Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Pictures say a lot, but not everything

Don't believe everything you see. It is easy to do. I know. I've done it and do it often. I'm a work in progress though. Anyway, there is a wonderful picture floating around about a child squatting. It is a great picture, no doubt. In the picture there is a child squatting with a perfect squat. His knees are over his feet, his hips are well below parallel, his spine is straight, his torso is upright and his neck is in a neutral position. It is a perfect squat - for fitness. 

This picture is used to illustrate how adults are supposed to squat. Babies squat this way, and you should too! That is a partial truth. The picture is not telling the whole story. For example, do you think maybe the babies neck was in a neutral position because his gaze was fixed on his hands? 

I think that is a strong possibility. How about that back? Well, it is perfectly straight. That lumbar is strong. 

But check this out:
This is my nephew. He is adorable. He moves perfectly. This is a pretty good squat. His back is not that straight though. His lumbar is still strong, but he has some rounding going on. Not much, but a little. When he wants to, he straightens his spine when he squats. I've seen him do it lots of times. When he is investigating something on the ground though, he rounds. Also, look at his head position, he is looking at me. Some extension and rotation in his neck. When he wants to, and depending on what he is doing, he does put his neck in a neutral position. But most of the time, his neck position is determined by whatever he is checking out with his eyes.

Here is another shot. His gaze is between his feet. His neck and head are down.

I am only saying that some pictures can only tell you what is going on at the instant they are taken. To take one picture and put a blanket statement out for all movement, or all squats is kind of like stretching the truth.

Here is one thing you can probably gather from all of these pictures: children move well in all sorts of ways. Maybe we should too. 

The fitness world is funny. Small truths are stretched to make big truths. The whole point to this post is that we should not always believe everything we see, or everything we are told. We should investigate things on their own and in their own situations. The squatting baby is a great picture. It really is. But, to say we should always hold our neck in a neutral position when we are lifting based on a baby picture is a blanket statement that may not always be true. And, if we should follow the example of children and imitate how well they move and what they do to move, let me ask this last question: Have you ever seen a baby standup from a squat with a heavy bar on his back? 

Just asking.... ;)


Boris said...

I think the take-away from baby and toddler picks is more along the lines of "Hey, look at this healthy, stable, mobile, and strong squat movement. Let's work to regain that." more than "This is how you should squat with a barbell on your back.".

Agree with you - I think people are taking the illustration a little far.

Tim Anderson said...


Yes, we should work to regain the body we were supposed to have and be able to move in all ways. That sums it all up. Thanks for the discussion.


Kyle said...

No, but I have seen a toddler deadlift.

My 14 month old son, I noticed, did hip hingeing movements before squatting movements. Approaching a wall or chair he'd rise from a crawl into a "down dog" position, and then use his hands to get himself standing up. Now able to walk a few feet, if he wants to pick something up, he hinges at the hips to pick it up.

It's true that toddlers don't always have straight backs when doing these movements, but you'll notice that if moving any significant load their backs instinctively straighten.

While the squat is a natural human movement, the hip hinge seems to come first and be perhaps more natural. However with adults I find it's easier to teach a previously sedentary person to squat than to deadlift... but on the other hand, many older people who because of injury, illness or other restriction of joint mobility cannot squat can still deadlift.

Tim Anderson said...


Thanks so much for commenting. You are right. Most babies I've seen do hip hinge before they squat. Much in the way that you described.

In fact, watching my 2 year old nephew try to deadlift a watermelon is what prompted me to write this post. He did, however, not straighten his spine AND the water melon was too heavy for him to lift. I think some things may just be situational and individual. Some babies only crawl backwards, while most will crawl forward - if they crawl at all.

Your observations about adults seem in line with my own as well. It seems to always be easier to teach an adult to squat (in some fashion of a squat) than to teach them to hinge. Maybe it is because sedentary people don't use their gluts and hamstrings too often.

You make awesome points and observations. Thank you so much for contributing!


Kyle said...

Your nephew's watermelon lift, like the stone lifts in strongman competitions, may have been roundbacked less from the load and more from the shape of the load. Big round things encourage you to wrap your trunk around them. It'd be interesting to see what he did with a kettlebell of the same weight.

Certainly all this is individual in a child's development though, you're right.

The way I see it, people become accustomed to moving a certain way in their day-to-day lives, and they bring those movement patterns with them into the gym. I knew a guy who when he came to the barbell always took a half-step forward with one foot - he was a boxer. I knew another guy who had his feet turned out like Charlie Chaplin - he was a roof tiler, and used to walking along roof beams. Many of us can spot a long-time ballerina by the way she walks with feet turned out and pointed. People bring their day-to-day movement patterns into the gym.

Most people are not boxers, roof tilers or ballerinas, but they do spend most of their day sitting. They sit down for work, sit down for transport, and sit down for leisure.

When seated, their hips are already in flexion, so when they bend to pick something off the floor, they have to go into lumbar and thoracic flexion, there's no other way to get down lower.

Then when they come to pick something up while standing, they automatically flex their spines. Even though their hips are in extension, their system says, "my hips are already as flexed as they can be, so now to get lower I have to flex my spine," just as it would if they were picking up something lower than a barbell with a pair of 20kg plates on it.

I can't remember who, but someone referred to the kettlebell swing as the "anti-sit." The same's true of any hip hingeing movement. Once people get that squared away with even a light load, all those aches and pains from sitting all day tend to fade away.

That's my experience and ideas, anyway. Subject to change with more experience.

Tim Anderson said...


Yes, my nephew looked just like a strongman lifting a stone. I thought it was awesome - so cute.

I loved what you said: "People bring their day-to-day movement patterns into the gym." That is dead on! For most, sitting IS that movement pattern. And that is what we are trying to help with. Great stuff.

I find that just getting people up out of chairs and back on the floor - learning how to roll, rock and crawl much as your toddler does, gets rid of all those aches and pains too. Usually faster than learning how to hinge. The hinge, though is a tremendous tool that should be in everyone's movement vocabulary.

Thanks again for sharing your ideas. Our experiences will continue to teach us new things, I am sure. Experiential knowledge trumps scientific projections and research quite often.

Keep up the good work, my friend.