My favorite mobility / corrective exercise – The Toddler Squat

Posted on May 3, 2019

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(Last Updated On: May 3, 2019)

It’s no secret we -at least in Westernized society- sit, a lot.

We both know you don’t actually sit with this good of posture.

Sitting itself isn’t abnormal for humans. Sitting in a chair though, is. In fact, if you watch a toddler, or observe societies where chairs aren’t as common, sitting is done quite a bit, but without a chair.

(Picture originally found here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/veader/3454840596/)

I’m not big on the whole “We were designed / not designed for this / that so we should act that / this way” paleo-like thinking. We do a lot evolution didn’t design us for, but I’m not about to give up clean water, or Starbucks. (The other side of “logical eating”)

However, the “Toddler Squat” is one area I take some exception. Part of me just believes this is an innate movement. Almost like walking. You know, ’cause that whole squat-to-poop deal. But also, nothing else in daily life would bring the body through all the ranges of motion I’m going to go over. Especially not all at the same time.

-> Part of what I mean by innate movement is if we don’t regularly do it, we suffer health consequences. While I love the toddler squat, nothing is on par with walking.

I fully believe if this movement and ability was maintained from being a toddler through adulthood, the amount of joint ailments people have would dramatically decrease.

I’m going to go over a lot of the common flaws of Westernized posture. I’ll go up the chain, toes to neck, illustrating how this one movement can benefit nearly every aspect of the chain.

Let’s see if I can make my case.

Toes / Feet

Typical issues needing resolution

While I really don’t see a whole lot of toe or foot issues, here are some of the common issues as I see them:

Excessive toe extension

Look at the curvature of a typical shoe:

Notice the front of the shoe angles upwards? Putting the toes in constant extension. Because of this the toes typically will present some weakness in flexion. They are just rarely ever grasping the floor, or any surface for that matter.

(This is why many people, when doing some barefoot training, will notice their shoe size gets smaller. The foot muscles wake up, contracting enough to shorten the person’s arch.)

Hallux Valgus

aka the big toe angles inwards.

Left bad, right good.

Ideally, the big toe is pointing straight; not angled inward like a damn hockey stick.

How the toddler squat helps

The toes need to flex and grasp the ground in order to help insure the body does not fall backwards. This is kind of hard to see, it makes more sense if you actually do the movement.

As far as hallux valgus, the toddler squat can help. It’s not a given though. Basically you can set the toes up a bit splayed, then work them (like the flexion mentioned above) in this splayed manner.

Toes are a splayed and opened more compared to below

This really depends on the severity of the valgus. For certain people, like those who adore their high heels, they may have already reached the point of no return.

Ankle

 Typical issues needing resolution

Due to the high heeled nature of people’s footwear, people could typically go for a lot more dorsiflexion. I’ve written about this in 3 common tight muscles along with mobilizing the talus.

During a squat movement, this lack of dorsiflexion is signaled by the heels lifting off the ground, or the feet turning outward.

The feet angled out

-> Note, just because the feet turn out does not mean it is guaranteed from lack of dorsiflexion. There are other potential reasons, outside the scope of this post.

Because the person can’t generate this motion in an up and down fashion (dorsi- and plantarflexion) they compensate in a side to side (inversion / eversion) manner.

How the toddler squat helps

The toddler squat puts the ankles in maximum dorsiflexion.

In fact, people often won’t be able to get all the way down while keeping their feet straight or without the heels rising. The lower they go, the more their feet will / want to turn outwards.

Also, you’ll notice if you give people a heel lift, or let them wear their shoes during the squat, they are much more able to hold themselves in the position. (The heel lift aids their lack of up and down motion.) In the absence of the heel lift they often feel like they’ll fall backwards.

Lastly, people tend to get a nice burn in the front of the shin while holding the bottom position. This is from the muscles which generate dorsiflexion (primarily tibialis anterior) firing and trying to maintain the dorisflexed state.

Because these muscles are underutilized, they don’t like having to work, hence the burning.

Knee

 Typical issues needing resolution

Hyperextended knees

This is more prevalent in females due to the high heeled shoes they wear. (If you haven’t caught on- I, and your body, hate you for wearing high heels.)

Look at the hyperextension of the left knee.

The knees are just too locked, too often.

Internally rotated femurs

I wrote about this a lot in

How the toddler squat helps

Because the toddler squat puts the knees in maximum flexion, it reverses hyperextension.

Also, when in the bottom position the femurs are laterally rotated, again, reversing the common position of the knees.

Internally rotated knees versus…

Laterally rotated knees.

Hip

Typical issues needing resolution

Excessive hip extension / femoral anterior glide

Coinciding with the knees, the hips are often held in extension, which can force the femur to glide forward excessively.

I’ve written extensively about this in

 

excessive hip extension hip pain

Because of this positioning the psoas muscle (hip flexor) can become weak too.

How the toddler squat helps

By putting the hips into maximum flexion we are reversing the constant hip extension present while standing. This helps to generate a nice posterior glide of the femur, which often gives hip pain relief.

Also, by putting the hip into maximum flexion the psoas is the only hip flexor continuing to work. This helps even out the imbalance amongst the hip flexors. (Where the psoas is often weak, but all the others are often too strong / active.)

Much like the tibialis anterior and front of the shin burning mentioned above, people will often feel a nice deep burn in the hips while holding the squat for a while. A sign the psoas is kicking into high gear and trying to do work it’s not accustomed to.

Lower back

Typical issues needing resolution

Excessive lordosis

lordosis lower back arch lower back pain

I’ve written about this in 3 common tight muscles

Along with the excessive lower back arch, the external obliques are often too long / weak. I’ve written about them in 3 common weak muscles.

How the toddler squat helps

If you haven’t caught the theme yet, one of the main principles of corrective exercise is to do the opposite of what we typically do. So, the lower back is often arched one direction? Reverse the arch.

The external obliques are always being stretched out? Tighten them up. Which maximally flexing the hips does, as the pelvis will posteriorly tilt in conjunction.

Shoulders / Thoracic Spine

 Typical issues needing resolution

Excessive thoracic kyphosis.

I’ve written about this in 3 common tight muscles and 3 common weak muscles.

hunchback shoulder pain

How the toddler squat helps

The benefits here aren’t as pronounced as with the lower body, but they’re there.

One way to make the toddler squat beneficial for the shoulders is to use a bar, or some kind of support, to elevate the arms.

This will help generate some nice shoulder flexion, humeral posterior glide, thoracic extension, etc. All things just about everyone could use more of.

The above also provides a nice progression for those who have trouble getting all the way down, or holding themselves at the bottom without falling backwards.

Next, once the person can hold themselves at the bottom, the movement can be made more effective by really trying to stick the chest out i.e. sitting upright. Note the differences:

Much harder too.

This provides some great work for the thoracic extensors, which are often under utilized, hence the hunch back posture so many people have.

Neck / Cervical spine

Typical issues needing resolution

Cervical hyperextension

Due to leaning forward quite a bit, people’s neck posture is too hyperextended.

neck pain

How the toddler squat helps 

While resolving issues at the thoracic spine, as the toddler squat can do, can help the cervical spine, overall this movement isn’t so much helping the neck issues as it is just putting the neck in a friendly position.

In other words, tuck your chin while doing the movement and we are at least adding some time where the neck is in a corrective position. Not a whole lot muscularly is going to happen, but if we’re doing anything, we are helping our cause.

Bringing it all together 

Alright, let’s examine a person with the typical American posture.

Going up the chain:

-We can’t really see anything with the toes.

-The ankles actually aren’t too bad. Maybe a tad bit of plantarflexion.

-The knees in hyperextension.

-The hips in extension. (The feet are behind the knees, which are behind the hips.)

-The pelvis is anteriorly tilted. However, even though the pelvis is in a position of apparent hip flexion, the legs are actually being held in hip extension. You can’t just assume anterior pelvic tilt -> stretch the crap out of hip flexors. 

Looking at pelvic tilts -The hips only tell you part of the story (an anterior pelvic tilt doesn’t mean your hips are flexed)

-The lower back is arched (lordosis).

-The upper back is hunched (kyphosis).

-The neck is in hypererextension.

Outlining the posture per the above:

Common posture issues

Now, let’s go over the toddler squat position once more:

-The ankle is dorsiflexed.

-The knees are flexed

-The hips are held in flexion.

-The lower back is slightly rounded.

-The upper back is a bit extended.

-The neck is straightened out.

Outlining this we have:

Common posture issues

You can see we’ve effectively either reversed all the common postural faults, or straightened them out. This is what we call “training economically.” I’m not sure you could ask for much more out of a single -posturally corrective- exercise.

A note on difficulty

For those who are really tight, I start off with the Backward Rocking / Child’s Pose stretch. The positioning is nearly identical, with the big exception of dorsiflexion, but in a non-loaded manner.

Once they have adequate range of motion in that position, the toddler squat can follow.

Of course, it’s rarely that easy

Please understand not all the above applies to everybody. Not everyone can just do one exercise and straighten themselves out.

For instance, plenty of people bend their knees so much throughout the day sitting like this:

That actually, the last thing their knees need is more bending. For these people, the bottom position of a toddler squat -i.e. maximal knee flexion- is not recommended.

The fun of the post is along the lines of “if you only could give one corrective exercise, what would it be?” In the real world, fortunately, we don’t have to operate that way.

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