Squat Therapy Is a Genius Trick for Learning Proper Squat Form
In addition to a long-lasting peach pump, squatting-and squatting heavy-comes with all sorts of health perks. So anytime a woman gets down with a barbell, we're (ahem) pumped. But with so many women interested in lifting heavy (like *really* heavy) we've got a friendly PSA: It's more important to squat with proper form than it is to squat heavy. Full stop.
"The back squat requires and builds strength, flexibility, mobility, and coordination. But if you're not squatting well, you're only accessing a fraction of your athletic ability," says Dave Lipson, C.S.C.S., a CrossFit Level 4 Trainer and founder of Thundr Bro, an educational fitness platform. (Related: How to Do a Proper Back Squat)
You might be wondering: How can I learn proper squat form? Two words: squat therapy. Below, everything you need to know.
Why Should You Be Squatting
First up: Before diving into squat therapy, let's recognize how essential squatting is to everyday life. Alan Shaw, certified trainer, CrossFit Level 2 Coach, and owner of Rhapsody CrossFit in Charleston, SC, likes to say, "if you went to the bathroom this morning, you did a squat."
Even if you're never going to add weight to your squat-even if you don't exercise at all-squatting correctly is fundamental to moving safely for life. (But you might want to load up the barbell after learning more on how lifting heavy can transform your body.) "Every person needs to be able to move through this range of motion," says Shaw. That's where squat therapy comes in.
What Is Squat Therapy?
Disclaimer: This has nothing to do with a psychologist or psychiatrist's office. "Squat therapy is just a cute name for the practice of refining the positions of the squat so that it's more mechanically advantageous," says Lipson. "It's something that helps point out the weaknesses in your squat and improve them." (Yep, totally different from going to see a mental health professional. But there are a ton of benefits of going to therapy, so we're all for that, too).
In fact, you don't even need a rack or full gym setup to try squat therapy. You just need 1) something to sit down on, such as a chair, medicine ball, plyo box, bench, or stack of weight plates, 2) a wall, and 3) a mirror, a coach, or a phone so that you can videotape yourself.
Note: The height of the platform you're squatting your butt onto will depend on your hip, ankle, and thoracic mobility and strength, but 18 to 24 inches tall is a good starting point.
"To start, I'll grab a medicine ball and a few 10-pound plates that I can stack beneath the ball to make it higher if needed," explains Shaw. "Then I have the athlete stand 12 to 24 inches away from the wall, but facing it. Then I'll instruct them to squat to depth slowly."
He suggests squatting down to the target on a three- to five-second count and quickly standing up on a count of 1. That's because lowering slowly allows you to recruit and strengthen all the muscles involved in the full range of motion of a squat. "If you practice the movement slowly, you're training your body to keep proper form once you speed up the squat, like in a real workout," says Shaw. If you go too fast on the way down, you likely won't activate all the muscles that should be at play during a squat, which defeats the purpose. (That's the whole science behind this slow-motion strength-training workout.)
From here, Shaw says that he'll instruct more advanced athletes to extend their arms above their head with palms facing the wall and thumbs touching, and perform a squat without letting their hands touch the wall.
Squatting in this position helps you maintain an upright torso (think proud chest) when you're squatting. One caveat: Squatting with your arms overhead is an advanced position, and some people will find that their thoracic spine is actually too tight to do this. As with most things in fitness, if you're in pain, stop.
Over time (meaning weeks or even months), you'll develop more control in your squat. "You don't ever graduate from squat therapy," says Shaw. Instead, you can gradually shorten the target that you are squatting to, move closer to the wall, and narrow your stance. Even when you reach the pinnacle of squat therapy-lowering below parallel, in good form, standing up against the wall-squat therapy is a good warm-up, he says.
How to Do Squat Therapy
A. Either stack two 10-pound weight plates with a heavy medicine ball on top, or place a bench or box or chair (18 to 24 inches tall) about 2 to 3 feet from the wall.
B. Stand facing the wall, about two shoe-lengths away from the wall-so that if you were to squat, your butt would touch the ball or the edge of the box. Stand with feet hip-width apart, toes turned 15 to 30 degrees out.
C. Keeping chest tall, take a deep breath in, engage core, and keep gaze straight ahead. (If advanced, here's where you'd straighten your arms overhead.) Push hips back, bend at knees, and lower into a squat so that your knees track in line with your ankles and toes, but don't go forward past your toes. Continue to descend slowly on a three- to five-second count into the squat until either your spine begins to round and chest begins to fall forward, or your booty grazes the ball-whichever comes first.
D. Keeping core tight, quickly return to standing by driving your hips forward and exhaling on the way up. (The upward portion of the squat should be about one count compared to the three- to five-count lower.)
E. Too easy? If so, make your target lower by removing one of the weight plates. Still too easy? Remove another. Once the medicine ball is too high, move closer to the wall.
Try doing squat therapy as a five-minute EMOM, meaning that every minute on the top of the minute you'll do five to seven slow air squats, suggests Shaw. (Here's more about EMOM workouts-and one that's super hard.)
If You Don't Have a Trainer or Coach
Ideally the first time you try squat therapy, you'll have a professional coach or trainer available to provide feedback. If that's not possible, you'll want to do squat therapy so that you can see a side-profile of your body in the mirror as you squat, says Shaw. This will take a little self-policing, but it will also help you build awareness within the squat movement.
No mirror? Videotaping yourself from the side can serve a similar function, says Camille Leblanc-Bazinet, CrossFit Level 3 Trainer and author of Jumpstart to Health. (Psst: She also told us what she eats for breakfast before the CrossFit Games.)
Here's what to look for: When you're doing the squat, what is your spine doing? Does it stay neutral or begin to round under? If it rounds, adjust the platform you're squatting to so it stops you right before you get there. Are your hips traveling back? Are knees in line with toes? Is your chest vertical?
No doubt, it can be tricky to tell if your form is correct without expert feedback. That's why Leblanc-Bazinet suggests watching as many videos as possible of people squatting and then comparing your video to theirs.
There are a number of places to go on Instagram for solid squat content. But the official CrossFit Instagram, powerlifter and 20x all-time world record holder Stefi Cohen, and the #powerlifting hashtag are all good places to start.
How to Use Squat Therapy In Your Routine
You can't *really* overdo squat therapy-and, in fact, it's something that Leblanc-Bazinet says you should do every day. "It's the equivalent of brushing your teeth. You do it every day. It will not hurt you if you do a lot of it." That goes for barbell squats in the gym and getting up and down in your office chair.
Need proof? Leblanc-Bazinet has been doing it every day for 10 years and she won the CrossFit Games in 2014. Enough said.