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Are squats the best exercise?

Whether you’re hoping to tone your muscles, strengthen your core or just improve overall health, squats are one of the best exercises you can do.

Although the movements appear relatively simple, squats can take time to master. Joel Hardwick, ACSM EP-C, EIM2, an exercise physiologist at Piedmont Atlanta Fitness Center, says practice will pay off.

“One of the best things you can do is practice the squat,” he says.

Why squats are so beneficial

Hardwick explains that squats are a compound, multi-joint movement, which means they exercise several muscle groups. When you perform a squat, you work your calves, quads, hamstrings, glutes, core and part of your back.

A squat has more overall benefits than, say, a bicep curl, which strengthens an isolated area.

“Generally, what is better for an exercise program is to have most of your program comprised of compound movements,” Hardwick says. Other examples of compound exercises include rowing and deadlifts.

Hardwick says squats also improve blood circulation and boost the mind-body connection. They help you retain mobility by keeping your body strong as you age.

How to perform a squat

The easiest way to think of a squat, Hardwick says, is to imagine you’re moving to sit down in a chair. The steps are relatively simple:

  1. Plant your feet on the floor, about shoulder-width apart.
  2. Keep your knees above your heels.
  3. Maintain a straight back as you squat, aiming to get your thighs parallel to the ground.
  4. Stand back up again until your body is completely straight.

If you’ve never tried squats before, you may have trouble reaching low, and that’s OK. Hardwick says the most important thing is to perform a squat safely, especially if you’re new to the exercise.

“Your brain doesn’t know how to accomplish that specific movement,” he points out.

Improving your form with squats

Although the squat may seem intuitive, it can take some work to perfect. Hardwick recommends staying mindful of how tight your muscles are and whether your body has weaknesses or imbalances.

If you are older, manage arthritis or experience other kinds of chronic pain, don’t begin strength exercises without talking with your doctor.

“It’s wise to know what your body is capable of,” Hardwick says.

He says common squat mistakes involve posture. Avoid rounding out your back during the motion, and keep your knees above your heels. Once they go past your toes, you are placing weight on the wrong parts of your body and are at greater risk of injury.

Hardwick says that as you begin a new routine, you can practice squats with a chair to improve your form. It’s easy: You’ll keep the classic form, but you’ll squat until you’re literally sitting in a chair. Then, you’ll stand back up without using armrests for balance.

You’ll get better with time and can eventually train without the chair. Once you’re ready to advance to more difficult variations, try going slower on the way down and then shooting back up faster.

If you encounter difficulties, keep practicing. It’s “absolutely, 100% true” that squats are one of the best exercises you can do for overall strength and stamina, Hardwick says.

“It’s probably the most functional exercise,” he explains, “and the one that you probably need most in your life.”

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