Despite the fact that every personal trainer is well aware that each personal training situation is as unique as the clients training, the fitness field as a whole continues to have an obsession with laying down doctrines and using blanket statements.
One of the currently trendy blanket statements is “Squat Like a baby”… where fitness professionals are observing the way a baby is able to perform a full squat and then make this criteria “the movement standard” for how they feel their adult clients and athletes should be able to squat.
Although we absolutely agree that babies do display wonderful form for performing a barbell squat type exercise. And, we also agree that it’s NICE when adults can also demonstrate the ability to deep squat like a baby - We feel it’s ignorant of the obvious physiological differences between adults and babies to think that just because it may be sign of dysfunction when a 3 year old can’t “squat like a baby” also means that their adult clients or athletes are somehow “dysfunctional” when they’re unable to squat like a baby. And, we believe it’s very misguided for personal trainers to lead their clients to believe that just because SOME adults posses the ability to squat like a baby means that ALL adults “should” have the ability to move like they did when they were baby in order for them to be able to lead a healthy and active lifestyle.
In this article, I’m going to provide you with 7 reasons for why we’re not on the “squat like a baby” bandwagon”, and quite frankly feel this blanket recommendation is so ridiculous that it’s an insult to the intelligence of fitness professionals.
Plus, I’ll also provide you with our simple, battle-tested effective approach (that actually does make scientific sense and follows common sense) we’ve used for helping our clients (of all ages and fitness levels) to find their optimal squat style.
STOP! Selective Reading Checkpoint
Before moving on, lets make sure what you’ve heard so far is the same as what has actually been said…
We do NOT disagree that babies display great looking squat because they absolutely do. And, no one has said we’re against “ass-to-grass” (i.e. deep squatting). What we strongly disagree with is using the way a baby squats as a “standard” from which to judge adults. And, we think it’s absolutely wrong to label (i.e. diagnose) an adult as “dysfunctional” when they do not display the same deep squat ability as a baby.
Here are the reasons why…
1. Babies and Adults Don’t Have Nearly the Same Skeletal Structure
The skeleton is the structural framework for the entire body. Not only does it give our body a rigid structure, enabling us to function, but it offers an infrastructure upon which the body’s muscles and other tissues are connected. And, since “structure determines function“, it defies logic to think that babies and adults should move the same when they have very different skeletons.
Babies have more bones than adults because their bones have not fused yet. Some of the 300 original bones in a baby are made of regular bone and some are made of cartilage. Cartilage is soft and flexible to start because in babies and children, bones have to be strong enough to support the body, but soft enough to permit continued growth. But over the years the cartilage grows and slowly hardens into bone. Also, some bones fuse together. All of this is part of the normal growth process.
For example: the skull is in several sections and the bones in the hands and feet are not yet joined properly until we reach some time between 17-25 years of age where this growth process ends and your bones are as big as they’re going to get.
Have a look at these X-rays and observe how much more space there is between the joints of a baby compared to even an 8yr old -
It’s obvious the this extra joint space offer babies much greater ROM than even that of teenagers (much less and adult or an older person).
This greater joint space is not just in our hands as we age – it’s in our entire body! There are epiphyseal plates located in various regions of the skeleton. These plates divide the bones into segments but eventually fuse together in a specific order. The bones that fuse (in order of fusion) are: Elbow, Hip, Ankle, Knee, Wrist and Shoulder.
Here’s an X-ray of a young person’s knee -
Now, here’s another x-ray (below) showing a normal adult knee. As you can see, no trace of the growth plate remains and epiphyseal fusion is complete.
To us, the simple fact that babies and adults have very different skeletal structures should immediately invalidate any argument (or desire) for comparison of the function of adults to babies.
In other words, it’s an apples to oranges comparison. That said, when comparing adults to other adults, we do find that some adults do have the ability to deep squat like a baby, while others do not. We’ll address this at the end of #2.
Also, just because babies can deep squat in no way indicates that they “should” have that same ability as adults. We will address the “we just lose it because we don’t use it” argument later in this article.
2. Adults and Babies Have Very Different Body Proportions
As you can see by what we just covered above; when we get caught up with focusing on the neurodevelopment aspects of the human body, which are fascinating, it becomes easy to ignore the physiological aspects of the human body. Such as the fact that the bone structure (i.e. skeleton) of a baby is drastically different from that of an adult’s. Or, like the many other physiological differences between youth and adulthood that are covered in this chart below -
Body proportion differences (between babies and adults) are another physiological difference that we feel makes it unrealistic (and down right silly) to use the way babies move (i.e. squat) to determine how adults should move.
As you can see by the chart above, in early childhood our head is the major contributor to our body height, while our lower limbs make only a small contribution. However, at maturity, it’s our lower limbs that make a larger contribution than the trunk or the head.
This is yet another example of how adults and babies don’t have the same structure. And, we’ve already established that when you have a different structure, you have a different function. So, again, it’s apples to oranges.
The Take Away from #1 & 2 - Since the body proportions and skeletal structure of babies essentially makes them built to squat deep, it makes sense that it’s considered a dysfunction (in the medical community) when a 3yr old isn’t capable of squatting in the way his or her body is set up for.
However, although some adults, as they’ve grown up, have developed a structural framework that still awards them the ability to squat like a baby. Given the huge variability in humans (shapes, sizes, etc.), it doesn’t make sense to use this same thought process with adults (or even teenagers) because it’s likely that many people (as they age) will not develop the body proportions and skeletal framework that’s conducive to squatting as they did when they were a baby.
“There’s a big difference between dysfunction and simply a variation of normal” Mark Comerford B.Phty. MCSP
3. Babies Don’t Have Any Effects of Aging
In short, along with the natural growth process our bodies go through moving into adulthood, the processes that occur as we age through our adulthood also determines our physical structure and movement capability.
For example: Dr.Stuart McGill talks about how the spine of the average 40yr old is not capable of doing what the spine of someone younger is capable of. That said, we don’t need any doctor or scientist to tell us that our body’s are capable of doing more (with less repercussions) when we’re younger than when we’re older. That’s another DUH! moment.
We’ve already established solid evidence for why we believe it’s unrealistic (and ignorant of reality) to think that all 23yr olds “should” be able to squat like a baby. And, when we add in the evidence of the aging process, it makes it extremely unrealistic to think that all (otherwise healthy) 43yr olds are “dysfunctional” when they’re unable to deep squat like a baby.
4. Babies Have No Injury History
I don’t have to tell you that there are no babies who are dealing with old sports injuries or with the general aches and pains that are a part of life.
Most people who are otherwise healthy individuals have some aches and pains, which is normal and certainly doesn’t make you a “patient” or someone who has a severe medical consideration. That said, these “non medical limitations” can, and often do, effect the way we move.
According to Jim Porterfield PT, co-author of Mechanical Low Back Pain and Mechanical Neck Pain, “When you lose articular cartilage, it changes the way you move.” And, it’s very common for adults who lead active lifestyles to have lost joint cartilage in one or several of their joints. At 33 yrs old, I’m one of them.
Additionally, it should be no mystery that as we age we lose cartilage in our joints. And, research like this swedish study found “An age related disintegration of the disc and the joint cartilages of the acromioclavicular. After the age of 70 maximum degeneration was very common.”
The same swedish study also found, “The meniscoid discs even from young subjects always showed some signs of degeneration, such as fraying of the disc edges.”
Furthermore, the researchers of the study concluded by stating,” The results of the present study seem to indicate that a gradual degeneration of the acromioclavicular joints is part of the normal aging process and in most individuals not associated with discomfort or pain.”
The take away from #3 & 4 - Not only may certain people not have the skeletal framework and body proportions that are conducive to squatting like a baby. But even if they once had the structure for it, it may no longer be conducive for them to deep squat like a baby due to a (non-painful) past injury or lose of cartilage. And, asking them to move in this way, with the intent of “fixing” their movement so they DON’T add strength to dysfunction could actually have the opposite effect and potentially cause a problem, or further exacerbate an existing issue by going against their body’s current physiology.
5. No Scientific Support for the Argument
Science does not “prove” anything, it simply provides evidence in support of or not in support of a subject in question. It’s only when the predominate amount (85-90%+) of scientific evidence on a subject points us in the same general direction, telling us that something actually does work, that we have the right to make strong claims about its validity.
This, unfortunately is far from the case with the “Squat like a baby” bandwagon. In that, we’re not aware of a body of studies with evidence telling us:
- The ability to deep squat prevents or helps heal back pain
- The ability to deep squat improves sports performance (…unless your sport involves doing deep squats)
- The ability to deep squat like a baby helps you become healthier
- The ability to deep squat like a baby helps you prevent injury or dictates injury potential
Now, there is SOME research on the FMS (which involves evaluating the deep squat along with 6 other movement variables) showing that it MAY help predict injury potential. However, several other research studies have shown the FMS MAY NOT be a reliable method of injury prediction. There is simply no predominance of research one way or the other, as some of the positive results have not been able to be repeated in other studies, which is important to note because the scientific community only accepts things that are consistently repeatable.
The ONLY general scientific consenus (we know of) that’s related to squatting (and shown solid repeatability) is on the evidence showing that when an athlete’s knee(s) drops into valgus (i.e. toward the midline) when they land after jumping, it puts them a great risk of suffering an ACL tear.
6. Babies are Unable to Move Like Adults
Put simply, when we put adults on the same playing field as babies (by holding adults to a standard of how babies move), we must realize that in doing so we’re also putting babies on the same playing field as adults.
Here’s a video showing a healthy 2 year-old boy running. You’ll see how his gait, which is normal for a human’s his age, is awkward and unstable in comparison to how an adult runs.
Now, if we judged the way this baby runs (which is a “fundamental” movement pattern) based on some preset standard of how adults run – We would think this baby is “dysfunctional”, as it would certainly be a sign something wasn’t working the way it should be if an adult ran in this manner.
However this assumption would be totally wrong and cause us to label a perfectly healthy moving baby as “dysfunctional” because we were comparing the way he or she moves to a standard that was taken from an adult human with a completely different physiological framework.
You see, a baby’s the centre of gravity lies about the level of the 12th thoracic vertebra, while in the adult it has descended to the level of the 5th lumbar vertebra.
When a child is beginning to walk, they are handicapped by a higher centre of gravity (than that of an adult), which makes them relatively unstable. As we grow and our lower limbs become a proportionally larger component of our body, our centre of gravity descends and we become more stable, and more able to run (and perform other movements, like squatting) with greater control and less potential hazard.
This further reinforces that changes in proportion of the different parts of the body during growth are a matter of functional importance because they not only impact the position of the centre of gravity, but they also determine our physical framework. Therefore effecting how we move (i.e. function) and making it (what we feel is) down inaccurate to try to compare the way babies and children move to determine what’s “functional” movement for adults.
7. The Claims Don’t Hold Up and They’re Contradictory
We’ve already presented more than enough solid evidence, but we would be remiss if we didn’t address (and debunk) the two common claims, both used by the same sources in an attempt to validate why adults should be able to (and train to be able to) squat like baby.
Common Claim #1 - Adults (in western cultures) have lost their ability to squat like they did when they were 3yrs old due to an inactive lifestyle or because they’re not using the pattern in the activities they do.
Common Claim #2 - Just because you don’t see the deep squat position happening in your sport doesn’t mean that your ability to deep squat isn’t influencing your ability to perform the movements of your sport. If you get better at your deep squat (i.e. baby squat), even though it doesn’t happen in your sport, it’ll give you better ability to do the movements that do happen in your sport.
The first claim is essentially making the “if you don’t use it you lose it” argument, which is fair to say in many cases, but not in regards to squatting like baby because, in addition to all we’ve covered thus far; this argument falls apart when you consider that there are plenty of fairly sedentary people who CAN deep squat.
Any experienced trainer who’s performed a large amount of assessments with beginner clients has certainly seen that there are some otherwise sedentary adults who are able to deep squat while others are not. Not to mention, there are plenty of athletes and exercise enthusiast who have stayed active throughout their entire lives that are unable to squat like they did when they were a baby. Heck, we have athletes in the NFL who’ve been playing football every year of their lives since they were in the pop warner league who still can’t get near squatting like they did when they were a baby.
This bring us to the second claim, which makes the myth-busting process easy because it completely contradicts the first claim.
The second claim basically tells that even though we don’t see the deep squat pattern being used in our sport, we are indirectly using it while performing the movements of our sport.
1. This completely goes against the S.A.I.D principle, which actually is a proven training concept.
2. If we follow this logic – Every time you perform the movements of your sport, you’re influencing your deep squatting ability, therefore you ARE using it all the time (even though you don’t see it happening), and would have never lost whatever deep squat ability you had it to begin with.
Furthermore, again, following the logic of this claim that there’s a inverse relationship between performing the movements of your sport and performing the deep squat – As you became more proficient at performing the movements of your sport, which is what happens when you regularly play and practice it, you would automatically become more proficient at performing the deep squat movement. Therefore invalidating the need to incorporate the deep squat exercise because it doesn’t offer anything you’re not already getting by simply playing and practicing your sport.
Now, if we think the deep squat should be incorporated in fitness training and performance programs because we feel it does offer unique cross-training benefits that help the body move in a different way than how it moves in most sports – We’re conceding that we really don’t think this movement is directly or in-directly already happening in most sports, which is fine. Just understand that it completely contradicts the claim (#2).
The Take Away: You can’t, on one hand, claim that “you’re using your squat ability (whether you see it or not) every time you move in the gym or in sports.” Then, or the other hand, completely contradict yourself by claiming that, “if you’re not actually doing the deep squat on a regular basis, you’ll lose it.”
Well… you can say that stuff. You just can’t say it and not put your foot in your mouth.
Furthermore, the simple fact that many healthy athletes (who’ve played sports all their lives and compete at the highest levels) aren’t able to perform a deep squat tells us that it is highly unlikely that someone’s deep squat ability is, in some magical and mysterious way the limiting factor to how well they’re able to do all of their sporting movements that don’t resemble deep squatting.
Is the Deep Squat Related to Golf Performance?
According to Dr.Greg Rose, co-founder of the Titleist Performance Institute (TPI), ” After screening over 50,000 golfers: If a golfer can’t perform a full deep squat because of limited ankle dorsiflexion, it can negatively effect their down swing and accuracy.” (paraphrased from this interview)
At performance U, we currently classify Dr.Roses statements as being “Ebne.”
EBNE is a word we stole from Edward de Bono, the world’s leading authority in the field of creative thinking and the teaching of thinking as a skill, which means Excellent But Not Enough.
The information Dr.Rose has provided is excellent, as is much of the information coming from TPI. However, it is not enough because there are far too many variables (along with likely confirmation bias) involved, which need to be eliminated in order to determine if one’s deep squat ability is truly a determining factor of golf performance.
In order to get accurate data on this, a comparative study would have to be done using golfers all of a similar skill level. The study would have to look at the overall accuracy of each player over multiple swings over multiple days since all golfers have their good days and bad days. The study would have to find that the group of golfers that had limited deep squat ability were significantly less accurate (as a whole) than the group of golfers who are capable of performing a deep squat.
Following that study, if it showed promising results, they would have to conduct another (before and after style) study to investigate whether accuracy improves (on the same individuals) who were previously unable to deep squat after they’ve improved their deep squat scores.
When someone makes a claim, the burden of proof is on THEM!
Until peer-reviewed studies like that are published, we’ll remain very skeptical on the claims in regards to how much significance one’s ability to perform a deep squat has on their injury potential and ability to successfully play sports that don’t involve regular deep squatting.
Additionally, based on the (proven) SAID principle, which dictates much of what we practice in training, we believe that it’s absolutely necessary to be able to deep squat (like a baby) if this movement happens in your sport (baseball catcher, Olympic lifting, etc.). That said, if you aren’t able to deep squat, then you’re unable to do any sport that requires it to begin with. So, these things have a way of taking care of themselves.
Squat Like an Adult – Squat Like YOU!
At Performance U, we don’t believe in species specific testing (which is what the” squat like a baby” argument is rooted in) because there is no specific shape or size of the human species.
Size & Shape = Structure, which determines Function. And, variations in human Structure = Variations in human function.
In other words, we don’t believe there’s only one type of “good form” in the squat (or any other movement for that matter) because function comes in all shapes and sizes. What we want from our clients when they squat is the two Cs: CONTROL & COMFORT.
Comfort = Pain free, feels natural, works within their current physiology, etc.
Control = Displaying good knee and spinal alignment, smooth movement, etc.
Those two C’s are our Standards, but we are not Standardized. In that, we work with our clients and help each of them experiment with various stances (widths, toe angles) and squat depths, until we find the deepest squat the can perform with Comfort and Control.
Once we’ve found THEIR OPTIMAL SQUAT STYLE, our evaluation criteria is PERFORMANCE:
- If the client did indeed lose squat ROM from not using it, we find that ROM gradually comes back once we reinstate the squatting back into their life.
- If the client does not improve their squat ROM, or ceases to improve their ROM once we get them regularly squatting, we don’t push them to go farther because we believe they’re (most likely) already using what their physiology will allow.
- In addition to using squat ROM as an evaluation criteria, we also look for progressive strength gains.
“Coach for an improved pattern rather than a predetermined pattern or a one-size-fits-all approach. There’s no best way to squat if you refer to specifics such as joint angles, or feet position, etc., but I do believe there are ‘ideal’ strategies to teach.”