By Rachel Lankester, Editor

In the bustling streets of Asia, amidst the vibrant cultures and traditions, exists a simple yet enigmatic act that often escapes the attention of the casual observer: the Asian squat. Imagine strolling through the streets of Beijing or navigating the chaotic markets of Bangkok, only to find locals effortlessly crouching down, heels firmly planted on the ground, balancing with serene ease as they engage in conversation or simply observe their surroundings. For your average Westerner like me, it can be a very surprising sight!

Asian squat benefits

We’ll look at the biomechanics and purported health benefits of the Asian squat below, but there’s also a deeper narrative woven into it – one that speaks of resilience, adaptability, and the intrinsic connection between humans and their environment. The Asian squat embodies a mindset deeply rooted in communal living and a harmonious relationship with the natural world. It’s a posture cultivated not merely out of necessity, but as a testament to the cultural ethos that values simplicity, agility, and the ability to find comfort in the most unassuming of postures and in any location.

Historical origins and cultural significance

The Asian squat, though often seen as a simple act of resting or waiting, holds profound historical roots and cultural significance deeply ingrained within the fabric of Asian societies. Its origins can be traced back centuries, intertwined with the evolution of traditional lifestyles, societal norms, and philosophical beliefs. 

In ancient times, Asian cultures predominantly engaged in agrarian practices, where communities relied heavily on manual labor for sustenance. This lifestyle required a close connection with the land and a keen understanding of how to interact with it efficiently. The ability to squat low to the ground was not just a matter of comfort but often a practical necessity, especially during tasks such as planting, harvesting, or tending to livestock. It was a common resting position.

The Asian squat also finds its roots intertwined with Eastern philosophies such as Taoism and Buddhism, which emphasize harmony with nature and the importance of balance in all aspects of life. The act of squatting, with its grounding connection to the earth, resonated deeply with these philosophical principles, serving as a physical manifestation of humility, mindfulness, and interconnectedness with the natural world.

In many cultures, including those in China, Japan, and Korea, squatting is associated with notions of hospitality, camaraderie, and communal living. It’s a posture often adopted during informal gatherings, where individuals squat together to share meals, engage in conversation, or simply bond over shared experiences.  In times of hardship, the ability to squat and find comfort in simplicity became a metaphorical embodiment of endurance and fortitude, reflecting the resilience of Asian societies in overcoming adversity.

Beyond its historical and cultural significance, the Asian squat continues to endure as a symbol of identity and pride for many Asians around the world. In an increasingly globalized society, where cultural traditions often face the threat of homogenization, the act of squatting serves as a tangible link to the rich tapestry of Asian heritage and traditions. But as Asia modernizes and becomes more Westernized, this ancient tradition is becoming less common.

There can also be prejudice against Asian people who continue to squat in the street, for example. The people of Hong Kong sometimes look down on their fellow countrymen from Mainland China, linking the squat with lack of education and sophistication. As a Westerner who lived in China in the 1980s, and who has always struggled to get anywhere near a deep squatting position, making Chinese squat toilets a particular challenge, I’m just filled with admiration for anyone with this level of flexibility!

The Asian squat is also a key marker of lower body mobility. As we increasingly live a sedentary lifestyle, with lack of mobility becoming a major issue in later life and stiff hips leading to inflexibility and pain as we age, getting closer to an Asian squat position on a regular basis can be a brilliant way to develop a larger range of motion. Let’s look at what makes this deeper squat so hard to do and how we can get closer to achieving it. 

What makes the Asian squat so hard to do

The Asian squat, seemingly effortless for those accustomed to it, often presents a perplexing challenge to those of us not. There are many reasons why this seemingly simple act can be so difficult for many.

One key factor lies in the cultural and societal conditioning that shapes individuals’ biomechanics and movement patterns from a young age. In many Western cultures, for example, individuals are often taught to sit in chairs from an early age, leading to decreased flexibility in the hips, ankles, and lower back. This cultural predisposition towards seated postures can make it inherently challenging for individuals to adopt the Asian squat, which requires a different set of movement patterns and muscular engagement. That’s my excuse for my lack of lower body flexibility and I’m sticking to it! 

Many cultures still sit on the floor which is actually much better for our overall health, especially as we age. Sadly not the case in most Western countries. Getting up and down from the floor is a key skill we need to maintain in advanced age. Squatting also helps us maintain better balance. Having better balance and the ability to get up from the floor, help prevent falls as we age and enable us to not get stranded on the floor if we do fall. 

The Asian squat is not just a physical posture but a cultural norm deeply ingrained in the social fabric of many Asian societies. As such, there’s a psychological aspect to the difficulty of performing the squat for those outside these cultures. The unfamiliarity of the posture, coupled with the fear of social judgment or embarrassment, can create mental barriers that further hinder one’s ability to squat comfortably.

Additionally, the Asian squat requires a certain level of proprioception and kinesthetic awareness – the ability to sense and control one’s body in space. For people who have spent most of their lives in environments devoid of squatting, developing this proprioceptive sense can be challenging. It’s not just a matter of physical flexibility but also a retraining of the mind-body connection to adapt to a new movement pattern.

The Asian squat often demands a degree of muscular strength and endurance that may not be readily developed in those of us with sedentary lifestyles. While flexibility is certainly a crucial component, the ability to sustain the squat position for extended periods requires muscular engagement and conditioning, particularly in the quadriceps, glutes, and core muscles.

The different muscles involved in a deep squat

It’s also useful to understand the different major muscles involved for optimizing performance, preventing injuries, and maximizing benefits. Strengthening and conditioning these muscle groups through targeted exercises can improve overall stability, mobility, and strength. Proper form and technique are key, especially to avoid injury. When you’re not used to squatting in daily life, you need to take particular care of the knee joints. 

  1. Quadriceps – The quadriceps muscles, located at the front of the thigh, are responsible for extending the knee joint. They play a crucial role in straightening the legs during the upward phase of the squat.
  2. Hamstrings – Situated at the back of the thigh, the hamstrings are responsible for flexing the knee joint and extending the hip joint. They assist in controlling the descent phase of the squat and provide stability to the knee and hip joints.
  3. Calves – The calf muscles, including the gastrocnemius and soleus, are primarily involved in plantarflexion of the ankle joint, pointing the toes downward. They help stabilize the ankles and provide support during the squatting motion.
  4. Gluteus Maximus – As the largest muscle in the body, the gluteus maximus plays a significant role in hip extension, driving the upward phase of the squat. It also helps stabilize the pelvis and maintain proper alignment throughout the movement.
  5. Adductors – The adductor muscles, located on the inner thighs, are responsible for pulling the legs toward the midline of the body. They contribute to hip stability and help maintain proper alignment of the pelvis and femurs during the squat.
  6. Erector Spinae – The erector spinae muscles, running along the length of the spine, provide support and stability to the vertebral column during the squat. They help maintain an upright posture and prevent excessive forward or backward bending of the spine.
  7. Transverse Abdominis – As one of the deep core muscles, the transverse abdominis acts like a corset, providing stability and support to the lumbar spine and pelvis. It helps maintain intra-abdominal pressure and contributes to overall core stability during the squat.
  8. Tibialis Anterior – The tibialis anterior muscle, located at the front of the shin, is responsible for dorsiflexion of the ankle joint, lifting the toes upward. It helps control the descent phase of the squat and assists in maintaining proper foot alignment.

Wow! That’s a lot of muscles involved! Here’s a video resource from YouTube that demonstrates some of the issues involved in squatting, such as your body proportions, joint mobility and muscle strength.

You may actually never be able to do the perfect squat, because your body just won’t allow it, but you may be able to find squat variations that work for you and help you reap the benefits of increasing strength in your lower body muscles.

Exercise that can help improve your Asian squat

Improving your squat requires a comprehensive approach that addresses not only flexibility and mobility but also lower body strength, stability, and proprioception. Here are some techniques and exercises that can significantly enhance your ability to perform a squat with ease and comfort. 

1. Deep Squat Progressions – Start by practicing deep squat progressions to gradually improve your range of motion and comfort in the squat position. Begin by squatting as low as you can comfortably go, using support if necessary, and gradually work towards squatting deeper over time. Incorporate variations such as the goblet squat or assisted squats to build strength and confidence in the movement.

2. Hip Flexor and Ankle Mobility – Focus on improving hip flexor and ankle flexibility, which are crucial for achieving proper squat depth and alignment. Perform dynamic stretches and mobility exercises such as lunges, leg swings, and ankle circles to loosen tight muscles and improve joint mobility. Additionally, incorporate self-myofascial release techniques using a foam roller or lacrosse ball to release tension in the hip flexors and calves.

3. Strengthening Exercises – Incorporate strength training exercises that target the muscles involved in the Asian squat, including the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and core muscles. Exercises such as squats, lunges, deadlifts, and hip thrusts can help build strength and stability in these muscle groups, improving your ability to maintain proper form and control during the squat.

4. Balance and Stability Training – Enhance your balance and stability through specific exercises that challenge proprioception and body awareness. Incorporate single-leg exercises such as single-leg squats, Bulgarian split squats, and stability ball exercises to improve balance and proprioceptive feedback, which are essential for maintaining proper alignment and control during the squat.

5. Mindful Movement Practice – Practice mindful movement and body awareness to develop a deeper understanding of your body’s alignment and movement patterns. Focus on maintaining proper posture, engaging the core, and distributing weight evenly throughout the feet during the squat. Pay attention to any areas of tension or discomfort and adjust your technique accordingly to avoid strain or injury.

By incorporating these exercises and techniques into your training routine, you may be able to gradually improve your deep squat and unlock the full potential of this movement. Remember to listen to your body, progress gradually, and seek guidance from a qualified fitness professional if needed to ensure safe and effective practice.

Step-by-step guide on how to perform a full squat

  1. Find a Stable Surface: Begin by finding a stable surface to squat on, preferably flat and level ground. Avoid uneven or slippery surfaces that may compromise your balance or stability.
  2. Stand with Feet Shoulder-Width Apart: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, toes pointed slightly outward. Keep your spine neutral, shoulders relaxed, and gaze forward to maintain proper posture.
  3. Initiate the Squat: Slowly lower your body down by bending your knees and hips, keeping your heels flat on the ground. Focus on sitting back into the squat rather than leaning forward, which can strain your lower back.
  4. Maintain Proper Alignment: As you lower into the squat, aim to keep your knees tracking over your toes and your chest lifted. Avoid letting your knees collapse inward or your heels lifting off the ground, which can compromise stability and alignment.
  5. Engage Core and Glutes: Engage your core muscles and glutes to maintain stability and support throughout the squat. Imagine drawing your navel towards your spine and squeezing your glutes as you descend into the squat.
  6. Reach Comfortable Depth: Lower your body down as far as is comfortable for you, aiming to squat as low as possible while maintaining proper form and alignment. Some individuals may be able to achieve a deep squat with their buttocks nearly touching the ground, while others may find a shallower squat more comfortable.
  7. Use Support if Needed: If you have difficulty maintaining balance or stability in the squat, you can use support by holding onto a stable object such as a pole, railing, or door frame. Using support can help you gradually build strength and confidence in the squatting posture.
  8. Breathe and Relax: Once you’ve reached your comfortable depth in the squat, focus on breathing deeply and relaxing into the posture. Allow your body to adapt to the position and release any tension or tightness in your muscles.
  9. Hold the Squat Position: Hold the squat position for as long as is comfortable for you, aiming to gradually increase the duration over time as your strength and flexibility improve. Focus on maintaining proper alignment and breathing rhythmically throughout the hold.
  10. Rise Slowly: To come out of the squat, press through your heels and engage your leg muscles to slowly rise back up to a standing position. Avoid sudden movements or jerking motions that can strain your muscles or joints.

And one last tip from personal experience! The Asian squat pose can really help with your bowel movements! There’s a reason why we naturally all used to go to the loo that way. But how to replicate that with a modern sitting WC? Raise your feet on a little stool. One of those little steps you may use if you’re height challenged, to help you get to the top shelf. You’ll be amazed at how much easier it will be to empty your bowels. No more straining! Trust me on that!

Rachel Lankester is the founder of Magnificent Midlife, author, host of the Magnificent Midlife Podcast, a midlife mentor and editor of the Mutton Club online magazine. After an initially devastating early menopause at 41, she dedicated herself to helping women vibrantly transition through the sometimes messy middle of life, helping them cope better with menopause and ageing in general, and create magnificent next chapters. She’s been featured in/on BBC Woman’s Hour, The Huffington Post, The Sunday Times, Thrive Global, Authority Magazine, The Age Buster, Woman’s Weekly, Prima Magazine, eShe, Tatler HK and Woman’s Own amongst others. She believes we just get better with age. Get her book Magnificent Midlife: Transform Your Middle Years, Menopause and Beyond which was recommended in the New York Times.

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Last Updated on April 3, 2024 by Editorial Staff

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