We now have new goals including increasing physical performance, lean muscle mass, and strength while decreasing body fat. By pursuing these goals, we will be left with the most fit, healthy, and happy version of ourselves. In addition to nutritional intervention, the most efficient way to do this is to engage in exercises that recruit the most muscle tissue. That is why we prioritize lower body resistance training. With that said, lower body exercises carry at least two caveats worth mentioning. The first is that to execute lower body exercises effectively and safely, proper form is of the highest importance. Also, as with any training program, you will experience a phenomenon known as delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS for short. DOMS is most notoriously made evident by lower body exercises. Let it be known that, although uncomfortable, this is a completely normal process and a “necessary evil” that must be accepted and managed on your journey to becoming a stronger person.
As bipedal organisms (walking on only two limbs), the squat movement is one of the most fundamental movements we are capable of doing. Our ancestors utilized this movement regularly for activities of daily living such as hunting, gathering, and building shelter. Because we are not very genetically different from our ancestors, we also possess the capacity to utilize this movement to become more functional individuals. From a biomechanical standpoint, there are three main components to functional movement. The first component is range of motion. Generally speaking, the more range of motion involved, the better the movement is in terms of function. The second component is muscle activation. Like the first component, the more muscle activation involved, the better the function. The third component is load capacity.
Load capacity reflects the ability to increase resistance as an individual adapts to a given movement. With these components of functional movement in mind, let’s examine a popular exercise: the bicep curl. The range of motion is relatively limited as the majority of the movement occurs at the elbow. Similarly, there is not a significant amount of muscle activation due to the isolation of the bicep muscle. As far as load capacity goes, the upper limit is rather curbed in the sense that even the strongest of individuals are limited to exceeding 200 pounds of resistance. Therefore, the bicep curl may be a great way to develop musculature of the bicep but functionally speaking, the exercise is far from optimal.
Conversely, the squat movement embodies all three movement components magnificently. There is a large range of motion involved at the hip, knee, and ankle. There is a large amount of muscle activity as it involves muscle groups of the spine, hips, and legs. When it comes to load capacity, the squat offers tremendous potential in the sense that a novice athlete could reasonably double their resistance capability in the first few months of training and continue to build that capacity to exceed hundreds and hundreds of pounds. The deadlift, although a considerably different movement from the squat, also holds these functional qualities.
There are many different squat techniques all of which emphasize different muscle groups within the lower body. Regardless of which technique you are engaged in, it’s going to be important to have your feet planted to the floor at three points. The contact points should form a triangle on the bottom of the foot with the apex being at the heel. It’s common to see a trainee lose contact between their heels and the floor during the squat which can indicate a lack of dorsiflexion at the ankle joint. In the meantime of working on improving dorsiflexion, it can be helpful to elevate the trainee’s ankle by placing small weight plates underneath the heel while squatting. As far as how far the feet should be apart, any comfortable distance slightly wider than shoulder-width is acceptable. Feet should be pointed straight ahead or ever so slightly turned outward. Excessive outward turning of feet should be avoided because further out turning of the feet rob the gluteal muscles from generating external rotation leverage at the hips. Lastly, it is very important to keep the knees from caving in beyond the inside of the feet. Ideally, the knees should track in line with the foot.
One of the most important aspects of maintaining good form while performing exercises such as the squat, deadlift, and core strengthening exercises safely and effectively is this idea of a neutral spinal position and spinal rigidity. This is why Physio F(x)® is key tool. Think of your muscles as the motor of a car and your spine is the transmission. Spinal neutrality and rigidity promote structural integrity of your musculoskeletal system and ensures proper transmission of forces generated by your musculature through your spine. Femoral movement needs to be independent from lumbopelvic movement at the acetabulum. In other words, movement should happen at your hip sockets, not your back. When this is accomplished, it known as hip hinging. When this does not happen, or when these movements are coupled, spinal neutrality and rigidity are compromised which exposes large amounts of torque and shear force on unsuited anatomical structures which can lead to injury.
Another common violation of spinal neutrality and rigidity occurs at the cervical spine. Far too often, a trainee will overextend their neck while performing these lifts which may be perpetuated by the erroneous cue of “look up/ keep your head up.” Cervical extension is coupled with thoracic flexion which is the embodiment of poor posture. An example of this posture is someone who works at a computer with their head jutted forward (extended neck) and rounded shoulders (thoracic flexion or kyphosis). We want to reverse this by promoting a retracted head position which will encourage cervical and thoracic spine neutrality.
An additional key to proper lifting that is easy to overlook is proper breathing technique. Breathing correctly greatly improves the rigidity of the lumbar spine which improves performance and decreases the likelihood of injury. To maintain proper spinal rigidity, an individual must learn the skill of diaphragmatic respiration. By doing so, the individual increases intra-abdominal pressure thereby increasing spinal rigidity. In order to breathe diaphragmatically, one must learn to engage respiratory musculature such as the diaphragm, pelvic floor musculature, and abdominal wall musculature while minimizing the use of respiratory musculature that influences movement of the ribcage. This is known as abdominal bracing and is an essential feature to achieving spinal rigidity and stability. A good cue for engaging the appropriate musculature for abdominal bracing is to take a large breath into your abdomen, then flex your core muscles as if your about to be punched in the stomach. This is what you want to do for exercises like the squat and deadlift.