Why Can't Everyone Do The Asian Squat? Biomechanics Explained

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
October 5, 2022

The Asian squat refers to the typical squatting posture that is seen throughout many nations in the Far East. Although an Asian squat is essentially just a deep squat, the cultural and ancestral backdrop is crucial to the topic.

Asians can squat extremely deep with their heels firmly planted on the ground to perform a variety of tasks. Some of the tasks performed while squatting may even surprise some people.

Not all people can perform the Asian squat without suffering from issues of balance, stability, or pain. Many would think that it is easy to do until they try it and feel their Achilles tendon is about to rupture while falling on their butt and back.

The reason for this is that it requires a lot of mobility and flexibility on the ankles and balance. Most people cannot perform the Asian squat easily or without discomfort because they lack or have lost these qualities over time.

Why is the Asian Squat so Predominant in Asians?

Long before chairs were invented, humans performed a variety of tasks in a deep squatting position. It used to be an essential aspect of daily living. Our ancestors spent a lot of time in active rest poses while hunting, gathering, or resting.

asian squat

In many Asian countries, people are used to resting, working, eating, or playing in a squatting position from a very young age up to adulthood, just as how our ancestors did. Even while emptying their bowels, most Asian people squat on the toilet.

A common practice in Asia, especially in China where public toilets are still dominated by squat pans and are considered to be more sanitary as there is no skin contact of the thigh on a dirty toilet seat. The flat-heeled squat is crucial for stability, proper angling, and position. They also find it a more relaxing way to rest than standing or leaning on a wall and can be done anywhere with ease.

Why the Asian Squat is so Difficult for Most People to Perform

The magnitude of passive ankle dorsiflexion (backward bending of the foot)  is about 60 degrees in the neonatal period and decreases to about 20 degrees in adulthood. Fundamentally, we are all born with the flexibility for an Asian squat, but there is a high probability that it’s a case of "use it or lose it.

muscled used to asian squat

Children can easily maintain a squatting position while playing with toys on the ground. However, only a few adults maintain the ability to squat as they age.

Westerners prefer sitting on a chair and adopted the upright seat-style toilet long ago. There is also an argument that America's bowel problems can be blamed on the toilet seat and the inefficient anorectal angle when sitting while relieving oneself. An excerpt from Bockus’s Gastroenterology (1964) states that the ideal posture for defecation is the squatting position, with the thighs fixed upon the abdomen.

Squats with the ideal technique are needed to maximize muscle recruitment and minimize the risk of injury. Notwithstanding, persons lacking ideal joint mobility or joint stability often exhibit movement compensations. A compensatory movement pattern is the body’s attempt to reduce effort or fatigue by using a more comfortable movement pattern or the path of least resistance.

A study published in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science in 2009, conducted by Tatsuya Kasayma, has identified that one of the most important factors for a deep squat is ankle flexibility or the ankle's range of dorsiflexion on the sagittal plane.

Someone who lacks ankle dorsiflexion has a limited range of motion in one plane of movement. They must then redirect that movement to a different plane. External rotation of the feet beyond eight degrees enables a person to squat to a lower depth because motion is primarily occurring in the transverse plane.

Due to the limited ankle dorsiflexion, the knees are not able to track the toes in the sagittal plane, therefore motion takes place from another plane. Tightness in the calf complex (gastrocnemius and/or soleus) or mobility restriction in the ankle (talocrural) joint might be contributing to that person's limited mobility while performing a deep squat.

The Anatomy of the Asian Squat

The Asian squat is a compound exercise meant to maximize muscle recruitment to propel heavier weights overhead. It is a great model for a multi-segmental movement pattern and is considered to be similar, if not better, than other compound exercises. Everything is folding up underneath the trunk as the joints are bending at the hips, knees, and ankles.

squat atg

The Asian squat involves all the lower leg muscles to produce more force compared to other squat exercises. The trunk's stabilizing muscles help to keep the joints aligned to decrease compression or excessive forces that could cause injury.

Glutes

Much of the force to perform this movement is produced by the gluteal muscles. During hip flexion as when descending to a full squat, these muscle groups work to control the hips and provide the necessary force during hip extension when ascending.

The gluteus maximus serves an important function in the top range of the squat to bring the hips into full extension while the gluteus medius maintains hip abduction for the knee to track over toes properly.

The small muscles that control the rotation of the hips such as the piriformis, obturator internus, obturator externus, gemellus superior, gemellus inferior, and quadratus femoris are also engaged to maintain joint stability.

Hamstrings

The hamstrings have two functions in the squat. This muscle group acts as a synergist with the glutes during hip extension as the knees straighten and also acts as a stabilizing muscle to support the knee joint at maximum flexion in the deepest position of the squat thereby countering the forces of the quads to extend the leg.

Calves

Squats do not do much for calf muscle development, especially when executing the movement in proper form. Tight calves can create mobility issues in the ankles, which can limit squat depth. However, training the calves separately adds strength and mobility that provide balance and stability in squat exercises. 

Adductor Magnus

The adductor magnus of the inner thigh performs a similar function to the glute maximus in hip extension. However, it is most engaged in the middle of the ascent before the glutes take most of the work for the final hip extension. If you have a wider stance squat, the adductor magnus will work harder to extend your hips.

Erectors, Abdominals, and Obliques

The erectors keep the spine stiff and extended throughout the squat providing the necessary stability for the torso to prevent the back from flexing forward to minimize the risk of injury.

The abdominals and obliques are antagonist stabilizers in the squat. These muscle groups help maintain the postural alignment of specific joints. The abdominals and obliques help stabilize the vertebral column and pelvis. They do this by preventing the erectors from pulling the spine into hyperextension.

The Benefits of the Asian Squat

While a sedentary lifestyle, which is more prevalent today, has been linked to many chronic illnesses, including heart disease, our ancestors' active resting postures have been linked to better cardiovascular health and a lower mortality rate. 

Improves Functional Performance

Doing the Asian squat requires slight muscle contraction. To put it another way, it involves more physical activity than simply sitting in a chair or slouching on a couch and physical activity of any amount is essential for improving heart health. Squatting is also a functional movement involved in a lot of our activities from standing up from a low stool to correctly picking up heavy things from the floor to lessen back injury.

For those brave travelers out there who long to explore Asia, practicing the Asian Squat before that adventure also offers a benefit. Since using the restroom in these nations frequently necessitates a stable squat as most public restrooms do not have a toilet seat, it's always comforting to know you won't be left trying to balance when relieving yourself.

Improves Lower Limb Strength

The Asian squat provides better positioning for lifting more weights. It is considered by weightlifters to be a safe exercise while allowing them to propel more weight overhead from the ground.

Powerlifters looking to add more strength will benefit by performing the Asian squat. This lifts more weight off the floor because it puts more weight through the legs. The back doesn't have to work harder than before. The result of this is better performance of many fitness exercises, increased muscle strength, and reduced risk of injury.

A study to compare the effects of squat training with different depths on lower limb muscle volumes has shown that the Asian squat is more effective at building the glutes and inner thigh muscles than a standard squat. 

Aids in Posture and Balance

In the squat, you’re not just strengthening your legs but also challenging your balance. This makes it an excellent exercise to start with if you want to build strength, posture, and balance.

Posture improves because Asian squats or deep squats require more strength and stability in the lumbar spine to maintain proper alignment. To perform the Asian squat correctly without any risk of injury one must maintain a neutral lumbar spine at all times.

Squats can help to strengthen the glutes and improve posture, thus reducing the strain on the lower back. It improves body stability as the weight is distributed evenly through the legs due to both feet remaining flat on the floor, and the center of gravity is shifted towards the heels, which increases body stability.

Improves Flexibility

The Asian squat is a great movement pattern to learn. Most people find it an excellent display of flexibility and balance. They are especially helpful for people who suffer from tight calves. The calf muscles work in conjunction with the hip flexors and glutes to keep the leg from falling forward. The squats also help relieve tight calves and hamstrings by stretching them out.

When to Start Performing the Asian Squat

The Asian squat or deep squatting is a compound functional movement that requires your body to bend at multiple joints and recruit several muscle groups to achieve the movement required to perform a lot of our daily activities.

These activities include getting up from sitting on a low stool, preparing to kneel to the ground, or correctly picking up a heavy box from the floor to lessen the risk of an injury. If you cannot perform any of these tasks with ease and without discomfort, then maybe it is time for you to decide to start exercising.

If you have not performed the Asian squat before, start by standing straight on a wall with the back facing the wall and the back of the heel about 6 inches from the wall. The hands should be placed against the wall for support but the body should be perpendicular to the floor and the feet should be shoulder-width apart. You should feel stable and balanced with your hands on the wall. Slowly go into the squat position and stop if any pain in your calves or ankles is felt.

According to Bryan Ausinheiler, a physical therapist and personal trainer, the squatting ability can be placed in one of the three categories below.

  1. Uncompensated Deep Squat: Able to squat all the way down to a resting position with the heels on the ground and arms behind toes.
  2. Compensated Deep Squat: Able to squat all the way down to a resting position but heels came off the ground or arms came forward.
  3. Unable to Deep Squat: Pain during movement or unable to reach resting position.

Final thoughts

Most westerners when performing a task that requires to lower their body to the ground usually do it with genuflection(one knee on the ground), kneeling(both knees), squatting with heels up sacrificing balance and stability, or on all fours - like scrubbing a carpet or tiling a floor - which leads to a sore knee or foot and an awkward lumbar position.

Daily practice of the Asian Squat will help you develop the ability to squat deep. As the depth of the squats increases, it may be more comfortable to do a lot of things such as gardening while in the Asian squat position.

References

1. Kubo K, Ikebukuro T, Yata H. Effects of squat training with different depths on lower limb muscle volumes. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2019 Sep;119(9):1933-1942. doi: 10.1007/s00421-019-04181-y. Epub 2019 Jun 22. PMID: 31230110.

2. Caterisano A, Moss RF, Pellinger TK, Woodruff K, Lewis VC, Booth W, Khadra T. The effect of back squat depth on the EMG activity of 4 superficial hip and thigh muscles. J Strength Cond Res. 2002 Aug;16(3):428-32. PMID: 12173958.

3. Tatsuya, Kasuyama & Sakamoto, Masaaki & Nakazawa, Rie. (2009). Ankle Joint Dorsiflexion Measurement Using the Deep Squatting Posture. Journal of Physical Therapy Science - J PHYS THER SCI. 21. 195-199. 10.1589/jpts.21.195.

4. Wong S, Ada L, Butler J. Differences in ankle range of motion between pre-walking and walking infants. Aust J Physiother. 1998;44(1):57-60. doi: 10.1016/s0004-9514(14)60366-4. PMID: 11676715.

5. Raichlen, David & Pontzer, Herman & Zderic, Theodore & Harris, Jacob & Mabulla, Audax ZP & Hamilton, Marc & Wood, Brian. (2020). Sitting, squatting, and the evolutionary biology of human inactivity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 117. 201911868. 10.1073/pnas.1911868117.

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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