Is the deep squat position bad for you? Observations from incredible India.

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Adventures in incredible India!

In November of last year I was lucky enough to travel to India for a holiday with my wife. We flew into Mumbai where we spent a few days exploring the city. Mumbai is one of the largest cities in the world by population density with almost 14 million people living in an area just over 600km2. Whilst there I remember thinking to myself that that I was never further away than 5 metres from another person. The density of the city was incredible. After a few days we caught a train down the west coast to the small state of Goa, where we were able to escape the hustle and bustle of the city and spend some time exploring the beautiful beaches and coastal life that Goa has to offer.

Despite being on holidays, it was hard for me to switch off my physio brain. As I watched locals go about their day to day business, I noticed how different their lifestyle and movements were compared to what we see in the Western world. One thing that I kept seeing everywhere was people in a deep squat position (pictured). It is a position that people in India (and many other countries throughout Asia and Africa) use when they are working with objects on the ground in front of them or when they are simply taking a rest from working (they also use it for toileting, but we won’t go into that right now). After seeing so many people using this squat, I decided to give it a go. I tried to assume this position and found that I’m physically unable to achieve the position. I lack the range of movement required at my ankles and hips which didn’t allow me to bring my centre of gravity forwards enough, so I fell backwards (go ahead and try it yourselves before you laugh). Yet I was seeing Indian people in their 40s, 50s and older getting in and out of this position with ease.

It got me thinking about how in Western society there are commonly held beliefs about posture. “Excessive squatting is bad for your back and bad for your knees”, “don’t slouch!”, “sit up straight”, “bend with your knees and keep your back straight”.

But this deep squat position sort of goes against all those popular and widespread ideals.

Let’s have a look at what we tend to consider ‘poor’ posture compared to ‘correct’ posture. If we compare the ‘poor’ sitting posture to our squatting in the initial image what we see is that both backs are quite rounded. As a matter of fact, from their pelvis and up both positions look quite similar. So is the deep squat position bad?

From looking at the image, I think that the squat is actually quite a nice position (if you can achieve it). Yes your back is curved differently to the ‘correct’ posture, and yes your knees and hips are flexed to end range. But what is good about this position is that your centre of gravity is nicely aligned over your feet. This means that you have to do minimal muscle work to maintain the position. Therefore, those big muscles at the bottom of your spine are nice and relaxed in the squat position. As for your legs, it means that your joints are getting stretched out to maintain flexibility while most of your muscles are relaxed and resting.

I would argue that the ‘correct’ sitting position as pictured above is actually likely to cause some discomfort if it is held for a long time. Because to maintain that position the muscles in your back and hips have to work quite hard to stop you from slumping down. This means that these muscles will eventually fatigue and can become sore. They can also become tense, tight and overactive, leading to that feeling of constant tightness that is a common complaint amongst low back pain sufferers. To give you a better of understanding of how this works, try this. Make a fist and squeeze as hard as you can. Now keep squeezing for one minute. What you will notice is that your hand starts to get sore, and then maybe your forearm will start to burn as well. You might even notice that it remains uncomfortable for a little while after your hand has relaxed. This is what the muscles of your back are doing when you sit in an unsupported seat in the ‘correct’ position as pictured above. So allowing those muscles to ‘let go’ and not hold your back perfectly straight might actually improve your aching back.

So should we all stop using chairs and desks and do everything from a squatting position on the ground? Well, no. That would be extremely impractical, obviously. But what we can learn from this is that our backs are designed to move and that it’s natural for our spine to bend. If you feel sore and tense from sitting all day, make sure you move, stretch and exercise, and if things don’t improve, seek professional advice.

So, to answer the question is the deep squat position bad for you?

No it’s not. And there are millions of people throughout the world who would agree!

Markus

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