The power of the squat

The benefits of squats are not confined to the lower body. PHOTO: ISTOCKPHOTO

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - What is the single best strength-building exercise many people could be doing right this minute, but almost certainly are not?

Consult enough exercise scientists and the latest exercise research, and the answer would likely be resounding: squats.

"For lower-body strength and flexibility, there is probably no better exercise," said Dr Bryan Christensen, a professor of biomechanics at North Dakota State University in Fargo, who studies resistance exercise.

The benefits are not confined to the lower body.

Dr Silvio Rene Lorenzetti, director of the Performance Sports division of the Swiss Federal Institute of Sport in Magglingen, said: "It is really a whole-body exercise. It requires core stability and trains the back."

Some people worry that squats can imperil the knees and hips, but the exercise can actually help protect and improve the workings of these and other joints, said Dr Sasa Duric, an exercise scientist at the American University of the Middle East in Kuwait, who has studied squats.

The movement "helps maintain the flexibility, stability and function" of hips, knees and ankles, he added.

But, perhaps most fundamentally, squats are key to living and ageing well.

"When we clean the house or plant a vegetable garden, we need to squat," Dr Duric said. Ditto for easing into and out of chairs, and lowering ourselves to toddler level for face-to-face playtime.

In essence, according to a 2014 scientific overview, squats are "one of the most primal and critical fundamental movements necessary to improve sport performance, reduce injury risk and support lifelong physical activity".

Squatting is simple, portable and potent. "You don't need a gym," Dr Christensen said. Anywhere with a small open space will work, whether it is a living room, office, stairwell, park or closet. And the only necessary equipment is your body weight.

If you are new to squats, Dr Duric said one of the safest, simplest ways to start is with what is commonly called a box squat - so named because it is commonly done with an exercise box found in gyms. But you can also do these at home, in which case you will be using a chair, stool, bench or bedside.

If you have lower-body disabilities or past injuries, talk to your doctor first about whether squatting is advisable for you.

"Be patient and pay attention to proper technique," Dr Duric said. "Do not rush the squat."

When you feel your box squats dialled in, you can ditch the box or chair and move to a free-standing, body-weight squat. But keep paying attention to your form.

Dr Brad Schoenfeld, a professor of exercise science at Lehman College in New York and an expert on weight training, said: "Squats are an excellent exercise, both to enhance functional capacity and to reduce the risk of injury - provided the exercise is performed correctly."

When squatting with your body weight eventually ceases to be challenging, you may want to pick up a dumbbell. Over time, you will need to add resistance if you want to keep growing stronger, Dr Schoenfeld said.

And then there are goblets and land mines.

"There are plenty of squat variations," Dr Christensen said. "The goblet squat is one of the most accessible." An entry-level weighted squat, it entails holding a dumbbell or another weight close to your chest with both hands, as if you were cupping a goblet, and squatting - while maintaining good form.

In a study Dr Christensen oversaw last year, goblet squats effectively targeted and strengthened the quadriceps, which are the front thigh muscles. The effects were especially pronounced in women.

But they were not as good at working the hamstrings, the muscles at the back of the thigh. For that, the study found, one was better off with land-mine squats, which are named after the land-mine machine at gyms (and has nothing to do with the explosive device, it seems), which consists of a pivoting barbell set diagonally into a stand on the floor.

At the gym, you load the desired weight onto the pole, grasp the end with both hands, hold it near your chest, lift and squat. This movement engages both the quadriceps and hamstring muscles, as well as other lower-body muscles, Dr Christensen's study showed.

But do not be intimidated by the squat-iverse. You know how to squat. We all do. The movement is elemental and essential.

"The squat mimics so many physiological tasks of our daily living," Dr Lorenzetti said. So, the biggest mistake you can make with squats, he concluded, "is to not start squatting".

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