“We have met the enemy, and he is us!” [Walt Kelly – cartoonist]*
In my athletic/sporting history I’ve not been very fond of Squats as an exercise…with or without a bar on my shoulders. I did find a certain fondness for overloaded partial Squats that enabled me to avoid Full or Power Squats. My tactics for avoidance came about because I couldn’t do them. Others around me were racking up weights and getting into positions that made me quiver. For me, as soon as I approached 90deg I hit a balance point, my legs locked and any further attempt resulted in painful knee and ankle contortions. With Partial Squats (and what we termed ‘High Jump Squats’) I felt I could shoulder as much weight as was available in our gym.
Years later I’m revisiting my old nemesis quite simply because I’m older and also have more knowledge and insights into how people move than when I was twenty. In addition I have had to face the realities of consequence to the years of chronic injury that occurred when I was younger. I can sense how injury patterns influenced the way I moved then and now. I look around me as I sip my coffee and see a population of youth and adult ages that couldn’t possibly get in or out of a squat pose without support or lurching, even though, ironically, they spend more time sitting in a semi-squat posture than any previous generation. (Is it just me or are toilet designs getting taller?) I see aging athletes with creaking knees and stiffened hips that require bracing and support to get out chairs or cars. Medication and joint surgery seem to be the accepted outcomes of the combination of aging and activity patterns. None of these observations are earth-shattering or new…I’ve just decided to make it personal.
Over a decade ago I realised that I needed to do more squatting and begin pay attention to how I sit down and get out of chairs. I also linked my change in activity to a personal philosophy that I could not articulate in younger decades. Essentially I have come to believe that our bodies are quite plastic throughout life and adapt well to the movement patterns encountered over time (including inactivity). Further, I believe that there are a few fundamental patterns that suit the human condition and contribute to lifelong well-being. Being able to settle into a deep squat and relax is one such pattern.
However, I am a part of a lineage of relations before me that, for the past one hundred and fifty years (or more), has never done a squat after their baby years. As a child I never saw a parent or grandparent squat down…nor did they. And so, squatting has become a behaviour pattern associated with toddlers, National Geographic specials, and weightlifting = somewhere out there.
A corollary to my philosophy shows me that my old avoidance patterns were related to a common training trap: that of emphasising increment before development. With my long shin bones and damaged ankles there was no way I was ever going to squat as much weight as some others in the gym. What I missed was the opportunity to learn to squat to the best of my ability as a movement pattern and then use that ability to feed other movements. Instead, I found a way to compare the amount of weight shouldered.
By avoiding a developmental pathway I effectively limited all those activities and movement skills that require and depend upon good hip and ankle mobility.
A second philosophical corollary outlines the process of the developmental pathway; whether that be learning to run, stuffing a basketball, or squatting. At first movements will be mechanical and display all the imbalances and compensations used to achieve a crude pattern. As competency improves our moves become proficient and we don’t have to monitor the cues and postures. Over time our movements become refined and automatic so that we move with grace. Movements ultimately become synchronised, waste no energy and flow with a beauty that simply feels good.
If there is such a thing as talent and I had to define what mine might be, I think it would relate to a quiet patience and perseverance with respect to goals. Relearning how to squat, for me, is a long term project.
So….where am I with my squats? Stage one. I will spend a great deal of time here correcting imbalances, loosening joints that were on a slippery slope towards immobility and creating patterns of stability and strength that allow me to relax as I move. I explore different variations that focus my attention on movement through a range. I am getting some reward along the way. I can see and feel that other activities like walking, running and going up stairs are more effective and efficient because of the slightly improved ankle and hip mobility.
A challenge? Yes. Not a challenge to do better or compare myself against others in my age bracket. No, it’s an inner challenge to identify and deal with my own perceived limitations that were created oh so long ago. Over time we can come to believe in our limitations, even if they never did serve us well. Decades ago I came to believe that I couldn’t do squats. What I could not see was that this internal belief was destructive and limiting. If I’m going to deal with that old belief I had better get squatting.
J. Erik Little
For TAKEOFF COACHING, 2016
*Walt Kelly adapted an old war commentary to highlight the destructive nature of littering, pollution and the fast-food culture… his iconic phrase, expressed through the character ‘Pogo’, has become widely employed.