Left to its own devices in the microgravity of space, the body assumes what NASA calls the "neutral body posture"—torso upright, gaze cast downward, arms and legs bent gently out in front. It is only down here, caught in Earth's pull, that the catalogue of postures starts to sprawl and subdivide. There are the basics: sitting, standing, lying. A body might rest in the fetal position, or answer a call to stand at attention. We say that, in confrontation, one stands arms akimbo, but, upon resolution, stoops to genuflect. There are specialized positions—sidesaddle, spread eagle—and identical poses whose names add nuance: prostrate, supine, decubitus, shavasana. But, of all these stances, few are as compelling as the squat—a crouch, with the feet flat on the ground, and the hamstrings resting on the calves.
In early childhood, we squat to explore. Children, with their oversized heads and pliant bones, squat to play with their toes or to eat marbles off the ground. In adulthood, assuming the position becomes harder, our Achilles tendons tightened by our love affair with sitting. Try to hold a squat through the rest of this essay; by the end of this sentence, your legs will start to burn. In parts of the world where squat toilets are common, the pose is used for resting or waiting, a regular sight on train platforms or at bus stops. But, in America, squatting registers as crude. Catchers pop squats to field balls behind the plate. People with vaginas squat for sex or when peeing outdoors. Owing perhaps in part to the discomfort of the squatter, the pose is perceived as one of vulnerability.
Squatting involves the whole body. The legs and the hips control the lowering motion, while the abdominals and the lower-back muscles work to stabilize the torso. Add a weighted barbell along the span of the shoulders, and the deltoids and the arms become implicated, too. Weight-bearing squats help to improve balance and flexibility and build muscular strength. In a squat's concentric phase, as the legs extend to stand, the gluteus contracts to pull the hips forward. The resulting growth of this muscle, in the world of fitness, is known as "booty gains." While these gains are by no means the only benefit from the squat, they are its most visible endorsement.
I first started squatting in 2015, following the directions of a free strength-building app called StrongLifts. Prior to StrongLifts, I did not exercise at all. I do not believe that I even owned sneakers. I was driven by the search for an activity to offset all my sedentary thinking, which left me feeling drained at the end of the day. Also, I hoped to become sexier and leaner. The whole StrongLifts workout takes less than an hour and consists of two alternating weightlifting routines. On Workout A days, I row, bench press, and squat. On Workout B days, I deadlift, do overhead presses, and squat again. The app was designed by the Belgian fitness expert Mehdi Hadim, based on a classic five-by-five routine—five sets of five reps for each of the lifts, increasing the weight with each successive workout. This incremental approach, known as progressive overload, has been generally understood since at least the sixth century B.C., when, the story goes, the Olympic wrestler Milo of Croton trained by carrying a bull on his shoulders as it grew from a calf into a full-sized adult.
The modern culture surrounding squats is not without its own hero myths. It is said that Mehdi—as he is known—could barely grasp conversational English when he started writing content for the StrongLifts Web site. He claims that his first post took him a full day to revise. Today, the site is a comprehensive resource, with detailed tutorials for each lift. The seventeen-thousand-word guide to the squat is divided into fifty-six areas of concern, which include "knees cave in," "heels come up," "knee safety," "knee pain," and the general "fear of squats." In my first few months, I was prone to wrist pain. From reading StrongLifts, I learned that the remedy for this problem involved wrapping my thumb around the bar next to my fingers. With this improved form, I began to progress quickly, before poor alignment sent pain to my knees. I deloaded some weight, read more, and learned to squeeze my glutes to keep my knees aligned with my feet.
For all its meticulousness, Medhi's writing is geared toward frat boys. Mehdi likes to write about how squatting made him stronger, enabling him to win the attention of women. Those who seek to learn from a less chest-beating teacher might hunt down a copy of Mark Rippetoe's book "Starting Strength." The book was originally published in 2005; the third edition's features a singlet-clad man squatting beside a protractor, atop a field of graph paper. Rippetoe, a weightlifting coach, holds a bachelor's degree in geology and a minor in anthropology. In his book's sixty-four-page chapter on squats, he offers strict mathematical guidance on the proper tilt of the chin, the flow of the breath, the angle of the feet in relation to the ankles. Only occasionally does he stray into musing. In the introduction to the book, Rippetoe writes, "A weak man is not as happy as that same man would be if he were strong. This reality is offensive to some people who would like the intellectual or spiritual to take precedence." It is hard for me to say whether or not I am offended. The philosophy assumes a reality in which muscles exist only in relation to one another, under strain of a weighted barbell, in the confines of the gym. In reality, our muscles also exist in context—under the stress of narratives about disability and gender, subjected to stories about failure and success. Despite what gym lit would like us to believe, it's impossible to squat in a vacuum. And yet, for me, it is the dare to strive, for a moment, toward being just a body that makes the squat worthwhile. Three times a week, for five sets of five reps, I channel my whole self toward one contrived motion: lowering my hamstrings until they touch my calves, then standing back up and pulling my hips forward. Any resulting booty gains are just gravy.