Back in December of 2012 I wrote an article titled “Squat Like A Baby: 7 Reasons this is a Ridiculous Myth,” which became one of the more popular posts here. After going back and re-reading this article recently, and considering the feedback and questions I received when the original version was published, I felt I didn’t do a good enough job of organizing the information and getting across the main take-home points I wanted you (the reader) to come away with.
In other words, I’m still happy with the information given in the original article, I’m just not at all happy with how I gave it. So I went to work on this (below) revised and reworked version, which I’m confident will give you a “fresh view” on the information (if you read the original version), along with delivering a much clearer, more concise and more cohesive resource (than the previous version) sharing the rational behind the Performance U perspective and training approach to this topic.
Here’s the new and improved version of my “Squat Like a Baby?” article:
Despite the fact that every personal trainer and strength coach is well aware that each individual training situation is as unique as the individual person we’re working with, the training and conditioning field as a whole continues to have an obsession with using blanket statements. One of the currently trending blanket statements is “Squat Like a baby.”
Although well intentioned, we feel it’s very misguided for personal trainers and strength coaches to lead their adult clients and athletes 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 this article, I’m going to provide you with the various reasons for why the Performance U training approach doesn’t involve jumping on the “squat like a baby” bandwagon, and feel it’s not only potentially dangerous to take a one size fits all approach to squatting, it’s also ignorant of the obvious physiological differences between adults and babies that it’s an insult to the intelligence of the professional training and conditioning field.
First, I’m going to address the physiological difference between babies and adults. Then I’m going to address the undeniable factors, which are ignored by those who throw out the “if you don’t use it, you lose it” argument as their reasoning for why adults should be able to squat like they did when they were a baby. Finally, I’ll provide you with the simple (and sensible) approach used in the Performance U training system to help individuals (of all ages and fitness levels) to find their optimal squat style.
3 Major Physiological Differences Between Adults and Babies
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; 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 this extra joint space offers babies much greater ROM than even that of teenagers, much less an 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 are the 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.
2. Adults and Babies Have Very Different Body Proportions
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) as a means 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.
3. Babies are Unable to Move Like Adults
Put simply, when you put adults on the same playing field as babies (by holding adults to a standard of how babies move), you must realize that in doing so you’re also putting babies on the same playing field as adults.
With this reality in mind, here’s a video showing a healthy 2 year-old boy running. You’ll see how his gait, which is normal for a human 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 believe that 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 center 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.
BUT… Many Adults Can Deep Squat Like a Baby: “If You Don’t Use It, You Lose It”
To us, the simple fact that babies and adults have very different physical frameworks (i.e. skeletal structures, body proportions and centre of gravity) should immediately invalidate any argument (or desire) to compare the way babies move to determine what’s “good” movement for adults.
That said, the most common rebuttle to the undeniable points made above is: Those physiological differences must not matter much because many adults like those in Asian cultures can squat deep (like a baby) because they’ve always used it since they were a babies, growing up pooping in holes in the ground and squatting down to rest.
Note: I’ve been brought out to Beijing China twice to teach trainers for a conference held at Beijing Sports University. And, all of the students toilets there I saw, along with many of the bathrooms at restaurants in Beijing have toilets that are at floor level (i.e. holes in the floor). Thankfully, my hotel rooms all had toilets.
Although the “if you don’t use it, you lose it” argument – to justify why one feels that all adults should be able to squat like a baby – is a reasonable one, it ignorantly (and dangerously) fails to consider 2 very important factors:
1. Babies Don’t Have Any Effects of Aging
The first problem with the “if you don’t use, you lose it” argument is that it broadly assumes that all adults “had it” to begin with once they reached adulthood.
In other words, although some adults have developed the body proportions and structural framework that’s conducive to squatting as they did when they were a baby, in no way means all adults have. And, given the huge variability in human adults (i.e. different shapes, sizes, etc.), it’s very likely that some adults did not develop this framework as they aged.
The second, and even bigger problem with this argument is that it also fails to account for the degenerative changes (along with many other physical changes) that continue to occur in many people as they continue to age through adulthood, well after bone growth is complete by our late-20s.
The pubic symphysis – the joints located at the front of the pelvis, where the two halves meet above the pubic area – is one of many joints that’s particularly prone to deterioration. Due to this fact, it undergoes consistent changes over the course of a person’s lifetime, which is why it’s often used by Anthropologists to indicate physiological age of unknown individuals.
The picture below displays the developmental changes to the pubic symphysis, over six stages (I-VI) from younger (on left) to older (on right).
Additionally, I’ve heard Dr. Stuart McGill talk 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, you don’t need to be a rocket surgeon – No, that’s not a typo – to tell us that our body becomes less capable as we age even if we continue to stay active.
In short, along with the natural growth process our bodies go through moving into adulthood, the processes that occur as we age (and make varying lifestyle choices: eating habits, activities, sedentary, etc.) throughout our adulthood also determines our physical structure and movement capability.
2. Babies Have No Injury History
I don’t have to tell you that there are no babies who have old sports injuries or who are dealing 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 rehab “patient” or someone who has a severe medical consideration. That said, these “non-medical limitations” can, and often do, impact 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.
It’s also no secret that active lifestyle or not, we lose cartilage in our joints as we age. In fact, 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 researchers in the study went on to say, “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.”
Squat Like an Adult – Squat Like YOU!
The 5 non-nonnegotiable realities I’ve covered above clearly establish that not only may certain people (adults) not have the skeletal framework and body proportions that are conducive to squatting like a baby, even if they once did have the structure for it, it may no longer be conducive for them due to a past injury, lose of cartilage or natural degenerative processes, or even being overweight. So, simply pontificating that “every adult should be able to squat like a baby” is not only ignorant of reality, it’s also potentially dangerous. In that, attempting to fit every adult into the same movement standard and attempting to “fix” them based on this standard could easily have the opposite effect and potentially cause a problem, or further exacerbate an existing issue because it may go against a person’s current physiological framework.
In short, the Performance U stance on this matter is simple: Trying to fit everyone into the same movement criteria (i.e., adults should be able to squat like a baby) is intellectually lazy and simply doesn’t make any physiological sense.
Now, here’s the simple approach we use to helping each individual to find their most optimal squat style, which, we feel does make sense, because it takes an individualized approach:
Put simply, when it comes to squatting, or performing any other exercise or movement pattern, we’re concerned with what we call “the Two Cs”: Comfort & Control.
Comfort = The movement is Pain free, feels natural, and works within one’s current physiology.
Control = The individual can demonstrate the movement tempo and body positioning we request. For example: When squatting, they display good knee and spinal alignment throughout, along with displaying smooth (and deliberate) rhythm of movement.
Those “Two C’s” are the Performance U “movement standards”, but it’s not standardized. In that, instead of using blanket statements (i.e. “squat like a baby) for everyone, this approach is about having each individual experiment with various squat stances (widths, foot angles) and squat depths, until each individual has found the deepest squat the can perform with Comfort and (good) Control.
Once someone has found their own optimal squat style – some people can perform multiple squat variations with comfort and control, while other’s are more limited in options (based on their structure) – our evaluation criteria is about one thing: Performance:
– Improvements in performance can show up as changes in Range of Motion (i.e. squat depth), or as improvements in strength.
– Improvements in strength are obvious: they can do more (weight, reps w/ the same load or less rest between sets).
– In regards to range of motion, if the client did indeed lose squat range of motion (ROM) from not using it (i.e. if you don’t use it, you lose it), we’ve found that their lost ROM gradually comes back once we reinstate the squatting pattern back into their regular activity.
– If someone does not improve their squat ROM, or ceases to improve their ROM once we’ve gotten them regularly squatting (with good technique of course), we won’t push them (or attempt to use “corrective exercise”) to go farther because it’s likely they’re already using what their physiology currently allows.
We certainly don’t disagree that babies display great looking squat ability. And, no one has said we’re against “ass-to-grass” (i.e. deep) squatting – We’re all for deep squatting if one is able to do so with good comfort and control. What we strongly disagree with is using the way a baby squats as a “standard” from which to judge all adults. We think it’s absolutely wrong, not to mention ridiculous, to label (i.e. diagnose) an adult as “dysfunctional” simply because they do not display the same deep squat ability as a baby.
The Performance U philosophy is simple: Displaying the best squat you can with what you’ve currently got (i.e., within your current physical capabilities.) We don’t get caught up with how someone thinks an individual should be moving; we care about how the are moving. And, we let the Physical Therapists and Orthopedic specialists worry about why people can’t do stuff and how to “fix” it, because the “corrective therapy” game isn’t for the fitness professional to play.
To wrap up, I want to leave you with some wise words from Dr. Mark McKean (who’s done some awesome research on the squat), on common mistakes many personal trainers, coaches and therapists make when assessing and coaching the squat:
“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.”