There is no debate that squatting is a natural body position. What isn’t natural about the squat is the weight, the repetitions, and the depth at which some are pushing their bodies. This is the first problem with the caveman squat, despite the blogs and article that praise its power and strength. Here are the 6 definite reasons why your caveman squat debate is nonsense.
What is the Caveman Squat?
The best way to describe the caveman squat is a baby squat. You know the position; it is the one where babies bend at the knees and sink their bottoms nearly to the floor. This is also referred to as a full-depth squat. Whatever the name, it is still not an ideal position.
Some claim that the ability to squat like a caveman or a baby is the ultimate indicator of leg power. That is not at all true. Here are some of the other claims I heard and see daily:
- Increases ankle and knee flexibility
- Strengthens hips
- Relieves back pain
- Strengthens the glutes
- Corrects your posture
The argument for the squat is that we should be able to squat like a caveman because we used to be able to do so. The same is said for those who think the caveman squat is ideal – because our ancestors did it. Both defenses are flawed for a number of reasons. We can’t and shouldn’t squat like babies or cavemen because we aren’t babies or cavemen. Despite blog debates and controversial claims, there are real scientific answers as to why.
6 Reasons Why the Caveman Debate is Flawed
There are many reasons why the case for the full-depth caveman squat falls short of convincing me of its benefits. Here’s why:
1. Human development
When babies are young and begin to explore, they use their bodies to do so. This involves rolling, crawling, creeping, standing, sitting, and squatting. The older we get, the less the need or desire to explore the world with our bodies becomes.
This has also happened throughout human development, especially from the period of cavemen. Our bodies have evolved that way. We don’t need to look for shelter every night, make a fire, hunt for our meals, or hide from danger. Babies and cavemen used their bodies and environment much more than we do now as adults.
2. Our structural proportions change as we age
We can’t squat like a baby or do a caveman squat because of how we develop, especially after puberty. There are three stages of development: pre-pubescent, pubescent, and adulthood. Our bones and our muscles move as we age, which changes our ability to rest so close to the floor.
During the baby – or infant – stage of our development, the distance between our knees and the floor was smaller. The sections between the floor to the knee and the knee to the hip are shorter, the trunk is longer, and the center of mass is high. As we get older, the area between our knees and the floor is longer, and the center of mass is shorter. The center of mass shifts from the top, uppermost part of the body towards the center of the body.
Now, let’s talk about how that affects the squat position. When you squat, the center of mass should be directly over your feet. Now you know that the center changes as you mature. The baby’s center of mass is higher, so that means they cannot lean too far forward without tipping over. The position of the head and sections of the body allow the baby to squat into the full-depth caveman position.
3. Cavemen were shorter and didn’t live as long
Cavemen and modern humans are not the same size; therefore, they do not share the same skeletal proportions. Caveman were shorter and wider. Their joints were also larger.
With a shorter femur and less rounded acetabulum, there was less pelvic rotation and “butt wink” during a deep squat. This allowed them to squat with a straight back and less overall spine stress when going to the floor on a squat.
The average life expectancy of a caveman was about not any higher than 30 years of age, on average. If a caveman lived beyond the age of 35, they were old. As thirty-somethings, we like to think that we are young because we still have decades before we reach the life expectancy of modern man, which is 84.3 years. In that time, cavemen did not grow as tall, and they did not experience the same ails we experience in our 40s and beyond.
Squatting like a caveman or butt to floor for 30 years is much different than until you’re 80 years old. Over time wear and tear occurs and each tissue has its loading tolerance. Make sure you are keeping this in mind, for your squatting programming in general.
4. They didn’t sit like we do
Modern life and the furnishings that accompany it greatly inhibit our ability to do the full-depth caveman squat. Over the years, we have started sitting more and sitting differently. Over time, we have lost the flexibility and desire to sit like cavemen. Think about your daily habits for a moment. When does your environment demand you squat like a caveman? It doesn’t.
Every day, we sit on the couch, sit in our chairs, and sit in the driver’s seat of our vehicles. Structurally, this is more comfortable to us, but it also inhibits the body to move like the caveman did. They didn’t drive in their minivans to work, only to sit at a desk or watch television from the comfort of the couch.
The risks for sitting too much are high, according to experts at the Mayo Clinic, even if you are physically active. Not only does it have a negative impact on your health, but it wreaks havoc on your bones and muscles too. Sitting pulls your body into itself, tightening the hip flexors, weakening the core, and putting unnecessary stress on the extensor and low back muscles. This affects how well you can or cannot do a full-depth caveman squat.
5. Cavemen didn’t have low back pain
There are so many myths out there about low back pain, and one of the most dangerous is the suggestion that the full-depth caveman squat aids in healing low back pain. No, it doesn’t. In fact, attempting to do a full-depth caveman squat can exacerbate low back pain.
Cavemen probably didn’t have low back pain like we do today. A possible reasons why are the fact that they didn’t live beyond the age of 30, they were more active, and the chronic sitting we do now was not existent back then.
About 80% of modern humans have suffered from non-specific low back pain at least once in their lives. Yes, exercise is beneficial for reducing chronic low back pain, but poor form and the desire to be strong can override the benefits of physical activity.
For low back pain, you should use a series of targeted exercises to eliminate pain and strengthen the area. The back exercises that most effectively aid in preventing and addressing low back pain aim to stabilize the back, maximally contract the abdominals, and improve muscle timing, instead of pushing the low back into an unnatural position.
6. You can achieve power with other squats
Finally, you don’t have to go down as far to achieve the desired results I mentioned above. Why push yourself to a dangerous position if it is not necessary. A safer alternative to the full-depth caveman squat is the goblet squat.
The benefits of the goblet squat help both athletes and non-athletes alike. The goblet squat is safe and natural when performed properly. When doing the goblet squat, the spine stays straighter, the force on the knees and ankles is reduced, and power and strength come from the shoulders.
Tips for a safe and successful goblet squat are:
- Make sure your knees are slightly wider than your shoulders
- Move your hips back as you lower your body
- Keep your hips, knees, and ankles in a straight line
- Lower yourself only until your elbows touch your knees
- Push through your heels when you go up, keeping your legs in a straight line
Remember: always stay in a straight line.
Alternative Exercises for Safe – Yet Similar – Results
As I said, you can do a different squat and still achieve what you want. It is also important that you realize that one exercise isn’t the fix-all exercise either. If you want to correct your posture, improve flexibility, improve back pain, and increase mobility, then you need a regimen. Don’t rely on one-for-all.
Also, know your limits when doing these exercises. It is not realistic for anyone, especially someone who isn’t an athlete or power lifter, to achieve the same results as someone who is more experienced and advanced in their training. The current trend that it’s cool to be strong is perpetuating many of these beliefs. Strength and safety must go hand in hand. One doesn’t have to overcome the other. Create balance in your fitness routine and stay away from fads like the full-depth caveman squat to get strong while staying safe. This applies for periodizing your program too! Perhaps you have one macrocycle of deep caveman squats, then a phase of the rear foot elevated split squat. Periodization is a must, for gains and health.
Lastly, keep in mind the context. If you are a powerlifter or competing in powerlifting, specific range of motion is necessary for a deep squat. However, if you are simply looking for general fitness, don’t try to outsmart your anatomy and daily habits! Program safely and keep in mind the context 🙂
Here are a few exercises and stretches I recommend to my patients and gym clientele:
Strengthen glutes and hamstrings
This video is part of a larger series about abdominal bracing for low back pain. View the article here.
Better Squat – the lateral squat
Conclusion: Advice from Dr. John
Keep in mind that fitness is not a fad, or at least it shouldn’t be treated like one. As long as you have the correct tools, the proper form, and educated guidance, you can achieve more with your squat. You don’t have to do the full-depth caveman squat for 80 years to be “cool”. Not many are designed to do this deep squat! You need to focus on balance, combining length, strength, and timing into every workout routine, instead of pushing your body dangerously beyond the limit.
Check out the ways COR achieves all of these goals and more, without expecting the caveman squat on day one.