motion at #28-11151 Horseshoe Way in Richmond, B.C; (604) 271-7181.  He's always happy to help you with training or any enquiries you may have.


Dr. Kristian Frantzen